History in the Movies, “Defiance”

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois; she writes a syndicated column on historical films.

The theme of “Defiance,” the new World War II-era film starring Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber, is crystallized in an exchange early in the film, when a Russian scoffs, “Jews do not fight.” The response: “These Jews do.”

“Defiance” is not your typical Holocaust film. While there are fleeting scenes of Nazi atrocities, the story focuses squarely on those Jews who escaped the German dragnet and fought back. It is based on the true story of the Bielski brothers, who led hundreds of Jews into hiding in the forests of Nazi-occupied Belarus, and managed to keep them alive there for years.

But like most historical films, “Defiance,” while sticking to the broad historical outline tends to fudge some of the details. Here’s a guide to separate the fact from the fiction.

Q. Tuvia and Zus Bielski are heroic figures in the film, though they don’t always get along. Is this accurate?

A. Yes, mostly. Both Tuvia (Craig) and Zus (Schreiber) were imposing men, who even before the war had reputations for meeting any slight with an aggressive response. They commanded respect from the Jews who followed them, as well as the Soviet partisans who often fought alongside them. And it is largely true that Tuvia focused more on saving Jewish lives, while Zus yearned to exact revenge on the Nazis.

But the film takes some liberty with their relationship. The sibling rivalry is exaggerated, and most accounts say that both Zus and Asael (played by Jamie Bell) unquestioningly deferred to their older brother, Tuvia, remembered as the most impressive leader of the three. And though the film suggests Asael was much younger than the other two, he was actually only two years younger than Tuvia, while Zus was four years younger.

Q. Why didn’t more Jews escape like the Bielskis did?

A. The Bielski brothers grew up in an isolated rural area in Belarus, near huge forests where they spent many days of their childhood. They were uniquely suited not only to surviving in the forest for years, but more significantly, sheltering hundreds of others there as well.

But most European Jews had nowhere similar to hide, and as the Nazi noose tightened around them in the early years of the war, heartbreakingly few were able to find escape to such a deserted place, or to find friendly Christians willing to risk their lives to aid them.

Q. In the film, Tuvia kills a policeman responsible for his parents’ arrest, but is emotionally conflicted about it. True?

A. The killing is true. The emotional distress? Not so much. Tuvia and his brothers were fearsome fighters, and targeted a number of Nazi collaborators, often executing their entire families. The Bielskis wanted to send a message loud and clear. Targeting Jews would bring gruesome reprisals.

Q. Did the Bielskis really sneak into the heavily guarded Jewish ghettos to rescue people?

A. They did. In Eastern Europe, the Nazis didn’t immediately send Jews to concentration camps. Instead, they created walled-off ghettos in each city, where Jews were forced to work as slave labor, and kept in terror by frequent executions. Until the ghettos were liquidated, the Bielskis organized numerous forays inside to rescue people and guide them to their camp in the forest. It was a particularly daring act since the Bielski brothers each had a heavy price on his head.

Q. The Soviet partisan fighters are unfriendly and unhelpful to the Jews in the film. Was that true?

A. Yes and no. The Bielski group actually worked fairly closely with the Soviet partisans, though the film implies otherwise. While initially met with some suspicion by the Soviet guerrilla fighters (who displayed a fair bit of anti-Semitism themselves), Tuvia was masterful in dealing with Soviet partisan leaders, downplaying his group’s all-Jewish identity, and exaggerating their pro-Communist sentiments. He also proved his group’s worth with frequent acts of sabotage against the Nazis.

Q. Did Zus leave his brothers to join the partisans?

A. It makes for good dramatic tension, but it didn’t happen. The Bielski brothers stayed together until the last few months of Nazi occupation, at which time Moscow took direct control of the partisan fighters, and ordered Zus and Asael into separate partisan units.

Q. So, how did the group get all the food they needed?

A. The film’s a bit vague on this, but it primarily came from farms and homes bordering the forest. Sometimes it was given freely by friendly neighbors. At other times, the Bielskis traded valuables for food and weapons. But the typical Bielski method -shared by all the Soviet partisan fighters — was to simply demand food from peasants under gunpoint.

Q. The film shows some pretty dramatic battles between the Bielski group and Nazi soldiers. Did those occur?

A. Those scenes are emotionally satisfying, but somewhat exaggerated. The Bielskis had guns, of course, and used them. But dramatic shootouts between the Nazis and the Jewish partisans were rare.

The real heroism of the Bielskis lay not primarily in their willingness to wreck revenge on the Nazis — other Jewish and Russian partisan groups did that as well. The Bielskis stand out more for their unique work in rescuing and protecting other Jews — including those too old or weak to fight –from an almost certain death. “It is better to save one Jew than to kill ten Nazis,” says Daniel Craig’s Tuvia, echoing the real-life Tuvia.

This attitude resulted in the rescue and survival of over a thousand Jews under their watch. Today the descendants of those survivors number in the tens of thousands. The Bielskis’ heroism is a significant story, and worthy of an exciting film. And if a little creative license was used to tell the tale? Well, this historian, for one, doesn’t mind.

You can reach Cathy Schultz at cschultz@stfrancis.edu

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