Monday, 21 February 2011


As the British Prime Minister visits Egypt and the Libyan crisis come to a head I took the opportunity to experience one of the important films of recent years (2008) Defiance, which is about how the human spirit can overcome impossible and dangerous circumstances to survive and maintain fundamental standards. The film is based on the book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans by Nechama Tec and is the story of four Jewish Brothers who managed to escape the rounding up and imprisonment in Ghettos and or transportation to the extermination camps in what was Poland and which became Belarus. There is also a book, the Bielski Brothers by Peter Duffy. I am placing the books on my to buy list but for future consideration.

Without the books it is not possible to evaluate the accuracy of the story although it is known that there has been uncorroborated allegations against the Partisans and continuing controversy and Nechama is reported to have expressed concern about aspects of the film which departed from her knowledge of what happened.

The films opens as Jewish citizens in a rural community close to the dense forest surrounding the towns of Novogruddek and Lida are being divided with the women and children placed on vehicles and driven off and the men being led into the forest. Two brothers emerge from the forest and return to their farm where the bodies of their parents are discovered. They enter the property and find their youngest brother hidden in a secret area. They decide to move into the Bialowieza local forest which they know well. At one point the youngest Bielski goes off when he sees another young person and finds a mass grave of naked bodies and does not speak or eat for a few days. The eldest another arrives who has been away working for his father in law. There appears to have always been rivalry between the two brothers.

As they come across others in forest the eldest Tuvia, played by Daniel Craig, wants to look after everyone they encounter, while brother Zus, played by Liev Schreiber wants them to move quickly deeper into the forest, and believes the increasing group will slow them down and create problems with feeding. When they approach a sympathetic farmer for food they find that he has been hanged as a “Jew Lover” and although they get substantial food they also have to bring with them several more Jews he has been hiding. They begin to create a longer term camp with shelter for the winter and places they can hide if they are discovered from the air. On one expedition for food they encounter someone who supplies milk and eggs to the Germans and he begs them not to take any as he will be punished. They take some and this results in the encampment coming under attack.

The two brothers quarrel over leadership and tactics with Zus blaming the other for being kind hearted and not killing the supplier of the milk and eggs. This leads to an important passage in which the older brother argues they should try not to adopt the behaviour of their conquerors. One of those who has joined them is an intellectual writer of a monthly pamphlet and he successfully argues they need to organise themselves properly as they would if they were able live freely in society. Following the encounter with the local police forces and collaborators they decide to immediately move on and have to leave the camp and their Winter sheltering and start all over again.

As soon as Zus gets hold of a gun with four bullets he goes off to kill the local policeman and his two sons who he has learned was responsible for the death fo their parents. The wife pleads to be killed along with her family but he keeps the fourth bullet.

When they are joined by refugees from a village where the wife and daughter Zus lived he learns that both are killed and his anger and frustration becomes intense. The community has established what are called forest wives with all the women choosing men to be with and one of the new arrivals chooses him. They group has a rule that they must avoid pregnancy because of the conditions and their circumstances.

One young girl who joins the camp takes a shine to the third brother, a teenager. When she learns that that her parents have been taken into the ghetto of a town in the area and Jews are then being killed or take to extermination camps, she pleads for a rescue attempt and Tuvia and his younger brother Asael enter the ghetto and bring a large number of those incarcerated to join the camp. The young girl through her older friend tells Asael to declare his interest and there is the celebration of a wedding presided over by a Rabbi. The new refugees as with the originals have to surrender all their valuables so they can buy food and weapons. It is my understanding that one criticism of the group is that they obtained food by force and that the taking of food also created difficulties for the non Jewish Community because of the requirements of the German conquerors and the police who acted on their behalf.

On one outing the two older brothers encounter a Soviet Partisan group and they agree to cooperate by sharing food and getting volunteers to fight with them. After further confrontation between the two brothers Zus and a number of other men join the Russian Partisans. The elder brother goes back to the Partisan camp to seek drugs to prevent the developing illnesses in their encampment because of he long hard winter. The Soviet Partisan leader refuses but agrees that Zus can help his brother to raid a local police station to destroy a communications transmitter and where drugs medical drugs are also kept. The raid is successful but only an injured Zus and Tuvia survive.

There is also leadership struggle within the community when Tuvia becomes ill and there is a shortage of food. A group of men who do the fighting and go for food demand privileges and Tuvia is forced to kill the lead rebel to restore order and his authority. He has learned that his wife has also perished and he establishes a relationship with a refugee. One of the refugees is carrying a child from being raped and she gives birth in secret and Tuvia allows the woman to remain.

Just when it appears they have survived Winter and Spring arrives they discover that a German soldier messenger was carrying papers which reveal the Forest is to be surrounded by a German force. The messenger who pleads that he has a wife and child is brutally killed by the group, and several women participate out of revenge for what happened to their families. At the same time the German Partisans are ordered to retreat from the area and this is challenging for Zus and the other Jewish refugee fighters. They are told they will be shot if they do not obey their orders.

Just before the refugees led by Tuvia are about to try and escape they are spotted by a German plane and soon after bombed. They make their attempted escape when the planes leave and finding the edge of the forest they find a large area of swamp land and decide that they have no alternative but to try and cross using belts and rope to form a chain.

Having negotiated this hazard and tired and hungry they reach a bank on new forest lands but before they can enter these they are confronted by German infantry and a tank and machine guns. They have no alternative but to fight and manage to get one of the machine guns, and one refugees gives up his life to blow up the tank. At this point the battle is joined by Zus and the other Jewish partisans and together they overcome the Germans and are able to move into new forests where they are able to set up a further long term camp. Nechama Tec has stated that this battle scene never took place but it was agreed to because of film requirements and the need for financial backing. In reality they did everything possible not to draw attention to themselves. According to the film Director Hitler sent two German divisions into the Forest but did not their location.

The film covers the first year and records that they stayed in the forest for a further two years before the German retreat. The number increased to 1200 and a school and other facilities was established. Asael Bielski was drafted into the Russian Army and died in in action in 1944. Following Soviet oppression in Belarus Tuvia and his other brothers travelled to Palestine and then to the United Estates where they operated a successful Trucking business. They made no attempt to publicise their story.

One of the most extraordinary aspects of the books and the film is that it has led to criticism of the way of life of the partisans as if somehow they were expected to either submit to extermination aided by a significant number of Polish Belarus citizens, or to have starved.

I found this a very moving and interesting film and will be surprised if I find a better one during the rest of this year.

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