Acts of Defiance.

Defiance. What does it mean? To Google, it means “open resistance; bold disobedience”. To Dictionary.com, it means “a daring or bold resistance”, “contempt of” or “a challenge to meet in combat”. To the Bielski Otriad it meant continuing to stay alive.

Group portrait of members of the Kalinin Jewish partisan unit (Bielski group) on guard duty at an airstrip in the Naliboki Forest. 1941-1944.

Defiance by Nechama Tec, and the further motion picture made starring Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell in 2008 tells the true story of the Bielski brothers, Tuvia, Zus and Asael, who survived the Second World War in the forests of Western Belorussia; their partisan group was one of the most significant Jewish resistance efforts against the Nazis during the war, and helped saved the lives of over 1,200 Jewish people who had escaped the Nazi massacre.

I will not go into detail about what went on between 1941 and 1944, when the group lived, survived, thrived and provided safe haven for Jews in the Zabielovo and Perelaz forests, but I will say this: despite the horrors thrown at them, the murder, the constant desire to avenge their family, the need to be endlessly on the move, the Bielski brothers held onto their faith, their kinship, their life. The Germans, their Belorussian countrymen who helped the Germans, wanted to kill them. To kill all people of Jewish ancestry. They wanted to clean the Earth of Jews, and to further murder, not just their physical being, but their faith and their will to live as well. The Bielski brothers committed the ultimate act of defiance. They continued to live. They made lives for themselves, rebuilt the lives they had lost when their family were killed in the Nowogrodek Ghetto. They helped thousands to rebuild the lives that were lost to them, allowing them to live in freedom. “Everyday of freedom is an act of faith.” They allowed thousands to hold onto their faith, their humanity. They lived as human beings. As the character of Tuvia says in the film, “Our revenge is to live.”.

We are all alive. We are lucky to be alive. We should relish every moment of being alive, because we never know what is round the corner. Our lives could be snatched from us tomorrow, next week, next month. We will all live through troubled times, but we must all do as the Bielski brothers did: defy the powers that wish to crush the life out of us by simply living. They saved lives by doing just that. Living.

But we should not just live. We should appreciate. Contribute. Save lives and better humanity in whatever way we can. It is, and always will be, the ultimate act of defiance.

In Edward Zwick’s film, after the struggle for survival, the struggle for food, the struggle to hang on to life in such harsh conditions, the final words are the following:

“Do you see that? The forest. Beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is.”

And that, for me, is the essence of defiance.


Do read the book, Defiance by Nechama Tec, or watch the motion picture.

All quotations are attributed to Tuvia Bielski.

This post is dedicated to those who lived and died as part of the Bielski Otriad.

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About nessyakamhi

British writer. Personal twitter: @nessyakamhi Personal Instagram: @nessita.k Facebook Page: Nessya Kamhi
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