October 2, 2003
Shoah’s Belorussian Cowboys
The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Saved 1,200 Jews and Built a Village in the Forest," by Peter Duffy. (Harper Collins, $25.95).
"Defiance: The Bielski Partisans. The Story of the Largest Armed Rescue of Jews by Jews During World War II," by Nechama Tec. (Oxford University Press, 1993).
For years, the mythology of Zionism led us to believe that the establishment of the State of Israel represented a bold alternative to the passive victimization of the European Jewish community. Whereas European Jews had "submitted" to their treatment, with fatal consequences, Israeli Jews would never let anyone destroy their homes, culture and lives. That was the line, anyway. The truth, as is so often the case, was more complicated, and no one should know that better than we Americans.
America's sense of self-definition has been on display more blatantly than ever, it seems. Led by our administration, we have embraced the "cowboy" ethic: seemingly down-home while at the same time unilaterally aggressive. Simultaneously, we've had to face how that character is interpreted by others. The Wild West is also a myth, of course, one that captures the ideals of America much more than its infinitely varied reality.
I was reminded of these paradigms while reading Peter Duffy's new book, "The Bielski Brothers," which chronicles a truly amazing group of Jews who survived the Holocaust in Belorussia by forming a partisan brigade that fought the Nazis and saved as many Jewish lives as possible.
Led by the charismatic Tuvia Bielski and two of his brothers, this partisan unit all but explodes the idea of the passive European Jew. In the end, they saved 1,200 Jews from extinction. Their story is one of heroic bravery: ghetto breaks, disruption of German rail service, even the establishment of a working shtetl deep within the forest. Add to this the inherent danger of being a Jew on the run during World War II, and the narrative can't help but be thrilling.
Duffy is right to find an extraordinary story in the details of the Bielski partisan unit. He is not, however, the first to do so. Nechama Tec's study, "Defiance: The Bielski Partisans," was published in 1993, and provides an interesting contrast to Duffy's account.
The books cover primarily the same material, with the same basic goal. Duffy's is by far the better read, despite his penchant for one-line cliffhangers and the liberal use of exclamation points. His book is organized by chronology, giving the story a natural arc and momentum. Indeed, Duffy has written a fast-paced, exciting book.
The same cannot be said of Tec -- a survivor herself -- whose writing is more academic, less showy. I suspect, however, that Tec's is the more thorough of the two, not least because she actually interviewed Tuvia Bielski two weeks before his death.
The fact that the books relay slightly different accounts of events is understandable. Memory, after all, is mutable, and different people will remember events differently. No, the distinction between these tellings lies in how much humanity each author is willing to accord its story's heroes.
Both writers support Tuvia Bielski, even when his decisions seem questionable. This is understandable, since it was he who had the vision and strength of character to hold together a fractious group of fighters and civilians during that most harrowing of times. He was also human, although Duffy hardly conveys that. His Tuvia Bielski is the John Wayne of the forest, tall, gallant and noble. Indeed, some survivors talk of Bielski in terms that approximate images of heroism gleaned from the movies. Tec, however, does not shy away from his flaws, and so finds the human even inside the leader.
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary responses, and Tuvia Bielski and his brothers, children of a poor mill owner, rose to the challenge. But even during the Nazi years, people are people, as Tec shows. Just because he saved Jews does not mean that Tuvia was a saint. He was tall, and he rode a white horse, but he brought his weaknesses -- drinking, womanizing -- into the forest with him. Similarly, the partisan unit was driven as much by petty politics as by the more dangerous incidences of treachery that both Duffy and Tec discuss. Favoritism, greed, jealousy: all these were as important in the organizational life of the brigade as the wide-scale anti-Semitism around it.
Overall, non-fighters are given short-shrift in Duffy's book. Women, for example, had an especially hard time. Deemed unfit for fighting and surveillance, excluded from decision-making and the industries that were eventually established, women were in more danger of rape and murder by both Nazis and partisans and so often entered into "marriages" with fighters in order to ensure their own safety. But Duffy, who is more interested in a story of strength and moral certainty, devotes one sentence to the very different experiences of men and women.
In short, Duffy's is an extremely American book: it streamlines the story -- removes characters, nuance and even episodes in the name of a more exciting tale. It feeds the need for simple heroics that Americans crave, especially during our own uncertain times. Tec's is knottier and not as well-organized, but, in the end, more truthful for letting all her figures remain human even during a time of brutal, dehumanizing terror.