By Nechama Tec
& the film
Directed by Edward Zwick
There have been many books and movies about the holocaust of Jewish people during the years when the Nazis held power in Germany. However, it wasn’t until 1993 when Nachama Tec wrote her book Defiance that the general public learned that an armed group of 1,200 Jewish people successfully defended themselves against the Nazi holocaust. Nechama Tec lived in a Nazi concentration camp when she was eight years old and went on to become a professor at Columbia University. In 2008 more people learned about this story with the release of Edward Zwick’s film Defiance which is based on Nechama Tec’s book.
This is the story of Tuvia Bielsky and his brothers Aael and Zus who led the Bielsky Otriad in the forests of Belorussia (a part of Poland). About 1,200 Jews managed to escape the Nazi killing machine and organized an otriad which was a part of the resistance movement in Poland. The Bielsky Otriad not only had to defend itself against the Nazis but also against Russian, Polish, and Belorussian members of the resistance. In order to provide for the needs of the otriad they built a synagogue, a mill, a tannery, a kitchen, a soap factory, a bakery, a bathhouse, a metal workshop, a sausage shop, a slaughter house, a cattle shed, a blacksmith shop, a stable, a health clinic, and a school.
Before its inhabitants reached the Bielsky Otriad they needed to escape from heavily armed camps where Jews were guarded by the Nazi armed forces. At one point the Nazis launched an offensive and the otriad needed to carry out a forced march¾which at times went through a swamp¾before entering a safe area. This story needs to be taken in the context that nations all over the world refused to give the Jewish people of Europe asylum from the holocaust.
Washington refused to give Jews asylum
In 1939, 936 passengers, all but one was Jewish, left Germany for Havana, Cuba seeking asylum aboard the S.S. St. Louis. They spent a considerable amount of money for their tickets and had visas in hand to enter Cuba. However, there was a new government in Cuba and the Nazi official Joseph Goebbels sent agents to the island who convinced the government not to allow the Jews to enter Cuba. After being turned away from Cuba the S.S. St. Louis sailed to Florida in an attempt to gain asylum in the United States. The passengers were refused asylum and most returned to German occupied territory where they would be executed in the concentration camps.
In his book The Abandonment of the Jews – America and the Holocaust, David S. Wyman documents the sordid history of Washington’s refusal to give hundreds of thousands of Jews asylum in the United States. During the three and one-half years of the war the State Department allowed 21,000 refugees to enter the United States. This represented only ten percent of those who could have legally entered the United States during this period.
We might also keep in mind that today the administrations of both George Bush and Barrack Obama continue to have a policy of hostility to immigrant workers. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants have been deported from this country for minor violations of the law. A wall is being built between the US and Mexico to deter immigrants from entering this country. These actions take place in a world where 40% of the world’s population lives on two dollars per day or less. Just as in the 1940’s the press in this country supports the government’s hostile policies against immigrant workers.
Why did the holocaust take place?
Another question that needs to be asked with respect to this book and film is: How did a government come to power which had a policy of murdering millions of human beings? After World War I Germany was bankrupt, and needed to pay reparations to the imperialist powers who won the war. The result of this situation was that skyrocketing inflation became a reality and most of the German population saw a dramatic deterioration in their standard of living.
The German Social Democratic and Communist Parties were the largest political parties in Germany at the time. Initially the Nazi forces headed by Adolf Hitler represented only a tiny minority in the country. Before the Nazis took power they attacked demonstrations by workers but the leaders of these large political parties refused to organize a defense of the workers. This only encouraged the Nazis. Capitalist interests saw how this was a volatile situation and spent an enormous amount of money to support the Nazis. This money was used to organize and entire civilian standing army which was called the SA.
Eventually elections were held in Germany where the three dominant parties ran for office. The Social Democratic and Communist Parties together had majority support but refused to form a block against the National Socialists. This sectarian policy led to the fascists taking power. Once in power the fascists eliminated any opposition. After the Social Democratic and Communist Parties were defeated in the elections they continued to have considerable support but also continued to refuse to defend themselves against the fascist destruction of their parties.
Leon Trotsky was a central leader of the Bolsheviks and the commanding officer of the Red Army during the Russian Revolution an the Civil War. Trotsky was exiled from the Soviet Union and virtually all the leaders of the Russian Revolution were executed by supporters of Joseph Stalin.
After the Russian Revolution, the entire manufacturing infrastructure of the Soviet Union had been destroyed. About five million Russian soldiers died in the First World War. In a country where food is normally plentiful, food shortages became the norm. Other revolutions erupted in the world but failed to take or maintain state power.
Under these conditions Joseph Stalin, who was the General Secretary of the Communist Party, worked to betray the goals of the revolution. He recruited numerous people from the former czarist middle classes who were looking to maintain their former privileged positions. Using these methods Stalin was able to restore many of the aspects of czarist Russia. However, the Russian Revolution was so powerful, Stalin was unable to reverse everything and the largest manufacturing enterprises continued to be controlled by the state.
Leon Trotsky had experience dealing with fascists in the civil war in Russia. After he was expelled from the Soviet Union, he continued to advise members of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union and Germany to defend themselves against Nazi aggression. He urged the Communist Party to form and electoral block with the Social Democrats to prevent Hitler from taking power. When the fascists eliminated all opposition in Germany without encountering any armed resistance, Trotsky understood that the forces in the world that were loyal to Stalin under the Third International had abandoned all revolutionary traditions. At this point Trotsky began to organize the Fourth International.
The Bielsky Otriade and the Russian Partisan Movement
Understanding this history makes it clear why there was friction between the Bielsky Otriad and the Russian partisan movement during the war. Vladimir Illyich Lenin was the central leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Lenin argued that there were many nationalities within the Soviet Union that had been oppressed by the czarist regime. In order to make a revolution that would benefit everyone in the country, the soviet government supported self-determination for all these nationalities. This is why the name of the new nation was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
One of the consequences of Stalin’s betrayal of the revolution was that the discrimination against the non-Russian nationalities continued. This meant that the Russian partisans saw no reason to defend Jews from the Nazi Holocaust. The Bielsky Otriad was judged by its ability to make a contribution to the partisan movement against the Nazis. Several times the Russian Partisans threatened to break up the Bielsky Otriad which would have meant death for most if its members. Only because the Bielsky Otriad proved that it was making essential contributions to the partisan movement did it win acceptance from the Russian partisans.
Strengths and weaknesses of the otriad
In order to fully appreciate the Bielsky Otriad it is useful to compare their methods of functioning with the Cuban Revolutionaries of the July 26 movement in their struggle to take political power. Clearly these are two completely different movements which took place at different historical epochs. However, both these movements needed to establish sanctuaries in the natural environment while being pursued by ruthless political regimes.
While the leadership of the July 26 Movement was communist, the Bielsky Otriad was not. Clearly there were people who called themselves communists who sympathized with the Bielsky Otriad, but these people supported the politics of Joseph Stalin.
There were a few differences between Nechama Tec’s book and Edward Zwick’s film. In the film there was a scene where Tuvia Bielsky declared that there would be equality in the otriad with respect to the distribution of food. Nechama Tec reported that there was a kind of reverse capitalism in the otriad. Normally in capitalist society professionals with university degrees are the elite and have incomes where they can live more comfortable lives than workers. However, in the otriad people were judged by what they could do. Workers and farmers had skills that were more valuable than professionals. The professionals who did not have useful skills were called Malbush and these people received less of all the goods and services. We should also keep in mind that everyone was guaranteed a basic allotment of food and other materials.
One of the most extreme instances of inequality was the fact that the doctor in the otriad actually charged patients for his services. Clearly everyone had the right to medical care, but we might assume that those who paid received more care. Ernesto Che Guevara was one of the doctors of the July 26 Movement. Anyone who is familiar with his writings understands that Che would never have considered charging a patient for his services.
Fidel Castro also made a point of eating the same quantities of food as everyone else in the July 26 Movement. Unlike the Bielsky Otriad there was strict equality amongst the Cuban revolutionaries.
Another difference between the book and the film comes from a scene where Tuvia Bielsky declares that woman would not be allowed to have children in the otriad. Nechama Tec reported that there were a few children in the otriad who attended a school in the forest. Many women chose to have abortions rather than raise their children in the forest, in a world where millions of Jews were being murdered.
After the Nazis were defeated, the members of the Bielsky Otriad faced the anti-Semitic policies of the new Stalinist government. Tuvia Bielsky decided to settle in Palestine. David S. Wyman gives the evidence showing how Zionist organizations were more interested in establishing the state of Israel after the war than in rescuing Jews during the war. Yet Tuvia Bielsky, who successfully rescued 1,200 Jews during the war, was given a job as a taxi driver.
Clearly workers who toil in a capitalist society and have no class-consciousness can easily become disillusioned. Bielsky had done the seemingly impossible and carried out an armed defense of Jewish people in the midst of the Nazi holocaust. Yet after the war he became a disillusioned taxi driver and eventually moved to the United States where he was a truck driver.
On the other hand, when the July 26 movement took power in Cuba, this signaled a transformation of the island. In a nation where dire poverty was the norm for most of the population, today Cuba has more doctors per capita than any other nation in the world. Cuban doctors go to some of the most impoverished areas on the planet providing health care and training new doctors to treat patients in these areas. Today Cuba has more teachers per capita than almost any other nation in the world. While Cuba does not have many of the conveniences of nations like the United States, the people understand that there has been a profound transformation of the island since the revolution. There is nothing disillusioning about that.
Nechama Tec and other supporters of the state of Israel have concluded from this story that armed force is justified against Palestinians. What these people refuse to see is that the rights of Palestinians have been trampled by the Israeli government in a similar way as the Nazis trampled on the rights of Jewish people. The Bielsky Otriad has a lot more in common with Palestinian resistance fighters than they have with government officials in the state of Israel.
Cuba has also been a consistent supporter of the Palestinian struggle to achieve self-determination in their homeland.
There are many lessons to be learned about this story. One is that the struggle to replace the capitalist system with a workers government needs to be the top priority of everyone. The financial crisis which now affects the entire world, will give rise to fascists who choose to find scapegoats for the problems we face. History has shown that the largest capitalist enterprises will not hesitate to finance these fascist gangs in order to protect their super-profits.
However, history has also shown how workers will have an opportunity to take power. Just as in Germany before the Nazis took power, a properly mobilized working class has the potential to defeat any fascist grab for power.
The Bielsky Otriad demonstrates that humanity has the potential to resist even after fascists gain power. The lesson is that we need to think about how difficult it was for the Bielsky Otriad and work to prevent a fascist takeover of the government.
Many people might not agree with this point of view. They might argue that Barrack Obama is the president of the United States and he has the interests of the people at heart. To these people we need to show the facts that Germany was a highly industrialized nation with an extremely liberal government before the Nazi takeover. The economic crisis and the lack of will of workers parties to defend themselves from the fascists were the primary reasons why Adolf Hitler gained power.
The Cuban revolution is a clear example of how it is possible to create and advance a workers government in the current reality.