In the wake of World War II, when the appalling scope of the Nazis’ genocidal horror became clear, there were two main questions that people asked: how could the Germans have done such a thing, and how could so many Jews have failed to see the handwriting on the wall until it was too late to save themselves? Both questions are still being debated, but for the purpose of this post I am only concerned with the second one, and the fact is, many Jews did, indeed, avail themselves of opportunities for active resistance.
Nechama Tec is a Polish Jew who was eight years old when the Germans invaded Poland, and she survived the final solution through the efforts of Catholic friends. She is a renowned Holocaust scholar and the author of today’s shelves feature, Defiance. In this fascinating volume, she details the successful efforts of the Bielski brothers – Tuvia, Asael and Zus – to establish a Jewish partisan unit in the forests of western Belorussia in the early 1940s.
Although ultimately incorporated into the official Soviet network of partisan detachments (or “otriads”), the Bielskis remained committed to their main mission – rescuing the Jews who were trapped in the ghettos or roaming about the forests, starving and unprotected. In what began as an act of self-preservation for themselves and their immediate families, under Tuvia’s leadership, the Bielski otriad became the only partisan unit in Belorussia that took in all Jewish refugees, no matter how old or young or sick.
Theirs was, of course, a precarious existence. The Bielskis and their community had to elude or fight the Germans, as well as struggle against the anti-Semitism that prevailed in many of the non-Jewish Soviet partisan organizations. The Bielski otriad was constantly faced with the enormous job of finding food for their members, maintaining order, co-operating with other otriads in raids on the German military infrastructure, and participating in sometimes delicate yet dangerous negotiations with the Soviets (some of whose partisan leaders sought to have Tuvia Bielski arrested). In the end, the Bielski otriad wound up saving something on the order of 1,200 Jewish lives. And, tragically, but not surprisingly, when the area was “liberated” by the Red Army, the fall of Tuvia was almost instantaneous.
Shortly after Tuvia’s arrival in Nowogródek he was denounced to the Secret Service (NKVD) by several of his former partisans who in the past had not dared to act on their dissatisfaction. A few were former exiles from the Bielski otriad, but it is not clear what their accusations were…Tuvia, Zus and their wives escaped to Rumania. From there, with the help of a Jewish agency, they reached Palestine.Tuvia and Zus eventually resettled in the United States. Asael was drafted into the Red Army and died in battle, in Marienburg, Germany.
The author has provided us with a very valuable history of Jewish resistance to Nazi aggression, and, although the action occurred in an out-of-the way corner of Europe, it is an inspiring story and a measure of what bravery, determination and love can accomplish in the face of even apparently overwhelming odds.