Defiance: Interview with Director Edward (Glory) Zwick

In the summer of 1941, Hitler’s army was on the move. Europe would soon fall to its overwhelming might. For millions, it would be an inescapable death sentence. But for the Bielski brothers, three young, Jewish, working-class farmers from the remote countryside of Belarus, it became something else: A call to arms from which they would not turn away, one that would test the limits of their courage, their brotherhood, and their will to defy the evil around them, as they came to lead thousands in a desperate battle for survival against overwhelming odds.

Edward Zwick, the director of GLORY and BLOOD DIAMOND, brings this extraordinary, untold story to the screen as an intensely moving action-drama about the complicated nature of vengeance and salvation; the power of community; and the will to live when all hope seems lost.

Shot in Lithuania with a devoted international cast and crew headed by Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber, the filmmakers sought to recreate a story that is not only remarkable unto itself, but also an important new look at one of the cinematic myths of World War II. Just as Zwick previously revisited a hidden chapter of the Civil War and its African-American regiment in his Oscar-winning film GLORY, he now explores a stirring reality that has been all but ignored in the movies: the brave resistance of those who refused to go without a fight.

Iconography of Victimization

Says Zwick: “The popular iconography of the Holocaust has mostly been one of victimization. It’s important to add complexity to that notion– to understand that there is a difference between passivity and powerlessness, that the impulse to resist was always present. DEFIANCE is about those who managed to fight back, but it is also about the enduring conflict between the desire for revenge and the desire to save others. It’s a story that compels us to ask ourselves: What would I have done in those circumstances And in that way, I think, it becomes a deeply personal experience.”

Tale of Epic Courage

The story of the Bielski brothers and the community they formed in the dark and wintry forests of Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe remains one of history’s most compelling tales–yet few have heard it. The story first came to light, if only momentarily, when, in 1944 at the war’s end, local Gentiles witnessed an astounding, almost surreal sight: more than 1200 Jews suddenly emerging from the deep woods. At first, the locals believed them to be ghosts. How, they wondered, could these few have survived while so many thousands were sent to the death camps.

In whispers and rumors, pieces of the story began to emerge. In a time of growing anti-Semitism, the Bielskis had been raised on the family farm in Stankevich, in what is now Belarus but was then under Soviet control. Physically imposing and charismatic, the brothers were known as scrappy fighters, rebels with an aversion to authority.

When the Nazis invaded in June, 1941, overwhelming the region with a massive air and ground attack, the three brothers were quickly identified as potential trouble-makers and targeted by the SS as well as by the local police.

A series of devastating tragedies followed in quick succession as the Bielskis’ parents and many beloved family members (including Tuvia¬ís infant daughter and wife) were killed in a mass execution of 4,000 Jews in the Novogrudok ghetto. To save their own lives, the brothers escaped to the local woods–a vast, thickly overgrown area they had known since childhood.

There, able to hide from their persecutors, they formed a fledgling partisan group, determined to fight the Nazi occupation and those cooperating with them. But what began as a battle for survival and a quest for vengeance soon grew into something that transcended both agendas, a commitment to save as many Jews as possible, young and old, rich or poor. Under Tuvia’s leadership, that mission succeeded beyond anyone¬ís imagination.

In time, the Bielskis even dared to venture back into the ghettoes, offering a chance of escape to those Jews helplessly facing deportation and death in the concentration camps. After months of relentless pursuit, often forced to move at a moment¬ís notice in an endless search for a safe haven, they eventually forged a makeshift village in the Naliboki Forest, living in underground dugouts (known as zemlyankas) and eventually creating a makeshift hospital, a mill, a metal-shop, a bakery, a bathhouse and eventually even a theater and synagogue. Amidst the surrounding horror, this secret encampment grew so full of life they named it “Jerusalem in the Woods.”

As word of their efforts spread, their numbers swelled, eventually including refugees from every walk of life, from doctors and lawyers to farmers and carpenters, with women working and fighting alongside men. Though facing countless hardships–from malnutrition and contagious illness to enemy patrols and internal dissent, they struggled to maintain a semblance of ordinary life, one that kept their hopes, and most important, their humanity, alive. Children went to school, couples fell in love and got married, everyone, young and old, contributed in whatever way they were able. And a community was born.

Meanwhile, the Nazis placed huge bounties on the brothers’ heads, hoping to stop what soon became an inspirational folk tale to those desperately in need of some kind of hope. Yet, the village flourished. Central to its survival were its fighters, a makeshift band that protected the community at all costs, pillaged enemy villages for the food, supplies and weapons without which they would surely perish.

Though their methods could be extreme and deadly, they were also effective. The Bielski group, known to other partisans hiding in the Naliboki forest as the “Bielski Otriad”, became the largest Jewish partisan band in the history of the war, taking more German casualties and saving more Jewish lives than any other. It is estimated that over 20,000 Jews participated in partisan units throughout Eastern Europe and, though there were others who survived in the forests, including the Zhukov and Zorin otriads, these groups were considerably smaller.

Still, when the war ended, the Bielskis’ story was nearly lost to time. Tuvia and Zus moved first to Israel, then to New York, where they quietly led hard-working, ordinary American lives as taxi-drivers and truck drivers. They were reticent to talk about the past, even with their children–yet other survivors began to speak out about how they had been saved.

As Sulia Rubin, forever grateful to have been part of their forest community told The New York Times in 2000: “I wouldn’t have survived without the Bielskis. Were they perfect No, everybody makes mistakes. But they are mine, they are family, I love them.”

It was only after Tuvia’s death in 1987, as researchers began exploring the history anew, that their story became better known. Most prominent among these historians was Dr. Nechama Tec, Professor Emerita of Sociology at the University of Connecticut who, in 1993, published her award-winning book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans. Tec’s extensive interviews with those still living provided the first real insight into their remarkable experience. The Los Angeles Times called the book ¬ìone of the most elevating and inspiring stories in the chronicle of death and despair that is the Holocaust.”

When screenwriter Clayton Frohman read Tec’s book, he was completely at a loss as to why this story of tenacious Jewish resistance and courage was not better known. People had heard of the ill-fated Warsaw Ghetto uprising and of gentile rescuers such as Oskar Schindler, yet absent was any other evidence of Jewish resistance.

“I grew up in the Jewish tradition, read a lot about the Holocaust, and my father was an American soldier in World War II, so I thought I’d heard a lot of the most interesting stories from that time. But I’d never heard about the Bielskis,” Frohman recalls. “I felt right away that this was a necessary story to tell–of the people who fought back, who would not submit. All my life I had heard about Jews who were victims. Helpless, resigned, doomed. And that was the Germans¬í intention–that we only think of them as such. And they almost succeeded. What makes this film so important to me is that it tells the other side of a story that was almost lost.”

While attending a Dodger’s game, Frohman gave Tec’s book to his good friend, Edward Zwick. “As a filmmaker, Ed has that ability to combine the intimate and the epic, to mix the deepest character work with the intensity of life-and-death stakes. This was a chance for us to make the kind of epic action-drama that rarely gets made any more.”

A single reading was all it took for Zwick to understand Frohman’s passion for the story, and he determined to do everything he could to bring it to the screen. Thus, began a collaboration that was to take more than ten years before finding its way to the screen.

“One of the great human impulses is that of bearing witness, of keeping memories alive,” says Zwick. “With DEFIANCE, I wanted to create a rich and exciting entertainment but I also felt an obligation to keep faith with those to whom it happened. It¬ís not only a thrilling story, but also one that prompts many questions, provoking audiences to think about what they would have done in that time, and also to understand how it relates to our world today. Unfortunately, in such modern circumstances as Bosnia or Darfur, we are still witnessing the horrors of genocide.”