By Judith Orr
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This article is over 14 years, 9 months old
Nechama Tec, Oxford University Press; £7.95
Issue 334

This is the book on which the recent movie of the same name was based. Like the film it has its weaknesses. But the film helped reveal this extraordinary story of a group of Jewish partisans who defied the Nazis and survived deep in the forest of Western Belorussia during the Second World War. Unfortunately, Nechama Tec has an irritating style that would be more akin to a romantic novel. She should have let the material speak for itself because what she has unearthed about the Bielski partisans is utterly fascinating.

Tec was lucky enough to get an interview with the charismatic leader of the group, Tuvia Bielski, two weeks before he died in 1987. He and his two brothers had lost most of their family to the Nazis and refused to become trapped in the ghetto. By 1944 they had a settled community of 1,200 people with workshops doing everything from gun repairs to soap making. There was a bakery, a bath house, a hospital and a school.

Tuvia insisted on welcoming all Jewish refugees – some partisans argued that the old and sick would be a burden. In fact regular scouts were sent out, even into the ghetto itself, to offer refuge. Class divisions were turned on their head. The previously privileged found themselves struggling in a situation that relied on manual skills for survival.

Despite its flaws this is an inspiring account of the potential of the human spirit to resist.

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