History in Review
Defiance: The Bielski Partisans. By Nechama Tec. Foreword by Edward Zwick. (Oxford University Press, New York: 2009. Pg. 374. B & W Illustrations, Map.) ISBN: 978-0-19-537685-2.
Reviewed by Simon Bonim - April 3, 2009
Defiance is the amazing, and true story of the Bielski Partisans, a resistance army made up of Jews of all ages who made their home in the forests of western Belorussia. In 1941 when the Nazi army invaded the Soviet Union, they immediately began to hunt down and murder any Jew they came upon. Thousands of Jews were butchered in the opening days of the Nazi invasion, and three intended victims, Tuvia, Asael and Zus Bielski providentially managed to escape into the forests of Belorussia. There they organized what was to become one of the largest Jewish resistance armies. A group that not only fought the Nazis, but also strove to rescue as many Jews as possible and to provide a home for any Jew that made it to their camp. By 1944, more than 1,200 Jews were saved by the Bielski Partisans!
Defiance was written by Nechama Tec, who is herself a Holocaust survivor, and who currently teaches at the University of Connecticut in Stamford, where she is a Professor of Sociology. In writing this book, Tec consulted a variety of resources, including survivor testimonies and she interviewed Tuvia Bielski shortly before his death. With the skill of a novelist and the authenticity of an academic, Tec has crafted an unforgettable, and accurate account of the Bielski Partisans, and their charismatic leader, Tuvia. Within the course of this study, Tec provides an intimate glimpse into the lives and stories of many of the men, women, and children who came to call the western Belorussian forest home. Tec also details how the Partisan's fought against the Germans, their relationships with Soviet Partisan groups, and the types of weapons they used and were they obtained them - mostly they didn't.
Unlike many resistance groups, the Bielski Partisans were not solely focused on revenge or on driving the Nazis out of the Belorussia. Rather, their main goal was to save as many Jews as possible. Unlike other Partisan groups, the Bielski and Zorin otriads (an otriad was a partisan detachment, and Zorin was the sister camp of Bielski) accepted Jews of all ages and conditions, whereas most other groups only accepted men in good health and of fighting age, and on rare occasions, women fighters and women with special skills needed by a given group. I found the sections of this book dealing with the women in the Bielski camp to be particularly interesting, especially the division of labors and the social hierarchy that developed within the Bielski otriad.
The Bielski Partisans were, until recently, virtually overlooked by historians. Thankfully, with the publications of such books as this one, and The Bielski Brothers, by Peter Duffy, the Bielski Partisans will be remembered. Most important, these books help to remind us that despite the erroneous notion that all Jews went meekly to their deaths during the Holocaust; when given the opportunity, Jews were capable and willing to do whatever was necessary to protect themselves and to fight for the freedoms that they craved and deserved!
In addition to these books, Defiance, was recently made into a movie that was release on December 31, 2008. The movie version of this book was directed by Edward Zwick, and stars Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber, and this movie will bring the story of the Bielski Partisans to an even wider audience.
Defiance is a masterfully written book, and one that should be read by anyone with an interest in Jewish history, the Holocaust, or Partisan activities in the Soviet Union during World War II. This book will fascinate both general readers and academics alike, and those who want to explore the history of the Bielski brothers and the Partisans group they founded, will find Tec's detailed endnotes an excellent source of information and direction for further study. I highly recommend this book!
The Minsk Ghetto, 1941-1943: Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism, by Barbara Epstein.
A detailed history of the Minsk Ghetto and the Jewish underground movement that grew out of it.
Moscow 1941: A City and Its People at War, by Rodric Braithwaite
This history of the Battle of Moscow is unique in that it focuses on the people of Moscow and how the battle affected them, rather than on the military aspects of one of the momentous battles of World War II.
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