A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
There is a tendency, when considering The Holocaust, to think of the victims as going quietly to their deaths – rounded up like cattle and herded into ghettos and extermination camps – docile, uncomprehending and passive. This is probably partly because the few survivors – mentally and physically scarred by experiences and memories that most of us can’t even begin to imagine – simply didn’t want to talk about what had happened to them.
Gradually, however, a slightly different picture began to emerge … the escape from Sobibor extermination camp, led by Leon Feldhandler and Alexander Perchersky … and the extraordinary story of the Bielski Partisans, formed by three brothers – Tuvia, Asael and Zus Bielski. It is that story which is told by Holocaust scholar Nechama Tec, in this new edition of Defiance, published by the Oxford University Press to coincide with the release of a new (and controversial) film based on the book and starring Daniel Craig as Tuvia Bielski.
I should first of all point out that anyone who buys this book expecting a novelization of the film is in for a major disappointment, because what it actually is is a dispassionate, measured and almost clinical analysis of how – basically – one man’s instinct for self-preservation eventually saved the lives of over 1,000 of his fellow Jews.
It makes for fascinating – if grim – reading on two separate levels. On one it’s a straight chronological narrative of names, places and events. In 1941 the German army invaded Russian-occupied Poland. Coming in behind them, the Einsatzgruppen began to round up the local Jewish populations into ghettos, prior to applying the ‘Final Solution’. The Bielski brothers, led by the intelligent, self-educated and charismatic Tuvia, fled into the countryside surrounding their family farm rather than submit, and gradually – more or less by a process of accretion – collected around them other Jews fleeing persecution. They were not alone in the Belorussian forests – there were other partisan groups – but while THEY were chiefly interested in resistance and revenge, Tuvia Bielski wanted only to save people’s lives. Whereas the other partisans would turn away those who were too old, too young or without weapons, the Bielski partisan unit – or otriad – would accept anyone. No-one was denied protection.
How they organized themselves, fed themselves and policed themselves is covered in great detail in the book. To tell their story, Tec went back to the primary sources – the key survivors – taking hours of statements from nearly all the main players, including Tuvia himself – just two weeks before his death in New York in 1987.
The resulting book is a testament to human ingenuity, courage and endurance. It is also, however, something more. It’s a sociological study of human society turned on its head. In the forest, the social order changed completely. The old elite … the lawyers, teachers and scholars … found themselves surplus to requirements. Those without practical skills – or weapons – found themselves relegated to the bottom of the heap. They were fed and protected, but they lost their status. The new elite were those who could build, make, hunt, mend – and kill.
Initially, Tuvia’s insistence that everyone who arrived with them would be accepted met with considerable resistance. The argument was that the unit’s chances of survival were diminished every time the weak, sick and old were accepted. They slowed the otriad down when it was on the move, had to be fed, and gave nothing in return. Gradually, however, his philosophy prevailed. They not only took in all those who arrived in the forest seeking shelter, they sent out scouting parties to find them. They even sent people into the ghettos to try to persuade people to leave – risking their own lives to do so.
The net result was that in July 1944 – to the utter astonishment of everyone who witnessed it – Tuvia Bielski led over 1,200 Jews safely out of the Belorussian forest. He had succeeded in keeping alive 95% of the people who had come to him.
As Tec says in her conclusion to Defiance, ‘hope dies reluctantly’. The Bielski Otriad acquired almost mythic status in the ghettos of Belorussia. People may not have known where they were exactly, but they knew that out there – beyond the ghetto limits – was hope. Tragically, only a handful survived to join the Bielskis. The miracle was that any did at all.
Oxford University Press. 2008. ISBN: 978-0-19-538523-6. 374pp.