Defiance (audio)

It’s common to see Holocaust stories as stories about people being tragically led to their deaths, forced into ghettos and concentration camps and facing unimaginable horrors—and that was indeed the experience of millions of Jews in Europe, and their stories need to be told. But Nechama Tec’s Defiance tells a different story, one I knew nothing about until I saw previews for the film based on the book.

Defiance is the story of the Bielski partisans, a group of Jews who escaped the ghetto in Nowogródek in German-occupied Poland (now Belarus) and lived in the forest. The group, led by a man named Tuvia Bielski and his brothers, gathered weapons and took action against the Nazis and Nazi collaborators, but even more important, they saved lives. Their forest community took in all Jews who came, young and old, male and female; and they assisted in escape efforts. Eventually, the Bielski group saved the lives of over 1,200 Jews.

Tec, a Holocaust scholar, has written a comprehensive and detailed history of the partisans. The book is loaded with information, much of which Tec gathered through personal interviews. I listened to the audiobook, but I understand that the print book has just over 50 pages of notes–and it’s not even 400 pages long.

The story is remarkable. The partisans didn’t just escape, which would be extraordinary enough; they built a whole community in the forest. The camp was practically a village, albeit one in which the villagers largely lived underground in dwellings called zemlyankas. It’s amazing that this community of hundreds of Jews existed right in Nazi-occupied Poland. They did eventually join forces with the Soviet partisans in the area for some armed actions against the Nazis, but they remained independent and alive. Even in military action, relatively few lives were lost.

Tec tells the story straight-forwardly and respectfully. She frequently uses the survivors’ own words to describe what life was like in the forest. Especially impressive is the fact that she doesn’t avoid controversy. She writes of the sometimes violent raids of peasants’ homes in pursuit of food without condemning or defending the partisans’ actions. What’s clear is that it was a complicated time. Also complicated were Tuvia Bielski’s strict standards for conduct, which included swift execution of rebels. Some of his actions were controversial, and Tec includes the voices of those who supported his actions and those who did not.

The book is dense with facts, but on audio I know I only retained a general sense of the partisans’ story. Still, I’m glad to have that, as it’s a story I’d never heard, and it’s a story more should hear.

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12 Responses to Defiance (audio)

  1. Liz says:

    You might try the novel While Still We Live, by Helen MacInnes, written in 1944 but since reissued.

  2. Jenny says:

    Fascinating! I have never heard of this, either. It is amazing to me that so many corners of this story still exist to be mined.

  3. I watched this movie a couple years ago and was just amazed at all the stories I hadn’t heard and will never know about this time period. Not sure if you watched the movie or not, but I LOVE Daniel Craig, and it was pretty decent.

    I’d like to read this as it sounds as though it had a lot more detail than the movie may have had.

    • Teresa says:

      I haven’t seen the movie, but I’m curious about it. I understand that the movie departs quite a bit from the real history, but perhaps it gets the broad overview right. (The Wikipedia entry says Tec didn’t like it much on first viewing but that it grew on her.)

  4. Emily says:

    Fascinating – I’ve never heard of this corner of the Holocaust story either.

    The development of the culture within the forest community must have been an interesting sub-heading within the main subject. I’m pretty interested in how people form ad hoc societies in times of stress (quarantine, etc.).

    • Teresa says:

      There was quite a bit of information about the culture, particularly regarding attitudes toward marriage and sex and what sort of people had power and prestige within the community, as opposed to who had power before. Not a lot that was unexpected, but it was still interesting.

  5. cbjames says:

    While I’ve not read this book, I do know of this story from a young adult novel called Escaping Into the Night. It’s an amazing story.

  6. Christy says:

    I enjoyed this book especially the way Tec didn’t avoid discussing the problems within the Bielski Otriad. The book Jack and Rochelle by Jack and Rochelle Sutin is a memoir that takes place at the same time and roughly same location as Defiance.

    I was very disappointed in the film, which I saw shortly after reading the book. I went into it on my blog in more detail, but the deviation of historical detail in the film I thought undermined some of the amazing aspects of what the Bielski Otriad was able to do.

    • Teresa says:

      Oh, wow, I have Jack and Rochelle. I didn’t realize it was set in the same area. Now I’m really looking forward to it.

      That’s too bad about the film. I may watch it one of these days, but it’s not a high priority.

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