Defiance by Nechama Tec

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Defiance by Nechama Tec

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ruth Price
Reviewed by Ruth Price
Summary: A detailed and painstaking history of the activities of the Bielski brothers, headed by Tuvia Bielski, Jews who succeeded in saving the lives of 1,200 others in the forests of Belorussia during WW2. The contradictory views recorded, and thematic approach, make for occasionally confusing, yet ultimately rewarding reading. Recommended.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 374 Date: December 2008
Publisher: OUP Oxford
ISBN: 978-0195385236

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In this thoroughly researched history, Nechama Tec challenges the notion that European Jews went passively to their deaths during WW2. Instead, she presents us with a history of the activities of the Bielski brothers, headed by the charismatic Tuvia Bielski, which resulted in the saving of around 1,200 Jews who spent the latter part of WW2 hidden in nomadic villages in the forests of western Belorussia. No Jew was turned away by the Bielskis – the camp worked together to provide for the sick, elderly and children. Through mutual cooperation, great bravery and huge physical effort, these Polish Jews survived, turning notions of Jewish passivity on their head.

This edition of Defiance has been brought out to tie-in with the recently-released film starring Daniel Craig as Tuvia Bielski. However, this is not a novelisation of the film script. If you looking for a light read about daring partisan adventurers, you won't find it here. This is a thoroughly researched history based on the collection of numerous oral histories of the people who survived the Nazis in an otriad, a partisan detachment comprised of Jews fleeing from capture - though daring partisans do feature.

I haven't seen the recently-released film, which has received mixed reviews, but I suspect part of the problem is the complexity of the history, with many contradictory views of events, clashing with the need to create a watchable adventure story with characters that all too easily become clichéd. Something I very much liked about this book, and not easy to transfer onto film, was the way Tec handles the conflicting viewpoints and memories of her numerous story-tellers. She does not adopt an overpowering authorial voice, so the reader has to make up their own mind about who to believe much of the time.

Conflicting interpretations aside, the overwhelming evidence is that the survival of the Bielski Jews was quite remarkable. The challenges of their life in the forest, hiding from the Nazis, is a testament to human spirit, brought to life by a host of anecdotes from the survivors.

I didn't find Defiance a page-turner, however. The chapters are arranged thematically, rather than chronologically, which at times made it difficult to follow the history of events. Having said that, on completion of this book, it all starts to make sense and there is much of interest to anyone who wants to explore this aspect of WW2. I particularly enjoyed the chapter entitled The Fate of Women which describes women's roles in the otriad, as well as a look at sexual mores. There are also several fascinating chapters which look at the logistics behind running a large community in the forest, from food and clothes to basic hygiene. Social order is upturned, too – in Building A Forest Community, Tamara is mocked for her university education – Can you make a thicker soup out of it?. Physical skills helped in the forest better than a degree, and intellectuals were often frowned upon.

Very striking, and the closest to being a 'Hollywood-style adventure' is the chapter which records the Big Hunt when members of the otriad hid in a swamp to escape Nazi pursuit. Through cooperation and intelligent leadership, the Bielski Jews overcame great odds to survive.

There are some lighter moments, too, amongst the struggle - like the near fatal bust-up between two stuttering partisans when one thought he was being insulted, and another anecdote of a man told to take long bed rest, thus enabling one of the otriad doctors to wear his boots. Love, too, flourished in these difficult circumstances.

Overall, Defiance is a very worthwhile read, but not a Hollywood-style adventure story. I would also like to commend Tec for her very thorough notes on each chapter, a biographical appendix , a glossary and general index, making this book very useful for future research.

Thanks to the publisher, Oxford University Press, for providing Bookbag with this remarkable history.

For another remarkable case of survival during WW2, Clara's War by Clara Kramer has much to commend it. If you fancy historical fiction set in this period, which also tackles the desire to survive against all odds, My Enemy's Cradle by Sarah Young explores the Nazi Lebensborn programme through the eyes of a young Jewish girl.

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Buy Defiance by Nechama Tec at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Defiance by Nechama Tec at


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