‘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.
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.
The 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