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.