Defiance

A cinematic look at the life of resistance fighters.

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Morality in Defiance

The film delves into questions of morality. It takes pains to contrast those who opt for traditional Jewish marriage in the wilderness with those who take a “forest wife.” It does not glorify the latter situation, but does indicate at the end that Zus remained married his entire life to the woman he met in the wilderness. There is an implication here that where children were fortunate to flee together with parents, a sense of traditional mores remained strong. The film reminds us, especially when Zus learns of the death of his wife and child, that one cannot but refrain from condemning breaches in time-honored mores, yet the wedding depicted here does show that people, even young people, could have followed those mores had they chosen to do so.

There is a suggestion here that pregnancies just did not occur because Tuvia stipulated that the community could not survive with babies. Yet there is a strong “pro-life” stance here in Tuvia’s acceptance of a baby born to a woman who had hidden her pregnancy, the result of rape by a Nazi guard. In moral issues, the film assumes an objective tone, in line with its approach to “forest wives.” This is true even in the scene in which a young Nazi soldier is captured and the community would become an avenging mob.

Righteous Gentiles

Particularly moving in the film are the scenes in which Gentiles try to do the right thing (well, one Gentile) despite the dangers of Nazi tyranny and their struggle with ingrained anti-Semitism. A peasant who provides weapons to Tuvia and Zus and hides Jews and helps them in other ways initially complains, “You people. Why is it so…[expletive] hard being friends with a Jew?” Tuvia replies, “Try being one.” This man, who admired the brothers’ father, proves to be quite noble and is later hanged by the Nazis in his own barn and covered with a sign, “Jew Lover.” One of the most moving scenes in the film is when the brothers bury him and craft a makeshift cross for him.

In a uniquely powerful and even stunning way, Defiance recalls and pays tribute to Holocaust resistance with integrity and thoughtfulness, pull and inspiration. The DVD belongs in the collection of any individual or school or organization that values the full story of Jewish (and Russian) responses to Nazi atrocities.

Published in the “National Jewish Post and Opinion,” Sept. 9, 2009

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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.