Tuvia Bielski rescued more than a thousand of his fellow Jews from the Holocaust, an extraordinary feat worth recording in ink and celluloid, as Nechama Tec and Edward Zwick have now done. In Belarusian lands under German occupation, Bielski and his brothers, the town toughs of Stankiewicze, put to use the charms of thieves and the skills of smugglers, creating a mobile camp in the forests that sheltered almost every Jew who could find it. Rather than saving only themselves, which surely would have been easier, the Bielski brothers supported hundreds of strangers, most of them women, children, and the elderly. Living rough in the woods for two years in northern Europe is no mean trick, even without the burden of hundreds of mouths to feed and the threat of death from an implacably hostile invader intent on annihilating your people. Bielski’s extraordinary achievement is fairly and finely rendered in both book and film.
Yet Edward Zwick’s Defiance has given rise to two uneasy reactions, one in America and one in Poland, on the surface very different, at bottom rather similar. Each has to do with the absence of a familiar face of tyranny. Americans tend to wonder at the absence of the Nazis. The famous film critic Roger Ebert admits that he would have found the film more emotionally powerful had there been a Nazi with a speaking part. Taken by itself, apart from his thoughtful review, this admission seems odd. His typically American use of the word “Nazi” reveals a certain cinematic misunderstanding that Defiance might help to remedy. In a discussion about a Hollywood film, “Nazi” means something like “the bad guys, incontestably evil, in a European setting.” The Nazi is the one who will kill the Jews.
Yet many of the people who were killing Jews were not Nazis. Most SS men were Nazis by conviction and party membership; but the German policemen and soldiers who killed Jews were not necessarily members of the National Socialist Party. The German civilian administration, responsible for the murder of Jews in much of Belarus in 1942, depended on Jewish policemen in the larger ghettos and Belarusian (and Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian, Ukrainian) policemen in the cities and countryside. The gentile collaborators, under German command, supplied the manpower for the roundups and did some of the shooting. The Jewish police, under German orders, prevented escapes from ghettos. Without the labor of local policemen, the Holocaust would have been impossible.
Killing Jews was a Nazi idea, but its realization depended more on power than ideology, a discomfiting thought for those who expect moral entertainment in a movie theater. Yet it was precisely because power rather than ideas mattered in the Belarusian forests that Tuvia Bielski had a chance. And it was precisely Bielski’s power to save Jews…
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