Defiance is one of those many astonishing but true stories, and there are many of them, about the Nazi Holocaust. It stars Daniel Craig, Lev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell as three Jewish brothers named Bielski who work a miracle in the vast forests of Belarussia.
The action starts during the opening months of the Nazi invasion of Soviet Russia. With their parents murdered, along with most of their village, the Bielski brothers hide in the forest, burning with the desire for revenge, and wondering what is going to happen next. Complications ensue when other surviving Jews get the same idea and find themselves depending on the Bielskis for leadership and help.
What follows is a story that would seem too fantastic to be real, except that it actually happened. The Bielskis and their growing community of Jewish refugees, hunted by the Nazis, beset by the elements, lack of food, lack of medicine, and all the vagaries of the human response to stress, actually manage of make a self sufficient community in the forest.
They even form a partisan unit in alliance with Red Army partisans also operating in the forest, even though the Soviets likely like Jews only a little more than the Nazis did.
Defiance does not have quite the power of Schindler’s List, a similar film about the same subject, but it has its strong moments and strong performances, not only by the principles, but by a good supporting cast.
Defiance derives its strength not from the idea that the people depicted are extraordinary. They were far from that. But they did an extraordinary thing. Twelve hundred people survived the war in the forest community that they called Jerusalem and their descendents now number in the tens of thousands.
Defiance is the latest project by Edward Zwick and it is his best since Glory, done nearly two decades ago, about another oppressed people who take up arms against their oppressors. In Defiance, contrary to popular belief, Jewish victims of the Holocaust did not all go to their deaths passively. Some fought and, even if many did die, such as the people of the Warsaw Ghetto, they sold their lives dearly.
There is, of course, a lesson for our own time in this. The Nazis are long gone as a force to incite terror, but there are still people who yearn to kill Jews. Recent events in Gaza certainly illustrate that sad truth. The face of the enemy may change, but the fight remains the same.