‘Defiance’ celebrates Jews’ daring acts of WW II resistance


“Every day of freedom is like an act of faith,” says Tuvia Bielski, one of three brothers who led a partisan group battling Nazi troops in the forests of Belarus.

Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Asael (Jamie Bell) are the heroes of “Defiance,” which chronicles not only their daring acts of sabotage, but also how they established behind enemy lines a self-contained community of a thousand Jewish men, women and children.

Unlike Russian, Polish or French resistance groups, the Bielski Otriad (detachment) had to face, in addition to German soldiers and tanks, frequently hostile local populations, anti-Semitism among “allied” Soviet partisans and opposition by Jewish community elders who feared Nazi mass reprisals.

To make matters worse, there were bitter quarrels about strategy and methods between the more militant Zus and the more idealistic Tuvia.

Nechama Tec, whose book is the basis for the film, has described the Bielski Otriad as “the largest armed resistance by Jews during World War II.” As such, the exploits of the three brothers and their followers have given heart and pride to Jews burdened by the common misconception that all European Jews went passively to their doom.

One who gained new self-esteem was Edward Zwick, who, growing up in the Midwest, felt shamed by the supposed meekness of Jews during the Holocaust.

Once he became a well-established television and film director/producer (“The Last Samurai,” “Blood Diamond,”) Zwick spent 12 years trying to bring “Defiance” to the big screen.

The long delay was due partly to the reluctance of Hollywood’s Jewish honchos to tackle the subject, but even more by their reluctance to gamble their money on so complex a story.

“Studio chiefs fear anything that smacks of complexity,” Zwick told an Anti-Defamation League audience at an advance screening.

Paramount finally backed the movie, with Craig, the current James Bond star, in the lead. Zwick commented, “My greatest hope for the film is that another 15-year-old boy in the Midwest will see it and never feel the shame I did.”

Abraham Foxman, national ADL director and himself a child Holocaust survivor, praised “Defiance” as the first American film to tell the truth about the collaboration of many Lithuanians, Poles and Ukrainians in the extermination of their Jewish neighbors.


The trailer

But surprisingly, Foxman was unsure how “Defiance” would be judged by Jewish viewers. “I am not certain whether we are ready to embrace fighting Jews,” he said.

After shooting of the film was completed, a brief media flurry brought some unwelcome publicity.

A Polish government agency, the Institute of National Remembrance, charged that the Bielski detachment might have joined Soviet partisans in an attack on the village of Naliboki, in March 1943, in which 128 civilians were shot.

ALTTEXTThe agency, known by its Polish acronym IPN, deals with “crimes against the Polish nation” and is generally considered right wing. Even in its own brief report, IPN stated that participation of the Bielski partisan in the killing “is merely one of the versions of the investigated case.”

Descendants of the Bielski brothers have categorically denied the charge, as has Mitch Braff, director of the San Francisco-based Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation (www.jewishpartisans.org).

“For one, it’s been clearly established that no Bielski partisans were in the vicinity of Naliboki at the time of the shooting,” Braff said. “Furthermore, it would have been stupid to kill civilians whom the partisans needed for food supplies.”

Based on extensive research and interviews, Braff believes that between 20,000 and 30,000 Jewish partisans, mainly from Russia and Poland, fought the Nazis during the war.

American Jewish University scholar Michael Berenbaum and Braff are collaborating on a teachers’ guide to accompany release of the film and the subsequent DVD.

“Defiance” will open at selected Los Angeles theaters on Dec. 31, before a later national rollout.

Image: Director Edward Zwick, right, with Daniel Craig and Alexa Davalos on the set of “Defiance.” Photo by Karen Ballard/Paramount Vantage

‘A Secret’ lets French director explore his Jewish past


More than 60 years have passed, yet French filmmakers are still wrestling with their country’s less than heroic role under Nazi occupation during World War II.

The latest entry is “A Secret” and it posits that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons, not only among the perpetrators and collaborators, but also among the Jewish survivors.

The complex movie, in which the past, shot in color, is more vivid that the black-and-white present, follows the fate of a French Jewish family in the pre-war 1930s, the German occupation and the decades after liberation.

As told through the eyes of Francois, successively a 7-year old boy, a teenager and a middle-aged man, the narrative introduces his father, Maxime (Algerian Jewish pop idol Patrick Bruel); glamorous mother, Tania (Cecile de France); and their extended Jewish family.

Francois is a solitary, introspective child, exposed to the barely concealed contempt of his muscular, bodybuilding father, who fantasizes the company of an older brother, more assertive and athletic than himself.

Then, when Francois is 15, a relative reveals the dark family secret of the film’s title. How, shortly before the war, Maxime married his first wife, Hannah, and on his wedding day fell in love with the beautiful blonde Tania, a guest at the nuptials.

How Maxime and Hannah had a sturdy son, Simon, how Maxime fled to unoccupied Vichy France, to be followed by Hannah, Simon, and two other relatives, with forged “Aryan” papers.

At the border, French police inspected the papers, alert to arrest any Jews and turn them over to the Germans. At that point, a jealous and despondent Hannah made the fateful decision that would alter the family history forever.

Amid the constantly shifting scenes of past and present, there are moments of ordinary bourgeois family life, alternating with Jewish humiliation and fear under the occupation. Some Jews wear the yellow Star of David, others take it off and work on the other side.

“A Secret,” which has been a considerable box-office success in France, despite harsh criticism by some leading newspapers, owes its creation to two French Jews whose own stories reflect much of the film’s plotline.

One is Philippe Grimbert, a psychoanalyst, who wrote “Un Secret” as a semi-autobiographical novel, which, to his surprise, became a best seller in Europe.

The other is Claude Miller, a veteran director, who worked for 10 years with the iconic Francois Truffaut.

Miller was born in 1942 in the French countryside, where his family was in hiding, and remembered a bookish, solitary childhood, much like that of Francois in the movie.

Grimbert, who has a small role in the movie, and Miller both recall muscular fathers who resented their own Jewishness, with Miller’s father telling him after the war to “just forget being Jewish.”

This experience is reflected in the film, when Maxime insists that young Francois be baptized.

“A Secret” marks the first time that Miller, who is not a favorite of French critics, has dealt on film with his own Jewish background.

However, other French directors have frequently shaken their countrymen’s self-imposed forgetfulness about their forefathers’ role in World War II and the myth that all were heroic resistance fighters.

Some of these films have become classics, starting in 1955 with “Night and Fog” by Alain Resnais, a documentary on concentration camps, followed in 1969 by Marcel Ophuls’ “The Sorrow and the Pity,” which explored the motivations of both resistors and collaborators.

In 1974, Louis Malle’s “Lacombe, Lucien” drew a portrait of a young French collaborator, and in 1987 his “Au Revoir les Enfants” recalled the roundup of Jewish children hidden in a Catholic boarding school.

The story is not yet finished, as witnessed by the remarkable success of “Suite Francaise,” a newly discovered novel about Parisians fleeing the Nazi conquest, by Irene Nemirovsky, who perished in Auschwitz.

“A Secret” opens Sept. 12 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles, and on Sept. 19 at Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Town Center 5 in Encino.


The trailer — French with English subtitles

Artist Evokes Jewish Strength — Overtly


Five years ago, veteran comic book artist Joe Kubert visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. He expected to be moved, but since he and his parents had escaped from Poland before the Nazi genocide began, he assumed his emotional reaction would be relatively contained. Then, he saw something that struck him profoundly: "Yzeran," the name of the shtetl where he had been born, etched on a wall filled with names of towns that had been completely obliterated in World War II.

This one word began a creative odyssey that found its completion this month, with the publication of "Yossel — April 19, 1943," Kubert’s graphic novel about Jewish resistance during the Holocaust — artistic, as well as physical — with the date in the subtitle referring to the start of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

While many will likely draw parallels to Art Speigelman’s 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel, "Maus," "Yossel" actually mines what is nearly a century-old tradition. Will Eisner, who is popularly credited with the creation of the modern graphic novel, addressed the effects of the Holocaust on an immigrant Bronx family in his comic strip, "The Spirit," which was serialized in newspapers in the 1940s and 1950s; the villains in Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s "Superman" have been viewed as stand-ins for Nazis; and the Escapist, a character in Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Adventures of Kavalier & Klay," is a superhero dedicated to fighting Nazism. But whereas each of these mainstream superheroes carried a subtle message of Jewish strength in the face of oppression, Kubert chose to make this not just a theme but the very substance of his story.

"I feel that if I had lived under the circumstances of the Holocaust, I would have used any scrap of paper I could get my hands on to draw what I would have experienced," said the 77-year-old Kubert, who at age 11 started working in the comics industry as an inker and eventually moved on to edit and draw DC Comics heroes Tarzan, the Flash and Batman.

Indeed, everything about the book’s protagonist is synonymous with the writer — including his name, Yossel, a Yiddishized version of Joe. "Yossel" is a first-person account of the radicalization of a previously ordinary Jewish teenager, the same boy that Kubert believes he would have become had he stayed in Poland. Early in the story, readers are presented with Yossel as a child in Yzeran, the same village where Kubert was born two months before his parents immigrated to the United States in 1926. The drama begins shortly after his family is forced into the Warsaw Ghetto. At first, Yossel’s resistance is artistic, as he sets out to sketch his grim surroundings. But when his parents and sister are sent to Auschwitz, his resistance becomes physical, as he and fellow members of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising reclaim one last shred of humanity by fighting back against their oppressors, despite the revolt’s inherent futility.

The seeds of Yossel’s personal rebellion are first planted when Nazi soldiers stationed in the Warsaw Ghetto take notice of his drawings and mistake his loving depictions of muscled superheroes for sketches of Reich leaders. From then on, Yossel is asked to draw for his captors’ amusement, thrown a few extra scraps of food and subsequently spared the fate of his parents and sister — deportation to Auschwitz — because of his art. Orphaned and hopeless, he is soon infected by the revolutionary spirit of the now-famous resistance movement in Warsaw.

For his research, Kubert scoured dozens of books about the uprising, though he never actually visited the city. He recalled that during his research he was struck by images of Jews being pulled out of cellar windows and Nazis pulling the last remaining Jews out of the ghetto — images that are clearly recreated in the book.

"I wanted readers to feel as if they were actually there, watching the events unfold," Kubert said of his drawing style.

Unlike "Maus" — which, like most graphic novels, was drawn in ink with story boxes fit into uniform squares — Kubert’s images blend into one another. His trademark pencil drawings give the pages a raw, impressionistic style. Kubert also selected a heavy gray stock for the book’s pages, because he wanted the paper to feel like something someone could have used at that time, under those circumstances.

Kubert also had a large role in the design of the book’s cover, the image of an outstretched arm, sleeve rolled up to reveal tattooed numbers reaching out against a striped background.

"The cover drawing to me is indicative of the entire Holocaust," he said. "This graphic vision just hits me. There is something about the scrawny arm that says to me more about what happened during the Holocaust than a drawing of a gas chamber."

Despite his skill as a draftsman, Kubert said that he finds text more evocative than drawings.

"I don’t think anything is more powerful than the written word," he said. "However, graphic novels are what I do best. If I were to keep a diary, I would do it in sketch form."

PBS Pope Profile


There is a haunting image in the early part of the PBS “Frontline” documentary on Pope John Paul II. As the Warsaw ghetto goes up in flames, just outside the wall and within sight and sound of the remaining Jewish resistance fighters, a carousel goes round and round, full of carefree, frolicking, young Poles.

It was in the Poland of that era that Karol Wojtyla, the future pope, grew up and inevitably absorbed the pervasive anti-Semitism of the Catholic church. But he also played soccer with Jewish friends who later would perish in the Holocaust.

The evolution of the pope’s relationship to the Jewish people is traced in the second segment — of seven — in the television biography of “John Paul II: The Millennial Pope.”

The 2 1/2-hour program will air Tuesday, Sept. 28, at 9 p.m. on KCET and other PBS stations.