A cinematic look at the life of resistance fighters.

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Different Paths to Resistance

For his part, Zus decides that joining the Russian army would be a more effective way of fighting Nazis. Yet he finds himself battling anti-Semitism in the army, and soon realizes that the Russians would have no qualms about killing Jewish resisters perceived as getting in their way. Zus wins the respect of the Russians through his sheer warrior bravado, but in many ways he becomes a necessary liaison between the groups, and events force a reconciliation between him and Tuvia. The only unanswered question left by the film is how Zus managed to break away from the Red Army, whose “deserters” were shot, in order to rejoin Tuvia.

Tuvia achieves his greatest coup when he convinces most of the Jews of a nearby town-turned-ghetto to come to the forest community rather than be sent to Nazi death camps. Some choose to take their chances in the camps. The rabbi in the ghetto declares it best for the people to wait for God. A community leader is concerned that for everyone who escapes, twenty are killed. Later, some of the people want to return to the ghetto with its certain death. In many ways, whether Korah-like rebellion or complaints and crying to “return to Egypt,” or the showdown with mortal enemies and the ultimate crossing over, this story parallels the biblical Exodus, and Tuvia as another Moses. The film notes that the irony is not lost on the characters that the last, redemptive encounter with the Nazis must take place on Passover.

The film does a good job of depicting the diversity of the Jewish community in Eastern Europe, from the socialist secularists to the ultra religious. A confused sentry with no aptitude for his job provides comedic effect. There is a nice sampling here of debates between the groups that were typical by the early twentieth century not only in communities but in individual families. In the forest community some Jews pray and some play cards, some work (and fight) with their hands and some are intellectuals who learn to work with their hands. Feminist issues also arise and we know that policies will change as soon as the question is asked: “Why is there a rule against women having guns?

Tuvia and Zus do have issues with Jews who belonged either to the wealthy class or to the scholarly circle, parties who spurned them in the past. There is a definite suggestion here, as well, that the elder brothers were suited to their calling as rebel leaders because they had always been renegades and even rogues. Even their old Hebrew School teacher, who decried their “wildness” years before, comes to recognize that the unruly are the least likely to abide by bad and dangerous laws and to accept the status quo in a world gone mad.

Defiance has its melodramatic aspects, especially a funeral scene in which the teacher (an ordained rabbi?) challenges God: “Choose another people….Take back the gift of our holiness.” For a while the rabbi’s rant seems a bit gratuitous, but in a death scene later on it makes sense. Some might find for a moment an unseemly grandiosity in Tuvia’s riding atop a white horse, but in an instant we understand that this was Tuvia’s necessary moment of transformation as a leader, and in a later instant we learn that, with heavy heart, he sacrifices his empowering trophy so that the community might survive.

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Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel

Elliot B. Gertel is the rabbi of Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago and media critic for The Jewish Post and Opinion of Indianapolis.