Defiance – Nechama Tec

Defiance is a biography of the Bielski Otriad, a Jewish partisan unit in Belorussia that was unique for its acceptance of not just fighters but everyone – women, men, children, old, young – who had escaped the clutches of the Nazis and were looking for a safe haven. Headed by the Bielski brothers, it had the distinction of being one of the largest groups of Jewish survivors in occupied Poland. As a survivor of Nazi persecution, the topic is close to Nechama’s heart, and she tells the tale of the Otriad by way of innumerable interviews conducted with both the members of the unit and the surviving Bielski brothers.

Pre-War, the Bielskis lived in Belorussia, a region that had been part of Poland since the end of the Great War. A large family with 12 brothers and 2 sisters, they were the only Jews in the village, but well-respected and on good terms with everyone. They owned the village mill and thus lived comfortably even though not really rich. The Bielski household was set along traditional Jewish lines, with the father being the authority in the house, followed by the eldest son, and so on; an aspect that helped with discipline later during the war.

As the children grew up, some of them migrated to America in search of their fortunes, while the sisters married and moved out. Tuvia Bielski, the second eldest son, was a dreamer, an intellectual who never aspired to follow in his father’s footsteps and run the mill. After his mandatory military service, during which he became friends with some of the more urbane, polished Jews from the cities, he approached a matchmaker and got married to his first wife, whose family owned a shop in the city. By his own admission, it was the prospect of the shop that excited him more, as that would give him an opportunity to pursue his intellectual yearnings without having to worry about working for a living. Over time, he developed a reputation as an extremely knowledgeable person with a statesman-like mindset.

Back home, the failing health of their father saw the responsibility of the house fall to the third son, Asael Bielski. A bear of a man, he was nonetheless quite shy and socially awkward, but he did his duties as best as he could, running the mill and arranging his sister’s marriage, which also got him into contact with Chaja, his future wife. Though not as educated as Tuvia, he had organizational smarts and a way with people where they listened to him. The fourth son, Zus, was in his early twenties and was known as a ladies’ man. For all the Bielskis however, their home in the village was a nexus, serving both as a meeting point and later a hiding place during the war.

As Jews, the Bielskis were aware of the prevalent anti-Semitism, although they never had to face it directly. Tuvia had a couple of experiences during his military service, but his fighting prowess and his personality ensured there were no repetitions. Thus, when war broke out and Belorussia was taken over by the Russians instead of the Germans, the relief felt by the Jews was manifest in their enthusiastic welcome of the Soviets; an act that was seen as treasonous by the Poles who failed to understand that they were celebrating only because it wasn’t the Germans invading them. This resentment grew and was fed by the fact that the Russians gave preferential treatment to the native Belorussians, who were their traditional allies, and to the Communists, a percentage of whom were Jews.

Under Russian rule, the Belorussians lived their lives more or less unchanged. Their conquerors were more interested in rooting out Polish Nationalists and left the Bielskis and the others to their own devices. After the initial invasion, things went back to being the way they were, but this security was short-lived. In 1941, Operation Barbarossa saw Hitler violate his treaty with Russia and attack his former ally. As the German war machine rolled over eastern Poland with frightening speed, the Russians were forced to fall back, at times losing entire divisions to the advancing enemy – dead, captured, or simply having deserted. On the heels of the army came the Einsatzgruppen, with plans in place to deal with the “undesirables” in the newly occupied territories.

Tuvia knew what the arrival of the Einsatzgruppen portended, keeping himself abreast of happenings throughout Europe as he had. He tried to convince as many people, Jews and Belorussians alike, to accompany the retreating Russians instead of waiting for the Germans to arrive. Some heeded his advice, some did not, including his first wife and his own family. As the Nazi Death Squads started rounding up the Jewish population and the first of the ghettos and concentration camps were formed, Tuvia and his brothers kept moving from town to city to village to avoid capture. Tuvia tried to convince his first wife to go into hiding, but she refused and was captured and taken away to the camps by the Germans.

The Bielski brothers’ biggest advantage was their knowledge of the countryside around their village, and the people living there. The Bielski farm lay close to large forests that covered western Belorussia, and they had been familiar with it since childhood. As the “Aktions” against the Jews increased in frequency and intensity, they began making plans to move into the forest and hide; their hand was tipped when their parents and other siblings were taken away by the Germans. Tuvia, Asael, and Zus, along with their spouses and those of their acquaintances who were willing, entered the forest in the winter of 1941, the beginning of their 4-year long struggle for survival.

From the onset, Tuvia’s group of survivors faced a unique challenge. The other partisan groups – known as Otriads – consisted only of fighters, which enhanced their efficacy as a strike force. While the Bielski Otriad as it came to be known had some weapons with which to defend themselves against small enemy squads, they had a large number of noncombatants which increased both the danger of discovery and the amount of food they had to forage for in the villages. This was a cause for friction among Tuvia and the fighters in the unit, who referred to the noncombatants as “malbush” (Hebrew for clothes, a derogatory term indicating their value in the scheme of things), but Tuvia kept everyone together. To his inner circle, he kept saying, “Don’t rush to fight and die. So few of us are left, we have to save lives. To save a Jew is much more important than to kill Germans.”

Indeed, Tuvia did not stop at just his immediate family and friends. As he created a more permanent abode in the forests, and as sources of food were identified, he sent scouts into the ghettos to get more people out. Initially, the scouts looked for specific people, usually family or loved ones of those already part of the Otriad, but later they could improvise, to bring back with them anyone who wished to escape if they did not locate the intended person. With every additional group of people that joined them, there were grumblings, but Tuvia never turned anyone away and made it a point to greet almost every newcomer personally.

Surrounded by hostile Germans, scared and angry villagers, and numerous Russian Otriads, the Bielski Otriad’s survival and growth was largely due to Tuvia’s diplomatic skills. He was aware that the surrounding villages, and more importantly the other Otriads, would accept their presence in the forest only if they proved they could fight, and so divided his fighters into two groups, the smaller of which was charged with foraging for food. With the larger group, Tuvia approached the commander of the biggest Otriad and proposed joint actions with them. This move had several benefits; the Russian Otriad had an increased strike force against the Germans, it provided a semblance of legitimacy to the Bielski Otriad which allowed them to stay independent for a while when the Soviets were forcing all partisan units under a central Russian command, and they were able to negotiate clearly demarcated villages for food sourcing, which was a relief to the villagers.

While personally against sending his people out to fight, Tuvia knew he had no choice in the matter, and it pained him every time he lost someone in the raids. At the same time, there were Jews coming in not just from the ghettos, but from other Otriads too, as a result of anti-Semitism even among the communists. Jews, even if they were communists themselves, were unable to escape the prejudices of their fellow fighters; they either chose to join the Bielski Otriad of their own violation or were sent there by the commanders of the other units who didn’t want them. And Tuvia, true to his nature, took them all in.

The Bielski Otriad’s policy of taking in everyone who arrived paid off in other ways too. The establishment of a permanent base deep in the forest, away from most of the other Russian Otriads and hidden from the Germans, allowed them to create workshops where different trades could be practiced. A lot of the noncombatants, while not being fighters, were able to contribute their skills, and the Otriad boasted a full-time tannery, a cobbler shop, a group of seamstresses, an iron smithy, and perhaps most importantly, a group of locksmiths retrained as gunsmiths which allowed them to repair their meager and precious stock of weapons.

The services of the workshops were supposedly free for all the members of the Otriad, but as with all communities where an inevitable pecking order develops, some members were prioritized over others. The Bielski brothers and their inner circle came in at the top, followed by the fighters, then the workmen, and then everyone else. And as with all such hierarchies, the red tape could be circumvented if one had something to barter. A lot of the Malbushim narrated during the interviews how they saved food and other items to trade in exchange for services they required. A lot of them even recounted how the Bielski brothers would step in on someone’s behalf to help them out.

The workshops and the services offered helped Tuvia strengthen ties with the Russian Otriads and build a system of trade with them. It also helped him cultivate relationships with two of the three Russian Generals who commanded the Otriads. This relationship helped him and the Bielski Otriad numerous times. During one instance, a member of the Otriad fabricated charges against him, accusing him of non-communist ideals and hoarding money and jewelry for personal use, but the ever-efficient Tuvia was able to defend himself with the meticulous accounts kept as well as with the goodwill of the Generals. As a result, he was acquitted of all charges and the mutiny was quashed before it could take root.

In another incident, Tuvia finally had to bow down to Soviet pressure and agree to the presence of a political commissar in the Otriad. This came as a result of the Russians wanting all the partisan units under their command while they made a play for absorbing Poland into the communist regime after the end of the war. Although ostensibly reporting to the commander, the political commissar had more power than him and could countermand any orders he gave, essentially creating a split leadership. The Generals who were among Tuvia’s friends recognized and appreciated his need for keeping the Otriad as politically non-committed as he could, and sent him a commissar who thought as he did.

The commissar had a Jewish wife and had experienced prejudice in some of the other Otriads. Becoming a part of the Bielski Otriad was for him a blessing in disguise as he could bring his wife along with him, something that wasn’t possible in the other fighters-only Otriads. He and Tuvia became fast friends. He also recognized Tuvia as the true authority in the Otriad and kept the political interference to the minimum, which was of massive help to him, letting him focus on rescuing as many Jews as he could from the German camps.

From the time the Bielski brothers entered the forest in 1941 to when the Russians threw back the Germans and took over Belorussia in 1944, the Bielski Otriad grew to over 1,200 members. Of these, at any given time, only about 20 to 30 percent were fighters, with the rest being noncombatants. Almost all of them, in the interviews conducted later, credit Tuvia or Asael or Zuv as the reason they survived the war. Their leadership, their combined strength, their easy way of picking up the load where the other brother could not, ensured that despite attempts at fragmentation the Otriad survived and thrived as a cohesive unit right up to the time the Russians arrived and the Jews did not need to hide in the forest anymore.

Once the Russians drove the Germans back, the Otriads in the Belorussian forests were disbanded, having served their purpose. Tuvia, a leader to the end, ensured that all of his people, the fighters and noncombatants alike, received proper documents from the Russians that identified them as citizens and gave them the freedom to choose their paths from here. A lot of the fighters chose to enlist, while some were conscripted, including Asael, who died in 1945 while fighting in the Red Army. Tuvia and the rest of the family chose to go to Romania first and from there to Palestine, to what would later become Israel.

The rest of Tuvia’s life was anticlimactic. After settling in Israel, he was described by many of the people interviewed as a conflicted person; wanting the recognition that came from his actions, but reluctant to make waves and promote himself. The people around him had no doubt that had he asked for it, he would have been given a leadership position in the Israeli government, but there were others who called him the personification of a tribal leader – an excellent person to command troops during war, but not really suited to peacetime maneuverings. With all these contradictions, a somewhat disgruntled Tuvia chose to migrate to the USA, where he lived in relative obscurity until his death in 1987.

The story of the Bielski brothers, and of the Bielski Otriad is vastly different than the overall narrative of Jews being meekly led to slaughter by the Nazis, unable or unwilling to fight back. With the exception of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, very few tales have survived that show the Jews of Europe banding together to stand up and defy the Nazis, Defiance being one of them. It gives one a fresh perspective on the myth of the Jews as non-fighters, making one wonder as to what would have been the outcome had a few more people, both Jews and non-Jews alike, resisted the Nazi jackboots.

Defiance also brings up the question of what matters more during a catastrophe of Holocaust proportions. Is vengeance more important than survival? A lot of Jews who escaped from the camps seemed to think so, choosing to enlist in the Russian Otriads instead of the Bielski Otriad; with the exception of some, their lives were short. The Bielski brothers and those of their camp must have thought otherwise, though, for their numbers increased and of the 1,200 plus members, their deaths were in the low 50s, a proportionately much lesser number than their neighbouring Otriads.

The story of the Bielski brothers and their inspiring philosophy can be summed up by the conversation recounted by one of the members in the interviews. A Jewish partisan who was part of another Otriad accused her, “You in the Bielski Otriad sat in the forest without fighting!” She asked him, “Tell me how many Germans did you kill?” “Two,” he replied. Then she asked, “How many Jews did you save?” The question was met with silence.

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