Frank Blaichman will never forget the day the tables were turned. It was December, 1942. His band of Jewish renegades was hiding in the forest of Bratnik, outside his birthplace of Lublin, Poland. They battled dual enemies: bitter cold and marauding Polish thugs eager to turn “dirty Jews” over to the Nazis.
One day three Poles wandered into the woods disguised as mushroom gatherers, backed up by a squad of Germans. The group was unexpectedly greeted by a hail of bullets. The Nazis were killed, one of the Poles fled and the other two found themselves on their knees, guns coaxed from a local farmer pointed at their heads.
“You can’t imagine how happy we were to get those two guys kneeling, begging for mercy from the ‘dirty Jews’, ” recalls Blaichman. They received none. Before dying, they gave Blaichman’s resistance group a list of other Polish Nazi collaborators.
“That’s when we saw that Jews didn’t have a monopoly on fear, that these guys were also afraid to die. It gave us moral courage,” says Blaichman, then a defiant 20-year-old who had refused to be evacuated with his family “to parts unknown” when the Nazis invaded Poland.
That decision is likely the reason he’s alive today, the only surviving member of a family that disappeared into death camps. Now a 79-year old builder with two children and six grandchildren, living on Manhattan’s East Side, Blaichman says he never saw a concentration camp or wore a yellow star. As the founder of an all-Jewish partisan group, he spent the war years killing Germans, rather than accepting the opposite scenario.
As Yom HaShoah approaches on April 9, Blaichman’s is one of at least 200 partisan stories that have gone untold for decades. “I had no time, no patience,” he says.
But then came the call from Mitchell Braff, a Jewish filmmaker in San Francisco who became enthralled by the subject of Jewish resistance after meeting Murray Gordon of Oakland. Gordon, a friend of Braff’s mother, had escaped from a Lithuanian ghetto and spent the war sabotaging Nazi trains and bridges.
Braff, 35, says he had received a solid Jewish education, including study of the Holocaust, but was in the dark about the extent of Jewish partisan resistance. “People in my age group usually don’t know much about the partisans,” he says. “There wasn’t a lot of accessible information.”
The encounter with Gordon led Braff to found the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation last year, to document the stories of the 200-300 surviving partisans believed to be living today in the U.S., Israel and Eastern Europe, out of an estimated 30,000 who battled the Nazis. Meeting one former partisan often points him in the direction of others; press coverage usually turns up more stories.
Braff, who studied film at the University of California at Santa Barbara, has made documentaries on such diverse topics as bison hunting in Yellowstone National Park and jazz in the classroom as well as a short feature, “World Record Guy.” But he says no topic consumed him as much as the partisans.
“I don’t have a choice but to get this project completed,” Braff says of his obsession.
He’s working on a Web site, www.jewishpartisans.org, which he hopes will one day download complete histories of individual partisans, groups and what they accomplished. The year-old foundation, funded by private donations, has about 20 employees and volunteers, says Braff.
Whereas various resource centers and three major museums in New York, Washington and Los Angeles focus on the entire Holocaust history, Braff says he can offer more insight to the partisan experience by focusing on that facet alone.
He has already produced a six-minute video, without narration, featuring Blaichman and four other partisans. The archive he is compiling consists of four-hour interviews, longer than those gathered by Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation.
Blaichman is telling his story now because he says he gets “aggravated” at the adage that all the Jews of Europe “went to the slaughter like sheep.” He believes that the anti-Semitism and bigotry that led to the Holocaust still exists around the world, and that his experience can raise consciousness and spur defiance.
Simon Trankinski, another former partisan and Manhattan resident, says Jews who fought back have taken a back seat in Holocaust history to those who survived the camps. “There was a kind of rivalry between those who came out of the camps and those who did not,” said Trankinski, 75, a native of what is now Belarus who served in the reconnaissance unit of the Russian partisans. “Auschwitz was only one manifestation of the Holocaust—a terrible one, but by no means the whole story.”
Trankinski, a retired textiles manufacturer and father of three daughters, survived the war with his older brother, William, after watching their parents and other relatives deported to labor camps. He narrowly escaped a Nazi bomb in the Vilna ghetto in Lithuania.
“People in today’s generation have no idea what it was like,” he says.
Some books and articles have been written on the partisan experience. It was featured as well in a subplot of the 1980s miniseries “Holocaust” on NBC, which also aired a more recent series on the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. But recent big-budget Hollywood films on the Shoah have largely overlooked the resistance.
Efforts are slowly underway to produce a feature on the Bielskys, a family that gave the Nazis hell in Russia, but whose survivors largely kept their tale to themselves after immigrating here.
That’s typical of many partisan survivors, says Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. “They are especially private and don’t see themselves as heroes,” said Rabbi Cooper, who has been an adviser to Braff. He says he has offered the Center’s blessing and its resources to the Foundation. “Everyone is concerned about the biological clock ticking. He’s motivated to collect as many of these important stories before we lose them.”
Because there have been rare occurrences of exaggeration or fabrication of Holocaust accounts, Braff says he does check details, but “there is no way it is possible to confirm everything,” he says. “There are not enough people left alive.”
His goal is to collect at least 50 partisan accounts on video; he has already filmed 13. Most surviving freedom fighters were teenagers at the time, he says; high school students today would be fascinated to learn about the feats of their peers 60 years ago.
“When Murray Gordon was 16, he was living in the forest, blowing up Nazi trains,” says Braff. “When I was 16, I was thinking about when I could get my driver’s license.”
The Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation’s telephone number is (310) 772-2450.