Sunday, January 18, 2009


One of the first stories in Genesis involved the world's first homicide. After killing his brother Abel, Cain was asked by God where his brother was. Cain responded "Am I my brother's keeper?" This answer was in direct response to a pointed question. An evasion meant to shift focus away from Cain's own guilt. Yet the question remains. Am I my brother's keeper? Defiance is a story of a people bound together by circumstances.

My mother's grandparents came to the United States from Russia. They were Russian Jews. Defiancetells the story of BelorussianJews who survived spartan conditions in order to survive the German invasion. Although my grandmother converted to Christianity, remnants of the Jewish tradition can still be found in my mother's home. Subtleties like a Mazuzah on the door frame or the prayer for Jerusalem on her mantle are a quiet reminder of our ancestry. My ancestors immigrated long before World War II, yet I somehow felt connected to this story. Maybe it is just my American tendency to pull for the underdog. It could be because I come from a family of brothers. Or maybe I just like a good story.

Defiance takes place in 1941 and 1942 in Belarus, following the German invasion. It begins with Jews being rounded up and carted off in trucks. The Bielski brothers return after the slaughter to find bodies strewn around their farm and their father dead. We learn that the father was a smuggler and the boys grew up in trouble with local law enforcement. The brothers are familiar with the forests from their frequent encounters with law enforcement. The Bielskis retreat into the woods where their familiarity with the terrain may help them evade detection from German patrols.

Instead of traveling light, Jewish survivors straggle into the forest placing responsibility on the Bielski's to act as protectors. There is conflict among the brothers regarding their responsibility. Zus Bielski points out to his brother Tuvia that these Jews would have looked down on them if not for the current circumstances. These brothers are hardened. They are not afraid to fight and survive. Word spreads in surrounding cities of the Bielski Otriad, swelling their ranks. But the weight of feeding over a thousand survivors creates conflict within the ranks. Zus leaves the forest to join Russian Partisan fighters while Tuvia remains behind with the younger brothers Asael and Aron. The group manages to evade contact while struggling to survive until a German offensive takes a heavy toll on their numbers.

Defiance was an interesting story in spite of many historical inaccuracies. Among the more egregious revisions of history involves a massacre known as the Naliboki Massacre. There is a contention in some circles that the Bielski Otriad fought alongside Russian Partisans killing Polish peasants and resistance members. However, the film takes place primarily through 1942. The Naliboki Massacre did not happen until 1943 so the time frame of the movie allows enough artistic license to omit this event. Attempting to cover too much territory would have easily bogged this movie down. This omission was probably well-advised. The age of the brothers presents another issue. The film has Tuvia and Zus as the oldest. Zus was third, after Tuvia and Asael. The brothers also spoke Russian fluently even though they were in a heavily Polish area, where the Polish language was more likely to have been spoken. Smaller issues I had included a rabbi talking about Passover beginning the following day, when it would actually have begun after sunset. Another issue was the quest for ampicillan at a local Police Station. Ampicillan would not be around for another twenty years.

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