Judge Bryan Byun reviews this tribute to the Jewish resistance fighters of WWII.
"Let us not be led like sheep to the slaughter."—Abba Kovner
How does a community respond to a threat so vast and inhuman as to beggar the imagination? How does an individual resist that threat, when resistance may bring harm to the very people one is trying to defend?
The 1986 documentary Partisans of Vilna records the testimony of Holocaust survivors who, as young Jewish men and women in the Lithuanian city of Vilna, engaged in armed resistance against the Nazis, often in opposition to fellow Jews. Before the war, Vilna (also known as Vilnius) had a vibrant Jewish culture. A center of rabbinical scholarship, it was called the "Jerusalem of Lithuania." Jewish youth in Vilna were also politically active, organizing into vigorous Zionist and Socialist groups.
That all changed in 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union and Vilna, which had been under Soviet occupation, fell under Nazi control. The Nazis quickly corralled the Jewish population of Vilna into a tightly sealed ghetto, using most of the people for forced labor and starving or murdering those deemed "unproductive." In order to maintain control over the ghetto, the Nazis created a Jewish Council, or Judenrat, to administer the labor and food supply. The Jews who led the Judenrat believed that cooperating with the Nazis would protect the Jews of the ghetto by proving their usefulness. Despite the brutality of the Nazis and stories of mass executions, most of the Vilna Jews supported the Judenrat, perhaps unable to comprehend the notion that one European nation might attempt to exterminate another. The documentary relates one chilling story of a young woman who miraculously survived a mass killing and made her way back to the ghetto, only to have a doctor dismiss her story as an insane delusion.
Some, however, realized what was happening, and in 1942 formed an organized resistance. Their goals were to perform acts of sabotage against the German army, join the partisan fighters allied with the Red Army that were based in the forests surrounding Vilna, and ultimately to defend Jews in other ghettos. The courage and will required to take such action cannot be overstated given the consequences; in the ghetto, the mere act of smuggling food was punishable by death, and the Nazis threatened harsh reprisals against the communities of those who joined the resistance (for each person who escaped the ghetto, 10 to 25 were put to death, beginning with the person's family).
Although the documentary aims primarily to celebrate the heroism of the Jewish partisans, it is most powerful when it explores the thorny moral dilemma that surrounded their actions. To fight the Nazis was, in the eyes of many Vilna Jews, to threaten the lives of all those who remained in the ghetto. But to submit to the Nazis was also to support a murderous regime and participate in the annihilation of one's own people. Was it better to preserve life at any cost, or to risk death in order to preserve honor? History has answered that question, but to the Jews of Vilna, still unaware of their ultimate fate, it was a painful and unfathomable decision.
Partisans of Vilna is composed mainly of filmed interviews with former partisans and other survivors of the Vilna ghetto, interspersed with archival footage and shots of official documents and maps. While the structure and narrative style aren't especially dazzling or original, the film succeeds in providing historical and geographical context for viewers unfamiliar with the story, and in capturing the drama and pathos of the partisans' stories. Its main weakness as a documentary—and it's a minor one—is that it is more interested in honoring the partisans' valiant, doomed efforts than exploring the most interesting questions it raises, and gives rather short shrift to the perspective of the Jews who took the other path. But perhaps those questions have no satisfactory answer; in any case, it's worthy fodder for discussion.
Docurama has given Partisans of Vilna a new life on DVD, with a comprehensive and well-thought-out package that includes the feature, a study guide providing ample (but concise) historical background and (for use in classes) questions for discussion, and even a CD of the Grammy-nominated album Partisans of Vilna: The Songs of World War II Jewish Resistance (which comes with its own guide and lyrics). The feature itself offers an audio commentary by the director, Josh Waletsky, and producer Aviva Kempner, that is well worth a listen for its modern perspective on the 20-year-old documentary. There's also an excellent photo gallery of (helpfully captioned) historical photographs, text-based biographies of the filmmakers, and a Producer's Statement giving some background on the film's production.
Video and audio presentation are fair, given the age of the film, but perfectly adequate. The print, presented in full frame, shows its age in an era of digital video, with faded colors and significant grain, but the transfer itself is clean, without obvious defects. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo soundtrack is mostly clear, the only defects coming from the source material itself.
Partisans of Vilna is one of those releases that makes one grateful for the DVD format—a 20-year-old documentary given new life, and presented with marvelous supplements that flesh out and enhance in every way what we see in the film. And, despite its age and the historical distance of its subject, Partisans of Vilna remains as important and relevant as ever, as a record of stories that deserve to be preserved and retold, and as an inspirational, perhaps cautionary tale of honor and dignity in the face of oppressive evil and short-sighted complacency.
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