Defiance by Nechama Tec

Defiance by Nechama Tec

1993. 296 papes (not including endnotes and index). Paperback.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

Defiance, also known as Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, describes how the leadership of Tuvia Bielski and his brothers helped save 1200 Jews in Nazi-occupied Belorussia.  Unwilling to be taken to the ghetto by the Germans, the Jewish brothers escaped to the forest, which they knew well.  They were joined by family and friends there, though they also lost some of their loved ones.  Their partisan community – the Bielski Otriad – continued to grow in numbers as others escaped to the forest from the ghettos and death.  All Jews were welcomed, an anomaly among other partisan fighter groups who were often anti-Semitic and also saw the elderly, infirm, women and children as burdens.


When trying to describe the writing style of Defiance, the word I came up with was “transparent.”  In some non-fiction books, the author never refers directly to his or her sources.  Nechama Tec directly quotes from the people she interviewed and sometimes comments on the interview itself.  In this, Defiance is like a journalistic account or a scholarly work.  I use the word “transparent” because Nechama Tec really lets the story shine through her writing.  This is an amazing piece of history and she uses her craft to get us close to the first-person accounts while providing organization, insight and explanation.

Though Defiance is the story of the entire Bielski Otriad, it is also a portrait of its charismatic leader, Tuvia Bielski.  The author managed to conduct a short interview with him in 1987, two weeks before he died.  Most of her knowledge of his story was then culled from interviews with his family and from people who lived in the Bielski Otriad.  Throughout the book, Tec adds to her portrait of Tuvia, trying to figure out what made him tick, what kind of leader was he, what were his flaws, and how did he succeed?

Other aspects of the book explore the survival of the Otriad.  How did these Jewish people, devastated by loss of family and homes, make a community in the forest?  Nechama Tec is matter-of-fact here.   Though all were welcome to the community, there was a hierarchy of sorts.  Those with guns, who could fight, were at the top.  Those who had no skills to provide were at the bottom.  Everyone was guaranteed food and a place, but some found ways to get more or better.

Tec spends an entire chapter on the fate of women during this time and in that region, and then specifically focuses on their role in the Bielski Otriad.  I really appreciate that she included that chapter.  She also effectively sketches out the community’s precarious situation.  Not only was the group hiding from the Germans, but they were uneasy allies with the Soviets and other partisan fighting groups.  Still, they survived even in this.  Thus Defiance is a story of hope in the context of immense tragedy.

Book / movie comparison

The story of the Bielski Otriad truly deserves to be better known.  Obviously, the recent movie adaptation has helped generate more exposure and interest in the story.  I wouldn’t have picked this book off of the shelves if I hadn’t seen the trailer of the movie.  So in that the movie has done right.

Unfortunately, when I finally watched the movie last night, I was disappointed.  I had made the mistake of reading the book first.   I understand when films have to make composite characters and play around a little with events and chronology.  But I had a hard time with some of the changes that the film made.

For instance, in the film, Tuvia Bielski said that the women would fight alongside of the men.  This never happened.  According to the book, only one woman in the Otriad was known to have had a gun and gone on food missions and that was the wife of one of the Bielski brothers.  If a woman joined the Otriad in possession of a gun, it would be given to a man.  Such a change in the film seems motivated by a desire to soften those aspects of history that we don’t like.  To me it seems a disservice to pretend the inequality didn’t happen.

I thought that the portrayal of Tuvia Bielski made him appear less commanding than he was, and also that the Otriad appeared to act haphazardly in the film.  From Tec’s description, Bielski was not a reluctant leader and the Otriad – though imperfect – was organized and resourceful.

One last thing: at one point in the film, a lot of the people in the community get killed.  This too, did not happen.  Almost all of the people who stayed with the Otriad survived the war, possibly about ninety-five percent.  That was the main triumph of this story – that almost all of the people who sought refuge with them were saved.  I did not like that the movie took away some of that triumph.

I will say that the DVD extras featuring the children and grandchildren of Tuvia Bielski and his brother were fantastic and added memories of post-WWII Tuvia Bielski that were not described in the book.

So if you’ve seen the film and liked it, read the book.  As usual, the book is better.

Other reviews of the book:

Bollocks Busters

Vulpes Libris


Filed under Non-Fiction

6 responses to “Defiance by Nechama Tec

  1. This is the first I’ve heard of both this book and the movie. The book sounds really interesting and like one that I need to check out. Plus, I’m always interested in reading NF books that deal with WWII. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one!

  2. My name is Brendon Rennert. I am the Grandson of Tuvia Bielski. Our family has done a lot to make sure that the story continues to be told. Feel free to to to Thats a website that I created with the Florida Holocaust Museum. You can go there for additional information on my Grandfather, his brothers, my sister (who is working on a Documentary, etc.) Thank you. Brendon

  3. I’ve heard of the movie, but not the book. For some reason, I’ve always had an affinity for books about both World Wars, especially the plight of the Jewish people in WWII. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention.

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