On January 19th, 2009, Defiance was released to underwhelming box office numbers. With a budget of $32 million, the film would go on to only make back about $28 million in theaters. After the author of the book that the movie was based on, Nechama Tec, saw the film, she was shocked by some of the changes Hollywood made.
Let’s find out just how much changed as we learn the true story behind Defiance.
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- Defiance the movie
- Defiance: The Bielski Partisans by Nechama Tec. The book behind the movie.
- The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Built a Village in the Forest, and Saved 1,200 Jews
- The Mirror’s article about the true story behind Defiance
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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.
The movie Defiance tells the story of the Bielski brothers, led by Tuvia Bielski, who is played by Daniel Craig. Tuvia was born on May 8th, 1906 in the small Polish village of Stankiewicze. It’s not there anymore, but it was between two towns that are still around. That would be the towns of Nowogródek and Lida, both in what’s now the western side of Belarus.
The Bielski family were the only Polish Jews in Stankiewicze and made their living as millers. While the movie makes it seem like the Bielski family was made up of only the four brothers, that’s not true. In truth, Tuvia was the third eldest of 12 children. Ten boys and two girls.
Tuvia learned to speak German while he served in the Imperial German Army during World War I. He acted as an interpreter between the Germans and the Poles for the Army before being recruited into the Polish Army in 1927 after The Great War ended.
Following this military service, Tuvia returned to Stankiewicze to help run his family’s mill. Then, in 1929, with his family struggling to make ends meet, Tuvia married Rifka, whose family owned a general store. While we don’t know for sure, it seems like this wasn’t a marriage for love, but mostly a marriage to help Tuvia’s family gain access to a new business.
In 1939, Tuvia moved to the larger town of Lida in an effort to hide from the NKVD, or the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs. That was a Soviet law enforcement agency, and someone Tuvia feared might arrest him because of his capitalist occupation as a grocer. Tuvia asked Rifka to move to Lida with him, but she refused.
It was here in Lida that Tuvia met a woman named Lilka. Tuvia fell in love with Lilka and with 1939 winding down, he divorced Rifka to marry Lilka. Although technically his marriage to Lilka wasn’t ever official because of the war.
Tuvia and two of his brothers, Alexander, nicknamed Zus, who’s played by Liev Schreiber, and Asael, who is played by Jamie Bell, were called on by the Polish Army to fight against a Nazi invasion. It was futile, and when the unit disbanded the brothers returned to Stankiewicze.
That’s when the events in the movie start to take place. On June 22nd, 1941, the Germans began their invasion of the Soviet Union with Operation Barbarossa. After almost two years of Soviet rule in the area, the Germans turned on the Soviets when they invaded what is now the country of Belarus, just to the east of Poland.
In the movie, we see Nazi SS soldiers slaughtering people. Those they aren’t killing are captured and sent to concentration camps. Then we see Zus and Asael Bielski watching helplessly from the forest. After the German invasion, Zus and Asael rush into the village where they see their father—murdered. Without time to process what’s happened, they rush to their home where they see their younger brother, Aron, who’s played by George MacKay, hiding under the floor boards. Together the three brothers make their way back into the Lipiczanska Forest where they meet up with the fourth Bielski brother, Daniel Craig’s version of Tuvia.
The basic gist is there, but there’s a few details that aren’t quite right.
At the time, the Germans had yet to see defeat from their infamous blitzkrieg style of warfare. In Stankiewicze, the civilians stood no chance against the advancing German soldiers. The scene was pure chaos. Smoke, burning buildings. People running in the streets. There was a mad panic for shelter as bullets and artillery shells flew everywhere.
According to Peter Duffy’s book The Bielski Brothers, Zus and Asael witnessed both their mother and father being taken away by the Nazis. And it wasn’t just their parents. Two of their other siblings were captured by the Nazis as well. But in both accounts, Zus and Asael were powerless to do anything as their family was led away. While the brothers didn’t see their family die firsthand, it’s almost certain they were murdered in Nazi camps.
Although Zus and Asael couldn’t have known the extent of the devastation, the Nazis would go on to burn an estimated 9,000 Belarusian villages and deport millions of people for slave labor.
The next day, in the movie, the youngest, Aron, makes a discovery. He’s led through the forest after hearing a branch break and seeing someone run away. Chasing them down, he stumbles upon a mass grave. While we don’t know if Aron made this discovery in the way he did in the movie, we do know that about 5,500 people were herded to large trenches the Nazis dug in the forest just outside the town of Lida. Then, without warning, the Nazis opened fire on the unarmed civilians. Three of these trenches were only filled with children.
Looking up from this gruesome discovery, Aron notices multiple people coming out of the forest. They’re survivors; people who, like the Bielskis, have fled into the forest in the face of Nazi aggression. Aron leads them to his brothers to see if they can help an injured child.
Unfortunately, we just don’t know if this is exactly how the Bielskis began protecting people in the forest. The Bielskis, like many others, weren’t trying to form some sort of a rebellion. They weren’t trying to do anything other than save their own lives after seeing their parents and siblings being dragged off. With so many others doing the same thing, it’s very likely that it happened similar to what we see in the movie. By that, I mean it most likely just sort of happened. Before they knew it, they had multiple people looking up to them—the brothers who knew this dense forest like the back of their hands—to help hide them amidst the trees.
If they’re to do this, they’ll need some food and supplies. So in the movie, Daniel Craig’s version of Tuvia sneaks to a friend’s house. It’s a man by the name of Konstanty Kozlowski, nicknamed Koscik. In the movie, Koscik is played by Jacek Koman, and he goes above and beyond, helping Tuvia by giving him some food, his gun and the only four bullets he has.
There aren’t any records of this meeting between Tuvia and Koscik other than Tuvia’s own recollection, but that’s not very surprising given the wartime situation and the fact that this was a secret meeting. That means we’ll have to take this meeting on faith, but again it’s likely to have happened. After all, the Bielskis had lived in the area off and on their whole lives, so they likely had plenty of good friends that were willing to help—even if it meant risking their own lives.
And that’s exactly what happens next in the film, when the local police captain shows up. Enjoying a drink with Koscik, it becomes obvious that he’s rounding up Jews for the Nazis. In exchange, he gets 500 rubles for each Jew he hands over to the SS. After he leaves, Tuvia ends up exacting revenge on the police officer by murdering him along with his two sons in cold blood, leaving their mother alive and in torment.
Yet again for this little bit, we don’t know if this particular police officer was offered money in exchange for turning over Jews. Nor do we know if Tuvia returned to kill the officer. We have to deduce what’s likely to have happened based on some other facts we know about.
Let’s start with the amount. At the time Belarus wasn’t its own country, so this was likely rubles from the Soviet Union. With so much changing with world governments from the 1940s to now, it’s hard to pin down exactly how much 500 rubles is in today’s equivalent but as best as I can gather that’d be about $8 in today’s U.S. dollars. $8 dollars in exchange for a human life.
But would the local police help turn over their own countrymen? After all, like many other Jews, the Bielskis had lived in the area their whole lives. So the moment where the policeman begs for his life saying he had let Tuvia get away with things his whole life is quite possibly true. They knew each other.
And this little section, although it plays a small role in the film, is probably one of the most disturbing of all. Everyone knows about the Nazis slaughtering millions of Jews—the very first exterminations in the infamous death camp Auschwitz started in September of 1941. What a lot of people don’t know is that it wasn’t just the Nazis who were slaughtering Jews.
In many cases it was a neighbor turning on his neighbor. Friend betraying friend.
One of the most documented cases of this was just 150 miles to the west of Lida in the Polish town of Jedwabne. In his incredibly moving book titled simply Neighbors, Polish historian Jan Tomasz Gross explained the horrifying events that occurred on July 10th, 1941. According to Jan, as the Nazis moved into Jedwabne, the Polish townspeople reached an agreement easily with the Nazis on how to handle the Jews in town. It was the Poles who rounded up their friends and neighbors who just happened to be Jews. 1,600 Jews were locked in a barn that was then set ablaze.
It’s horrifying to think that society can pressure people on each other so quickly if only prodded a little by an outside force. But it’s true. The Nazis certainly weren’t innocent, but they weren’t the ones who turned on their own. The families they’d grown up beside. Their neighbors. Their friends. Those were the ones who turned.
After years of research and interviews that led to the book, Jan’s concluded that the citizens of Jedwabne Jews were not murdered by Nazis or Soviets, but by the society.
Some historians say the Bielskis escaped into the forest toward the end of 1941, while others place the date at the beginning of 1942. Regardless, the timing of that and the events in Jedwabne in the beginning of July, 1941, make the events in the movie where the police were turning Jews over to the Nazis something very believable. We don’t know for sure, but while Jedwabne may have been one of the largest mass murders at that time in that region, it’s not likely these horrific events were isolated to a single town.
Back in the movie, Liev Schrieber’s version of Zus is helping to build a camp in the forest when two men show up in the camp with a rifle. Aiming it at whomever is speaking, the men demand food. After being calmed down, they explain what’s happened. There used to be 3,000 Jews in their town, now there’s 50. Liev’s first question is about his wife, Sonia, and his child, who were in the same town. A slight shake of the head. They’re gone.
This is partially true. Zus’ wife and infant daughter were murdered by the Nazis just like the movie indicates. But Liev refers to Sonia, and that was the name of Zus’ second wife, not the one that was murdered by the Nazis. Zus’ first wife was named Cyrl Borowski. Like so many others who joined the Bielskis in the forest, Sonia Boldo was a young woman who managed to escape capture and flee into the trees. It wasn’t a quick marriage, but Zus and Sonia would eventually marry in the forest.
There’s more bad news in the movie, this time for Tuvia. When Asael gets separated after they ambush a German soldier only to attract the attention of a troop transport truck that happens down the road, Asael stumbles upon two women. One is Bella and the other Chaya. In the movie Bella is played by Iben Hjejle and Chaya is played by Mia Wasikowska.
These women bring the news that Tuvia’s wife was also murdered by the Nazis. Although we don’t know if the news was delivered in this way, sadly we know that the news itself is true. Although it wasn’t Tuvia’s current wife, Lilka. It was Rifka Bielski, and Zus’ wife, Cyrl, and their daughter, along with many, many others who were murdered in the Nowogródek ghetto on December 8th, 1941.
Interestingly, after Bella comes into the camp it seems that Zus starts to take an interest in her. But as we already learned, it was actually a different woman by the name of Sonia and not Bella that Zus was interested in. And Sonia was just 18 years old when she and Zus first met in the forest. In a 2009 interview with The Mirror, Sonia recalled meeting Zus for the first time. According to the article, Zus wrapped Sonia in a fur coat and told her she had nothing to fear. She was infatuated.
So there were some slight details changed for the movie.
Speaking of the movie, one of the next pivotal moments happens when Zus gets fed up with Tuvia’s inactivity. The movie makes it seem like he’s fueled by a desire for revenge for his wife and daughter. Zus ends up leaving the camp and going to fight alongside the October Otriad, a group of Russian soldiers led by Viktor Panchenko. In the movie, Viktor is portrayed by Ravil Isyanov. And in truth the Bielski fighters were associated with a Russian General Vasily Yefimovich Platon-Chernyshev.
While revenge for Zus’ wife and daughter probably wasn’t the reason, considering everything that has happened to their family, no one could say the Bielski brothers were short on reasons for revenge.
As Zus fights alongside the Russian partisans in the October Otriad, the movie makes it seem as if the Bielski Otriad had nothing to do with the Russians. In truth, though, the two partisan groups did work together some. The movie got the part right where the Jews cared more about just surviving than fighting back like the Russians did, but the Jews helped fight back in their own way by supporting the Russians with goods they’d make and repairs or medical help.
So the reality was that there wasn’t the divide between Tuvia and Zus as the movie makes it seem, but they did split up into two units. One unit of the Bielski Otriad was led by Zus and the other by Tuvia.
Back in the movie, one of the next pivotal moments happens when Tuvia and Asael sneak into the ghetto in the nearby village of Baranovichi. That’s about 60 miles south of Lida. It almost seems unthinkable, but in the movie the Jews don’t want to leave. They’re held prisoner in a section of town by the Nazis, and as Tuvia begs the elders to leave he mentions the death camps. The Jewish leaders scoff at this, saying there’s no way the Nazis had death camps.
One of the elders, portrayed by actor Mark Margolis, tries to insist the Nazis won’t kill all of the Jews. According to him, they can’t—they need the Jews to work the camps.
A few people do leave with them, though, as they sneak back out to the forest. One of these is Lilka Ticktin.
Now as far as history is concerned, there’s no proof that Tuvia and Asael snuck into the ghetto in this manner. But we know for a fact that this is not how Tuvia met Lilka. If you remember from the beginning of the episode, we learned that Tuvia met Lilka in 1939 before any of this happened. So at this point in history, they were already married.
However, the position of the Jewish elder in the movie is most likely true. Because of the mixture of the Nazi propaganda machine along with the mere fact that no one up to that point could believe humans could do something so despicable to other humans, most people—Jews included—simply didn’t believe in the rumored death camps.
And there’s another reason to believe the situation in the movie could have happened. The timeline in the movie here is near the end of 1941. The very first extermination camp was named Chelmno, which was located in Poland about 350 miles to the west of Baranovichi. And with Nazi propaganda squashing any information they didn’t want people to know about, such as the extermination camps, rumors truly would have been the only way people would hear about the death camp—if they heard of it at all.
And with everything else going on in the war, can you believe every rumor you hear? Surely not.
In fact, it wasn’t until the following year, 1942, that reports started to surface of death camps as evidenced by a report in London. In a report dated June 26th, 1942, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s website documents that more than 700,000 Polish Jews, or about one third of the entire Jewish population, were massacred in Poland by the Nazis.
All of this added up is to say, the discussions Tuvia and Asael have with the Jewish elders are most likely fictional. But they’re based on things that certainly could have happened—if not with the Bielskis, but with others at the time.
In the movie, there’s a montage as Asael and Chaya get married. It’s a beautifully horrific mixture of the savagery of war and the beauty of love as the movie cuts between the wedding and the battles of Zus with the October Otriad.
The timeline here is different than reality. And just like the movie changed some things about the relationship between Tuvia and Lilka, so, too, are the details about Asael and Chaya a bit different. The true story is that Asael had known Chaya for a while. Before the war, one of Asael’s sisters, Tajba, had an arranged marriage to a man named Avremale. As one of the older men in the family, tradition would be that Asael be in charge of the logistics of this arranged marriage. And so he was.
Avremale’s sister was Chaya. And since she had graduated from high school, a rare feat for the region at the time, she helped tutor Asael. So the truth is they knew each other before this happened. And they didn’t get married at the end of 1941 like the movie makes it seem. We don’t have an exact date because, well, during wartime there weren’t a lot of records kept. But most historians agree that they were married a few years after that, most likely near the end of 1944.
Back in the movie, the timeline cuts to the spring of 1942. After a cold and brutal winter, the weather is getting warmer. But things don’t get any easier. They capture a German soldier, and from him they find documentation of an impending German attack on the forest.
It didn’t happen like this in real life but the overall gist, again, is fairly close.
The forest where the Bielski camp was located was so dark, there was no daylight. Zus and Sonia’s son, Zvi Bielski, may not have been portrayed in the movie, but he recounted some things he’d heard from his parents for The Mirror’s 2009 article.
Zvi explained that it was nearly impossible to see in the forest because the trees were packed together so densely. This also kept the Nazis from bringing heavy machinery like tanks into the forest.
In the movie, in anticipation of the German advance, Tuvia leads the group across swamps and deeper into the forest.
And this is true. The camp was surrounded by swamps, so no doubt they had to pass through them.
The Germans knew about the Bielskis and the Russians. And they tried to take them out. Time and time again, the Germans would dedicate entire divisions of soldiers, cannons, and planes to try to root out the pesky partisans. But they were never successful. Each time, Tuvia would use his intimate knowledge of the region to simply lead his unit deeper into the dense forest. There, they’d wait it out until the Germans gave up.
Meanwhile, of course, Zus’s unit and the Russians would fight back and help speed along the German’s retreat.
The movie doesn’t mention this at all, but as time went on, more and more local policemen joined the partisans. Many of them started to realize what the Germans were doing and, with their conscious not allowing them to go along with it any more, they’d venture into the forest and join ranks with the Bielskis or the Russians—whichever they came upon first.
In the movie, after the Bielskis make it out of the swamp they’re almost immediately pinned down by German infantry along with a tank.
That didn’t happen. In fact, the book’s author, Nechama Tec, would later say she was shocked by this change in the storyline. But after watching the movie a few times, she changed her mind. Even though this detail didn’t happen, the gist is there—the Bielskis were attacked by the Germans time and again. The movie’s director, Edward Zwick, just took a little liberty here.
And this is where the movie ends. After defeating the Germans, the survivors push on deeper into the forest. The text on the screen claims they lived in the forest for two more years. In that time, according to the movie, they built a new camp that included a school, hospital, and a nursery.
All of this is true. Although there was a lot more than a school, hospital, and a nursery. There was also a mill, a tannery, a bakery, a blacksmith, tailors, watchmakers, carpenters, leatherworks, and many other buildings. It really was a small village.
While the movie was focusing on the events in the forest, elsewhere in the war the Germans were attacking Moscow. Then, after the Germans failed to capture the Soviet capital, as the Bielskis were struggling to survive the cold and lack of food, the Soviets started to mount their own counter-offensive. Slowly but surely, they pushed back the German forces.
But the Soviets didn’t stop at driving the Nazis out of their homeland. They kept pushing. It took over a year, but in the summer of 1944, the Soviets began to force the Nazis out of Belarus. On July 10th, 1944, the Red Army captured Minsk, the capital of Belarus. This trapped over 100,000 Nazi troops, significantly hurting their defenses. It only took ten days more for the Red Army to reach the Belarus/Poland border.
The final bit of text on the screen in the movie says there were 1,200 who survived.
This, too, is true.
With the Nazis gone, Tuvia led 1,230 men, women, and children out of the forest and into the nearby town of Nowogródek.
Asael’s wife, Chaya, was pregnant at the time. Right away, he was drafted into the Red Army and in less than six months he was killed in action at the Battle of Königsberg somewhere between January and April of 1945. He never lived to see his daughter, Assaela.
Zus survived the war, and moved to Israel when the war ended. In 1956, he moved to New York and started a taxi cab and trucking company. He died in 1994 at the age of 82 with his wife, Sonia, by his side. He was survived by three sons and six grandchildren.
Tuvia also survived the war. He joined Zus in New York City and helped build the taxi and trucking company into a successful business. Together, the Bielski brothers ran the company for 30 years. Tuvia and Lilka would remain happily married for the rest of their lives. Sadly, when Tuvia died in 1987, he was broke. He never sought any recognition for what he’d done. In fact, it was only two weeks before he passed away that he agreed to recount what had happened for posterity’s sake.
And even then, you and I probably would never know about it if Nechama Tec hadn’t been researching a completely different story and stumbled upon Tuvia’s story by accident. How many other amazing stories like this are out there that we don’t know about? How many of them were never told and are lost in time forever?
Fortunately, we know about the story of the Bielski brothers that inspired the movie Defiance. After the movie was released, there were critics who said the movie omitted the mass killings of 128 Poles by Soviet and Jewish partisans on May 8th, 1943 in the village of Naliboki—about 50 miles from Lida. Many historians believe the Bielskis took part in this mass murder, and while that’s entirely possible, there hasn’t ever been any proof either way.
To say the Bielski brothers were completely innocent isn’t true. They certainly had blood on their hands. For example, Tuvia himself ended up killing two members of his own Otriad. Was it in an attempt to protect more lives, as he claimed? Or was there something else that caused these killings? All we have is Tuvia’s word.
In the end, we’ll likely never know every little thing that happened in that forest. But what we do know is thanks to a seemingly ordinary family who did what they knew was right, today, over 10,000 descendants of the Bielski partisans are alive.
To dig deeper into the true story, please pick up a copy of Nechama Tec’s 1993 book entitled Defiance: The Bielski Partisans.