Missing from the film “Defiance”:
the Bielski Brothers and the Poles

Polish American Congress Holocaust Documentation Committee

The World War II events shown in the motion picture “Defiance” took place on territory that was part of Poland at the time. Consequently, Charles Chotkowski, Director of Research for the Holocaust Documentation Committee of the Polish American Congress, reviews the film and calls attention to other aspects of those events vital to the context.

The Jewish partisans depicted in the new film “Defiance” became part of Holocaust history by welcoming fugitive Jews into their hideouts in the forests of what is now western Belarus, preserving some 1200 lives from Nazi genocide. Director Edward Zwick has brought to the screen their true story, based on the book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans by Nechama Tec (Oxford University Press, 1993).

These partisans were organized and led by three Jewish brothers from the former Polish province of Nowogrodek: Tuvia, Zus, and Asael Bielski. Tuvia, who had served in the Polish army, became the commander. He insisted that his partisans, although formed to fight the German occupation, would also take under their protection women, children, and the elderly who escaped from the Nowogrodek and Lida ghettos.

The film shows how the Bielski brothers met the challenges of escaping from the Nazis, arming partisan combatants, saving non-combatant refugees, providing food and shelter, and establishing discipline, all while moving from forest to forest to evade the pursuing Germans.

Their affiliation with the Soviet partisans provided limited protection.

The cast, which includes Daniel Craig as Tuvia, Liev Schreiber as Zus, and Jamie Bell as Asael, ably gives straightforward performances that present the Bielski story largely as told by Tec. While liberties have been taken with some incidents and the chronology, the overall effect is faithful to the book. If there are no great cinematographic achievements, there is no Hollywood glamorizing either.

After 129 minutes running time, the film ends about halfway through the Bielski partisans’ story, after they have found a secure forest hideout in the depths of the Puszcza Nalibocka (puszcza is the Polish word for primeval forest or wilderness). Although all the action takes place on prewar Polish territory partly inhabited by Poles, where the Polish partisan Home Army (Armia Krajowa or AK) also operated, no Polish partisan or any other Polish character appears in the film.

This omission is consistent with the chronology. Interactions with the Poles came later in the Bielski partisans’ existence, after the film ends. Thus Defiance does not address controversial aspects of the Bielski’s relations with the Poles that recently have drawn some attention, particularly in Jewish publications and in Poland.

One contentious issue involves an ongoing Polish government investigation into an attack by Soviet partisans on the Polish town of Naliboki, near the Puszcza Nalibocka, in which the Bielski partisans, who were under overall Soviet command, are alleged to have participated.

For protection against banditry, Naliboki had a small self defense force commanded by Eugeniusz Klimowicz, a member of the Home Army (AK).

Soviet partisans in the Puszcza Nalibocka demanded that this force leave the town and join them in the forest.

Klimowicz refused, but the two sides reached an agreement that each would respect the other’s area of control. On the morning of May 8, 1943 the Soviets broke the agreement by attacking Naliboki, killing some 128 residents including women and children, and burning down the church, school, court house, and post office.

There were some Jews among the Soviet attackers, but they are unlikely to have been from the Bielski group. Most likely they were partisans led by Simcha Zorin from Minsk, or a group led by Israel Kesler, who was himself from Naliboki and recruited other Jews from there.

When the Polish investigation into Naliboki and the accusations against the Bielskis were reported in this country, some admirers of the Bielskis blamed “anti-Semitic tendencies” and “the distortion of history,” and questioned the moral right of Poles to judge Jewish partisans. But allegations against Jewish partisans are as legitimate a subject of inquiry as those against Poles or Soviets.

Up to mid-1943 relations between Polish partisans and the Bielskis and other Jewish partisans were generally good. Tuvia was friendly with the commander of the nearby Kosciuszko detachment of the AK, Lieut. Kacper Milaszewski. He and Milaszewski used to visit each other’s camps to play chess. When the Germans mounted an anti-partisan action, Operation Hermann, Milaszewski’s men fought a delaying action that enabled the Bielski group to escape.

Later in 1943 relations began to deteriorate, for which the Poles are blamed in the memoirs of Jewish partisans. In fact, the blame rests with Soviet policy, which called for the suppression of Polish partisans and Polish village self defense in this disputed area of eastern Poland which the Soviets had annexed in 1939 and intended to keep after the war.

On June 22, 1943 Pantelemon Ponomarenko, chief of staff of the Soviet partisans, issued a directive that “In those regions that are under the influence of our partisan units and party centers do not allow activities of Polish groups formed by the reactionary nationalist circles. The leaders are to be eliminated in a manner that is not noticeable. The units are to be disbanded ... or, if it is possible ... attach them to large [Soviet] units, after which you are to carry out quietly an appropriate cleansing of hostile elements.”

“Reactionary nationalist circles” was Soviet speak for the Polish government-in-exile in London and its Home Army (AK). On December 1, 1943 this policy was applied to the Stolpce Group of the AK under Maj. Waclaw Pelka, which included the Kosciuszko detachment of Lieut. Milaszewski. The top officers were invited to a meeting with Soviet officers. When they arrived, the Poles were arrested, while the Soviets attacked the Polish bases.

The Bielski partisans contributed fifty men to this operation to capture and disarm the Polish partisans, their erstwhile allies. Ten Poles were killed resisting capture. Of the Polish officers, five were executed and five, including Pelka and Milaszewski, were flown to Moscow (Milaszewski survived the war). The remaining captured Polish partisans were inducted into the Soviet partisans, but more than thirty were executed when they attempted to leave.

Jewish partisans needed Soviet support, and obedience to anti-Polish orders was part of the price of Jewish survival. One might accept that Jews from the Bielski and Zorin groups had no other choice than to participate in operations against the Poles. What is unacceptable are their partisan memoirs subsequently published that denigrate Polish partisans as reactionary fascists and Nazi collaborators. 

Editor’s note: For more on the incident at Naliboki, several readers have suggested “The Last Day at Naliboki,” by Mieczyslaw Klimowicz. Klimowicz writes about the Naliboki of his childhood before and during World War II. Historically, Naliboki was a nurturing and beautiful place to live. The land and wilderness had abundant natural resources along with a thriving town and farming community. Then Naliboki became entwined between Hitler's Germany and the Soviet Union, and the townspeope watched helplessly as their homeland was destroyed.

On May 10, 1945 Mieczyslaw Klimowicz was liberated from the German hard labor camp that served as his home for two years. He was immediately mobilized into the U.S. Army and assigned to guard German prisoners of war in Verdon. Following his service he relocated to England, and eventually came to live in the United States where he became a naturalized citizen. “The Last Day of Naliboki” is his first book.

Related story: The Other Side of Bravery

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