PARIS — Defiance, a Second World War drama in which James Bond star Daniel Craig plays a heroic Jewish resistance fighter, is being greeted with skepticism and anger among some critics in Poland.
The film, which opened in Paris Wednesday and begins playing in Canadian theatres Friday, tells the story of how the Bielski brothers saved an estimated 1,200 Jews from the Nazis in what is now Belarus.
Some Polish nationalists allege that the Bielskis, allied with Soviet partisans in the area, were also responsible for killing Polish civilians.
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Craig's character, Tuvia Bielski, is portrayed as a Moses-like character who fought only Nazis and their collaborators while rescuing Jews from certain death to hide out in the forest.
But the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza cited allegations last week from Poland's Institute of National Remembrance suggesting that the Bielski partisans were involved in a 1943 massacre of 128 Polish civilians.
An INR official sent a statement to Canwest News Service Wednesday saying its investigation has in fact found conflicting evidence about the Bielski partisans' alleged involvement.
"Therefore the fact of participation of partisan soldiers of the Bielski Unit in the attacks (is) merely one of the versions of the investigated case," said the statement.
Some of the commentary on Polish nationalist websites and forums is openly anti-Semitic, giving ammunition to Bielski defenders who suggest the critics' motives are suspect.
The atrocity allegations "underline the anti-Semitic tendencies of the writers and the distortion of history," Nechama Tec, author of the book on which the film is based, told the New York-based Jewish weekly newspaper The Forward last year.
A prominent British historian said he's unaware of evidence to back up the atrocity claim.
But Norman Davies, once described by the New York Times as the world's "foremost historian of modern Poland," said the efforts of the "obscure" Bielski partisans couldn't be compared to the work of Poland's Home Army, the main resistance group in Poland that led the 1944 Warsaw uprising against the Nazis.
"Why, after decades of totally ignoring all the biggest anti-Nazi resistance groups of the Second World War, notably the Home Army (which saved far more Jews and others than Bielski ever did) and the Warsaw Rising of 1944 (in which many Jewish fighters took part) does Hollywood choose to give prominence to a very obscure and minor group?" said Davies, author of God's Playground: A History of Poland, and Rising '44.
The latter book is a detailed account of the Polish Home Army's attempt to liberate Warsaw from the Nazis just as Stalin's Red Army was rolling across eastern Europe.
Stalin, who considered the Home Army a band of criminals and a threat to his plans to control Poland after the war, ordered his soldiers to stand idly across the Vistula River while Nazi tanks, artillery and aircraft crushed the rebellion and eventually, on Hitler's orders, levelled Warsaw.
An estimated 15,000 Polish fighters were killed, many more were captured, and an estimated 200,000 to 250,000 civilians died during the two-month battle and its gruesome aftermath.
The film shows the Bielskis struggling over moral questions such as the need to steal food to survive. One of the Bielskis argued that he should have killed a peasant after taking his milk, after the peasant led authorities to the forest hideout.
Davies said it is difficult to make moral judgments about the various guerrilla groups caught between Hitler's genocidal Nazis and Stalin's ruthless Red Army.
"All the underground groups were engaged in a desperate struggle for survival. They all fought each other at various times, and they all 'lived off the land,' receiving mixed degrees of support and hostility from the peasantry," Davies wrote.
"In this Bielski was probably fairly typical. He found himself in the same position as many much larger Polish, Ukrainian and Soviet formations."
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