TORONTO — When Nechama Tec was told Daniel Craig would play the role of wartime partisan Tuvia Bielsky in the movie Defiance, her initial reaction was to ask, “Daniel who?”
She was quite familiar with the Bielsky part of the equation, having based her book, Defiance, on his story and those of the Jews he saved during the Holocaust.
Tec, a sociologist by profession and a Holocaust survivor herself, was unfamiliar with Craig, who gained international acclaim as the latest James Bond. Nevertheless, she’s “extremely happy” with the way the film turned out, including, no doubt, Craig’s performance.
Tec, who is currently working on a book that will contrast Jewish and non-Jewish resistance to the Nazis in eastern Europe, will be in Toronto next week to address the Holocaust Survivor Memoir Series, a free event that will be held at the Winter Garden Theatre.
Sponsored by the Azrieli Foundation, the June 15 event will see the launch of eight new paperback memoirs of Holocaust survivors, published by the foundation. The survivors, their children or grandchildren will read from the books.
Defiance, which Tec completed in 1993, is a scholarly work and “rarely” does such a work become a popular movie. Not only does it tell the story of how Bielsky and his brothers saved Jews, it instructs the wider world in a reality that is all too often ignored – that Jews were not all passive victims of the Nazis, she said.
“There were lots of instances in communities where there was resistance.”
Allied armies took years to defeat the Hitler war machine, so Jewish resistance “couldn’t succeed, but if it occurred in any way, it was a miracle,” she said.
The 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising might be the most well-known act of resistance, but there were other revolts in ghettoes, concentration camps, and the death camps such as Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibor.
Though there was no chance of defeating the Nazis, “there was a decision, a need to retain some of their human autonomy, their Jewish selfhood. They wanted to make a statement,” she said.
Tec said she came to the Bielsky story almost by accident. She had been interviewing survivor Oswald Rufeisen for another book, In The Lion’s Den. During the war, Rufeisen passed as a half-German, half-Polish member of the German gendarmerie, where he used his position to help Jews in trouble.
Eventually he had to flee – after helping 305 Jews escape a ghetto – and he eventually became a partisan under Bielsky. When Tec interviewed Bielsky to corroborate that story, she learned that while Rufeisen had saved 305 Jews, Bielsky had saved 1,200.
Fascinated by the Bielsky story, she interviewed him several times and after close to 10 years, she published Defiance. (Her books often take eight to 10 years to write, as she has several projects on the go at any one time.)
Tec is pleased the Azrieli Foundation is choosing to highlight the memoirs of Holocaust survivors.“It promotes and increases our knowledge of the history of that period,” she said.
Naomi Azrieli, chair and executive director of the foundation, which is named for her father, developer David Azrieli, said that in recent years it has invested substantial sums and efforts to gather and publish the memoirs of Holocaust survivors.
Since 2005, when the foundation began soliciting manuscripts, it has gathered some 170 memoirs, ranging from 20 pages in length to more than 900 pages. They are accepted “as is.” Some were written in Yiddish, some in Romanian, Hungarian and other languages.
Each year, the foundation publishes seven to 10 books. They’re translated and edited “very lightly” to ensure the writer’s “voice” is retained while ensuring the writing remains “clear and accessible,” Azrieli said.
“They are more than a historical record,” she said. “The memoirs are personal recollections. Sometimes they are not a perfect chronology [of events], but they contain the personal recollection of important stories.”
Six thousand copies of each book are printed and a digital file of each is posted on the Internet for free downloading (www.azrielifoundation.org).
About 3,000 of the books are distributed free of charge to public libraries across Canada, and they’re also offered to schools. “Our aim is to have these stories known, particularly in upper high school and colleges, and in book clubs,” Azrieli said.
So far, the feedback about the program has been excellent,. “You get the sense of the person’s life and how they experienced it, and how they remember,” Azrieli said.
The stories possess a universal message that appeals beyond the Jewish community. They have particular resonance in immigrant groups who fled political strife before starting new lives in Canada, she added.