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Tec, book cover

Victims and Rescuers: How the Bielski Partisans Resisted and Survived the Nazi Holocaust

Book Essay on: Nechama Tec, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 209 pages.
UCSB: DS135.B38.T33 1993

by Julie MacMichael
March 13, 2009

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

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
Amazon.com Page

About Julie MacMichael

I am a junior history major who has been interested in German history ever since childhood because my grandfather came to the United States in the 1900s from Germany. Two summers ago I went to Dusseldorf, Germany on a study abroad trip for two months and learned about Germany during Hitler's Third Reich. We traveled to various sites such as Berchtesgaden, Munich, Nuremberg, and Sonthofen where I saw Nazi memorabilia, learned about the role of the SS, Jewish concentration camps, and the still present impact of the Third Reich in Germany. After this trip I became interested in the lives of Jews during this time period. I decided to write my research paper from the Jewish perspective and how they fought against this suppressing regime.

Abstract (back to top)

The book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans is about the acts of self-sacrifice and kindness that some Polish Jews committed amongst other Jews during the Nazi annihilation of the Jewish population during the Second World War. It focuses on the Bielski brothers and their organization of a partisan group that saved over a thousand Jews by the end of the war. They built a community in the Nalibocka Forest in Poland where they kept mostly women, children, and elderly out of concentration camps. It gives interviews and firsthand accounts of the sorrows, strengths, losses, successes, and emotions that went on in the forest while the Bielski group evaded death. They turned down no one looking for refuge at their camp because the key goal was survival. Because staying alive was of the utmost importance, they grouped with Russian partisans and fought in their military so they could remain strong. The key to the Bielski group's successful defiance was their ability to sustain a hidden forest community and the military help of the Red Army.

Essay (back to top)

This is a hitherto untold story of the Holocaust, a history of undercover opposition to the Nazis and the preservation of Jewish lives. The book Defiance outlines the self-sacrifice and rebellion that a group of Polish Jews organized during World War II, protecting a thousand Jews from Nazi annihilation. Some Jews hoped to evade death through submission to the enemy. Others actively fought to survive through resistance.

Tuvia Bielski was a key fighter in the Jewish resistance campaign. He led a defiant group called the Bielski partisans who battled against the Nazi regime for the survival of the Jewish population. It was a difficult choice whether to actively or passively resist Nazi killing. The success of the Bielski partisans depended on both. The strength of the Bielski partisans’ defiance movement came from their cooperation with Russian partisans and the Red Army, as well as their adaptability to Poland’s forest environment, and their ability to create a community. Their main goal was to save lives. This is their story from 1941 to 1945.

Jewish citizens faced a major dilemma during the early years of German occupation. Even before the war, survival was of the utmost importance. When the Nazis stepped up transportation of Jews to prisons, ghettos, and concentration camps, the victims needed mental and physical strength to survive. German terror led to the destruction of Jewish traditions, making many Jewish prewar leaders ineffective (Tec 205). Jews were afraid of engaging in active resistance because they feared it would bring on greater horrors. However, some common German citizens were morally opposed to the violence that they were told to carry out. During this prewar stage, Hitler did not have total support.

Resistance occurred within the sphere of the Nazi Party. Yet antisemitism and loyalty to Hitler made these Nazi acts of resistance rare. One act of defiance occurred when a German soldier realized the connection between his excellent Jewish dentist and the detainee that was held in his prison (Tec 55). The link made it possible for the prisoner to escape with his life. Many Jews had been heads of major businesses and medical professions, and had earned the respect of Germans as well as others. Despite their danger, Nazis in positions of power occasionally acted honorably in rescuing prisoners.

With the start of the war, the persecuted Jewish populace thought that if they escaped to Poland they would be safe. In 1941 Russia occupied Poland so Jews saw Poland as a more permanent haven (Tec 19). These Jewish refugees thought the autocracy that swept Nazi Germany would not creep into Poland, or at least not as badly. This optimism proved to be unfounded. Their belief in the relative safety of Poland led many Jewish citizens to their downfall. Even though there was severe antisemitism, these Jews believed that Nazi potency would not go any farther. Despite Jewish resistance and the escape provided by the Bielski brothers, there were many “who did not react because others in their family refused to join them” (Tec 21). They felt they had too much invested in Poland and in their families to flee. Those who stayed would soon be taken to their deaths in concentration camps.

The Bielski brothers did not think this way. Tuvia and Zus Bielski grew up in small town of Belorussian peasants. The brothers saw their parents and some siblings get taken away by the Germans (Tec 5). The methodical killing of innocent people by the Nazis had an effect on the Bielski brothers. They knew the chances of survival were slim in a ghetto or concentration camp and wanted to escape the holocaust. In 1941, when Germany occupied Poland and began relocating Jews, they escaped. When Tuvia whispered to Zus, “I’m going to run away,” the two men disappeared and vowed never to be caught by the enemy (Tec 27). This was their promise to stay alive. It was their promise to engage in active resistance.

Once the brothers were established in the forest, Tuvia had ambitions of expanding their group. Tuvia was said to have “an exceptionally warm Jewish heart and great intelligence” (Tec 45). He wanted to create a community that preserved the lives of Jews on the inside and fought the Nazis on the outside. Tuvia became the absolute ruler and leader of the expanding group of Jewish refugees (Tec 198). This defiant group lived in a forest in Poland for the duration of the war and did not turn anyone looking for escape from death.

The Bielskis began their first resistance operation in 1942. They started their campaign to save as many Jews as possible with escapees from the ghetto. This was the best way to transfer a large number of Jews out of the dangers of the Nazis. “As Bielski guides entered the ghetto word about their rescue group spread rapidly,” but it made many apprehensive of their campaign (Tec 50). Some did not want to leave because they did not think the ghettos were going to get more dangerous. They opted to stay with their families and community. They refused to face a different lifestyle with the risk of being captured or killed. However, one group of young people did leave with the Bielski group. They supplied the Belorussian guards in the ghetto with vodka so they were drunk and unable to attend to their duties (Tec 50). This act of resistance greatly impacted the Jewish people in Poland. Not only did the group make a successful escape out of the ghetto but they also showed others that a getaway was possible. It proved the potential of Jewish defiance to the Nazis.

In the winter of 1942 the Bielski brothers met up with the Russian partisans in the forest and decided to join forces (Tec 81). Since the Russians turned against Germany after being invaded, this network created a combination of resistance between the Bielskis’ rescue activities and the Russians’ war initiative. The combined forces increased Jewish survival.

Tuvia Bielski strove to continue the association between the Russian partisans and his Jewish refugees. He hoped they would foster Jewish endurance, and the Russian partisans hoped they would beat the Nazis at war. However, “Russian Partisans did not tolerate Jewish unwillingness to fight, especially not from Jews who they suspected cowardice” (Tec 80). Due to Russian antisemitism, Jews had to convince the Russians they would help them win the war and were not only protecting the needs of the Jewish population. This antisemitism derived from the European notion that Jewish people were inferior. The Bielski partisans would disprove this notion.

To gain legitimacy, Jews from the Bielski group fought side by side with the Russian partisans to maintain their relationship. They created a Jewish fighting unit called the “Bielski otriad” (Tec 126). These Jewish fighters volunteered to fight because it gave them a chance to kill German enemies. However, this fighting brigade demonstrated the unwillingness of the Russian partisans to help Bielski’s group live. They were willing to sacrifice the lives of Jewish partisans in order to bolster their war effort. Russia’s main goal was to defeat Germany, but this kill enabled them to the success of the Bielski partisans.

The Bielski otriad also convinced the Russian partisans and later Stalin that they were helpful and loyal supporters of Russia by navigating them through back roads and forest terrain (Tec 96). Since these rescued Jewish prisoners learned their way around Poland while they hid from Nazi spies, they were an asset to Russia’s war effort and the German resistance campaign. Russia noticed the help and the “Bielski otriad emphasized the importance of the integrated partisan movement to the war” (Tec 95). This joint relationship assisted Russia in defeating Germany in World War II. But while Russia was winning the war, Jews were losing their lives.

Russia’s goal was simply to defeat Nazi controlled Germany; the Bielskis fought equally hard for Jews who were not contributing to the military effort. They provided external resistance which aided Russia in the liberation of Jews. Russian strength made the roads less dangerous, increasing the chances of survival for those who escaped from the ghetto and also giving courage to others to escape into the forest (Tec 97). Bielski partisan resistance was working, but only to a certain extent. Although some Jews gained more courage and protection, the Nazis’ systematic murder could not be reversed. “Virtually all the Jews in the Lida and Nowogrodek ghettos were murdered by 1943” (Tec 97). Although numerous Jews were still wiped out of ghettos, the Bielski resistance movement, and the decision to join with Russian forces, led some of the Jewish population to freedom. Their common battle against Germany and the Nazi regime effectively bound the two groups together until the end of the war.

The formation of a unified community was also vital to their survival. Tuvia organized and led the forest community by “building teams assigned to different tasks—such as collecting food and materials and sustaining protection” (Tec 129). These teams worked with each other for the survival of the group as a whole. They maintained collective resistance toward the enemy. Their community constantly had more additions because “the USSR sent homeless Jewish ghetto refugees into the forest” (Tec 127). Despite their previous antisemitism, once the Russians saw what good fighters the Bielski otriad became, they began contributing to Jewish survival. These new refugees sustained the community and contributed to its strength. This support from the Russians and stability within the community was needed for successful defiance. The Bielski partisans lived from the hope that their efforts to disobey the Nazis would help to save lives and end German power.

Once in the forest community, keeping refugees in order and alive proved to be a concern. The Bielskis resistance campaign would have been useless if the health and morale of the resistance fighters did not remain strong. It was a difficult and strenuous task for Tuvia to keep order among the refugees. Filth and disease were among his biggest problems. Due to “overcrowding, no change of clothes, and limited washing” the Bielski partisans remained infested with lice that carried infectious diseases (Tec 170). Although surviving in brutal and dangerous conditions, the Jewish reaction to this bad situation was continued resistance. Their survival depended on unity.

“In July 1944 more than 1200 people took part in the exodus of the Nalibocka forest. Their survival depended on Tuvia bringing them safely to their destination” (Tec 199). They left their hiding place of long, treacherous years because of enemy infiltration in the forest and Germany being near defeat. They did not come into complete safety until 1945 with the end of World War II. Their avoidance of death had been successful. They saved many lives.

The Bielski partisans rescued more than a thousand Jews through their Russian supported military and their strong community. The chances for survival increased exponentially for those who came into Bielskis’ camp. Still, many other Jews who expressed defiance were not so lucky. Millions were deported away and perished in concentration camps during Nazi occupation. Defiance is significant because it tells the story of the Bielski partisans’ fight for life. Without it, we would not know the personal accounts of the men and women in their group. These heroic acts of altruism should never be forgotten.

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

Book Reviews:

Gurewitsch, Brana. Review of Defiance: The Bielski Partisans. The Oral History Review. 22 (1995): 108-11. Jstor. Winter 1995. Oxford University Press. 22 Jan. 2009 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3675431>.
Gurewitsch contrasts Defiance with other stories about the Holocaust. She praises Tec’s illustration of Jews as heroes versus victims. Because Gurewitsch works at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, she argues that Tec could have more strongly linked the Bielski partisan’s self defense efforts to the preservation of Jewish culture and history. Instead, she contended that Tec associated the Bielski defiance group to inherent human characteristics. In contrast to Tec’s portrayal, Gurewitsch thinks Tuvia Bielski’s work in forming the Bielski partisans had to do with the time he spent in the army prior to World War II. The central audience would be historians or people with an interest in history who want to understand the personal lives of Jews and the willingness to protect their group instead of seek revenge.

Porter, Jack N. Review of Books: Modern Europe. American Historical Review. 100 (1995):
1628. Dec. 1995. 22 Jan. 2009 <ebsco link>.
Porter argues that the only people who resisted the Nazis with truth and dignity were the Jews. He thinks everyone else fought against Hitler’s regime for an alternative motive, and not solely to rescue anyone. Porter agrees that women, children and elderly were hardest to rescue, giving support to the Bielski partisans and their role in saving these people. This review would be for an audience that believes that ordinary citizens did not have as strong a reason to resist the Nazis as the Jews did. It debunks the stereotype that all Jews fought with passive resistance.

Steene, Mary Ann. Review of Defiance: The Bielski Partisans. Publishers Weekly. 240 (1993):
57. 14 June 1993. 22 Jan. 2009 <http://galenet.galegroup.com>.
Steene summarizes the Bielski partisans’ main goal of survival and resistance. She honors their fight against a huge, technologically advanced country as Nazi Germany. Although these Jewish forest fighters lacked German innovations, Steene argues their formation and stability as a forest community was incomparable. This review gives step by step occurrences of Germany’s wartime attacks and how they related to actions the partisans took. The audience is for people who are seeking to learn about German history. Steene, from Cambridge, focuses on the plight of the Jewish people and the horror in which came from German command. In contrast to Defiance, this review emphasizes German military battles more than the specific accounts of the Jews who defied them.

UCSB Hist 133b review essay by Karen Kopel.

Web Sites:

Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team. "The Bielski Brothers - Jewish Resistance and the “Otriad”." Jewish Virtual Library - Homepage. Jan. 2009. The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. 05 Mar. 2009. <http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/BielskiBrothers.html>.
This website gives an overview of the underlying causes of Bielski partisan resistance before, during and after the war. In comparison to Tec’s argument in Defiance, the website’s argument is that the Bielskis’ main goal was not to only resist but to save lives. The website highly glorifies the strength of the partisans because it is for Jewish remembrance purposes. Its audience would be one that wants to carry on the honor and high ideals of the Jewish resistance fighters during the Holocaust. When analyzing the Soviet Union’s involvement with the partisans, the website is partial to Jews and demeans the goals of the Red Army.

Howard, Rachel. “The Jewish Partisans: Untold Stories of Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust.” San Francisco Chronicle. 09 Apr. 2007. (05 Mar. 2009). <http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/04/09/...>.
A Jewish partisan’s article found on the website of the San Francisco Chronicle begins with an interview of a Jewish survivor who resisted the Nazis during World War II and eventually came to America. The audience of the article would be the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco that upholds Jewish traditions and displays stories of Jewish heroism for the world to see. The article strives to uncover more Jewish partisan groups and their defiance. It gives links and resources for Jews to network others within our modern community. In contrast to other works I have read, this article focuses more on the modern outlook of Jewish culture and resistance instead of the history of defiance.

Rossel, Seymour. “Holocaust an End to Innocence: Jewish Resistance.” Homepage. 2003. (05 Mar. 2009). http://www.rossel.net/Holocaust11.htm
This website attempts to clarify the misconception that all Jews went to concentration camps without a struggle. To give evidence to their argument they focus on the Bielski partisans who resisted against the Nazi regime. In contrast to some misconceptions, the website proves that the Bielskis’ wanted to save as many Jewish lives as possible. The type of audience this website would attract would be Jewish families and friends of survivors who have a strong hatred toward the Germans and the atrocities of Hitler’s “final solution.” The website does not present the counter argument like Tec made in Defiance, but groups all Germans as “bad” and all Jews as “good.” It praises the strength of Jewish resistance.

Books and Articles

Mais, Yitzchak. Daring to Resist: Jewish Defiance in the Holocaust. New York: Museum Of Jewish Heritage, 2007.
Daring to Resist is about the Jewish resistance movement under Nazi leadership. Instead of focusing on a single resistance organization like Tec, this book tells of multiple defiance campaigns that undermined Hitler’s mission to kill all Jews. The selected audience for this book would be an action and suspense seeker with a desire to learn about history. It argues that Jews did not passively give into Nazi brutality but fight back to preserve their lives and traditions.

Rohrlich, Ruby. Resisting the Holocaust. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1998.
In contrast to many tales of Jewish resistance, Resisting the Holocaust tells the story from the perspective of Jews and not the traditional male historian. Historians as well as avid readers would like this book. It gets as close to the primary source as possible by getting detailed interviews from concentration camp survivors. Like Daring to Resist, this book also shows a wide array of individuals, movements, and family groups that resisted the Nazis. It is an important source of Jewish history because of illustrations of Jewish culture through the resistance movements.

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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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