The Baruch Performing Arts Center kicked off the 2016-17 season with a special screening of the film Defiance, a vivid retelling of how four brothers rescued 1,200 Jews from Nazi execution during World War II. BPAC Managing Director Ted Altschuler first introduced the son of one of those brothers, Alan Bell, who graduated from Baruch College in 1981. He recalled his uncles’ humbling depiction of sheltering in the forests of present-day Belarus, yet the graphic details shared by those saved by his uncles gave him a greater understanding of the hardships they survived.
The Bielski brothers grew up as farmers in Poland known to have a “little bit of Robin Hood, little bit of the Sopranos,” in their personalities. They formed what Bell called “Jerusalem in the woods,” during the peak of the Holocaust. He believed the film was not a corrective to the six million lives lost, but an addendum to the tragic story. With the conclusion of his opening remarks, the lights dimmed and the projector flashed on.
Adolf Hitler and his invading forces first appeared in grainy black-and-white footage. Women were dragged by their hair, firing squads unloaded on villagers and Nazi soldiers corralled human beings like helpless animals. The visuals then sharpened into focus, color gradually emerged and the audience was transported to Belorussia circa 1941. Zus Bielski and his younger brothers Asael and Aron were played by Liev Schreibel, Jamie Bell and George MacKay, respectively. Upon seeing their parents’ lifeless bodies, they retreated into the forest, and after being reunited with their eldest brother Tuvia, played by Daniel Craig, Aron found a number of Jewish refugees also hiding along with hundreds of bodies piled up in trenches.
Zus reluctantly agreed to provide shelter and food for them, though the signs of a schism were clear. Tuvia, after he exacted revenge on the officer who murdered his parents, accepted more and more refugees to the camp. With limited means to protect them, the eldest brothers led raids against German officers for munitions, but suffered casualties as well. Frustration among the survivors grew, but Tuvia rallied everyone together through their shared humanity. “And if we should die, trying to live, then at least we died like human beings,” he said before he hugged Aron. Tuvia convinced Zus to spare a milkman’s life after stealing milk ordered by the Gestapo, but tension between the brothers grew further once the milkman alerted the German officers.
Forced to relocate once again, Zus was pushed over the edge as Tuvia planned to liberate an entire town. They came to blows and Zus had enough; he and a handful of others split from the camp to join the Soviet partisans, a guerilla faction of the Red Army. The townsfolk ripped off their yellow badges as they escaped from Nazi occupation. Once safely in the forest, Tuvia mounted a white stallion and delivered a stirring speech to the collective. He assured them protection, a community and some semblance of normalcy. A child asked, “He is a Jew?” shocked that natural leadership and charisma could be found in such dark times. A montage showed women learning how to fire weapons alongside men, people taking on roles as nurses, seamstresses, chefs and teachers and concluded with Asael’s wedding.
The ceremony was juxtaposed with the first sighting of Zus staging an ambush on Nazis with the Soviet partisans. Machine guns and “Mazel Tov!” pained groans and jubilant laughter began to blend as the camera blinked between the simultaneous events. Cut to December 1941 and the morale of the camp was as low as the temperature in their huts. Illness spread across the camp and Tuvia was forced to partner with Zus in a raid of a police station for medicine. Tuvia, a liability because of his illness, was relegated to waiting in a truck while Zus and his militia stormed the building. Bullets began to fly and Defiance transitioned into a chaotic, blurry scene.
Zus was the lone survivor, but Tuvia’s illness became worse. An unruly member of the camp challenged Tuvia’s leadership and claimed he was no longer fit to be commander. Tuvia reasserted his role and shot the insubordinate villager and ordered him to be buried. He then, with his pistol still raised, declared law and order and began to resemble the very autocrats his people were fighting. The Soviet partisans were ordered to retreat as intelligence alerted them of an approaching Nazi battalion. Zus asked his superior for permission to stay and defend their position because Tuvia’s camp was nearby, but was told to follow orders. Aron and the patrol discovered a German soldier and those in the camp pounced.
They pummeled their oppressor and yelled the names of loved ones lost with each strike. His presence meant more were likely nearby, so Tuvia planned to move the camp the next day which happened to be Passover. While he discussed this with his lieutenant, Swastika-branded aircrafts passed overhead. Within seconds, the Luftwaffe rained devastation from the sky. The encampment was bombarded and Tuvia was shell-shocked. It was Asael’s turn to inspire hope in the survivors as they were sandwiched between advancing infantry units and a waist-deep marsh. Linked by belts and ropes, they channeled their ancestral perseverance and marched through the murky waters.
Just as they had a brief respite, a tank rolled in with another platoon of German soldiers. Casualties mounted and Tuvia was pinned down with zero hope left when Zus and his rebelling forces cleared the field of Nazis and joined his brothers for good. The ending credits informed us that over 1,200 Jews survived in their camp and their descendants number in the thousands. Alan returned to the stage accompanied by his father Aron “Bielski” Bell and answered questions from the audience.
When asked how old he is, he quickly replied “60.” He is really 90 years old. One of those descendants was actually in the audience and personally thanked Aron and his family. One of his last remarks reflected on trying to move on from the atrocities he survived. “Toughest time of my life was when the war was over...lost friends...parents...but you have to live again.”