Defiance: The Bielski Partisans
Reviewer: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 28 Feb 2011
At the start of Defiance, Nechama Tec had already made her intentions known: she did not want to write simply another book about Jewish survivors. Instead, this book was to be one about those who looked beyond their own survival, those who saw to the survival of all victims who came across them.
When the Germans arrived at Stankiewicze, Poland (in present day Belarus), the Bielski brothers Tuvia, Asael, Alexander (referred in the book by his nickname Zus), and Aron fled into nearby woods. Although they were but simple folks from the countryside, they took a leadership role in looking after other Jews who trickled into the woods. Tuvia Bielski, the oldest of the brothers, grew into a leader. While many partisan groups in the region accepted only healthy men who could fight, the Bielski brothers accepted any Jew, young or old, healthy or sick. The group made themselves known in ghettos and via friendly Christians so to provide hope to Jews. Many Jews broke out of the ghettos to join the Bielskis, and by the time the Soviet forces drove out the Germans in this part of Poland in 1944, the group had grown to a population of 1,200. On the group, the book focused on partisan law, food distribution, and the personal interaction in close quarters. On a personal level, Tec went into depth about Tuvia Bielski's authoritarian rule, which was benevolent on the whole, but he also had blood on his hands, both German collaborators and fellow Jews alike. The book also touched upon his abuse of power in terms of his marital infidelity and his diplomatic dealings with neighboring Soviet partisan groups, particularly the mutually-beneficial one with that led by Victor Panchenko, who consulted with the elder Bielski for wisdom and advice.
I had reviewed this book in its audio book form. Narrator Stefan Rudnicki did a good job reading the book, giving the characters just a hint of various Eastern European accents to give me the distinction that Tec was quoting different people, while at the same time not over-doing it like some of the audio book narrators I had observed.
Defiance differed from the typical Jewish history about the 1940s in that it was a story of initiative rather than helplessness. Nechama Tec wrote a story that told of men who refused mere survival, a story of the human spirit triumphant over an environment overwhelmingly hostile.
By chance, I came across the Hollywood adaptation of the book only a few days after I read it. Dramatic and exciting, the film had several exciting battle scenes to liven up story of life in the woods, some of which came straight from the imagination of Hollywood writers rather than actual history. Although entertaining, I felt that the movie had failed to deliver Tec's message. In the place of the spirit of a group of Jews working together for collective survival and banding together to fight back, I found over-dramatization and a heck of a lot of gunfire. I would not go as far as recommending against the movie, but I would definitely suggest reading the book as well to get a real sense of who the Bielski brothers were, bridging the gap between mindless Hollywood entertainment and the real history.
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