Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Review of "Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, The Story of the Largest Armed Rescue of Jews by Jews During World War II," by Nechama Tec

Review of
Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, The Story of the Largest Armed Rescue of Jews by Jews During World War II, by Nechama Tec, ISBN 0195075951

Five out of five stars
 When considering the history of groups engaged in partisan warfare in Nazi occupied territory in Eastern Europe in World War II, most of the attention goes to the Polish and Soviet controlled groups. Other than the Warsaw ghetto uprising, armed resistance by Jewish groups generally goes unmentioned. However, there was one significant group of Jewish partisans that operated in western Belorussia and was commanded by Tuvia Bielski. Hence the name given to the group.
 The Bielski group was different from other partisan groups in that they welcomed all Jews, from infants to grandparents. Even though their strength was derived from young, fit men with weapons. It was Bielski’s goal to save as many Jews as possible from their near certain death at the hands of the Germans and their willing allies. This policy made their continued existence more difficult, for there were more to feed and the inclusion of the others dramatically restricted their mobility when German units were in hot pursuit.
 Like other Jews, the Bielski group had to fight the endemic anti-Semitism within the Poles, Ukrainians and Byelorussians. There were times when different partisan groups almost reached the point where they began killing each other.
 The author does nothing to romanticize the actions of the partisan bands as she describes how they regularly took food from peasant families at gunpoint. There is also no exaggeration of their military actions, for the most part, the partisan bands did not fight unless cornered. The priority for many of them was their next glass of vodka or any other alcoholic beverage. Until their Soviet controllers arrived, there was little cooperation or coordination.
 The author also does not gloss over the emergence of the pettiness of human nature, even when faced with the likelihood of death. Since it was the policy of Bielski to allow all Jews to join and there was no danger of eviction, there were some in the group that preferred to do as little as possible, doing little more than eating and complaining. It is a demonstration that some people simply cannot alter the expression of their basic nature, no matter what the circumstances. Once a slacker, always a slacker.
 The most telling example of this concerns a grandmother accompanied by a child. They had escaped from the ghetto and were in the relative safety of the Bielski group, but the grandmother complained that she had no brassiere and she simply could not live without one. Therefore, over the objections of the others, the grandmother took the child back with her to the ghetto. Both of them were murdered shortly afterward.  
 This book is  a valuable addition to the historical record of World War II. It is a history of active and effective Jewish resistance to their extermination as well as a look into the actions and tactics of the partisan bands. Often portrayed as noble fighters, they were in essence bandits with a cause, which was sometimes a very thin excuse.

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