Defiance: The Bielski Partisans documents the largest armed rescue of Jews by Jews during World War II.  After Hitler launches Operation Barbarossa and invades the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, multitudes of Jews find themselves facing certain death as the jaws of the Nazi juggernaut gobble up territory in Eastern Europe.  Refusing to be passive victims, the Bielski brothers, Tuvia, Zus, and Asael, evade the Nazi’s grasp and flee to the forests of Western Belorussia where eventually they form their own successful partisan group in the spring of 1942.  Much to the credit of their altruistic leader Tuvia, the Bielski partisan group focuses their efforts not on killing Germans like other partisan units, but rather on saving the lives of Jewish men, women, and children from certain death.  With this as their primary objective, the Bielski partisan group had taken in more than 1,200 Jewish refugees prior to the group’s dissolution near the war’s end.

Defiance allows readers to peer through a different analytical lens and examine partisan life and detachments in a much more intimate way.  Nechama Tec, author of Defiance, has peeled away the different layers of partisan involvement during the Holocaust allowing for a better understanding of complex issues:  tensions between Poles, Jews and Soviets based on shifting political boundaries; gender issues and social arrangements based on economic standing within partisan detachments; conflicts between different partisan units themselves; and the confluence of understanding Jews as both victims and rescuers.  The life of Tuvia Bielski and success of his group stand as a testament to the value of saving lives, rather than taking them.  In this act of defiance ─ by managing to stay alive and preserve the lives of other Jews ─ Tuvia and his partisans meted out a revenge against the Nazis more effective than any weapon possibly could. 

About the Author

Nechama Tec is Professor Emerita of Sociology at the University of Connecticut, Stamford.  She has written over seventy scholarly articles and authored seven books relating to self-preservation, resistance, and issues of gender during the Holocaust.  As a young Jewish girl living in Nazi-occupied Poland, Tec herself survived the Holocaust and later documented her struggle in a memoir titled Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood.   In addition to being an award-winning author, Nechama Tec has been appointed to the Council of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.,  served as Senior Research Fellow at the Miles Lerman Center for the Study of Jewish Resistance, and was awarded a position as Scholar-in-Residence at the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.

Discussion Questions

Resistance may come in different forms and does not always involve violence

  1. the Bielski Partisans’ greatest achievement came not in killing Germans, but in defiance exemplified in managing to elude capture and rescue Jews
  2. Partisans arrogate necessary provisions from local Nazi-collaborators depriving the Germans of these foodstuffs and using them themselves for necessary nourishment

The will to survive

  1. Jews would risk their lives and the lives of others by overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds in escaping from ghettos, risking capture, and attempting to navigate their way to the Bielskis’ forest hideout 
  2. Tuvia believed the more Jews he could add to his group, the stronger they became and of course, the more lives he could save.  In light of the fact that many of these partisans were women, children, and elderly persons requiring extra care and attention, many group members objected to Tuvia’s decision, as did many other partisan groups.  Yet, Tuvia remained firm on his decision to save lives
  3. the Bielski partisan group remained active for more than two years in the forests of Western Belorussia struggling to survive themselves, all while rescuing more Jews from imminent death 

Jews as rescuers and fighters, rather than passive victims

  1. The Bielski partisan group exemplifies Jews as fighters and rescuers against Nazi aggression rather than as passive victims.  

You can use HMD resources to find out more about acts of resistance during the Holocaust:

Read the life story of Holocaust survivor, Jack Kagan, who was one of the Partisans, led by the Bielski brothers

Listen to The Role of the Righteous Muslims during the Holocaust

Read about Sophie Scholl and The White Rose

Read the book review for Alone in Berlin

Resistance, rescuers and liberation

Read the review of Defiance, the movie