A Polish story through Hollywood's eyes


WARSAW — "Defiance," the new Daniel Craig movie about a band of brothers who build a Jewish resistance movement in the forests of Belarus during World War II, is creating a storm in Poland.

There is no dispute that the real-life Bielski brothers, led by Tuvia, played by Craig in the film, created a group of fighters who helped save about 1,200 Jews whom the Germans would otherwise have murdered.

But in Poland, the Bielskis’ crew is accused of cooperating with the Soviets, taking part in attacks on the Polish underground Home Army, which had units in the same region, stealing food and raiding local peasants, many of whom were Polish.

A Polish book also accused the brothers of participating in the 1943 attack on the village of Naliboki, where Soviet partisans killed about 120 people. The attack is being investigated by Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance, which catalogues crimes committed against Poles by Communists and Nazis.

“The fact of the participation of partisans from Bielski’s unit in the attack on Naliboki is only one of the avenues being explored in the investigation,” Andrzej Arseniuk, spokesman for the institute, told the Polish news agency.

With the opening of "Defiance," these accusations have been the subject of front-page newspaper stories and TV talk shows.

Despite the charges in the book, an investigation by the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper found that the Bielskis’ fighters were not near Naliboki during the time of the killings, but that Tuvia did help betray a Polish underground leader to the Soviets, and in 1944 took part in a joint operation with the Soviets aimed at wiping out Polish anti-communist units.

The world in which the Bielskis operated was much more complicated than the film lets on. In the Hollywood version of history, Jewish fighters battle the evil Nazis and are helped by the decent Soviets — the Poles don’t figure much at all.

The brothers were born before World War I, when the region was part of the Russian Empire. After the war, the area became part of Poland and Tuvia served in the Polish army. When the Soviets invaded and annexed eastern Poland on Sept. 17, 1939 as part of their pact with the Germans, Tuvia became a Soviet official.

When the Germans turned around and attacked their erstwhile allies in 1941, one of their first priorities was rounding up and killing the thousands of Jews who formed a large part of the population of the region’s towns and villages. Tuvia and his brothers escaped to Europe’s last tracts of old growth forests, where they set up their partisan unit.

In the first years following Germany’s invasion, the Soviets were Poland’s allies, but that relationship broke down in 1943, when German troops discovered the bodies of thousands of Polish officers whom the Soviets had executed in 1940. Moscow broke off ties with the Polish government in exile in London and began to try to disarm and destroy non-communist underground units. Bielski’s force was eventually incorporated into the Soviet Red Army.

The Bielskis remained almost unknown in Poland until a former inhabitant of Naliboki, Waclaw Nowicki, published a book in 1993 in which he accused the brothers of taking part in the attack on the village. However, the investigators have found “no archival documents” to support the theory, said Arseniuk.

The controversy has not kept "Defiance" from a big opening in Poland, where it is playing in movie theaters around the country.

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