WESTPORT, Conn. (JTA) — When Nechama Tec set out to write a book about the Bielski brothers more than two decades ago, she sought to fill in omissions and correct distortions created by their almost total excision from historical accounts of the Holocaust.
"The omission is the conspicuous silence about Jews who, while themselves threatened by death, were saving others," Tec wrote in the opening to her 1993 book, “Defiance.” "The distortion is the common description of European Jews as victims who went passively to their death."
With the release earlier this month of a major Hollywood adaptation of the book, Tec’s efforts to correct the historical record have reached a vast new audience.
In its first weekend of wide release, “Defiance,” which stars James Bond hero Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber as the Bielski brothers, Tuvia and Zus, grossed more than $10 million, the eighth highest take in the country that weekend. No less an authority than the New Yorker’s David Denby said he was “stunned” by the film.
Meanwhile, the book has been released in a new edition, with Craig’s bellicose mug on the cover, and in audio book format narrated by Stefan Rudnicki.
“It is most gratifying,” Tec told JTA in an interview at her Connecticut home. “I think I am very fortunate that it happened.”
Like the book, the film version of “Defiance” has restored to public attention a long overlooked part of Holocaust history — the story of the small minority of Jewish victims who dared to fight back against their oppressors. Historians have long known of uprisings at the Auschwitz and Treblinka camps, in addition to the better-known rebellion in the Warsaw Ghetto led by Mordecai Anielewicz, but the story of the Bielskis differed fundamentally in that it was successful.
For years the brothers, sons of a large peasant family from Stankiewicze in western Belorussia, led a band of forest dwellers that ultimately swelled to 1,200. The community established a hospital, tannery, school and bathhouse while remaining perpetually on the move and carrying out acts of sabotage against German troops. Their efforts are considered the largest rescue of Jews by Jews during the war.
Prior to the film, Tec was little known beyond the academic world and the tight-knit community of American Holocaust survivors. For nearly five decades she has lived quietly in Connecticut, producing mainly works of Holocaust scholarship and teaching sociology at the University of Connecticut in Stamford, a satellite of the university’s main campus 100 miles up the road in Storrs.
Now she is the focus of popular attention. Sales of “Defiance” have exploded. The publisher, Oxford University Press, says the book has been the label’s top seller the past two weeks and has generated new interest in several of Tec’s earlier works. Interview requests have poured in from around the world.
As a reporter waited in Tec’s living room last week for an interview to begin, the Polish-born author was busy in the kitchen speaking to a reporter from a Polish publication.
"I really am very conscious that this is a very special moment for me," she said. "It very rarely happens with a book like this, a scholarly book."
Tec, a Lublin native, was 8 years old when the Germans arrived. She and her sister survived three years by posing as the nieces of a Catholic family. Her family was one of only three that survived the war intact from a prewar population of some 40,000.
After the war Tec immigrated to Israel, where she married. Later she moved to the United States, where she earned a doctorate at Columbia University. She has two children, one of whom — son Roland — co-produced the film.
Tec met Tuvia Bielski only once, in Brooklyn, N.Y., just weeks before his death in 1987. Bielski’s legendary charisma still was manifest, Tec says, even though he was old and frail.
"He was whispering,” she recalled. “I thought that my tape recorder won’t get anything. And I was trying to have the information flow. And as he got into his past, he sort of just, before my eyes, he became the person that he was, this charismatic leader, that has this absolute power in the unit."
She added later, "When he came into the room, he filled it with himself."
Tec’s intention in documenting the Bielski history, to challenge the dominant Holocaust narrative of Jewish passivity, is also what has made the brothers’ story appealing to Jewish educators and activists. The Jewish Partisan Education Foundation has crafted an entire curriculum in response to the film in the hopes of perpetuating the memory of the Bielskis and encouraging students to grapple with the thorny ethical questions raised by their legacy.
Jon Loew, the founder of the pro-Israel group Fuel For Truth, says he has given out scores of copies of Tec’s book in an effort to awaken Jews to their own history and inspire them to stand up for themselves.
"One of the challenges we face as a people is that many Jews living today are not willing to resort to violence under any circumstances," Loew said. "We don’t want to ‘lower ourselves to their level.’ But unfortunately, the only way to get a bully to stop picking on you is to stand up to them and, if necessary, punch them in the eye. So we can negotiate and beg and plead all we want, but I’m not sure if in the history of the world an aggressor ever stopped pursuing its prey because the prey asked nicely."
Tec is not unaware of the implications of the Bielskis’ story for contemporary Jewry. If Tuvia Bielski saw how southern Israeli towns were enduring waves of Hamas rocket fire, Tec said, “he wouldn’t take it. He’d probably kill them.”
But while Tec believes the film will do away with the notion that Jews are cowards, she is under no illusions that Jewish toughness will bring about the end of anti-Semitism, an illness she attributes — like racism and sexism — to an impulse to blame the victim.
“Anti-Semitism is with us; it is like a perpetual, chronic addiction of humanity,” she said. “You cannot learn about anti-Semitism by examining what the anti-Semites tell us because this is not based on fact. It is based on their need to blame somebody for something that they have not done.”