United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Moshe Kaganovich

Members of the Bielski Partisan Unit in the Nalibocka forest, Belarus, 1943; from Nechama Tec’s Defiance

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 that seemed to bother A.O. Scott, who reviewed the film in The New York Times. According to Scott, the film affirms an anti-Semitic stereotype of Jewish passivity by suggesting that more Jews would have survived had they embodied Bielski’s manly virtues. The argument, I take it, is that the film overestimates the importance of character at the expense of circumstance, and thus distorts the overall history of the Holocaust. Character certainly mattered in this case. People found Tuvia charismatic; Daniel Craig communicates masculinity in the role. Women called Bielski the Messiah. Yet there is good reason for Scott’s discomfort: the film does concern an exceptional case, but exceptional for reasons beyond the virtues of its main character.

Without some sense of the special conditions in wartime Belarus, the rescue makes little sense. Jews who survived the Holocaust did so not only because they showed personal courage but because they understood that German rule meant death and they knew of a plausible hiding place. As we look backward at the totality of the Holocaust, German intentions seem obvious to us. In the early 1940s, the threat of death was clear only to some Jews some of the time. In Belarus, where the murders were carried out over nearby death pits rather than in distant killing facilities such as Treblinka or Auschwitz-Birkenau, the intention of the Germans was often quickly understood. To hide near their homes, Jews required sustained help from gentiles, which meant relationships, money, luck, and sometimes all three; to flee their homes Jews needed good knowledge of life outside of towns, which was indeed rare. Jews could be identified as such for not knowing how to say Christian prayers or how to saddle a horse.


The Bielskis would have known how to ride; Scott mocks Tuvia’s white horse as a Hollywood cliché, without mentioning that it gets eaten a couple of scenes after it appears, processed no doubt by the mobile slaughterhouse that actually existed in the Bielski camp. The Bielski brothers had an unusually good knowledge of Belarusian forests—legendarily good cover for smugglers, bandits, and partisans.

Scott is perhaps too hasty in his conclusions about the morality of portraying Jews saving other Jews. We still know rather little about Jewish resistance and self-rescue. There was likely more of it than we realize. For example, the ghetto underground in Minsk, the capital of Soviet Belarus, saved perhaps five thousand Jews, but almost no one has ever heard of it. For a good six months, this Jewish underground penetrated the Minsk Judenrat, the Jewish council through which the Germans exercised power over the ghetto. During that time Jews not only fled to the forest but also sometimes brought arms, money, and winter clothing with them. Sholem Zorin formed a partisan brigade of some five hundred Jews, and actually raided the Minsk ghetto to rescue Jews in 1943.

The striking thing is that Jews had to overcome their fear of Stalin in order to resist Hitler. It took an outsider, the Polish Jewish Communist Hersh Smolar, to persuade people in Minsk that they should organize resistance immediately, rather than await an order from Moscow. Natives of Soviet Minsk feared that any spontaneous action, even if directed against Hitler, would raise the ire of Stalin. In the end, they were right—the Minsk underground was absurdly labeled a Gestapo front by Soviet authorities, and partly for that reason has never received the attention it deserves. A recent study by Barbara Epstein is a needed corrective.1

If American reviewers are troubled by the absence of Nazis, Polish critics are troubled by the absence of Stalinists. One could, just by expanding the film’s time frame ever so slightly, understand the entire story as an episode between two Polish confrontations with Soviet power. Tuvia Bielski was a Polish citizen who learned to shoot in the Polish army. His home village was part of Poland until 1939. In September of that year, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland, as allies. They divided Polish territory between them, the Soviets taking the eastern half. What had been northeastern Poland, where the Bielskis lived, was incorporated into the Soviet republic of Belarus.

Between 1939 and 1941, what had been eastern Poland was subjected to Sovietization. Hundreds of thousands of people were deported to Kazakhstan or Siberia, and tens of thousands more shot. Ethnic Poles were generally excluded from the new power structure, while Jews and Belarusians replaced them in positions of local authority. Tuvia Bielski took part in the local government under the Soviets. This did not make him a Stalinist any more than the later collaboration of his Belarusian and Polish neighbors with the Germans made them Nazis.

Because the film (although not the book) begins with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 rather than the joint German–Soviet invasion and division of Poland in 1939, none of this background is present. In the film Soviet partisans are unreliable because they are anti-Semitic, not because the Soviet state had just months earlier been an ally of Nazi Germany, or had just carried out policies of mass terror. Because the film (again unlike the book) closes in the middle of the war, it also avoids the return of Soviet power to Belarus, and thus dodges another set of moral questions concerning Poland. This is a film about Jewish resistance that says little about Jews who do not resist; it says even less about local populations who resisted but were not Jews.

Poles had organized the largest independent resistance movement in occupied Europe, the Home Army, which planned to fight the Germans and then confront the Soviets with a restored Polish state. The Soviets understood this aim, and had no hesitations about betraying the Polish soldiers who were fighting, like themselves, against Nazi Germany. This became clear with the revelation of one of the atrocities the Soviets had committed while they were masters of eastern Poland. In 1943 the Germans discovered evidence of mass executions of Polish prisoners in the Katyń forest (the subject of the 2007 film by the eminent Polish director Andrzej Wajda2 ). Even though the Soviets had indeed shot some 22,000 Polish citizens over death pits at Katyń and four other sites, Stalin used the revelation of his own crime as a pretext to break relations with the Polish government in exile. Although he had ordered the killing himself, he blamed the Germans, and suggested that the Poles were showing sympathy to the common enemy by disagreeing.

As Moscow announced its new hostility to Poland, the Red Army approached Belarus. Having stopped the Wehrmacht at the gates of Moscow in late 1941 and turned aside yet another German offensive in spring 1942, it was now on the offensive. Soviet soldiers in 1943 and 1944 returned to Belarus, including the western part that had belonged to Poland. The Bielski partisans, who had been cooperating with the Soviets, accepted formal Soviet command. Rather than joining forces with the Polish Home Army, which had been resisting the Germans since the beginning of the war, the Soviets disarmed its soldiers.


The Bielskis, Polish citizens, watched as Soviet partisans took part in disarming soldiers who represented the legitimate Polish government. (The claim that the Bielskis took part in a massacre of Polish civilians at the village of Naliboki, circulating now in Poland, is not true.) Stalin then annexed eastern Poland a second time, and made sure that the Poland that arose after the war was saddled with a Communist regime. This began the Communist period, which lasted until 1989, and which tends understandably to color the Polish reception of the movie.

Like the American critics, the Polish critics concentrate on the missing evil and divert attention from the Bielskis’ achievement. From a certain American point of view, which emphasizes the centrality of the Holocaust, Jewish rescue of Jews is seen as essentially impossible, and the Nazis who are assumed to prevent it are puzzlingly absent from the film. The Polish critique, conversely, assumes that saving Jews was not so difficult in Belarus, given the reality of Soviet power, the ostensibly pro-Jewish orientation of Soviet policy, and the support the Bielskis received from the Soviet partisans. It is the Stalinists who are then missed. Neither critique could arise had Tuvia Bielski simply decided to shoot some Germans, which in fact he never did. Then his people would have been found and killed, giving Americans a simpler story of martyrdom and Poles the expected vision of a partisan discredited by his service to Moscow. It is Bielski’s very success in rescuing large numbers of people from certain death that creates the unease on both sides.


Karen Ballard/Paramount Vantage

Director Edward Zwick on the set of Defiance, filmed in Lithuania, near the border of Belarus, 2007

Bielski understood a certain grim and complex reality that is not always clear from Warsaw or New York. In Belarus during World War II, the Germans and Soviets were both brutal, but neither were omnipotent, and their contest for power posed the greatest threat of all. It was bloodier here than anywhere else in Europe, and created almost unavoidable risks of suffering and death for nearly everyone. The only hope for survival was to keep people away from this confrontation, avoiding military engagements and ideological disputes. Bielski saved his people by careful navigation. He aimed not to kill Germans but to save Jews; by convincing the Soviets of the contrary he earned their toleration. Bielski created one of the few islands of relative peace in the turmoil of a Belarus caught between Hitler and Stalin. This explains the odd calm at the center of a film about war and atrocity: Bielski wanted shelter from the storm, and Zwick captures the moments of stillness.

For the nature of Bielski’s achievement to become clear, a bit more background is needed, even concerning the events of 1941 and 1942, than the film and book provide. The German armies entered Belarus in June 1941 with a policy of killing Jewish males of fighting age. The Germans, who had an exaggerated fear of partisan warfare, identified the Jews as its supporters and Belarus as its likely setting. The chief of staff of the German army later said that if the Germans had had the atom bomb, they would have used it in the Belarusian swamps. Beginning that July, special Waffen-SS units were sent to do the job of clearing the swamps of Jews. Henceforth the Germans killed Jewish women and children, as well as men. Meanwhile, Stalin called upon Soviet citizens to take up arms against the Germans behind the lines. Hitler was delighted at his chance to kill “anyone who even looks at us askance.”

In October 1941 the Germans mounted Operation Typhoon, a secondary offensive on Moscow meant to end a war that had already lasted longer than they had expected. As the Wehrmacht advanced, the Germans began to exterminate entire Jewish communities in Belarus. When the offensive failed, Hitler escalated his demands once again, making clear to his subordinates in December 1941 that he expected the Jews of Europe to be exterminated. He was facing military calamity: at the same moment that the Red Army had counterattacked at Moscow, the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, thus bringing the United States into the war. The German leaders were planning for a war with the United States in 1942, but they were counting on unlimited access to Soviet foodstuffs and oil. This was now impossible, as was any sort of conventional military victory. In such a desperate moment, Hitler defined the disaster as a “world war” brought about by world Jewry. It had always been clear that Hitler’s intention was to remove Jews from territory he controlled; only in late 1941 were the terms of the Final Solution clarified.

At the same moment, and for the same reason, partisan war in Belarus changed from phantom to reality. The Red Army, pushing westward, opened a permanent gap in the German lines in January 1942, which allowed for the westward flow of men and supplies to the small Soviet partisan groups then active in Belarus. Stalin approved their efforts, now led by men under formal Soviet command. With no concern whatever for the lives of civilians, who always pay the price of irregular warfare, the Soviets assigned the partisans tasks meant to weaken the German war effort. When Soviet partisans destroyed a train station, the Germans killed everyone in surrounding villages. When Soviet partisans laid mines, the Germans marched Soviet citizens over the minefields and then shot any survivors in the back of the neck. When Soviet partisans induced peasants to give food to them rather than Germans, the Germans burned down villages that were no longer of use to them.

The rise of the partisans coincided with a second wave of mass killings of Jews. In spring 1942, as the Germans liquidated ghettos, many Jews took their chances with the partisans rather than wait for death at the hands of the Germans. Here Bielski was an anomaly. In western Belarus in early 1942, Soviet partisans were not yet present, so he took charge of the rescue himself. The film seizes upon a choice that the Bielskis had and most other Jews did not: to hide with their people and preserve life, or fight alongside the Soviets and deal death.

In the film, Zus Bielski, played by Liev Schreiber as Tuvia’s jealous and courageous younger brother, chooses to fight with the Soviets. He confronts anti-Semitism in the ranks of the Soviet partisans; but Jews who lacked his physical prowess faced still greater problems. The Soviet partisans were given the task of killing Germans, not saving civilians, Jewish or otherwise. Women, children, and even unarmed men were a hindrance. Jews who appeared with arms were sometimes killed for their weapons. Soviet partisans tended to think that Jewish men were spying for the Germans—which, tragically, was sometimes true. The Germans seized wives and children and then sent Jewish husbands and fathers into the forest to bring back information. As for the women who joined the partisans, perhaps it is enough to say that the standard form of address in the Soviet camps was “whore.”

As they were engaged in killing Jews, the Germans began extensive anti-partisan operations, chronicled by historians such as Christian Gerlach, Bernhard Chiari, and Dieter Pohl.3 In practice, the two policies often blurred together. German police units would first liquidate a ghetto, and then encircle villages suspected of helping partisans. In both cases, hundreds of people would be killed by gunfire over pits; in the villages, the Germans often herded the population into a barn and then burned it down. By the end of the war the Germans had killed some 500,000 Jews in Belarus as part of the Final Solution and some 350,000 Belarusian civilians in anti-partisan operations, most of them women and children. As a result of these and other policies, chiefly the starvation of Soviet prisoners of war, the Germans killed more than 1.5 million people in Belarus, a proportionately higher toll than anywhere else in Europe.

By the end of 1942, almost everyone was swept into the maelstrom of killing and dying. Whereas Jews had obvious reasons to prefer the Soviets to the Germans, for Belarusians and others allegiance was often a matter of chance. Both the Soviet partisans and the German-backed police forces press-ganged young men into service; it was not at all rare for two brothers to fight on opposite sides. The Soviet partisans were eager to recruit Belarusian policemen from the German side to their own units. In other words, a Communist armed force was intentionally recruiting Holocaust perpetrators, because these were people who had arms and training. In some cases, the Communists recruiting the killers of Jews were themselves Jews.

The achievement of Tuvia Bielski lay in keeping his people away from this maelstrom for as long as possible. Few Germans appear in the film because he had to stay away from them. Had there been more Germans in the story, there would have been fewer Jews. A genuine alliance with the Soviets would have required him to fight the Germans, with the same consequences. The Soviets wanted to kill Germans and provoke German reprisals against civilians, which would fill their own ranks with angry survivors. In this they were very successful: hundreds of thousands of Belarusian partisans were active by the end of 1943, and they helped prepare the Red Army offensive of 1944 that decided the outcome of the war.

Bielski’s goal was the opposite: to save human beings at the price of not exacting revenge. Life was vengeance enough. Bielski evaded the Germans and manipulated the Soviets. The film gets wrong some basic linguistic matters: the Bielski brothers spoke Yiddish, Polish, and likely Belarusian but not Russian. Yet Tuvia Bielski had a gift for “speaking Soviet,” telling partisan commanders what they wanted to hear in the way they wanted to hear it.

Tuvia Bielski created a family camp, unglamorous, hard to film, and impossible to understand from a simple ideological perspective. He might have undertaken either resistance or rescue; the essence of his moral achievement is that he favored the latter. In reality, he robbed and killed far more than he does in the movie; but it would be hard to argue that he did so selfishly, or in the service of the ideas of someone else. The film accepts these ambiguities without dwelling upon them. Its major virtue is to suggest the difficulties that Bielski faced as he guided others away from the German–Soviet confrontation. Although narrowed down in the film to the anti-Semitism of both sides, the larger threat from both Germans and Soviets is always present in the story. It was the interaction of the two totalitarian powers that made Belarus the deadliest place in the world.

This Issue

April 30, 2009