Fighting Back (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 24, March 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. In telling the tale of the Jewish partisans who took on the Nazis in the forests of Belorussia, director Edward Zwick hopes to change popular ideas about Jews in the Holocaust A group of Jews hiding in a Belorussian forest during World War II captures a German soldier. They surround him and drive him to his knees. As they curse and spit on him, he begs for mercy and a bespectacled self-proclaimed intellectual suggests that they let him go if he promises not to reveal their whereabouts. But the others, including old men and young women, are unrelenting. Chanting "Justice! Justice!" they club him to death. Tuvia Bielski, the commander of the Jewish partisan unit protecting the hiding Jews, looks on from nearby, neither participating nor intervening. This harrowing scene occurs about midway through "Defiance," the new action film that tackles the subject of a group of Jews who took on the Nazis and even came out alive. Starring Daniel Craig, the latest James Bond, as Tuvia Bielski, it sets out, in the words of director Edward Zwick, to change the way in which the public views the Jews of the Holocaust period. Bielski and his brothers, farmers who took to the forest after their parents were killed by local Nazi collaborators, are as far from the stereotype of six million Jews going like lambs to the slaughter as can be imagined. "The same spirit that animated the Bielskis to act in the way that they did had to have been present in any number of the six million, yet I didn't think that that had ever been dramatized in film culture, so the opportunity to create a different set of icons and images and to at least provide some complexity was very important to me," said Zwick at a press briefing during a visit to Israel in January. The tale begins in June 1941, when the Nazis, with assistance from the local population, killed 50,000 Jews within weeks of invading the Soviet-controlled Belorussia (today Belarus) and began to deport many others to extermination camps. Among those killed were most of the members of the extended Bielski family, but three older Bielski brothers, Tuvia, Zus (played by Liev Schreiber) and Asael (Jamie Bell), along with the teenaged Aron, escaped to the local woods and formed a fledgling partisan group that carried out raids on the Nazis and Belorussian collaborators. The Bielskis' bold and merciless attacks drew the wrath of the Nazis who sent in two entire divisions, numbering 20,000 men, to track them down and other non-Jewish partisan groups operating in the vicinity. But the Bielskis, who knew the vast, densely overgrown forest area since their childhood, eluded capture and continued their resistance over a three-year period. They were joined by other escaping Jews and by the war's end, their warriors' community numbered 1,200 men, women and children. In researching the story, Zwick discovered that the Bielskis and their comrades were not without their flaws. "They at times also reveled in their violence," says Zwick. "...even as they were the hunted they also took some relish in violence themselves. This is something that I wanted to explore in the movie." Referring to the lynching of the German soldier described above, Zwick feels that he would have been leaving out something important if he ignored unseemly events of that kind. "It's interesting when the victim becomes a victimizer or that a victim can do things that are strong and aggressive yet still think of himself as a victim," he observes. After the Soviets retook the area in the summer of 1944 and the band broke up, Asael was conscripted into the Red Army and killed in battle. When the war was over, the three surviving Bielskis moved to Israel and from there to New York where they raised families and worked as truck and taxi drivers. They seldom spoke about their wartime ordeal with their children and they died without receiving any public recognition. Much of the material documenting their exploits is based on accounts provided by survivors whose lives were saved thanks to them. The film dramatizes events documented in University of Connecticut Holocaust scholar Nechama Tec's 1993 book, "Defiance: The Bielski Partisans." The Bielskis' story immediately appealed to Zwick when his scriptwriter friend, Clayton Frohman, first told him about it more than 10 years ago. Zwick, who won an Academy Award as the producer of "Shakespeare in Love" in 1999 and has been the creator of thought-provoking films such as "Glory" (1989) about an African-American regiment during the American civil war and the 1980s TV series "Thirtysomething," had for many years been bothered by the passive way in which Jews were portrayed in Holocaust-related films. "I had grown up seeing films with a certain homogeneity of passive images about the Holocaust and an unintended consequence of this tendency to portray six million people in such a monolithic way is that they [the Jews] inevitably are seen in an undifferentiated, even objectified way," said Zwick in his meeting with Israeli journalists. Zwick, 56, whose grandfather founded a Conservative synagogue in Highland Park, Illinois, says he has no direct personal connection to the Holocaust but feels he is well-acquainted with East European Jews of that era. "When the Jews first came to America they were boxers, stevedores, teamsters, newsboys, all those things… I had grown up with that image. The more passive description of Jews conflicted with that image," he points out, adding that several members of his own family in the Chicago area had at one time been "minor mobsters" who could hardly be considered weak characters. Working with Frohman in writing the screenplay, Zwick realized that the Bielski characters resonated with many of the heroic figures who received U.S. Medals of Honor for military valor during the first Gulf War, whom Zwick met while doing research for the 1996 film "Courage Under Fire" that he directed. "They were not necessarily the strongest or the most obviously brave but they just did things at the moment," recalls Zwick. Referring to the Bielskis, he notes: "It's remarkable that these unsophisticated, uneducated people, with nothing in their past that would suggest that they were capable, would be able to do something like this. To me, this suggests a more universal theme - about our own resources and who we might be inside when we are tested - that can be inspiring." Zwick decided to shoot the action among the daunting forests of Lithuania during the winter, in order to be faithful to the geographic and harsh weather conditions that the Bielskis would have experienced. "The forests there are as massive and impenetrable as anything that I have ever seen in my life," remarked Zwick, noting that it was their impenetrability that made it so difficult for the mechanized German army to catch them. Extract from an article in Issue 24, March 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. •