The story of Defiance, a World War II action movie based on Jewish resistance fighters, hits close to home for a local professor.
Washington University film professor Pier Marton's father, Ervin Marton, was a Jewish Resistance fighter in France against the Nazis during WWII.
Marton said he was interested to see the new movie Defiance, which focuses on the real story of the Bielski brothers. They led an enclave of Jews hiding in an Eastern European forest, and carried out guerilla raids on the Nazis.
But Marton has some misgivings with how the movie portrays that Jewish resistance.
Marton asserts most Resistance fighters were not super athletes or larger-than-life superheroes but ordinary people who fought back. If anything, it was brains, not brawn, that was the most important factor in whether a Resistance fighter succeeded or even survived, he said.
Marton knows this because his father, "a skinny artist," was one of those Resistance fighters.
Ervin Marton, was a young Hungarian Jew who had come to Paris to study art before the war, but the Nazi invasion trapped him there. Since he was also politically active, he was already suspicious of the authorities and was able to elude the Nazis. The fact that his last name looked French helped him blend in.
Ervin Marton's Resistance group is mentioned in one of Spanish writer Jorge de Semprun's novels, based on the writer's own experiences in the French Resistance before he was sent to Buchenwald. Like Marton's father, Semprun was a foreign Jewish student, studying philosophy in Paris, when the country was invaded. Unlike Semprun, who survived Buchenwald, Marton was never captured and sent to a camp.
The art student and philosophy student did not have James Bond physiques, but they had what was really needed to be successful in the Resistance --brains and a bit of luck.
Marton said he feels the movie incorrectly portrayed intellectuals as helpless or useless. In fact, Marton says, a look at the real history shows that many of the Resistance fighters were in fact those intellectuals, people like his father, who did what was needed and relied on their wits.
Marton feels that by making the resistance fighters into larger-than-life heroic figures, Defiance reduces their humanity and makes them apart from the rest of us. Instead, Marton sees them as ordinary people doing extraordinary things -- something all of us could aspire to do if need be. "If you look at pictures of these people, you see they are ordinary looking people, not body builders who look like Daniel Craig," Marton said.
The History Channel documentary film, The Bielsky Brothers, covering the true story on which Defiance was based, reinforces this idea. While the Bielskis were fit young men, their key strength was their unmatched knowledge of the forest and their own independence and resourcefulness.
Pier Marton was born in Paris after the war but where he grew up kept him close to his father's experiences as a Jewish Resistance fighter.
"I was raised in one of the same buildings where my father was during the war. There were some iron bars on the window on the top floor of the four-story building. Those iron bars looked normal but if you looked closely, you could see that you could push them out. Basically, they had been sawed off."
As a child, Marton discovered that the bars on the window would push out, so one could make a quick escape on to the roof, or exit the apartment unseen. "That particular detail was always stuck in my head. What was clear from that was it was basically the escape route. If the Gestapo or even the French police knocked on the door, my father, being in the Resistance, was always expecting to be arrested," he said. "The Gestapo did come to the apartment and he was arrested once, but for some reason, they let him go."
Marton's mother was in Hungary when the Nazis invaded. "My mother survived the war in one room, with a baby, hiding very much like Anne Frank did," he said. "There were those in Hungary who survived by going into the woods (as the Bielskis did) but they survived in different ways." His mother was with a smaller group that remained hidden in a building throughout the war. His parents met in Paris, where she migrated after the war.
"One important reason (those who joined the resistance) survived was that they were politicized to start with. Many people who were politicized at the start of the war survived. Being politicized meant that when you were asked by the government to register, you knew not to trust the government. It did not matter if you were left or right," he said.
Suspicion of the motives of authority was the key, according to Marton. While we have the hindsight of history, people at that time did not know what was to come, but the too-trusting, or simply unlucky, found themselves trapped.
Marton's father did meet resistance fighters with other groups. Most resistance groups were self-contained, with limited contacts with other groups, for everyone's safety. "If people were arrested, they knew only about a very small group of people, so if (they) had to reveal something, (they) would not dismantle the whole operation," he explained.
When the war ended, many were scattered to different places, so many stories of resistance have never been told or are too little known. As a case in point, Defiance director Edward Zwick was unaware of the Bielski brothers and East European forest resistance until he read Nechama Tec's book Defiance.
Marton hopes that with the film and the documentary, more people will become aware of Jewish Resistance during WWII. Movies about the Shoah have often focused on victimhood, not resistance, Marton said, and there has been a misconception that European Jews were "weak."