- Defiance: The Bielski Partisans (review)
- Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies
- Purdue University Press
- Volume 13, Number 4, Summer 1995
- p. pp. 91-94
- View Citation
Book Reviews 'I " ' BOOK REVIEWS 91 Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, by Nechama Tec. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. 276 pp. $27.50. For students of the Holocaust, Nechama Tec's study of the exploits of the Bielski partisans in the forests ofBelarus is absolutely essential reading. For the general reader, her book can be read as an exciting adventure story. Professor Tec sets out to correct two widely disseminated falsehoods about the behavior ofJews in the Holocaust: "a serious omission and an equally serious distortion" (po vii). The omission is the "... conspicuous silence about Jews" who not only fought against the Nazi onslaught, but who fought to save other Jews; the "distortion" is the portrayal ofJews as passive victims who did not resist, and who, without exception, went like sheep to the slaughter. Professor Tec achieves both her aims brilliantly. In a sense, her meticulous account of the Bielski partisans is a continuation of her earlier book, When Light Pierced the Darkness, a study of Gentiles (mainly Poles) who rescued Jews. In the earlier work, Professor Tec, a sociologist, tried to account for the phenomenon of rescue itself, to explain why there were any gentiles at all who were willing to help Jews, since the Nazi occupiers made rescuing Jews a capital offense that could be punished by execution not only of the rescuer but also of the rescuer's entire family, including children and aged parents. Professor Tec found that many of the rescuers were on the margin of their own social groups, although that was not always the case, and some might have been more marginal than others. More striking than the pattern of social marginality, however, was Professor Tec's inability to find a paradigm of predictability in other cultural institutions, such as education and religion. Pious Poles could just as soon be betrayers as rescuers, and the behavior ofuneducated Poles, as opposed to that of highly educated Poles, was equally arbitrary. Something of the same kind of mystery touches the motivation of Tuvia Bielski, commander of a band ofJewish partisans who managed to survive the occupation and to save more than a thousand Jews. Professor Tec makes a strong case that Tuvia Bielski conceived his mission of saving Jews at a very early stage, and that he never wavered from this goal. By carefuIJy analyzing the group's guerilla and civic activities, studying 92 SHOFAR Summer 1995 Vol. 13; No.4 Bielski's own account of his career as a partisan, as told in a book entitled Forest Jews (in Hebrew), and by skillfully drawing information and assessments of their leader and his motivations from former members of the group who survived, Professor Tec arrives at the conclusion that Bielski made a deliberate decision to use the resources at his disposal to save Jews; not to 'get revenge on the Germans. But that a man with Bielski's social and cultural background should have undertaken such a mission only deepens the mystery. The Bielskis were a family ofJews who had lived in "Stankiewicze, a village in Western Belorussia," for three generations. Of the six families living in the village, only the Bielskis were Jewish. They were farmers and peasants, and living among peasants they spoke the peasant languages ("Polish, Belorussian, and Russian, each without a trace of an accent" [po 9]), and were on good terms with their gentile neighbors. Ina sense, one might say they had assimilated to the peasant culture. Nevertheless, the Bielskis managed to hang on .to their Jewishness. "Although he was not particularly religious," Professor Tec writes, "Tuvia identified strongly with Jewish traditions" (p. 9). It was ·this combination of peasant and Jew, apparently (along with courage, determination, "charisma," and luck, of course), that helps account for his successful rescue of more than a thousand Jews. He was able to interact (and identify) easily with both peasants and Jews, and he had a kind of peasant physical and mental toughness that kept him going through the most difficult times. Like the peasants, he was also practical and non-ideological. Professor Tec separates Jewish partisan groups into those engaged in "... the Jewish fight for existence and the Jewish fight for revenge.... Bielski...