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Demonizing The Bielski Heroes


And yet the slurs continue.

On December 31, Paramount Vantage released “Defiance,” which tells the story of Tuvia, Asael, and Zus Bielski, three Jewish brothers from a tiny village in Nazi-occupied Belarus. They formed a guerrilla unit in the dense woods, created a makeshift village from ghetto escapees and, in the end, saved some 1,200 Jews from Hitler. The Bielski brothers have long deserved to be mentioned with Oskar Schindler and the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The film, which is based on a book of the same title by Nechama Tec, has garnered a shower of positive attention. It stars Daniel Craig, the current James Bond, as the visionary Tuvia, who ended his life as a Brooklyn truck driver. Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell (of “Billy Elliot” fame) play Zus and Asael respectively.

The project has also drawn a more negative response. Although smears against the brothers have long enjoyed currency among Polish anti-Semites – who can’t seem to decide whether the Bielskis were simpering cowards or heartless savages – they had not reached the respectable press until word of the film’s release began to spread.

In June, Gazeta Wyborcza, an important Polish daily edited by Solidarity hero Adam Michnik, gave prominent airing to the charge that “Bielski partisans were involved in the massacre of 128 [Polish] civilians by a Soviet partisan unit in the village of Naliboki in May 1943,” according to an English language translation of the article on its website.

As a source, the paper cited an investigation being conducted by the Lodz branch of the Instytut Pamięci Narodowej or Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), a Polish government-affiliated body charged with prosecuting crimes against the Polish nation.

Since the Gazeta Wyborcza article appeared, other periodicals have followed suit. A Polish “historian” named Jerzy Robert Nowak told Variety, the daily newspaper of the entertainment industry in Hollywood, “We Poles are furious. It is a scandal that anyone could think of making a film casting the murderers who massacred Polish villagers as heroes.”

On December 31 The Times of London published a story, “Poland Split Over Whether Daniel Craig is Film Hero or Villain,” which repeated the IPN accusation and said that some “Poles fear that in telling Bielski’s story Hollywood has airbrushed out some unpleasant episodes.” (The piece concluded by pointing out that “several members of the Bielski family served in the Israeli armed forces,” which the writer seemed to regard as a damning fact.)

The Daily Mail (of London) followed up a few days later with a story on Tuvia Bielski headlined, appallingly, “Jewish Savior or Butcher of Innocents?” It said that “critics” accuse him of “terrorizing ethnic Poles.”

None of the articles noted that the IPN’s accusation is utterly lacking in solid evidence. It is, in fact, little more than an exercise in character assassination.

The IPN, which has been investigating the Naliboki incident since 2001, has said that Soviet partisan detachments – which began a covert war against the Nazi occupiers soon after the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 – murdered a group of 128 Polish individuals, mostly men but also three women, an unspecified number of teenage boys and a ten-year-old child, on May 8, 1943.

In the roughly 300-word description of the investigation e-mailed to me in 2007, the word Bielski is only mentioned once, in the final line: “Jewish partisans from Tweje Bielski’s detachment also participated in the attack on Naliboki.”

Then in June 2008 the IPN issued another statement, one that backtracked considerably from its previous statement. Noting that some eyewitnesses claimed Bielski partisans were “among those who attacked,” it added that the “eyewitnesses don’t say on what factual basis this statement is based.”

Their statements were “not supported by any other proof, for instance by archival documents.” (The Soviet documents on the Naliboki attack do not mention the Bielskis.) The IPN also said that “some historians” allege the Bielski detachment was involved “but the authors don’t give sources of this information in their works.”

“So the fact of the participation of the partisans from the Bielski detachment in the attack on Naliboki is only one of the versions accepted in the course of the investigation,” the IPN said.

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And yet the slurs continue.

On December 31, Paramount Vantage released “Defiance,” which tells the story of Tuvia, Asael, and Zus Bielski, three Jewish brothers from a tiny village in Nazi-occupied Belarus. They formed a guerrilla unit in the dense woods, created a makeshift village from ghetto escapees and, in the end, saved some 1,200 Jews from Hitler. The Bielski brothers have long deserved to be mentioned with Oskar Schindler and the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

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