Author: Nechama Tec, 1993.
Genre: Non-fiction. History. WWII. Holocaust.
Other Details: OUP 2008 edition with foreword by Edward Zwick, 392 pages with preface and foreword.
While the prevailing image of European Jews during the Holocaust years is one of helpless victims who did not fight their consignment to the ghettos, camps and gas chambers; there were many who did struggle against the terrors. This work focuses on one such group: the Bielski partisans, who managed to establish a community deep within the forests of western Belorussia during 1942-44 and gave sanctuary to Jewish fugitives including women, children and the elderly. Aside from their efforts to survive in this hostile environment and avoid the German troops sent to eliminate them, the book also details of the group's uneasy relationships with the Russian partisans, who were also living in the forests.
Nechama Tec is a Holocaust scholar as well as a Holocaust survivor who had been hidden by a Polish-Catholic family for the duration of the war. Her writing seems to have focuses on challenging perceptions about the passivity cited above with works such as Resilience and Courage: Women, Men, and the Holocaust. This is a well-researched account of inspiring people and events, which draws on Tec's interviews with surviving member of the Bielski group including its leader Tuvia Bielski, who Tec was able to interview only weeks before his death in 1987. However, it is also a very academic work; dry and matter-of-fact. This made it hard to engage with as more than a series of dates and episodes. In some respects the scale of the horrors recounted made me glad to be able to read it in such a manner.
This was a reading group selection though the person who had suggested it had believed that it was a novelization of the film or a fictionalised account of the real events rather than what it was. Most of the group had also assumed this from the back cover blurb and cover art, which is an image from the film. Due to this, many in the group agreed that it was well-researched but that it had been not quite what they had expected it to be.
Overall I am glad that I read the book and learnt of this story of resistance and survival even though it lacked the emotional intensity of works such as The Pianist (my 2008 Book 72).