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Defiance, movie poster

Assessing the Bielski Resistance

Book Essay on: Nechema Tec, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 296 pages.
UCSB: DS135.B38 T33 1993

by Karen Kopel
March 14, 2009

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1900-1945
UC Santa Barbara, Spring 2009

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
Get it at amazon.com page

About Karen Kopel

I am a senior Political Science major with an emphasis in International Relations and a minor in History. I am very interested in the dynamics of war and terrorism, especially in relations to Jews because I am Israeli and studied in Israel for a year. I choose to write about Nechama Tec's book because I learned how strong willed the Israeli people are and wanted to read about that characteristic in Jews during the Holocaust.

Abstract (back to top)

Defiance by Nechama Tec is an account of Jewish resistance in the Belorussian forests during World War II. The Bielski brothers formed a large Jewish partisan group, or otraid, that was key to their survival and helped them actively resist Nazi oppression. Tec conducted over forty interviews and drew from sources from the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem to construct the history of this group as accurately as possible. Tec states in her forward that the purpose of Defiance is to show, "that under conditions of human degradation and suffering, Jews were determined to survive - they refused to become passive victims" (Tec, xiii). Throughout the many stories, Tec shows that the Bielski otraid is successful in resisting the Germans because of many factors, namely their large size, their active involvement in saving other Jews, their strategic relationships and alliances, and their revenge tactics against Nazis and Nazi collaborators. Resistance took many forms, but to the Bielski partisan group resistance was not just revenge against the Germans, but also survival of Jews because it hindered the Final Solution.

Essay (back to top)


Jews tend to be described and characterized as victims of Nazi oppression in most of the stories told about the Holocaust. It is rare to encounter a story of Jewish strength during this time because those who refused to be victimized and resisted the Nazis did not have time or supplies to keep records, which left many heroic accounts untold. Aware of this misfortune, Nechama Tec undertook the vast project of documenting the history of the Bielski partisan group and the successful resistance it posed against the Nazis in the Belorussian forest during World War II. The author conducted over forty interviews and used sources from the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, Israel to recount the history of this group from every angle and perspective, even including discrepancies of the same accounts told by different eye witnesses. In the preface to Defiance, Tec writes that the purpose of the book is to show, “…that under conditions of human degradation and suffering, Jews were determined to survive - they refused to become passive victims” (Tec, xiii). Throughout the book, Tec demonstrates that in the face of Nazi danger, Jewish resistance in the Belorussian forest took the form of survival and revenge. The Bielski otriad was successful in resisting the Germans because of many factors, namely their large size, their active involvement in saving other Jews, their strategic relationships and alliances, and their revenge tactics against Nazis and Nazi collaborators. Defiance is filled with anecdotes of the Jewish partisan movement, and how everything from revenge murders to daily life was an act of resistance.

The struggle between survival and revenge is a constant theme in the book. Tuvia Bielski, the group’s commander, was always more concerned with the former. He strongly held onto this conviction and would emphasize that Jewish life always triumphed over German death. Jews who didn’t actively pursue revenge were an equally important part of the resistance movement. “Those who refused to submit to German terror were the rebels… United in their refusal to become victims, they were preoccupied with opposition to the enemy through self-preservation” (Tec, 289). It was essential for the Jews to secure their safety in the woods first and foremost because just living was an act of defiance against the Nazis. Once they established basic means, they could go out and pursue other resistance tactics that, if successful, would make them more secure. Killing Nazis and Nazi informers supplemented the Jews’ safety but also had the potential to expose them. It was important to have a plan and approach revenge tactfully in order to increase chances of survival.

Despite opposition within the otriad, Tuvia adopted a policy of accepting and welcoming all Jews who found their way to the Bielskis’ camp regardless of age, gender, status, wealth, or survival skill. “It is not clear if Tuvia was convinced that a larger otriad would result in greater safety or if he supported the group’s expansion because he wanted to save more lives,” but it did not matter because more partisans in the otriad produced both outcomes (Tec, 61). Strength lies in numbers and the more people the group had, the safer they were from Nazis and other Soviet and Polish partisan groups who were antisemitic. Small family units living in the forest were very vulnerable because they were easily outnumbered and overpowered. Jews who came to the otriad had a better chance of surviving collectively and each living Jew was a force of resistance against the Germans.

Even though many in the Bielski otriad were considered malbushim (useless people) and those who were already part of the group grumbled about their arrival, Tuvia saw their potential. The malbushim helped to create the illusion of power because Tuvia strategically never let the other partisan leaders know how few fighters and weapons his otriad possessed in ratio to its size. Also, the large group of over 1,200 Jews created an opportunity for a division of labor and the ability to produce goods once a stable base was established. General Platon, the leader of the partisan movement in the Nalibocka forest, “…said that every military body has suppliers of goods, people who instead of fighting provide all kinds of services for the fighters. This, he emphasized, was the function of the Bielski otriad. He felt such services were indispensable for the partisans” (Tec, 211-2). Platon’s approval of the Bielski otriad provided extra protection that was crucial for Jewish survival because other partisan groups would not harm the Jews even if they wanted to. However, many in the otraid continued to view malbushim as a burden because they could not defend themselves and relied on the few young men who possessed arms. But in the end, the large numbers of the group proved to be a source of strength in their ability to survive in the forest.

Saving Jewish lives was another important form of resistance because it directly defied the Nazis’ orders and wishes to annihilate all the Jews. The Bielski otriad gave Jews in the ghettos inspiration to resist the Nazis because they were living examples of successfully escaping persecution and surviving in the forest. During times of relative security and stability, “The Bielski otriad initiated other forms of rescue. Special guides were sent into ghettos to help people escape, and scouts searched the roads for Jewish fugitives in need of protection” (Tec, 292). People were more inclined to risk imminent death (the price to pay for being caught escaping) because they understood they had a better chance of surviving in the forest with the Bielski otriad than staying in the ghettos. Jews knew that ghetto life would inevitably lead to an Atkion in which they would either be killed or sent to a concentration camp where they would eventually die. The otriad offered a beacon of hope and most people were eager to be included in these missions. In turn, these missions also increased the size of the Bielski group which contributed to safety and higher chance of survival overall.

Strategic relationships with other partisan groups living in the Belorussian forests were also a form of survival and increased resistance to the Germans. Joint efforts legitimized the Bielskis, which gave them some protection from antisemitic partisans who wanted to murder Jews. In one of many examples, Tuvia established an important friendship with Victor Panchenko, the leader of a Russian otriad who originally wanted to destroy the Bielski partisans. Tuvia successfully convinced Victor that they were both fighting against a common cause, the Nazis, and the two men formed a bond. “This news not only helped legitimate the existence of the Bielski group, but indirectly made life easier for other Jewish fugitives. Local peasants and Russian partisans were less likely to rob Jewish fugitives” (Tec, 103). Since a policy existed that all Jews were welcome into the Bielski otriad and the otriad now fell under the protection of a powerful Russian partisan group, peasants, villagers, partisans, and others became less inclined to attack Jews in the countryside or in the forest. Alliances blurred lines between partisan groups and an attack on weak Jews could lead to bigger problems if they happened to fall under the protection of stronger forces. The price of attacking vulnerable Jews could potentially be too high.

Although survival was the most important aspect of resistance for Tuvia, he and his otriad also engaged in acts of revenge against Nazis and Nazi collaborators. There are many stories told throughout the book of the Bielskis murdering Germans and Russians who have caused the death of Jews directly or indirectly. One striking example is the account of Albelkiewicz, the head of a village who was responsible for the death of twenty Jewish men, women, and children. Tuvia and some of his men went on an expedition to find another Jewish partisan group in an effort to incorporate them into the Bielski otriad. Kesler, the leader of the group, insisted that the men needed to kill Albelkiewicz before they could go with the Bielskis into the forest. Without hesitation, Tuvia agreed and the men from both groups went to the Nazi informer’s house to murder the entire family and pillage the house for arms and ammunition. On the door the partisans left a note warning existing and future Nazi collaborators that they will fare the same fate if they harm Jews. “Indeed the natives were impressed with the efficiency of the Jewish partisans and with their courage to stand up to Nazi collaborators. They also became fearful of reprisals and many refrained from harming Jewish fugitives” (Tec, 108). Acts of revenge, once the Bielski otriad was more secure, helped Jews survive because it discouraged peasants and villagers from cooperating with the Nazis. Revenge thus helped Jews survive and contributed to the resistance movement.

Nechama Tec weaves together numerous accounts of successful Jewish resistance with some acts of Jewish victimization, especially within the ghetto walls. Not all Jews were strong and courageous enough to become partisans in the face of danger, and many thought, “’There is no other alternative, we’ll have to go into the ghetto. It’s not too bad, somehow we’ll survive. Let’s not be smarter than the others. We will lie just like the rest will’” (Tec, 45). This is a sad story that has been told countless times throughout the entire region of Nazi influence. Most Jews were too hopeful and optimistic to risk their lives for the small chance that they would be liberated soon instead of facing fear and fighting for their lives. Although Tec includes some of these accounts in the history of the Bielski otriad, they do not discredit those who were brave enough to resist. These two types of Jews lived parallel to each other and it is inadequate to tell the story of one without acknowledging the other. Her main focus is to tell the story of over 1,200 Jews who did resist the Germans in the harsh forest by surviving and taking revenge until the Red Army liberated them in July 1944 (Tec, 279). These defiant Jews relied on strength in numbers, saving other Jews, striking alliances with Russian partisan groups, and murdering those who were involved in the loss of Jewish lives. Despite a few grammatical mishaps and spelling errors, Defiance is an extremely significant tale that helps to complete the overall picture of Jewish life during World War II. As years continue to pass, more of these stories are lost forever, making the few that we have grow in importance. The Holocaust has many narratives to tell, including those of victims and those of resistors. Tec successfully gives voice to some of the latter by explaining how the Bielski otriad resisted Nazi oppression by refusing to give in. Resistors all shared the idea that to die a human being was worth more than to live like sheep.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/x/09)

Book Reviews:

Garber, Zev. "Review of Tec, Defiance." AJS Review 20:2 (1995): 458-60. Association for Jewish Studies. JSTOR. Cambridge University Press.
Garber thinks that Nechama Tec is overall successful in telling the heroic story of Tuvia Bielski, a man able to lead a large and diverse group of Jews hiding in the harsh climate of the Nalibocka Forest. The story is full of life and mostly accurate as she tells the real life accounts of as many members of the forest community as she can acquire. Most significant is the story of the Jewish spirit transcending beyond self-interest in a deadly time and adhering to humane principles.

Gurewitsch, Brana. "Review of Tec, Defiance." The Oral History Review 22:2 (Winter 1995): 108-11. Oral History Association. JSTOR. Oxford University Press..
Gurewitsch writes that Tec's book on the Bielski Partisans closes a major gap in our knowledge of Jewish partisan activities by drawing on 40 interviews she conducted with surviving members of that group, as well as historical accounts. Defiance tells the story of group of Jews who were able to live in the harsh forests of Belorussia and survive. Although her sociologist background does help the story, Gurewitsch says Tec leaves some cultural holes out. Overall, Tec does a good job objectively creating a narrative of how hundreds of Jews under the leadership of Tuvia Bielski were able to remain human and uphold their Jewish beliefs in protecting each other in their quest to survive.

Porter, Jack N. "Review of Tec, Defiance." The American Historical Review 100:5 (Dec 1995): 1628. The American Historical Association. JSTOR.
Porter points out that while most Holocaust books tell the heartbreaking stories of victims in concentration camps, in ghettos, or those in hiding, the importance of Defiance lies in its ability to tell the rarely told story of rescuers and resistance fighters.

UCSB Hist 133b review essay by Julie MacMichael.


Cindy Mindell, “Conversations With… Nechama Tec, Author of ‘Defiance’” (December 30, 2008), <http://www.jewishledger.com/articles/2008/12/31/news/news05.txt>
This website is an interview with Tec about her book, Defiance, after the book was once again in the mainstream because it was made into a major motion picture. Tec talks about her progression as a writer and how she came upon the story of the Bielski otraid when she was validating the account of another man for her previous book. She talks about the interview she conducted with Tuvia, the leader of the Bielski partisan group who was very old and sick at the time, and why she found the subject of successful Jewish resistance important to document. The interview concludes with Tec’s brief account of her happy feelings about how the movie was made.

Jesse Kornbluth, “Defiance: The Bielski Partisans” (December 29, 2008), <http://www.thirdage.com/movies-music-the-arts/defiance-the-bielski-partisans>
This website examines the unique nature of the Bielski partisan group because it is a story of “Jews saving themselves.” The author uses a funny and satirical tone to emphasize that although most Holocaust stories of survival are of weak, submitting Jews, Defiance is a departure in that it illustrates Jews as strong and willing to fight back with the help of their courageous leader. The author then offers a brief and correct summary of the book and overall recommends the book to other readers.

Wikipedia, “Bielski Partisans”. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bielski_partisans>
The Wikipedia website on the Bielski partisan group is very detailed with a lot of information on their historical background. Subheadings under the History section include: formation, organization, activities, disbandment, and post-war. This is good supplementary information for the book and should be read alongside Defiance. The website also includes sections on allegations of war crimes, and books and films which are both interesting and give more information on the group’s history.

Books and Articles:

Duffy, Peter. The Bielski Brothers The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Built a Village in the Forest, and Saved 1,200 Jews. New York: Harper Perennial, 2004. <google books>
This is another account of the Bielski Partisan group, run by the three eldest Bielski brothers, Tuvia, Zus, and Asael. This book is written after Nechama Tec’s Defiance and seems to be based more around the story of the brothers than of the partisan group, or otriad, in general. It shares the same theme however of Jewish survival by Jews in the face of Nazi oppression.

Tec, Nechama. Resilience and Courage Women, Men and the Holocaust. New York: Yale UP, 2004. <google books>
This book is written after Tec’s acclaimed Defiance and is a result of one of the chapters based on the women and their role in the partisan group. Tec delves further into the question of women in the Holocaust and their role as related to men. She expands her study by examining women in various situations such as in the ghettos, in concentration camps, hiding with Christians, and living in the forest. She draws from many sources and expresses this book is a continuation of the many questions that she raised while writing her previous books.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

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