Danger is Out There, Not in Here.
Defiance: The Bielski Partisans
Tec, Nechama (directed by Edward Zwick)
1993, Oxford University Press (2008, Paramount Vantage)
ISBN 0 195075951
History is a bitch. So is memory. And when you get down to it, memory often has to serve as our personal history, and the way that we relate that personal history to others (if we ever do) can reflect in interesting ways on the actions we took during the course of our life. Tuvia Bielski and his brothers led an otriad comprised of Jews who had escaped the cities of occupied Belorussia during World War II, and managed to keep so many of them safe while also contributing to the undermining of the German forces. This wasn’t such a weird thing – there are other examples of Jewish otriads and resistances during the Second World War, but the main difference in the Bielski otriad was that Tuvia’s stated aim was to keep people safe, no matter if they could fight or not.
I had read this book before, but not before I’d seen the movie of the same name. The movie is pretty damn fancy, Daniel Craig plays Tuvia Bielski, which is pretty cool. The recollections of Tuvia that the survivors of the Bielski otriad made this a pretty good casting choice, at least in my opinion (not in the looks department though – Daniel Craig is, as ever, sans moustache). There are a few instances in the book where the survivors recollect how inspiring Tuvia was, which seemed to give Daniel Craig a lot of opportunity to do some manly horse riding and gun shooting and frowning. Plus he seemed to be pretty good with the ladies too – slightly heartless sometimes, but you know, treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen, I guess. Tuvia was the undisputed leader of the group, but the movie makes quite a bit of the relationships between him and his brothers, Asael (played by Jaime Bell) and Zus (played by Lieb Schrieber – I must have watched too many X-Men movies though, because in my head he’s always going to be Sabretooth). Particularly the relationship with Zus, who was a bit of a hot-head, and eventually left the group to join up with a different Russian partisan group.
Nechama Tec interviewed lot of the survivors, including Tuvia, for this book. It therefore stands to reason that because she was a consultant on the movie version, that there are only minimal bits where the story of the movie doesn’t accurately follow the historical accounts. One of the most interesting parts about reading this book having already seen the movie was that it wasn’t just Zus who was all “Ugh, Tuvia, let’s ditch these old people and women and smash some Germans!”. There were actually quite a few young men who left the Bielski otriad to join other groups who were less into protecting and more into smashing (or sabotaging, really, there wasn’t a lot a poorly armed partisan group could do against a fully tricked out German army patrol). This was something that I felt that the movie went a bit weird on – throughout the book, Tuvia puts his foot down over and over about how his mission is about saving Jews, not revenge. But in the movie, there are loads of incidences where the Bielski group actively engages Germans. I guess that that’s kind of what attracted me to the movie in the first place, that it was billed as a sort of factual Inglorious Basterds, but now that I’ve read the actual accounts, it seems like at best this was a device used to make the movie more ‘mass market shoot-’em-up’. At worst it makes a mockery of the ideals of a man who saw which way the wind was blowing and went out of his way to save lives, rather than put them at risk.
As far as character goes, it’s kind of interesting to discuss that when these people actually existed. It was lovely to read about Asael and Chaja’s courtship, a weird sort-of romantic interlude in a truly horrific situation. There were lots of other little details that you didn’t really get in the movie (always the way, isn’t it? I guess you sacrifice the little details which, to me, make reading things so much more interesting when you make a movie). I’m not really sure that they got across the sense of loss that the Bielski’s themselves had experienced, given that they had lost their parents and other siblings to the war before the three brothers began living in the forest. But they did get across quite well (I thought) how frustrating it was for the Bielski brothers, who were born and raised in the country and used to doing things for themselves, to be suddenly supporting a group of city mice who had no conception of hard work or how to get food.
So, of course now we come to the bit where I moan about how annoying the movie was. You know what? I’m not gonna do it. I really enjoyed this movie, and would watch it again (more than I can say for the revenge fantasy Inglorious Basterds; that movie was daft beyond belief) and I’d read the book again too. They kind of screwed up making Asael younger than Zus (he was the elder brother in real life), but I guess that’s a pretty minimal complaint. There is always an element of ‘story’ versus fact when movies are made about things that actually happened in history, but you can say that for memory too, which is of course what Nechama Tec bases her book on. I guess what I really loved about this movie and book is the fact that before this, I had this (totally erroneous, of course) view of the Jews in World War II as nothing more than victims. Reading Tec’s book put me in touch with a seam of history which is only really now beginning to be mined, in books like Maxine Rose Schur’s Hannah Szenes and The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by Linda Jacobs Altman.