This past weekend, we went to see the new Daniel Craig movie “Defiance” about the Bielski brothers, who sheltered and helped 1,200 Belarus Jews survive the Holocaust by living in the forest for two years.
It is a true story brought to light only recently, about the Bielski brothers’ selfless achievement that rivals the more famous one carried out by Oscar Schindler and made famous by Stephen Spielberg. We went to the movie during the same week that the Vatican and Pope Benedict angered some Jewish groups by revoking the excommunication of a Lefevrist priest who once stated that only a few hundred thousand Jews died in the Holocaust, and none in a gas chamber.
I wanted to see the “Defiance” movie for several reasons, one being because Daniel Craig was a great James Bond.
But mainly I wanted to see it because the story of how the Bielskis hid in the forests resonates close to home for me: my dear friend Lidiia Drinfeld, shown here with her husband Ilya at their recent 50th anniversary party, is a survivor of the Holocaust who spent two years hiding in the forests of Ukraine, when she was a pre-schooler, under the Nazi occupation.
Lidiia once told me about her ordeal. She is 72 now. She remembers being four years old, and fleeing from her home with her family to live in the forests. She remembers having lice. She remembers the men sneaking into nearby villages at night to get food and supplies. She remembers the danger. She remembers her grandmother becoming sick, and dying.
Lidiia and her family survived and went on the make a life for themselves in Ukraine, in Harkov, and once she was married, she became a principal of an elementary school where she was in charge of 300 pupils. Her husband was an officer in the Russian military, and they were posted to Nihzny Novgorod (where Andrei Sakharov was exiled to). Sakharov was the outspoken critic of the Soviet Union who spent nearly five years in exile there, until Gorbachov freed him. He went on hunger strikes to help win medical treatment for his wife. Again, the theme of “Defiance” runs through this story.
For Lidiia and her husband and family, as Jews, during the Cold War and in the 1980s and ’90s, life in Russia became increasingly hard. The Drinfeld’s twin daughters emigrated first to Israel and then to Canada, and Lidiia and Ilya soon followed, as pensionners. Their oldest son remained in Moscow until three years ago, when thanks to the help of Richmond Hill Liberal MP Byron Wilfert, he was granted permission to immigrate to Canada, where the family was reunited.
I first met Lidiia nearly nine years ago, when I was home on maternity leave with my youngest son and looking for a baby sitter. I had posted an ad on a mailbox in the park near my home. She and her husband were out walking one day, and she tore off the last remaining tab with my phone number on it. Ever since she first walked into my home, we agree that it was destiny that caused us to meet. Now those days of changing diapers and warming up bottles are long over for her and for me.
In fact, you might think that since coming to Canada 10 years ago, Lidiia and her husband would eventually want to retire to enjoy being with their daughters and son, and their five grandchildren. But Lidiia continues to work, to study English, she even learned to play hockey, while Ilya researches on his beloved computer and composes new inventions using his math background (he predicted weather patterns for the Russian military when he was an officer) which he patents, including one design of a propeller for parachutes which occurred to him while he was out for a walk watching the seeds of a maple tree twirl to the ground.
While Lidiia and her family were not one of the Bielski survivors, she is a product of “defiance”, one of many Jews of Eastern Europe who’s strength and courage and perhaps a lot of “destiny” as a forest survivor of the Holocaust, brought her to us, and I am privileged to know her.