When 38 year old former Herzlian and specialist scenic artist Elaine Seidel got a call from a French production designer asking if she would work on a World War II movie with a ‘Jewish angle’, she said yes immediately. When she learned it was to be filmed in Lithuania and directed by ‘Blood Diamond’ and ‘The Last Samurai’ director, Ed Zwick, it was a done deal.
The designer explained that the movie was about the Bielski partisans ‘in the forest’, who hid Jews and saved them from the Nazis. Elaine began to research and the enormity of the story began to sink in, as did the scope of the personal and professional adventure she was about to embark on from August to December 2007.
The movie was ‘Defiance’, now showing in South Africa, starring Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell as the three Bielski brothers who, with a group of partisans from 1942 until the end of the war, managed to establish a community of 1200 Jews in the forests of western Belorussia, saving them from almost certain death.
The guiding philosophy of Tuvia Bielski and other leaders of the Jewish resistance was that all Jews must be protected. Saving Jews superseded taking revenge against the Germans. This was to wait until the end of the war.
Tuvia and his partisans sent guides into the ghettos to usher Jews to safety providing refuge in their forest community. It has been described as the largest armed rescue operation of Jews by Jews in the Second World War – perhaps in any war ever. That they survived continual raids and managed to evade the Germans right until the end of the war is remarkable.
Elaine, like many others, wonders why so few know about the story and of its central character Tuvia Bielski. After the war Bielski ended up as a cab driver in Israel and then moved to New York in 1956. He died in 1987, a largely unrecognised hero. “He and his brothers saved as many Jews as Schindler,” says Elaine, “but we were never taught their story, I still don’t understand why.”
Based in the plush Novotel Hotel in the centre of Vilnius, Elaine was driven onto set daily in the city and then into the forests surrounding it to paint and ‘age’ ziemlanka’s (the bunkers the partisans lived in), tanks and other action vehicles and props including guns, knives, grenades and batons, and to recreate ghetto walls to look historically authentic.
“We didn’t shoot in the forests of Belorussia, where the Bielski community was based, but closer to Vilnius for logistical reasons. The forests are much the same,” she explains.
“It was a deeply personal journey for me, not just because it was a Holocaust story but because my family came from Postov, close to the forest where the Jews hid. We have been told that one of my cousins tried to join the partisans in the forest but on his way to finding them was killed. At least that’s what we surmise, because he was never heard from again.”
Professionally it was an incredible opportunity for Elaine and she got to work with some of the world’s best film technicians. Neil Cobalt, who won a special effects Oscar for ‘Saving Private Ryan’ was there as was Dan Weil who won a design Oscar for ‘The Fifth Element’.
“It was such a privilege … but it wasn’t easy.” The crew was on set for twelve hours a day and for three weeks in December, with temperatures dropping to as low as minus eight degrees. Elaine suffered intense physical pain, “I wore multiple layers of insulated clothing and I was still freezing,” she says. “I was called the dancing African because I couldn’t keep still. I still cannot comprehend how anyone could possibly have survived those winters. They had so little to protect themselves from the cold. You cannot begin to imagine their experience until you are there in the forests yourself.”
About five percent of the crew and a few of the Lithuanian extras were Jewish. They developed a special bond but for most on set it was ‘work as usual’. They were making another war movie.
“In fact,” says Elaine, “I was surprised at how little discussion went on about the actual events that took place. Knowing Ed Zwick was Jewish was comforting and we ‘connected’ very well.”
She was often deeply disturbed on set. “I was working hard — but you can’t really escape the enormity of what happened because the story is always being played out in front of you. The set was right in the middle of a forest, which I found so oppressive. Yet for the Jews who hid there it was their freedom, their hope.”
The Germans carried out numerous air bombings in the forest, trying to flush out the Bielski Otriad (partisan detachment) as well as other partisan groups. To recreate this Elaine would spray the ground with black oxide and spray-paint so that it looked like the area had just been bombed.
“I had to work very quickly so they could do the next shot. I was running as fast as the refugees!”
The scene at a local police station raided by the partisans is one she’ll never forget. “The brothers come in and shoot the policemen. The story required the policemen’s blood to be splattered against the walls. With each retake I’d have to paint the wall clean and recreate the splattered blood. It was horrible.”
Then there was the scene featuring a firing line of executioners who were shooting Jews who had been removed from the ghetto. They fell dead or still alive into a large pit of corpses. One wonders what it must be like to be on set when a scene like this is being recreated, especially if the director calls, “Take 2”.
The movie does not shy away from issues like the community’s capacity for violence and the scene where revenge is meted out on a captured German soldier is another that remains with Elaine .
“What would I have done? Would I have walked away? Fact is, I made the (soft) batons and props they used to kill him in the scene. It really got me thinking about whether their actions were justified and mostly about human beings’ capacity for violence.”
While there might be controversy around the movie by some who felt it was ‘too Hollywood’, the Bielski brothers and their partisan group did have a capacity for great violence. On one or two occasions they even killed their own to maintain order, some say unnecessarily so.
Fact is, the brothers were tough. The Bielskis were the only Jewish family in Stankiewicze, a small farmland hamlet. They had learnt how to look after themselves and local antisemitic non-Jews knew not to ‘mess with them’. Stankiewicze was right next to the forest they knew so well and which became their wartime hiding place. Other partisan groups, like the Russians, said that if you needed to go anywhere in the forest you couldn’t do it without the Bielskis. They knew every tree. Historians have said they were the perfect candidates to initiate and successfully lead a partisan community that included young children, the old and infirm.
The Bielskis had one rule: Everybody would be protected and no one would be left behind. They saved not just 1200 but more than 20 000 lives if you count the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren born from survivors.
Elaine says the final day on set in a forest two hours outside Vilnius was particularly poignant, not only because the shoot was coming to an end, but because of a discovery made by one of the crew members. He had gone for a walk and just ten metres away from set he discovered a tombstone marking the site of a Jewish mass grave.
“It was so profound that on our last day, unbeknownst to us, we had been shooting on or right next to a mass grave,” says Elaine.
The importance of this was not lost on Ed Zwick. When they wrapped up, he thanked everybody and reflected on how his stumbling across the tombstone had brought home the real reason they were doing the movie.
“The movie is a memorial as well. Through it the courage and reality of those brave enough to resist will become more widely known and appreciated. We should be celebrating their lives and legacy and should never fail to tell these great stories,” he told his actors and crew.
Elaine is happy to share her photos and experiences with those interested. Contact her 0832593086 or email@example.com.