JACKI LYDEN, host:
No matter how much dramatic license the movie "Defiance" has taken, the story it was based on is dramatic enough in its own right. It was the largest armed rescue of Jews by Jews during World War II. Reporter Martha Wexler has been looking into what really happened.
MARTHA WEXLER: This history played out in a region that was eastern Poland until 1939. That year, it came under Soviet control until 1941, when the Germans moved in. The SS soon began mass executions of Jews, including the Bielski parents, younger brothers and other family members. That's when the older Bielski brothers, Tuvia, Asael, and Zus, took up arms and formed a detachment of Jewish partisans. They helped other Jews escape the ghettos where the Germans had confined them. This is portrayed in Edward Zwick's movie.
(Soundbite of movie "Defiance")
Unidentified Man #1: What if we take all of you?
Unidentified Man #2: The old, the sick? There are thousands. How will we live?
Unidentified Man #1: We will protect you.
WEXLER: The Bielskis kept moving their flock through the region's deep forest and inaccessible swamps, eluding the Germans and their collaborators. Among those saved by the Bielskis was 14-year-old Jack Kagan. The Germans had murdered his mother and sister along with 4,000 others in the town of Novogrudok. In 1943, Jack took part in a hair-raising escape not depicted in the film, crawling through a tunnel the Jews had dug out of the town.
Mr. JACK KAGAN: When I arrived to the camp, and I saw the two brothers, together with a reconnaissance party which came, probably another 12 or 15 riders, on tall horses, sitting with machine guns on the horses, for me it was an unbelievable sight, coming out from a camp, where there was starvation, with German guards continually punishing us, and coming out suddenly to freedom and to see the Jewish fighters.
WEXLER: By this point in the war, the Bielskis had built a veritable town in the forest, dubbed Jerusalem, with dug-out shelters and workshops, a bakery, sausage factory, a tannery. By war's end, the Bielski group had sheltered 1,200 people, men, women, and children. Of these, only 49 died due to enemy action - a phenomenal survival rate.
But beyond a tight circle of Holocaust survivors and former partisans, few people knew this story. Enter sociologist and historian Nechama Tec. In the 1980s, she was researching a book about another man who had saved many Jews during the Holocaust. To check some facts, she phoned Tuvia Bielski, who was living out his last years in Brooklyn. Professor Tec reminisced about that phone call as she addressed the audience after a recent screening of the new film.
Professor NECHAMA TEC (Sociologist, Historian, University of Connecticut): He was very friendly and wanted to know what book I am writing, so I told him a little bit that this man saved 305 Jews. He said big deal. When you come to me, I will show you how people saved more than thousand people.
WEXLER: Tec went to meet Tuvia shortly before he died in 1987. That interview, with dozens of others, formed the basis for her 1993 scholarly work "Defiance: The Bielski Partisans." She says she asked Tuvia why he took on the burden of so many Jews who could not fight. He told her this.
Professor TEC: The Germans kill everybody. Good Jews, bad Jews, good Poles, bad Poles, everybody. Who am I to imitate the Germans? They kill, I save.
WEXLER: But to save so many lives, the Bielski fighters had to steal food from peasants in surrounding villages. And they also killed, not only German soldiers, but local collaborators, as well.
Professor TEC: The Jews were afraid to escape from the ghettos because the Poles would - and the Belarusians would, some, not all, they would deliver them to the enemy, to the Germans, and they would perish.
WEXLER: So, as Tec puts it, the Bielski fighters cleaned up the area.
Professor TEC: You don't have to do it by many if you kill ten, if you destroy ten farms with the family and stuff, nobody is going to do it anymore.
WEXLER: The Bielski brothers also executed three fellow Jews for insubordination, but they succeeded not just because of their ruthless focus on mission. They had survival skills that eluded many of the Jews they protected.
Professor TEC: They belonged to a rare segment of the Jewish population, namely peasants.
WEXLER: They knew how to ride horses, milk cows, and they knew the forests better than the German invaders. The man who was saved by them, Jack Kagan, remembers the words of a Soviet officer who was coordinating various partisan units.
Mr. KAGAN: General Platon(ph) used to say he met only one Jew who could out-drink and out-swear any Russian, and that was Tuvia.
WEXLER: Tuvia Bielski and his fighters were so successful in rescuing other Jews, why was their story unknown to so many people who thought they knew something about the Holocaust? Nechama Tec offers this answer.
Professor TEC: Because after all, the Holocaust was the annihilation of the European Jewry, so we focused on the perpetrators.
WEXLER: Only later, says Tec, who was herself saved by Polish Christians, only later could we look at the exceptional situations. The rare instances of compassion and resistance in a time of horrors. For NPR News, I'm Martha Wexler.
LYDEN: That's All Things Considered for NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
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