The film “Defiance” told the story of the Bielski brothers, who led a group of partisans in fighting the Nazis and established a self-sustaining Jewish community in the forests of Belarus, but it didn’t show what is ultimately their greatest triumph.
“The Bielski brothers assured the survival in the forests of 1,200 Jewish men, women and children,” Sharon Rennert said. “There are now 15,000 living descendents of these survivors.”
Rennert, a Los Angeles documentary filmmaker, knows the story well. She is the granddaughter of partisan leader Tuvia Bielski (portrayed by actor Daniel Craig in the film), and, together with her mother Ruth Bielski and aunt Brenda Bielski Weisman, she shared some of the family history at American Jewish University recently.
The film brought the story of armed Jewish resistance during World War II to wide popular attention. Before it, individual writers and activists labored largely in obscurity to document the deeds of the partisans and to counter the prevalent picture that all Jews went quietly to their doom.
Now that “Defiance” has left movie theaters, these activists — foremost of which is the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation (JPEF) — are expanding their efforts to transmit the history and legacy of the fighters to schools and the general public across the country.
Nevertheless, without the movie and its high-powered stars — it was co-written and directed by Edward Zwick and also stars Liev Schreiber — it is unlikely that the intimate recollections of the three Bielski women would have drawn some 400 people to an AJU auditorium for an evening hosted by the Women’s and Holocaust divisions of State of Israel Bonds.
In a plug for the sponsors, moderator Michael Berenbaum, director of AJU’s Sigi Ziering Institute, quipped at the opening that “Most of us would have done better [financially] by investing only in Israel Bonds.”
Berenbaum put the role of the Jewish partisans in perspective by noting that most European resistance movements went into full action only after Germany’s defeat became a certainty. Even ghetto fighters, however heroic, generally rose at the point where they realized they were certain to die at the hands of the Nazis.
The unique achievement of the Bielski Brigade was not only to offer early physical resistance, but also to create a haven in the forest for women, children and the elderly.
The unique aspect of the presentations by the three Bielski descendants was to draw pictures of Tuvia, Zusia, Asael and Aron Bielski as ordinary fathers and grandfathers, whose daring deeds went largely unknown.
Most stories (and movies) end with the young warriors exulting in their victories, just as romances wrap up when boy marries girl, not after 30 years of marriage.
In Tuvia Bielski’s case, after the war he lived first in Romania, then Israel, and finally in the United States, where he worked as a New York trucker and taxi driver.
He never quite assimilated anywhere. Though sought out by survivors who owed their lives to him, he hardly ever mentioned his past to his children and grandchildren.
Granddaughter Sharon, who screened parts of her forthcoming documentary “In Our Hands: A Personal Story of the Bielski Partisans,” showed in the film and recalled in her talk a tall, gentle, elderly man with glasses who never bragged but once told her, “Always stand up for what you know is right.”
Ruth Bielski remembered her father, Tuvia’s, largely unknown involvement in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and his attempts to feel at home in the new country.
“My father and mother never really allowed themselves to be happy, because they survived,” she said.
In “Defiance,” brothers Tuvia and Zusia (“Zus”) are shown in frequent confrontations, but in reality they lived near each other both in Israel and New York, and their two families maintained close relationships, Ruth Bielski said.
When Tuvia Bielski died in 1987, he was buried at a Long Island cemetery, but his remains were later transferred to Israel and reburied with full military honors.
Well before director Zwick started filming “Defiance,” Mitch Braff, a documentary filmmaker in San Francisco, was startled one day to learn that an old family friend had been a partisan during World War II.
Despite a good Jewish education, Braff had never heard anything about the estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Jewish partisans who fought the Nazis, and he decided to do something about his own and the general ignorance on the subject.
In 2000, he founded the JPEF, which has since produced nine short films, 200 video clips of interviews with surviving partisans and provided speakers to schools and colleges.
He worked closely with Zwick during and following the shooting of “Defiance,” and the two men are collaborating on an ambitious educational classroom program for sixth- to 12th-graders.
Named RESIST, the program is set to kick off in the fall with teacher-training courses at public, private and religious schools, which will incorporate the material in their history and social studies classes.
Currently, Holocaust studies are part of the mandatory school curriculum in California and seven other states.
JPEF collaborated with Clay Frohman, co-screenwriter and co-producer of “Defiance,” in creating the new teacher guide, which does not avoid some of the ethical issues inherent in the partisans’ actions.
At times, the Bielski brothers resorted to stealing, killing and revenge, Frohman noted, adding, “The Jews weren’t always the good guys and the Germans not always the bad guys. In any moment, you could be a good guy or a bad guy. We are all capable of all these things.”
A photo exhibition on the partisans is currently showing in New York throughout April and may come to Los Angeles in the future.
For more information on Rennert’s film, visit www.bielskidocumentary.com.