Defiance is a 2008 war film directed by Edward Zwick. Set in the eastern regions of German Nazi-occupied Poland (now western Belarus) during World War II, the film is an adaptation of Nechama Tec’s Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, which is based on the true story of the Bielski partisans. Tec’s book told how Polish Jews came together for common protection and to oppose the German occupation of their homeland.
That is how Wikipedia opens its entry on the Jewish action movie, Defiance. It is pretty much the standard account of the film, which has appeared in media around the world. The “true story of the Bielski brothers”, those heroic, admirable, justified Jews fighting for “the good” and for their lives against impossible odds and ultimate evil, is the only prism the world now has through which to view the motives and actions of these people.
In response, a number of honourable and patriotic Poles have sought to provide another. One such, a Polish-American reader of this blog, has thoroughly primed me on all this, and I am indebted to him.
I suppose it made a lot of sense to a director, basically, of action movies to secure for his lead in the most important film of his career the actor currently playing James Bond. Could there be a more striking image of the alpha male at bay than Daniel Craig on a noble white stallion shot against a wintry backdrop of a deep and mysterious Lithuanian forest?
Speaking of the film to the BBC, Craig said:-
“This came along, I read it and immediately said, ‘I want to make this movie. It’s a story I want to tell,’”
… The film does not shy from showing the brutal reality of what the group’s resistance involved – including in one instance the group murder of a German soldier.
And, suggests Craig, perhaps the difficulty of dealing with bloody memories has contributed to keeping the story buried. “It was much more complicated than we can ever portray on screen. “They did commit gruesome acts and one of the reasons the story has not been told is because these people wanted to forget,” he says.
Perhaps the story was buried between Tuvia Bielski’s own account in 1947 and Tec’s in 1993 because, for the Bielski “survivors”, there was nothing but bloody memories, for which “the group murder of a German soldier“ can by no means stand in sole testimony. Further, the “complicated” story to which Craig refers is, in fact, Polish history in all its terrible reality, and the version “we can … portray on screen” is nothing, nothing at all, but Jewish propaganda.
Those complications, as they affect Jews, can be traced back to 1791 and the establishment by Catherine the Great of the Pale of Settlement.
By the standards of most Romanovs, the German-born Catherine was an enlightened ruler who read Voltaire and Diderot. She made reforms which brought industry, wealth and social progress to Russia. This triggered the development of a new middle-class. Jews were particularly quick to seize this opportunity for self-improvement, and duly began to fill the new social class. But, as always, they could not disguise their nepotism. Catherine realised that Jews were denying Russians the opportunity to progress as she wished, and acted to correct it.
In the earlier part of her reign she had carried out several successful military campaigns in the south and west, acquiring territories including, among others, Belorussia, Lithuania and part of Ukraine. Removing Jews from Russia had been attempted several times by her predecessors. But where these had failed, Catherine succeeded, establishing the Pale of Settlement across present-day Lithuania, Belarus, Bessarabia, Ukraine and parts of western Russia. Poland was added after its Second Partition in 1793.
At the height, some five million Jews were domiciled in the Pale, mostly in the confines of the smaller towns. It came to an end in 1917, but left in situe the largest concentration of Jews anywhere – some forty per cent of world Jewry. For the peoples left to host these Jews the Pale had proven to be an extraordinary injustice.
With the launch of Barbarossa on 22nd June 1941 all of the former Pale would fall under German control. Jewish resistance to that control was thin, militarily speaking, but widespread, and included partisan groups formed both from Jews who had escaped the ghettos and Jews who had fled from local villages. Some groups were attached to Soviet brigades while others were more autonomous.
I should explain here that the Soviet partisans were Red Army soldiers stationed in East Poland after the Soviet invasion of September 1939 under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and caught behind the lines by the speed of the German advance in June 1941. They were loyal and committed communists. Their leadership were NKVD members, often parachuted in to take command and maintain subordination to Stalin.
The number of partisans in any given district, Soviet and Jew, could be considerable. For example, one important focus of partisan activity was the area around the Polish towns of Parczew and Wlodawa, near Lublin, where up to thirty thousand partisans “operated” from the dense forests. There were another twenty thousand – three thousand of them Jews – in the Nowogródek region to the north-east, secreted by the dense and ancient forest of Naliboki.
The Forest seen from the village of Naliboki
It was to the Naliboki Forest that Tuvia Bielski and his brothers, Aron, Zus and Aseal, fled from the Nowogródek ghetto in December 1941. They were joined by 13 others from the ghetto, dug bunkers in which to live, and scavenged for food from the scores of villages in the area. A few weeks later, in the spring of 1942, they formed the nucleus of a military unit. Word of it spread quickly and Jews, including women and children seeking protection as well as men of fighting age began to gravitate towards them – a process Tuvia impelled by sending men into the ghetto to find recruits.
The legend has it that Tuvia turned nobody away … indeed, he was a veritable and, of course, suitably reluctant second Moses. It exists alongside a rumour that the brothers demanded gold in exchange for their protection, and if the former was not forthcoming neither was the latter.
The truth of that can never be determined now. But we can construe a motivation for Tuvia placing his group under the operational command of the Soviets in the area, rather than allying with the Home Army and his Polish countryman.
He was the son not of city-dwelling cosmopolitans but of an established farming family. Still, he had been a member of a Zionist youth movement, which speaks of something other than an attachment to Polish soil. One hopes that there were Jews who armed themselves and stood with the Poles, because there are more Poles honoured at Yad Vashem for saving Jewish lives than any other nationality. What’s more, the Poles needed all the help they could get. They were caught in the jaws of a murderous vice. Their country was being erased. They were being murdered in their homes, ethnically cleansed, forced into slavery. But Tuvia Bielski was not remotely interested in his host, except in a parasitic sense. He demonstrated where his loyalties lay by allying with the Soviet partisans. It was “better for Jews” to ally with the stronger party (I shall return to this at the end of the essay). So much better, he even named his unit after the Stalin crony and titular head of the Soviet state, Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin.
Tuvia Bielski’s combat unit, “The Kalinin”
This was the pattern for Jewish resisters all over. But there was something more to it than that, something telling.
In the nine months during which the Soviets exercised control over eastern Poland hundreds of thousands of government officials, soldiers, policemen, teachers, priests, landowners, and ordinary middle-class civilians were sent with their families to the gulag. It was Jews who had lived among these people and known them all their lives who helped the Soviets to round them up. Moreover, many of the thousands of Poles who were simply murdered during this period were victims of NKVD units that contained Jews and were led by a Jew.
On a personal note, I would like to add here that it was a very brave Polish woman, the wife of a doctor retired from the British diplomatic service, whom I first met in 1982, who told me about this apect of the Jewish Question. At the time I was not especially aware of the nature of Jewish ethnocentrism. Her account was spoken so sincerely and matter-of-factly, it was inconceivable to me that this woman was possessed by hatred. It changed my attitude and put me on the road to eventual understanding.
She was in her teens during the war years, and had relatives taken by the Soviets. A rebellious and indomitable spirit, in the early 1950s she took it into her head to escape from Poland to the West. She was caught at Szczecin trying to ask ever so subtly whether any of the ships tied up at the docks might be from the West! When she was released from prison several years later she had been made barren and all her hair was gone. At the time, the British Embassy in Warsaw made a practise of employing released dissidents, who found it difficult to obtain work elsewhere. That was how she met her future husband and, finally, got her wish to live beyond the reach of Soviet tyranny.
But I am digressing.
Another telling comment on that implacable Jewish antipathy to the host is the portrayal of Polish peasantry and farmers as German collaborators and dedicated Jew-hunters.
Koniuchy was a Polish village in 1944 but is now in Lithuania and is known as Kaniukai. On 29th January in that year this village of sixty households and three hundred souls was attacked by three Soviet partisan brigades. The operation was planned as a punishment raid, to make Koniochy an example to other villages who resisted the partisans. The official version has it that thirty-eight men, women and children were slaughtered indiscriminately, and about a dozen were injured. According to the perpetrators themselves, around three hundred were killed.
One Jewish memoir writer named Rich Cohen offered this description of events:-
The peasants ducked into houses. Partisans threw grenades onto roofs and the houses exploded into flame. Other houses were torched. Peasants ran from their front doors and raced down the streets. The partisans chased them, shooting men, women and children. Many peasants ran in the direction of the German garrison, which took them through a cemetery on the edge of town.
The partisan commander, anticipating this move, had stationed several men behind the gravestones. When these partisans opened fire, the peasants turned back, only to be met by the soldiers coming up from behind. Caught in a cross fire, hundreds of peasants were killed.
There was no German garrison in Koniuchy, of course. It is a lie.
Following the attack the leader of one of the partisan groups informed his superior that:-
On January 29, a joint group of Vilnius and Kovno partisans, as well as a special group from General Headquarters burned down the most ardently resistant village of the Eišiškes County, Kaniukai.
In actuality, the villagers were armed with a few rifles, the owners of which had organised themselves to fend off the partisan’s violent foraging parties which repeatedly plagued them. They had impeccable reason – and not only the need to feed their own families. The village, like all farming villages in German-occupied Poland, had a quota levied on it by the Germans. Failure to meet this risked a terrible punishment. Indeed, four hundred such villages and towns were burnt to the ground during the occupation for precisely that failure, their populations murdered or abducted for slave labour. It was no defence to explain that partisans had stolen the supplies. Anything that might be re-construed as giving succour to the enemy met with a brutal reprisal.
Well, it happens that the Lithuanian authorities have now taken up the case of Koniuchy. The chief prosecutor is running a pre-trial investigation of suspects involved in the slaughter. They are all Jews. One of them, a woman named Sara Ginaite, a one-time member of the Kovno Jewish resistance, has protested her outraged innocence to a Canadian Jewish publication. At the time of the attack on Koniuchy she was, she claims, on a mission to Kovno to recruit new members. And this is what she had to say about the villagers:-
In order to survive in the forest and fight the enemy we had to collect food wherever we could, often from hostile villagers, but we tried as far as possible to seize food from German storage areas or from transports headed for Germany. But we didn’t always have the luxury to choose.
The villagers in Koniuchy had a record of hostility to the partisans and attacked us whenever we passed the vicinity of the village. They organized an armed group to fight the partisans, were supplied with weapons by the Germans, and collaborated with the Nazis and the local police. At the end of December 1943, during a food-gathering assignment in a village close to Koniuchy, we were spotted and attacked by the villagers. During the battle, two of our partisans were killed and a third was captured and handed over to the Nazi-controlled police.
A month later the partisans decided to conduct a military operation against the villagers. At the time, I was not in the Rudnicky forest, but I would like to stress that the villagers were not unarmed civilians, but rather collaborators and combatants against Soviet partisans.
Collaborators and combatants! Even Wikipedia does not agree with that.
For the Poles and Lithuanians this portrayal of peasants and farmers as violent Jew-haters and eager German collaborators is an outright lie.
And so we come back to the Bielski partisans of “The Kalinin”. The moral centre of the Bielski story as it is told by Zwick in Defiance is the protection nobly afforded to Jews escaping from the ghetto. More than 1,200 marched out of the woods when the Germans were driven back by the advancing Red Army, and 70% of these were women and children.
But there is also this moral overhang of fateful choices that were made and deeds that were done – those bloody memories again. Zwick understands this. In an interview with Facing History, which looks awfully like a Jewish vehicle for manipulating young Americans, he said this:-
… it was very important for me to try to not make simple those choices. And indeed, to dramatize people making the wrong choices at times. Even those who are doing good are also doing badly. That was conscious on my part, based on what I read about things that happened. And also what I understood about people I’ve met over the years who are so-called heroes, who don’t look upon what they did as having been heroic. In fact, are confused by it; would rather not talk about it.
I just like the idea that it is impossible to be a leader of any kind without sacrificing a certain piece of your soul at times and without realizing that you are fallible. And things are not necessarily reasoned out well or thoroughly. They often have to be impulsive. Sometimes that impulse expresses itself in a way that is moral or correct and sometimes it is the opposite.
This is true. But if Zwick means it, why is it necessary to maintain lies about the Polish dead, especially given that so much effort is spent on educating the world about the Jewish dead?
Zwick’s film, which was shot about 100 miles away from the Naliboki Forest, does lie about the villagers, just as the Soviet partisans lied. It also lies about the dire conditions of life in the forest which, somehow, these Jews managed to rise above. That life included bathhouses and a synagogue, and sufficient food for Bielski himself to boast in one of his reports about their burgeoning stocks. Another Jewish group in the same area, under the control of the notorious Simcha Zorin, lived even better and even made gifts of food supplies by air to Moscow.
Defiance also lies with its portrayal of the many deadly fire-fights that the brothers and their group has with German units. Polish historians maintain that the Bielski group scarcely made any contact with Germans, and were, anyway, regarded by the Soviets – trained soldiers – as poor fighters and really only good for foraging. The entire heroism thing may be invented. Certainly, according to the Poles, the Bielski group were simple bandits and murderers. And there is a possibility that they might have been something much, much worse.
By way of an introduction to this aspect of the story, here is a snippet from another Zwick interview, this time with the San Francisco Chronicle:-
Q: Well before the film’s release, the Polish American Journal wrote a story about the movie that said: “The Jewish partisans, who collaborated with the Soviets, are regarded as war criminals by Poles, because their exploits included the massacre of 128 Polish villagers in Naliboki.
A: It’s a very complicated issue. First, that story has been refuted by the most serious historians. In fact, the Bielskis were nowhere near that forest at that time. But it’s important to say that even if they were, to try to equate Jews participating in some attack on a village, which no doubt was in reprisal for something else, was in the context of wartime, and I’m afraid to say, understandable. This story is very interesting for another reason. In Poland now there is a right-wing government that is enacting something called lustration laws. It’s a witch hunt to try to determine which members of the present government had any affiliation with communists. And they’re trying to find any connection between Jews and the present elected officials, and to use, again, anti-Semitism as a way to try to further their agenda.
Here is the story of that “complicated issue”.
As in Koniuchy and thousands of other villages, the Polish and Belarrusian residents of Naliboki formed a self-defence group to ward off the raiders from the forest. Recognising that the villagers were determined to stand their ground, the Soviets tried diplomacy first. An agreement was reached to divide the territory between the two parties, not to attack each other, and to act together against the Germans and local criminal bands also hiding in the forest.
But then, without warning, the Soviet partisan Stalin Brigade under the command of Major Rafail Vasilevich launched a devastating attack on the night of 8th-9th May 1943. The village was quickly overrun. A pogrom ensued. One hundred and twenty seven civilians and one visiting Belarussian policeman were killed, most of them taken from their homes and executed. They included three women, several teenagers and a ten-year old boy. The church, the school, the post office were set of fire, as were many houses after they were looted. It all lasted less than three hours.
The attackers’ reports state two hundred and fifty killed, and the capture of various weapons, a hundred cows and seventy-eight horses. The regulation destruction of a non-existent German garrison was thrown in for good measure.
Surviving Polish eye-witnesses insisted that both Bielski’s and Zorin’s units were involved in the raid (at the time both reported to Vasilevich). Most of the pillaging and the executions were laid at their door.
Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance opened an investigation of the Naliboki case in, I believe, 2002. The investigation includes the alleged involvement of the Bielski group. As of last month the Commission had still not issued a report. Wikipedia and some Jewish sources, including Zwick it seems, are claiming that historians connected to the Commission have ruled out the possibility of Bielski’s involvement. Many Poles beg to differ.
In any case, the question remains as to why Jews turned against their own countrymen, and why they found it necessary to portray them as collaborators and Jew-haters whose lives were worthless save that their goods could be pillaged. The answer that springs to mind is that they were never the countrymen of Poles, Lithuanians and Belarussians in any meaningful sense. The key to understanding their deeds is that iron law of all Jewish action: Is it good for Jews? And it was better for Jews to ally with a strong military actor and, moreover, one that was the standard-bearer for a Jewish revolutionary creed that had the potential to destroy the social order of European societies, and had, in its internationalist phase, been led by Jewish revolutionaries such as Leon Trotsky, Bela Kun and Rosa Luxemburg.
Beyond that, one wonders what “good” really means to Jews. It is normal to find nobility and virtue in one’s people. It is a very human response and, as such, simply the product of normal ethnocentrism. Normally, a people takes meaning only from positives in this regard (which is why paligenesis has resonated so much with the nationalist heart). But Jews take their profit from the negative characterisation of virtue in suffering. For a Jew it is as meaningful – and binding – to be burdened by horrors, real or imaginary, as it is for any other people to take pride in a national hero or a deliverance from danger. In such permanent crisis, “good” becomes detached from all common morality and sinks to the level of plain utility.
The massacre in Naliboki did not bring an end to the villager’s suffering. In August 1943, the Germans launched Operation Herman to locate and destroy the partisans, and deal with local people thought to be aiding them. Sixty thousand troops arrived in the Naliboki Forest area. With the assistance of a Lithuanian auxiliary attached to the SS, and of Belorussian police, they rounded up the civilian populations of dozens of villages. The number killed is not recorded. It is thought that about twenty-thousand were transported west as slave labour. Naliboki was emptied of its people and burned to the ground.