A little over a year ago, after reading David Denby’s review of Defiance, I thought to myself, “I don’t really want to see that movie, but it sounds like an interesting book.” I got distracted by other things, however, and still haven’t seen the movie, but recently I picked up the book from the library, and am about halfway through it. And it is really fascinating.
What brought the book back to my mind, actually, was the Tea Party movement. There’s a persistent fantasy in the American mind about the small, working-class, gun-toting rebels facing down a distant tyrannical central government. In the story Defiance chronicles, a group of Jews in Nazi-occupied eastern Europe briefly lived it out. Equally as important as the rebel aspect is the class inversion. As Denby puts it, “The farmers or working-class men who could shoot, gut an animal, and build a shelter were sought out as protectors by the women, including the educated, upper-middle-class women; the formerly desirable scholars of Hegel, Marx, and the Talmud were not.” So the wholesome, masculine proles proved they were better than the fancy educated liberal elitists. Even though they’re in Belorussia, what could be more American?
The reality of it was something like that. But as usual, life was more complicated than stereotype. Group leader Tuvia Bielski is a peasant farmer, but he’s also a natural-born politician. Charismatic, gregarious and intelligent, he learns German as a child by befriending German soldiers occupying the area, grows up to marry a rich older woman for shamelessly mercenary reasons (whom he later dumps for another woman), makes friends among the many ethnic groups of the region, and supplements his meager education with extensive reading. A friend from the time remarks that the little town they were living in seemed to small for him.
Even so, Tuvia sort of backs into his role as a rebel leader. Initially, he and other locals run off into the woods just to survive. Only later does a plan to fight the Germans develop, and only then is Tuvia chosen over his brothers as the leader. (Author Nechama Tec suggests this was partly because of the Jewish habit of deferring to the oldest son, although it’s also clear that Tuvia has the best personality for it.) The military wing of the group is off to a slow start, however, partly because it’s so difficult for them to find weapons. The Nazis have no NRA to worry about, so they just kill everyone who has them. So far in the book, the rebels have killed only one enemy, and he actually isn’t a Nazi but a Nazi-collaborating local policeman.
They’ve already had to make some huge moral compromises, though, which is another fascinating thing about the story in light of current events. Jeffrey Goldberg brought up the film version of Defiance when interviewing Quentin Tarantino about Inglourious Basterds a few months back, leading them to a discussion about whether Jews should even much worry about the morality of torturing and killing Nazis. The Bielski detachment of the book, however, has other ethical quandaries before killing Nazis even comes up. For one, they rob the local peasants to get their supplies. They try to do this with a minimum of violence — they even carve sticks to look like guns, which works well enough at night — and they try to target those they think can afford it. But Tec’s subjects, interviewed many years later, admit that they were adding to the afflictions of a peasantry that was already afflicted by the Nazis and the gangs of Red Army soldiers still wandering around. They just felt that they had no choice. The need for such basic sustenance is one of those things that movie rebellions always gloss over.
Another compromise was their alliance with the Soviets. We know what Stalin was, of course, but even in the book’s smaller scale, the Russian soldiers we’ve met so far are very unpleasant characters. Some of them are Jew-haters themselves, and, as one source understates it, “They were extremely fond of vodka.” Although there are a few Communists among the local Jewry, the overriding reason they support the Soviets is that they feel, justifiably, that the Red Army is their only hope for ultimately the Nazis. The western Allies are still far away at this point, so they make do with what they have.
This, probably more than anything, is what keeps the story from being a Tarantino fantasy. The Bielskis want to die like men, but they also recognize their own impotence. As much as Tec highlights the importance of their resistance, in contrast to the more typical images of Jews as passive victims, the Bielskis are ultimately also waiting for a much bigger war machine to rescue them. And so they have neither the moral purity of the ghetto victims, nor the masculine heroism of American mythology. Instead, like most people, they live somewhere in between.