Polish-born Frank Blaichman, a member of a Jewish resistance unit during World War II, was the only member of his immediate family who survived the Holocaust. A teen when the war started, he obtained arms by posing as a Polish policeman, traveling through the countryside by bike, committing acts of sabotage against the Nazis, refusing to wear the yellow Jewish star.
The author of “Rather Die Fighting: A Memoir of World War II,” he spoke Sunday at an Upper West Side Yom HaShoah commemoration, hosted by Congregation Ohab Zedek. His speech gave the personal side of Jewish fighters, glamorized in such recent films as “Defiance” and “Inglourious Basterds.”
Q: After decades of the “sheep to the slaughter” image of Jews-as-victims, Hollywood has finally discovered Jews who fought back. Why now?
A:I don’t really know how Hollywood operates — I’m a builder and developer. However, when we arrived in the United States, most of the fighting men and women became busy building new lives. Many of us also had to learn a new language — which made it difficult to express myself and tell my story.
At the same time, Jewish organizations were rightly focused on the victims. I became shy of telling my story of armed resistance. I didn’t want to make them feel uncomfortable, as if they could have done what I did, but didn’t. The reality is that resistance during the Holocaust took many forms, and to stay alive was the ultimate resistance.
Why is it important that Jewish resistance be known?
When my comrades and I survived, we thought that Nazism, fascism, racism, anti-Semitism and bigotry were gone forever. We now see that they are alive and well and must be continuously fought.
How accurate is the Hollywood depiction of the partisans? How is it different from what you did?
I have not yet seen a film that accurately and comprehensively depicts what Jewish partisan brigades did. That being said, there are several very fine films. “Defiance” depicted the story of the Bielski group. The Bielskis were dedicated to sheltering Jews and survival rather than military action against the Germans. They had a remarkable story to tell, and it was a very good film.
How different was the experience of Jewish partisan units from mixed units or all-gentile units?
Many units decided to remain under Jewish command in order to hide and shelter Jews who were unable to fight. Jewish partisans in mixed units did not have the opportunity to help other Jews.
We also faced far more hardships and difficulties than the Polish and Russian partisans. We had become orphans overnight and were traumatized. A gentile partisan could decide to quit and return home if he wanted to — we had no homes to return to.
“Inglourious Basterds” focused on revenge. Was that your motivation?
Our first motivation was survival, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t think about revenge. Early on, we had to decide whether we would exact simple revenge when we caught collaborators. We decided, however, that in a world in which there was no justice for Jews, we would hold on to our Jewish principles.
Mitch Braff’s Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation is documenting the memories of members of resistance units. How important is his work?
Very important. There are many organizations in the U.S. that are dedicated to Holocaust remembrance, but the foundation is the only one that teaches about Jewish partisans and armed resistance.
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