Defiance is the second Holocaust movie from Hollywood I’ve seen recently. I wrote about the deeply ironic Good here, which explores the idea that in the late thirties people in Germany – Germans and Jews alike – didn’t realize the implications of Hitler’s anti-Semitism. While Good asks us to set aside our historical knowledge about the outcome, Defiance is a straightforward war movie about a small group of Eastern European Jews who fled the German onslaught and took refuge in the deep forests of eastern Poland (now Belarus). It centers of the three brothers Bielski, rough peasants with little schooling who did a bit of smuggling on the side before the war. They become leaders of a growing group of refugees from the Warsaw ghetto and other Polish cities and towns where the Germans were systematically removing and executing Jews. We see the internal conflict among the refugees and are unflinchingly shown the acts of betrayal, revenge and brutality on all sides that were typical in this time and place.
Movie Poster courtesy of Wikipedia
The story is presented as true and for the most part it is – there is climactic war scene in which the partisans defeat a German unit that did not happen that is inserted for dramatic purposes (according to the Wikipedia article), but the full impact of the story comes after the end of the film’s action when the fate of the three brothers is documented. One was killed in battle fighting for the Red Army. The other two survived and made their way to New York and started a business, as did so many other Holocaust survivors. The Bielski’s story had not been told before, perhaps for the very good reason it was like so many other stories of survival by Jews and others from that time. The New York of my youth was full of Holocaust survivors and their stories. Personally I was born in Upstate NY during the time the action of the film takes place. In the course of growing up I met many young Jewish people my own age who had been born amidst the systematic genocide and whose parents had somehow gotten them safely to America. There are many Nazi and death defying tales, like the Beilski’s worthy of retelling. The one that stands out for me was of a young man with whom I became friends in the late 50s who’s mother, separated from her husband by the war and alone with a young baby, took it upon herself to bleach her hair, and that of her young son, blond and walk out of Eastern Europe with him in her arms. She has always been for me a personal example that heroism is not just something that exists in the movies or in the past but something that life may require of us at any time. Discussing Defiance with my sister on the phone we tried Googling my old friend. In the end my sister found him in the US Social Security death register. He had died in his 50s. His mother a few weeks later.
As I thought about these two movies and my own experience of Holocaust survivors I encountered an essay entitled What Is To Be Done? by Eve Garrard on Normblog. Both Norm Geras and Eve Garrard are English and Jewish and self describe as belonging to the political left. The essay discusses what I would agree is a reemergence of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere and explores what today’s European Jews might do in response. Here is Eve Garrard’s opening:
Anti-Semitism appears to be returning to Europe, including to the UK. (Yes, I know that implies that it went away for a time, which may not really be true. But it was certainly a lot less noticeable from the 1950s to the 1980s.) Certain very traditional anti-Semitic tropes – Jews as a sinister force shaping world events in their own interests; Jews as exploitative and bloodthirsty towards others, particularly towards the children of others; and Jews as constantly whining about their mistreatment for ulterior purposes – have been resurrected and are now quite widely deployed, though largely under the cloak of anti-Zionism. But the grubby underwear constantly shows beneath the hem of that cloak….
I first noticed the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the 80s here in Western Australia when I saw pro Palestinian posters that were anti Zionist in just the way Eve Garrard describes. At the time, I thought a Jewish friend was over reacting to them while at the same time seeing that they went further than necessary to support their cause and seemed, I had to admit at the time, unconcerned about distancing themselves from anti-Semitism.
If anti-Semitism is really on the march again, then this is a seriously worrying development. Already Jews are beginning to feel that the environment in which they live has become more hostile and alien (and hence of course more alienating). Many of us used to think that the terrible precedent of the Nazi genocide would itself prevent any recurrence of Jew-hatred, since the contemplation of what anti-Semitism had led to was and is so appalling. But if in spite of that history Jew-hatred is once more on the rise, then we simply can’t tell whether people will continue to see, or even care about, where it might lead.
And that, I believe, is the problem that these two films are trying to address by using cinema to remind the Western world that it is again falling into one of its oldest and most dishonorable forms of prejudice. Specifically, I would speculate that the Jewish community in Hollywood has decided to act by making films about the Holocaust. Good tries with irony to shake us awake while Defiance reminds us how many Jews fought and survived in conditions that most in the West believe they will not have to face again. I have seen a third Holocaust film since I began this essay – The Boy in Striped Pajamas. It is yet another response to the question: What is to be done? In my next post on this theme, I hope to be able to explore in a bit more depth why, as someone who is not Jewish, I think the resurgence of Western anti-Semitism is so powerful.