Jewish fighters in the forest

December 30, 2008

Fifteen years ago, Steven Spielberg’s Hollywood Holocaust blockbuster was so successful that not only was the book it was based on re-published, its original title Schindler’s Ark was changed to that of the film: Schindler’s List. Whatever the name, those who discovered Thomas Keneally’s Booker Prize-winning book only after seeing the film were rewarded with a great read.

Defiance, the film starring Daniel Craig as Jewish partisan commander Tuvia Bielski, opens next Friday. Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, the 1993 book by Nechama Tec, has similarly been reissued in a new edition, by Oxford University Press at £7.99. This features Craig on the cover and a foreword by director and producer Edward Zwick (writes Anshel Pfeffer). But there the resemblance with Schindler ends. It would have been a better idea to splash out a bit more and commission a ghost-writer for a remake.

The story of Tuvia Bielski and the partisan unit lead by him and his brothers in the Belorussian forests, lacks for nothing by way of drama, and was comprehensively researched and documented by Tec. The small band of brothers and friends who managed to escape the ghetto, and set up a fighting unit which not only attacked the German army, but acted to save hundreds of Jews, accepting into its ranks not only young and able-bodied fighters but anyone it could snatch from the Nazis, .

However, Tec — a sociology professor emerita, noted Holocaust scholar (with a compelling survival story of her own) and author of a long list of important studies on the subject — is not an action writer and her fact-filled tome will prove difficult reading for those who, after seeing the film, will be looking for further excitement.

The Bielski story is not just another Holocaust saga. It tells how a hitherto little-known group of Jews, with meagre resources and scant military experience, overcame the antisemitism of its Belorussian neighbours and the Soviet high command’s suspicion as well as its German adversaries.

Tec laid the vital groundwork, interviewing many of the survivors, including Tuvia Bielski himself, in their last years. While her work will provide the foundation for future research and literature on the Bielskis, a more accessible version would enable thousands of other readers (and film fans) to learn about it, too.

Last updated: 3:58pm, December 30 2008