3 Stars - Thought-Provoking
How would you respond in the presence of unspeakable evil attacking your family? How do you maintain your humanity when you experience a destroyed emotional life? “Defiance” is one of five major films that are currently in circulation retelling the horrors of the Jewish experience at the hands of the Nazi’s during World War II. This true story of three brothers who band together for survival, gives us a glimpse into the emotional choices we all make when faced with anguish and pain.
The Bielski brothers, Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Live Schreiber), and Asael (Jamie Bell) live on their parents’ farm during the 1941 invasion Byelorussia. With anti-Semitism deeply imbedded in the culture, many local collaborators gave up their Jewish neighbors to the Nazi’s for 50 Rubles each. Within weeks, tens of thousands of Jews were slaughtered or relocated to ghettos or work camps
The Bielski brothers, having lost their parents, escaped to the vast Belarusian forest, where they survived with dozens of other local Jewish families. It is their story of reaction and resistance to this unspeakable horror that teaches all of us lessons about how to maintain your humanity in the face of inhumanity.
What started out as four members of the Bielski family, within days grew to dozens of remnant Jewish survivors desperately hiding in the woods. The oldest brother, Tuvia, responded with a take-charge attitude, believing that each of them had a responsibility to protect one another, even if they did not know how they would survive.
Tuvia’s middle brother, Zus, a life-long family rival, responds with an attitude of personal survival first, and revenge second. He resents his older brother’s risking their survival due to his “wasted compassion for others.”
After witnessing so many murders, the emotionally traumatized youngest brother, Asael, looks to his older brothers for refuge. He reverts into stages of melancholy, longing for a return to normalcy, family, and love.
Similar to the film “Schindler’s List,” this true story touches on moments of good and bad found in everyone. Not all of their fellow citizens are racist and some of the Jewish survivors care about no one except themselves. Everyone experiences fear of the unknown, depravation, a loss of hope, and the death of loved ones. Help does come from the fact that they are on the Russian border and Soviet resistance fighters are constantly keeping the Nazi’s at bay.
A common question raised by those who have never experience this level of emotional horror, is why didn’t more people fight back? Part of the answer is in the fact that the Nazis used the fear of reprisals as a tool of control. “If one person escapes from the Ghetto,” explains a fearful man, “ten other innocent people will be murdered.”
The responses of the three Bielski brothers to the murders around them give us another insight. One chooses to organize for self-preservation in the hope that there is strength in numbers. Another reacts by wanting to strike back in revenge, regardless of the consequence. Fear immobilizes the third brother and he retreats into a world of his own. Most likely, this is the way that each of them reacted to trauma throughout their life.
There is no right or wrong way to react in this situation, but it becomes clear that their (and our) ultimate survival depends on their trust and faith in one another to get them through. We each have an emotional framework with which we were born that is going to be with us throughout our lives. We also have certain gifts that can be a help to one another in good times and bad. In the words of one Rabbi in their midst, “I thought God had abandoned us, but God used each of you to restore my faith.”
“Defiance” is about standing up to enemies, both internal and external. Today, the Bielski brothers are regarded as war heroes and the survivors of their trek still today number in the thousands. Their story is a thoughtful representation of the choices we all must make in the face of uncertainty.