With the benefit of hindsight and a self-serving imagination, it is easy to imagine that we would not have gone meekly if SS troops had come for us. But as late as 1940 the idea that Nazi leaders were intent on exterminating all the Jews of Europe must have seemed absurd to almost everyone but the Aryan ideologues. The Jews who were crammed into cattle cars believed they were being sent to labor camps, and, besides, even those who were not young, aged, or infirm were hardly a match for uniformed killers. To the facile question “Why did Jews go like lambs to the slaughter?” there is an additional response: Some did not. The current documentary Blessed Is the Match tells the story of Hannah Senesh, who fled to Palestine from her native Hungary but then parachuted back into Europe in order to attempt, unsuccessfully, resistance to genocide.
Even more astounding is how the Bielski brothers managed to save more than 1,000 fellow Jews by organizing them into a guerrilla battalion in the forests of Belarus. Defiance, whose European characters speak English with odd accents, begins in 1941, when Tuvia (Craig), Zus (Shreiber), and Asael (Bell) Bielski take to the woods after their parents are murdered. Desperate for safety, hundreds join them. Edward Zwick, director of Glory, Blood Diamond, and The Last Samurai, depicts another tale of heroic combat, a Jewish version of Robin Hood, except that the men — and women — who hide out in the forest have little cause for merriment.
Under Tuvia’s stern command, the refugees become a cohesive community and an effective fighting force. In addition to coping with starvation, cold, insubordination, and brutal attacks, Tuvia contends with the sibling rivalry of younger brother Zus, who goes off to fight alongside anti-Semitic Russian commandos. By saving their lives, the Bielskis, rough and rustic men, earn the respect of “Jews who stuck up their noses at us.” Survival, says Tuvia, is the highest form of vengeance against their Nazi tormentors: “Our revenge is ourselves.” Defiance is a belated victory over Nazism, even as it, like Tuvia himself, is drawn into the exhilaration of violence.
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