“We may be killed while we try to live,” said a remarkable man named Tuvia Bielski to a band of Jewish refugees at the very darkest moment of the Holocaust, “but if we die, we die like human beings.”
Bielski was the commander of a band of Jewish partisans who operated in the forests of Western Belorussia during World War II, and--as we discover in “Defiance” by Nechama Tec--the saga of the Bielski partisans is one of the most elevating and inspiring stories in the chronicle of death and despair that is the Holocaust.
“Under conditions of human degradation and suffering, Jews were determined to survive,” writes Tec of the Bielski partisans. “They refused to become passive victims, assuming the dual role of rebels and rescuers.”
“Defiance” is an accomplished and startling work of Holocaust documentation. Tec, a Holocaust survivor who teaches sociology at the University of Connecticut, managed to interview dozens of survivors of the Bielski band (including Tuvia Bielski) and other partisan units, and she has assembled their vivid first-hand testimony into a comprehensive study of a long-neglected aspect of the Holocaust.
The Bielski partisans initially consisted of Tuvia Bielski, his brothers and their relations, a rag-tag band of survivors who took to the forests rather than submit to the Nazi conquerors of Poland and Russia.
Eventually, the Bielski band (or otriad ) grew to about 1,200 Jewish men, women and children, all of whom were spared the deadly fate of the ghettos and concentration camps because of the courage and vision of Bielski.
As Tec shows us in abundant and sometimes harrowing detail, Bielski created a miraculous city of refuge in the forests, a place that turned away no Jewish refugee who managed to find it.
At first, the partisans were constantly on the run: “Mommy,” one 4-year-old boy asked his mother, “under which tree will be our house today?”
Eventually, Bielski managed to build an armed and camouflaged encampment that included a bakery, a barber shop, a blacksmith, a hospital, a school, a workshop for making and repairing arms, and even a synagogue.
“My first day at the base passed in constant wonderment,” recalled one Bielski partisan. “It felt like paradise.”
Tec does not lionize Tuvia Bielski, although his imposing stature, his charismatic leadership and his sexual allure prompted others to do so. Indeed, she concedes that Bielski held himself aloof from his fellow partisans, dining on the choicest food and enjoying his pick of the women in the partisan band.
Nor does Tec overlook the brutality that infected the partisans as they struggled against the Nazis, their Polish and Belorussian collaborators, and--tragically enough--some of their fellow partisans.
On one occasion, Tec reports, Bielski insinuated himself into the home of a suspected Belorussian collaborator and extracted a confession that the householder was routinely turning over runaway Jews to the police. Bielski and his comrades slaughtered the collaborator and his family and left behind a sign.
“This family was annihilated because it cooperated with the Germans and pursued Jews,” went the scrawled message. And, both as a taunt and a threat, it was boldly signed: “The Bielski Company.”
The real heroism of the Bielski partisans, as Tec points out, grows out of Tuvia Bielski’s dedication to the rescue of Jewish survivors. Unlike other partisans, the Bielski partisans welcomed any Jew who managed to link up with them. To Bielski, the notion of rejecting a Jewish survivor merely because he was too old or too sick to fight was repulsive precisely because it mimicked the “selections” that took place in Nazi death camps.
“This is our way,” Tuvia said. “We don’t select.”
The very fact that Bielski placed the highest priority on rescue, rather than resistance, is the source of some controversy among partisans who prided themselves on seeking combat with the Germans.
Perhaps the most telling moment in “Defiance” is a conversation between two former partisans, one who served with Tuvia Bielski and the other who served in a Russian unit.
“You in the Bielski otriad ,” one partisan said, “sat in the forest without fighting!”
“Tell me, how many Germans did you kill?” the Bielski veteran asked.
But her next question--"How many Jews did you save?"--was met with only silence.