Tuesday, June 2, 2020 -
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The story of the Bielski Brothers, and Jewish partisans in general, was largely unknown before the release of the film Defiance. Here in our own community we had two survivors of the Bielski group living among us – but who knew their story? In the last year, since the release of the film, we’ve been privileged to hear local artist Paula Burger recount her experiences of living in the forest among the Bielski group. Her brother, long-time Denver cantor Isaac Koll was with her, as well as their father, Wolf, who fought alongside the Bielski brothers.

This week, commemorating Kristallnacht, Defiance was screened as part of the annual JAAMM festival. Accompanying the screening was Peter Duffy, who recently published a detailed account of the Bielski brothers. Meanwhile over in Zurich, the IJN’s web editor, Shana Goldberg, also attended a screening of Defiance, which was followed by a question and answer session with the last surviving Bielski brother, Aron Bell.

In both cases, it was the accompanying talks that were the evenings’ highlights. The film, while overall engaging the audience, certainly isn’t the best Holocaust – or even action – picture. Daniel Craig, with his blinding blue eyes and dodgy accent, doesn’t ever fully convince us that he’s a Polish Jew. Speaking of accents, during one of the tensest moments in the film, when the partisans are doing battle against a convoy of Germans, the mish mash of accents is so awful it’s laughable, and certainly detracts from the intensity of the scene. Really, what are Scots doing in the middle of the Belarussian forest fighting Nazis? This is not to say that the acting is poor; Liev Schreiber as Zus Bielski is excellent.

Asked for his opinion of the film, Bell says that most of it is true, but that “it’s a Hollywood movie made for an American audience.” Like Burger said in her interview with the IJN’s Andrea Jacobs**, Bell reiterates that there’s no way the partisans ever took over a tank, as portrayed in the film’s final scene. As to Craig’s performance, Bell jokes, “I’m not going to say anything against ‘double-o-seven,'” referring to Craig’s portrayal of international spy James Bond.

Defiance‘s real achievement isn’t the film at all, but that it put Jewish partisans on the map and created a platform in which to discuss Jewish resistance to the Nazis. That alone makes it a worthwhile film.

**Andrea Jacobs interview with Paula Burger was published in the IJN’s 2009 Spring L’Chaim magazine. To purchase a copy, contact Carol (303) 861-2234 or carol@ijn.com.

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