Defying Popular Holocaust Iconography

The new film, Defiance, brings us to the Belarusian countryside in 1941. Hitler has just invaded Belarus. Jewish partisans led by four Bielski brothers have set up armed self-defense camps deep in the forest to escape Nazi oppression. As the massacres get worst, Jews flock to the partisans in the forest, “the one place in all of Belarus where a Jew can be free.”

They follow Tuvia, the eldest Bielski and resistance leader played by Daniel Craig, knowing that they will lack food and medicine and will be hunted by the Germans. They bring women and children, the sick and elderly with them. They work together, learn how to fight back, and survive. The film, which is based on real historical events, centers on their struggle amidst harrowing circumstances.

One of the central conflicts in the film involves the split between Tuvia and Zus, the second Bielski played by Liev Schreiber. Zus argues against gathering more people with them thinking that it will sacrifice their their ability to sustain themselves and expose their growing community to greater risk of detection by the enemy.

Liev Schreiber and Daniel Craig in Defiance.
Liev Schreiber and Daniel Craig in Defiance.

Zus joins a Soviet Red Army unit in the belief that military defeating the Germans rather than dying of disease and starvation in the forest is the only way to secure the survival of the Jews.

While watching the film, I was reminded of the French thinker Regis Debray’s argument for the creation of a guerrilla force “organically independent of the civilian population” in his 1967 book-length essay, Revolution in the Revolution?.

Another film character tells Tuvia that he “almost lost my faith, but God sent you [Tuvia] to save us.” What we shouldn’t forget is that the Bielskis’ themselves couldn’t have achieved anything if not for the people themselves who banded together to resist Nazi terror.

In an earlier scene, this point is highlighted as ghetto residents decides to escape and join Tuvia and his men in defiance of their rabbi’s admonition to simply wait for God to save them passively.

This, I think, is one of the things that sets Defiance apart from most films that explore the same theme and setting. “The popular iconography of the Holocaust has mostly been one of victimization,” said the director Edward Zwick.

“It’s important to add complexity to that notion—to understand that there is a difference between passivity and powerlessness, that the impulse to resist was always present.” ■


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