Tec's work on the Bielski brothers is significant not only as an account of a fighting family's history (Tec bases much of her work on interviews with Tuvia Bielski, as well as with other partisan group survivors), but for what it reveals on the partisan phenomenon in general: that rescue and resistance were not mutually exclusive. During the Holocaust, a number of ghetto youth leaders unfavorably viewed rescue as the search for individual security, advocating instead that Jews stay in the ghetto and fight as a collective. The Bielski partisans, however, by facilitating escape from the ghetto to the forest (i.e. individual rescue), were concurrently able to secure arms and thus lay the groundwork for collective self-defense. The hundreds of Jews who escaped from the ghettos of western Belorussia to the Bielski camp joined the Bielski partisans. By 1944, the Bielski community numbered over 1,200 Jews, and was the largest case of rescue of Jews by Jews in World War II.
In contrast to much of the self-defense in the ghettos, where the decision to resist was, more often than not, a strategy not of how to survive but of how to die with honor, in the forest, resistance was actually a strategy for survival. With the Bielski unit, rescue and resistance became a shared aim. Shedding light on this phenomenon alone makes Tec's work an important contribution.
The Bielski partisan unit gave protection to all Jewish fugitives. Tec's very first words, in her preface, are:
My research about the Nazi annihilation of European Jews alerted me to a serious omission and an equally serious distortion. The omission is the conspicuous silence about Jews who, while themselves threatened by death, were saving others. This distortion is the common description of European Jews who went passively to their death.
Tec's correction of this distortion is particularly timely for an American reading audience. Today we hear quite a lot, and rightfully so, about non-Jews who rescued Jews. Tec herself, a hidden child in Poland, has written passionately on this topic. Non-Jews who rescued Jews have now become a subject of popular American literature and movies. But how many people can name individual Jews who rescued Jews? As Tec so amply documents, Bielski is one of those Jews (and, not that it is necessarily desirable, the material for a Hollywood production is certainly there).
What makes Tec's work so riveting is that the story of the Bielski partisans is told through a rare combination of exciting narrative, penetrating character studies, and illustrations of courage, spontaneity, and the determination to survive-all this coupled with thorough historical documentation. Tec is also evenhanded. She is not judgmental, for example, of those Jews who did not heed the cries of the Bielskis to escape from the communities.
One part of the Bielski story that this reader would have liked to know more about from the book is the Bielskis' Jewish life-to the extent it could be preserved during the Holocaust. How much Judaism was practiced in the family camps, either collectively or individually? Did Jewish ritual and the Jewish propensity to sanctify time help family camp members cope with their circumstances? Or, in an era when Jews were no longer all religious, did secular avenues, such as Zionism, add some strength to beleaguered Jews? Was there simple comfort to be gleaned from doing anything familiar, anything Jewish? Granted, physical survival and its necessary ingredients- rescue and resistance-were of primary concern to the Bielskis. But as part of this concern, or in spite of this concern, it would have been interesting to learn more about the role played, or not played, by Jewish religion and culture.
Nechama Tec tells an exciting story of rescuers and fighters-a story that should have been documented years ago. Now that the story has been told, it will undoubtedly be retold, and perhaps with new information and emphases. But most important of all, Defiance will no doubt engender further interest in the subject of Jewish partisan activity.
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory
By Deborah E. Lipstadt. New York: The Free Press, 1993. 278 pp.
In the preface to her book, Lipstadt reveals that when she first began to study Holocaust denial, people were shocked that she took "these guys seriously." Unfortunately, even before she had completed her study, attitudes had changed so dramatically that these same people were not asking why she was doing it, but when the book would be out.
As Lipstadt shows, denial of the Holocaust began almost immediately in the aftermath of World War II and has continued since then. In France, it was taken up by Maurice Bardeche and Paul Rassinier; in the United States, denial has been promoted by such Nazi sympathizers as Austin J. App, Arthur Butz and Fred Leuchter; in Canada by Ernst Zundel; and in Britain by David Irving.
Typical arguments include the assertions that the Reich's plan for solving Germany's Jewish problem was only emigration, never annihilation; that the gas chambers never existed; that most Jews who disappeared did so under Soviet control, and those Jews who did die in German hands were spies, saboteurs, and criminals; and that there is no evidence for the statistic that six million Jews died.
In a scholarly and dispassionate style, Lipstadt destroys these and other claims of the deniers. According to Lipstadt, the most effective strategy for countering these claims is for educators and historians to make the truth accessible to all and to prove what they know to be fact.
If the deniers, as described by Lipstadt, are a collection of anti-Semitic crack-pots, veterans of Fascist and pro-Nazi organizations, convicted frauds, libelers and pornographers, who have been discredited in countless legal courts, why do they seem to be getting stronger each year? One of the most startling reasons is that the media is especially attracted to their bizarre findings. A particularly interesting example of this appeal is seen in the author's discussion of Fred Leuchter, a self-proclaimed "engineer" (Leuchter asserted, while testifying at the Canadian trial of Ernst Zundel, that anyone who went to college had "the necessary math and science" to be an electrical engineer). After returning from a tour of Auschwitz paid for by Zundel, Leuchter asserted that, given the size and usage rate of the facilities at Auschwitz and Majdanek, it would have been impossible to execute six million people in the time period of the Holocaust. Lipstadt explains how this is a typical smoke screen used by deniers. No one, she states, had claimed that the gas chambers were used to kill six million people; millions of people were killed in various ways: by the Einsatzgruppen, in gas vans, or a result of starvation, disease, and other types of mistreatment. Even though Leuchter was revealed as a liar and a charlatan in Canada, and declared a fraud by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, he was still depicted in a February 1990 article in the Atlantic Monthly as an expert on execution equipment used in the U.S. When the magazine was deluged with protests, its publishers pleaded ignorance of Leuchter's "denier past" and declared that its researchers could "hardly be expected to know about his peculiar hobby."
In the 1990s, a denial campaign has been waged on American college campuses. Full-page ads have been placed in college newspapers throughout the United States, claiming that the Holocaust was a hoax. Denial is portrayed as a "revisionist" interpretation prevented by advocates of "political correctness" from being aired on campus.
Some... may have walked away from the controversy convinced that there are two sides to this debate: the "revisionists" and the "establishment historians." They may know that there is tremendous controversy about the former. They may not be convinced that the two sides have equal validity. They may even know that the deniers keep questionable company. But nonetheless they assume there is an "other side." That is the most frightening aspect of this entire matter" (208)
Denying the Holocaust aggressively counters the "arguments" of those who would deny the truth of one of the most fully documented events in all of history. As Lipstadt states so eloquently in her closing statement:
We [scholars] did not train in our respective field in order to stand like watchmen and women on the Rhine. Yet this is what we must do. We do so in order to expose falsehood and hate. We will remain ever vigilant so that the most precious tools of our trade and our society -truth and reason- can prevail. The still, small voices of millions cry out to us. (222)
Written under the auspices of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, "[t]he book reproduces materials from the museum's large collection of artifacts, photographs, maps, and taped oral and video histories provided by Holocaust survivors and other witnesses" (introduction, 1). Throughout the volume succinct biographical stories referred to by the author as "identity cards" because the information "includes excerpts from 'identity cards' that are part of the museum's exhibit" (ibid.) are included of young people who suffered through the Holocaust period and either died or survived. Photographs accompany each individual's story. This feature greatly enhances the book by adding a personal touch to this horrific history.
A listing of only a few of the many topics addressed by Bachrach provides a sense of the eclectic and comprehensive nature of this volume: Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, Hitler's rise to power, the boycott of Jewish businesses, the Nuremberg race laws, the murder of the handicapped, ghettos in Eastern Europe, the mobile killing squads, deportations, the killing centers, rescue, resistance inside Germany, the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Jewish partisans, liberation, the Nuremberg Trials, and the fate of the survivors.
Possibly the most remarkable feature of this book is the brevity in which it provides such a comprehensive and detailed history of the Holocaust. This is indicative of the tightness of the writing as well as the expertise of the author and those who provided advice and critiques of the volume as it was in progress.
The author makes a number of very important historical distinctions. For example, she points out that "The Wannsee Conference did not mark the beginning of the 'final solution'" (46), explaining that "the mobile killing squads were already slaughtering Jews in the occupied Soviet Union. Rather, the Wannsee Conference was the place where the 'final solution' was formally revealed to non-Nazi leaders who would help arrange for Jews to be transported from all over German-occupied Europe to SS-operated 'extermination' camps in Poland" (46). Another example of a key distinction is where Bachrach notes how the Holocaust differs from other genocides perpetrated throughout history: "Never before had a modern state committed itself to the murder of an entire people"(46). Such important information and distinctions as these abound in this fine volume.
Through its author's diligence and attention to detail, the volume "answers" many of the questions that both teachers and students are bound to ask sooner or later during a study of the Holocaust. It is also packed with informative photographs about all aspects of the history. And, unlike a lot of textbooks, the photographs not only supplement the text, but actually complement it. Indeed, even if they stood alone-bereft of the text-the photographs could almost relate the story of the Holocaust on their own. As a result, both the nature and quality of the photographs, as well as their position in the book, greatly enhance the overall value of the volume. In addition to the photographs, numerous maps (of 1933 Europe, of the voyage of the S.S. St. Louis, of 1942 Europe, and of the major Nazi camps) also contribute to the educative nature of the volume.
The volume also includes a solid chronology of the Holocaust, a list of publications for further reading, a useful glossary and an index. Finally, it also includes a set of colored photographs of certain artifacts (e.g., a collage developed by a child imprisoned in the Theresienstadt ghetto, a milk can in which records of the Warsaw Ghetto were hidden by historian Emmanuel Ringelblum, and suitcases confiscated by the Nazis from prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau) that are contained in the collection of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
This reviewer highly recommends this volume for use in those junior and senior high classrooms that are engaged in a study about the Holocaust. It is a volume that is not only informative but thought-provoking and touching.
University of Arkansas
Judith A. Wigdortz
Monmouth Regional High School
Tinton Falls, NJ
Tell Them We Remember: The Story of the Holocaust
By Susan D. Bachrach. Boston: Little, Brown, 1994. 112pp. Paperback. $10.95
Tell Them We Remember: The Story of the Holocaust, whose intended audience is junior high and high school students, is well-written, engaging, and thought-provoking. For those teachers who are looking for a book on the Holocaust that is historically accurate, thorough, easy to understand, and relatively short, this is the ideal volume.