Thursday, May 13, 2010

Cannonball Read 2 #36: Defiance: The Bielski Partisans by Nechama Tec

I had seen the film Defiance and greatly enjoyed it, so when I watched the extra features, I made a note about the book it was based on. Nechama Tec's work is a well-researched and even-handed explanation of a piece of history I'd never heard of.

During the early 1940s, the Jewish people of Belorussia had few choices--many were either slaughtered outright or relocated to ghettos where they lived in constant terror of the Germans. However, a few managed to avoid those unpleasant options, fleeing into the heavy forests. Danger was around every corner--the Germans were often on the hunt and local peasants were likely to be Nazi collaborators. The Soviet partisans who also roamed the forest were not always friendly toward Jews, particularly unarmed women and children. All that aside, there were the obvious pitfalls of living in a forest with very little food during the Eastern European winter. However, many groups of Jewish refugees managed to survive, and a few armed themselves and fought back. One of these groups was the Bielski partisan group, or the Bielski Otriad. This group was started by three brothers, local peasants--Tuvia Bielski and his younger brothers Asael and Zus--and made it their mission not just to survive but to rescue as many Jews as possible. In the end, they survived in the woods for three years and saved approximately 1200 people, the descendants of whom now number in the tens of thousands.

The book explains how the otriad formed and was operated. It's a very interesting history book, though anyone who reads it thinking it's going to be a "novelization" of the film is going to be very disappointed--although the movie is based closely on facts, it is a highly dramatized version of events. Tec's work is somewhat dry, frankly. However, I found it fascinating look at a facet of the Holocaust period I was unfamiliar with.

As I mentioned, I also enjoyed the movie for what it's worth. I thought the performances by Daniel Craig, Liev Shreiber, and Jamie Bell were excellent. Yes, it's emotionally manipulative, but movies of this type are that way by nature. And without it, I probably would never have known about the Jewish partisan movement which is tremendously interesting. (Also, Daniel, Liev, and Jamie are fun to look at, which is a bonus of course.)

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