Thursday, December 27, 2018
— Frank Blaichman.
Born in the small town of Kamionka, Poland on Dec. 11, 1922, Frank Blaichman was just sixteen years old when the German army invaded his country in 1939. Following the invasion, German officials issued regulations intended to isolate the Jews and deprive them of their livelihood. Frank took great risks to help his parents and family survive these hardships. With a bicycle, he rode from the neighboring farms to nearby cities, buying and selling goods at each destination. He refused to wear the Star of David armband and traveled without the required permits, but his courage and fluent Polish ensured his safety.
When word spread that the Jews of Kamionka were to be resettled in a nearby ghetto, Frank hid in a bushy area outside of town. He stayed with a friendly Polish farmer and then joined other Jews hiding in a nearby forest. In the forest, the threat of being discovered was constant and Polish hoodlums beat any women who left the encampment. Frank encouraged the men to organize a defense unit. He obtained firearms by posing as a Polish policeman, using an overcoat he had found.
After a German attack on the partisans' encampment killed eighty Jews, the survivors left the forest to hide with sympathetic farmers. Always on the move, they killed German collaborators, destroyed telephone lines, damaged dairy factories and ambushed German patrols.
Frank’s squad joined a larger all-Jewish unit, with strong ties to the Polish underground and Soviet army. They were responsible for protecting 200 Jews living in a forest encampment. Only 21, he was the youngest platoon commander in the unit and escorted the future prime minister of Poland to a secret meeting with Soviet high command.
“I’m very proud of what I did all those years,” he says. “The reality was we had nothing to lose, and our way to survive was to fight.” Frank Blaichman's memoir, Rather Die Fighting, was published in 2009 by Arcade Publishing.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Frank Blaichman, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan, as well as the Frank Blaichman: Jewish Partisan Platoon Leader study guide.
Frank Blaichman is also one of JPEF's featured partisans on Facing History and Ourselves web pages featuring Jewish resistance during the Holocaust and in USHMM's Holocaust Encyclopedia: Personal Stories - Jewish Partisans.
Frank passed away on December 27, 2018.
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Thursday, September 26, 2013
Still planning your curriculum for the year? JPEF's new Tactics of Resistance is a framework you can use throughout the year to help students analyze conflicts and brainstorm solutions to violence and other forms of aggression.
- Apply the Matrix to a range of conflicts
- Encourage off-the-wall solutions
- Use the Resistance Matrix as an action-planning tool
- Test examples to see if they fit the definition of aggression
- Color code student responses
Apply the Matrix to A Variety of Conflicts
At the heart of the Tactics curriculum is the Resistance Matrix, a new tool that helps students think critically about aggression, resistance, and long- and short-term outcomes.
Students start by analyzing examples of armed and non-violent resistance from the life of Jewish partisan Frank Blaichman (see above). Then they adapt the process to brainstorm solutions to problems teens face in their own lives, for example, put-downs or bullying in the locker room:
Once students get the hang of the matrix, you can use it to brainstorm solutions to other situations (personal, community or global). You can also apply it as an analytic tool throughout the year in history, current events, literature, and even religious studies classes.
Concepts, critical thinking questions, and other materials from the lesson (such as the Tactics List and the Jewish Resistance Slideshow) will help you frame and examine subsequent conflicts your students study in your class.
Encourage off-the-wall solutions
Feel free to let students be as creative as they can as they generate possible responses to aggression. By following off-the-wall, or even violent tactics to their conclusion, students naturally come to see the downsides and unintended consequences of outsized ('asymmetric') responses.
On the other hand, after looking at the practical consequences of inappropriate solutions, we like to ask students for out-of-the-box solutions; something “so crazy it just might work”.
These proposals can often lead to useful approaches. In one class, a student proposed bribing his sister to stop her from sneaking into his room and reading his diary. This led to another student suggesting they ask why she was acting this way, instead of simply arguing. Perhaps his sister was angry about something he did, or was simply curious, or actually wanted his attention. By considering her possible motivations, the student saw an option to be less reactive.
Use the Resistance Matrix as an action-planning tool
Once students see how the matrix can help them think through their responses, you can encourage them to use it as a planning tool for creating positive change.
Use the Aggression column to help the group define the actual problem, and brainstorm large-scale solutions in the Resistance column (e.g: holding non-violence trainings to help students deal with bullying at school). Take the most popular solutions and break them down into smaller steps, assigning each to a different team who will envision possible consequences (positive and negative) for each point in the process. Teams can use a fresh matrix to troubleshoot and improve, then reconvene with the rest of the group to put their proposals together into a larger action plan.
Test examples to see if they fit the definition of aggression:
Students often misconstrue events in their own lives and categorize them as “aggression”, when in fact it's simply a matter of disagreement. That's why the lesson begins by working with the students to define Aggression and Resistance before introducing the matrix.
For example, if students offer a curfew set by their parents as an example of aggression, ask if the action the object to is “intended to harm.”
Helping students differentiate between conflicts and true examples of aggression also helps students think critically about authority figures and the imposed limits they encounter in their own lives.
Color code student examples of Aggression, Resistance, and Outcomes
The Resistance Matrix offers students the opportunity to see both the short and long term consequences of an action or event. It is a tool that especially supports visual learners. To highlight this effect – as well as to help non-visual learners keep track of the various categories – try color-coding student responses so that “Aggression”, “Resistance”, and “Outcome” categories each are written in their own color.
More teaching tips online
See our entire Tactics of Resistance online course (running time: 43 minutes) for more tips and ideas to help you use these tools throughout your school year.
Sunday, August 4, 2013
For partisan groups, fighting the powerful and well-equipped German army in open combat was typically not an option. Partisans spent much of their time hiding from the enemy, and discovery of their whereabouts was a major, ever-looming threat. The Nazis used local spies, bribes, aerial surveillance, and forest sweeps to root out partisan groups hiding in the countryside, so the partisan had to constantly be on high alert.
Jewish partisans had to fear for their lives not just because they were fighting against the occupying army but because of their Jewish identity. All partisans1 had to be wary of enemy bullets, lice and typhoid, and of leaving footprints in the fresh snow, but Jewish partisans faced an added threat. For many Jews, their accent, the way they looked or dressed, their unfamiliarity with non-Jewish society, and a myriad of subtle details marked them as "other". This otherness exposed them to mortal danger – and not just from the Nazis and their collaborators, but also from unfriendly members of the Armia Krajowa, antisemitic peasants, and (if they were in a mixed otriad) even their fellow partisans. (For more information on this subject, see our Antisemitism in the Partisans E-Learning course.)
Even a doctor's oath to "do no harm" was no guarantee of safety. After being wounded, Norman Salsitz had to seek treatment from a local doctor – a known antisemite. Norman's anecdote provides a stark illustration of the ever-present danger Jewish partisans found themselves in:
[We] went to the doctor and she said, “I have somebody who was wounded yesterday. He’s from the AK,” if he will look at me. He said yes. She brought me over and he started…he said, “Let down your pants.” So I was afraid that he does it purposely to see if I’m Jewish...I took out a hand grenade and I took out the pin and I said, “If you do something I will let the pin out and we all be killed.”
Identity was treated as a matter of life-and-death – not just by the Nazis, but also by most other groups hostile to the Jews as well, such as the various ultra-right wing nationalist groups in Poland, Ukraine, and the Balkans. Though many Jews lived in their own communities, segregated from the gentile population, they were nonetheless well-known by the locals, and could frequently be singled out by their accents2, names that looked or sounded "Jewish", and appearance.
Sonia Orbuch was born Sarah Shainwald, but the commander of her otriad made her change her given name to the more common and less Jewish-sounding Russian name Sonia – to keep her safe from antisemites. “Here there are no Sarahs,” he explained to her. To keep himself out of trouble in Moscow, Leon Senders concealed his Jewish identity by simply bleaching his hair with peroxide. Likewise, Ben Kamm excelled at smuggling food through the countryside because of his blue eyes and blond hair.
Fluency in other languages helped many partisans avoid danger - particularly if they could speak without a Yiddish or foreign accent. Running away from his village after the Nazis rounded up all his classmates, 15 year old Joe Kubryk found work as a farmhand with a Ukrainian farmer who never suspected he was Jewish – all because Joe spoke fluent Ukrainian. Growing up in Metz on the northern border of France, Bernard Musmand learned to speak German in school at a young age. Later, while running dangerous missions as a courier for the Sixieme3, he used his fluency in German to dispel suspicions about his identity – usually, with a friendly request for the time or for a match.
Bernard was not only fluent in German – he was also well-versed in Catholicism, another useful instrument of disguise. When his family fled to southern France, he had to pose as a Catholic to attend the local boarding school. He was so diligent at keeping up appearances that the priests actually asked him if he was interested in going into the seminary. Leon Idas, a Greek partisan, grew up attending a private school run by the local Orthodox church. Consequently, he was able to use the religious knowledge he learned there to keep his Jewish identity secret when he joined the partisans.
Though Norman Salsitz was already a partisan, joining the AK was the only way he felt he could strike an effective blow against the Nazis – to do so was the patriotic duty of any able Pole. However, he could not do so without concealing his Jewish identity. He managed to join by assuming the name (and ID card) of another AK soldier. Along with Joseph Greenblatt, Norman is one of the many Jewish partisans who worked for the AK under an assumed Christian name. Norman’s allegiances were tested when a command was given to murder a group of Jews hiding on a farm. He volunteered for the mission – after killing his Polish companions, he rescued the Jews and fled to his original partisan unit. There are many other instances of Jews infiltrating the AK under Christian identities, acquiring rank and status, and using their power to help other Jews escape persecution and death.
Nazi Germany’s plans for the occupied territories included specific methods for singling out and isolating the Jews, such as the infamous yellow badges. When Frank Blaichman smuggled food through the countryside, his preferred method of disguise was to remove the badge from his clothing and hide it until he returned home. Though it may sound simple in hindsight, such an act was punishable by severe beatings, imprisonment, and even death. He could have easily been found out - travel permits were required for even the most routine trips out of town. Frank had no official documents, but he did have a backup: his fluency in Polish allowed him to talk his way out of trouble if he was ever stopped.
The falsification of identity papers was vital to the underground. Romi Cohn was instrumental in providing Jewish refugees with false documents that identified them as Christians. The forgeries were of a very high quality – a connection at the local Gestapo headquarters supplied him with German seals to stamp the documents. Working at an employment agency in the early 1940s, Eta Wrobel used her clerical skills to forge identity papers for Jews. Even the famed mime Marcel Marceau – himself a Jewish partisan – utilized his drawing skills to make false identity cards for Jewish children.
Not surprisingly, a number of Jewish partisans served the cause as spies. Their combined skills – as forgers, as polyglots, as people used to living in a constant state of disguise – put them in a unique position. Even though he was only 15 at the time, Joe Kubryk was trained in the arts of espionage. While Leon Senders was valuable to Moscow as a radio operator, his real art was subterfuge. Leon's knowledge of German, Russian, Polish, and Lithuanian helped him fool his enemies and make new friends. He successfully built up a network of informants he used to acquire sensitive information that was instrumental in bombing the German supply lines. Wearing a tattered shepherd’s coat, Leon was so good at disguising himself he was once kicked out of a farmer’s house because a German officer, who wished to eat lunch there, objected to the presence of “Lithuanian swine” at his meal.
In a war where millions of civilians were murdered for no reason other than their identity – be it ethnic, religious, sexual, or political – the means and the opportunity to conceal and change it often meant the difference between life and death. Even the smallest adjustment could have major consequences: Leon Bakst’s father was a merchant, but when the SS asked for his occupation during the first roundup of the Jews in his hometown of Ivie, he simply answered “brush-maker”. He reasoned that the occupiers would have more use for a brush-maker than a merchant. He was correct: his life was spared that day.
1. Out of the hundreds of thousands of partisans active during the war, only 20,000-30,000 were Jewish.
2. The primary language spoken in Eastern European shtetls was Yiddish, and though not unheard of, unaccented fluency in languages like Polish or Ukrainian was not common.
3. La Sixieme was the underground incarnation of Eclaireurs Israélites, a French Jewish scouting organization. The EI went underground in 1942 and became known as the “Sixth Bureau”, smuggling children and adults into Switzerland, hiding Jews, providing forged documents, and even taking part in battles for the liberation of France.
Friday, May 17, 2013
Q1. So was it difficult to go back to normal life after the war?
Q2. What did you learn in the resistance about dealing with other people?
Q3. Were there kids born and raised in the resistance environment? Was this allowed?
To learn more about Frank Blaichman, you can download the JPEF study guide on the Curriculum Page of the site, or read his memoir, "Rather Die Fighting"
Thursday, October 11, 2012
Educators: we are pleased to inform you that Scholastic has recently published a collection of stories entitled We Fought Back: Teen Resisters of the Holocaust. The book is written by Allan Zullo, and is his fourth book about the Holocaust for the teenage audience. The book is aimed at young readers, and gives a true-life narrative account of seven teen-aged partisans fighting the Nazis in World War II.
Each story opens with an attention-grabbing scene of sabotage, ambush, or a bloodied battlefield. The stories are fast-paced and captivating, but their content is always grounded in the actual experience of partisans, allowing students to see how life was like for teens of similar age in the most dire of situations.
Of the seven stories in the book, five are about partisans profiled on the JPEF partisan pages. These include Frank Blaichman, Sonia Orbuch (known in the book as Sarah Shainwald), Martin Petrasek (in the book as Martin Friedman), Shalom Yoran (in the book as Selim Sznycer), and Romi Cohn. At least one more will join them in the coming weeks as we finalize four new partisan biographies with accompanying photos and video interview clips.
The book provides a great opportunity for middle and high school teachers to supplement their history and English classes. As the book gives an account of a lesser-known aspect of the Jewish experience during the war, it is an obvious complement to the study of the Holocaust in schools. In addition to offering first-hand accounts of the war experience, the book supports curriculum aimed at exploring Jewish identity, leadership, and resistance.
In English courses, the book’s dramatized versions of the partisan fighters’ true stories provide a counterbalance to reading lists traditionally centered around fiction. Often we find non-fiction underutilized in the English classroom and yet it accounts for much of adult reading. This is an opportunity to engage students with narrative in an alternative way, potentially appealing to reluctant readers – or simply enriching the reading experience for all students.
The age of the protagonists in these stories makes it easy for students to identify with them, and the narrative of survival and resistance to oppression is powerful and compelling, especially for that age group. In these ways and more, We Fought Back can be a great resource for any classroom.
— Written by Chelsea Martin.
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Last week, we posted the first half of JPEF's Ask a Partisan Q&A with students from Blantyre Public School in Toronto. This is the second half of the session.
Michael, age 9: What were your responsibilities as a platoon commander?
Frank Blaichman: On a day-to-day basis, I was responsible for 45 men and 4 women who were under my command. Every day we moved around to another area in order to deprive the enemy of our whereabouts. This required logistical planning, the gathering of food, the finding of suitable shelter and to make sure that all weapons were in working condition, clean with enough ammunition on each person. I was the one who delegated these jobs among our platoon.
In battle and in sabotage attacks I oversaw any intelligence information between the Polish Partisans (the AL), our other Jewish Partisan groups and ourselves. Armed with this information I made decisions on where and when we should hit and when and where we should run after the attack. I sometimes had to make quick decisions in the field regarding our movements. Whether to pull out or continue the attack.
Azaria, age 13: What was it like being a female partisan?
Sonia Orbuch: You feel isolated from the world. You feel all the eyes of the male partisans on you. You feel afraid even though you are in the partisans — you feel afraid they might not like you and tell you to go somewhere else.
Braydan, age 12: What happened to your family?
Frank Blaichman: My immediate family, my parents, my siblings, my grandparents etc., were deported on Friday, October the 9th, 1942 to a death camp. It was most likely either Majdanek, Sobibor or Treblinka. I do not know which one and I do not know the date of their deaths.
Of my entire extended family, only 3 cousins survived the war. One survived with me as a partisan fighter. One was captured in Russia and ended up in a camp near Hamburg where he managed to survive. And the third survived as a laborer in Germany on false non-Jewish papers.
Daniel, age 12: How did you know which peasants were the good guys?
Frank Blaichman: This is a very good question. At first we didn't know who we could trust — we were in the dark and we did think that all Poles would want to kill us. When we went to town, for example, to buy food, we were chased by bullies with pitchforks.
Once we organized into a Partisan group, and after we acquired firearms, we were seen as having some power — the dynamic changed. There were still German collaborators who hunted us and wanted to kill us, but there were also good, decent Polish people who provided support to us and risked their lives to do so. They became our informers, telling us who they thought were the German collaborators in their area, and warning us of Nazi troop movements. They also helped us immeasurably by providing us with food and shelter. Had they been discovered as helping a Jew they would have faced severe punishment from the Germans: immediate death or deportation, and the burning down of their homes. We could not have survived without the help of good, local Polish people.
Once we captured collaborators and were able to interrogate them, they provided us with the names and addresses of other collaborators. We were then able to bust up their spy ring and prevent them from functioning in our area. A number of Polish peasants felt that we had in fact liberated them as well from the terror of these Nazi collaborators.
Part 3 coming soon!
Friday, March 16, 2012
This letter comes from Monica Nelson, who co-created a lesson for her Special Education class based on JPEF’s “Ask A Jewish Partisan” resource. You’ll find answers to her students’ questions at the end of this article.
Our school is Blantyre Public School in Toronto, Ontario. Wendy Klayman is the teacher and I (Monica Nelson) am the education assistant in a class of 12, grade 4-8 children with various special education needs such as learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders and autism. In October we started a language unit incorporating character education, empathy, digital technology, art and research.
We decided to focus on the Jewish partisans because of the empathy that can be instilled from this topic, because it helps young people understand the difficult concepts involved in discussing this topic, helps them with research, can incorporate technology and e-learning. Also, our teacher (Wendy) has a personal connection to the Holocaust. We spent a great deal of time on JPEF’s site, researching the various topics. The stories and videos were fascinating and the students particularly enjoyed finding out which partisan was most like them and writing to that person.
We were both thrilled to hear answers to our questions and fascinated with such honest, informative answers. Not only did we focus on the reading, writing, critical thinking and empathy part of this unit, but we incorporated extensive artwork in the form of empathy posters that tied together the story of the Jewish partisans and another book that we studied at the same time, written by a native Canadian on the theme of teamwork and perseverance. Thank you for sharing this topic with us.
Partisan Q&A: Part 1
Sarah, age 10: Where did you hide the bombs?
Sonia Orbuch: The mines were used by our demolition teams to derail trains which were being used by the Germans to re-supply their army. The teams had horses and wagons which were used to transport their supplies and to keep them hidden when we were under attack.
Vanessa, age 10: What would have happened if you were caught spying?
Frank Blaichman: As a partisan - one of our tactics for survival was to gather information - to watch the movements of our enemies so we could know where it would be safe for us to move to. We also needed to gather information in order to successfully attack or sabotage our enemy.
If I had been caught spying on either the Nazis or the Polish authorities, I would have faced the same fate. I most likely would have been killed on the spot. At the very least, I would have been taken to a death camp.
Kurtis, age 12: How did it feel running through the woods being attacked by Nazis?
Sonia Orbuch: I felt frightened and scared....especially when my family was alone in the forest. Later, when we joined the forest we felt stronger because we were fighting back.
John, age 13: Did you ever NOT want to be a partisan?
Frank Blaichman: NO. I liked what I was doing. I was into it. I couldn't stop.
As an example, one group of Jews among many that we helped to shelter, were hidden in a Polish farmhouse. The farmer created a bunker for them in the barn. This group included Itka Hirschman, a young woman and her child David, a small boy who now lives in Israel. I would bring food around four times a month to the ten people in the bunker. One day Itka asked me: "You are risking your life bringing us food, why don't you come and stay with us?" and my answer was: "I cannot do it, it is in my blood. I along with my men cannot stop doing what we are doing - fighting the Nazis and their collaborators and helping others, including Jews to survive."
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
The world of a partisan, and especially a Jewish partisan, was a treacherous, restless, stressful world. They braved the most unendurable conditions—extreme cold, hunger, fatigue—and survived through the will to fight and persevere. Sometimes they received food, shelter, supplies, information, and medical attention from nearby communities. However, Jewish partisans could not fully trust the often anti-Semitic locals, though their services were necessary. Preventative measures were therefore taken: food and supplies were acquired at gunpoint or with some cunning and often improvised deception. Frank Blaichman recalls, “We had information that a farmer had hidden weapons. We made up a story to tell him that we were Russian paratroopers and we needed the weapons. We had our men far away with broken pitchforks that looked like a gun with a bayonet in the background, so to the farmer he looked like he was dealing with the real thing.” Even medical care was forcefully taken when sympathetic doctors were not available.
However, locals who empathized with Jewish partisans or simply shared the same feeling of opposition toward German occupation were a great asset to partisan survival. Leon Idas found that there were local villagers who were friendly and freely informed partisan troops of German movements, and would even escort disguised partisans to the city hospitals to get them aid. Harry Burger found that locals offered up their barns to shelter and care for traveling partisans. Burger and Idas, however, lived and fought in southern Europe, where there was less anti-Semitism. In Poland, Sonia Orbuch did not encounter many sympathetic locals; although, she owes much of her survival to one citizen by the name of Tichon Martinetz who was instrumental in connecting her with the Russian partisans and also supplied the brigade with food in the bitter winter of ’42. Frank Blaichman spent much time with farmers who hid him and his comrades, cooked meals for them, even washed their clothes. “The locals were anti-Semitic, but they were not killers,” Frank Blaichman explained. “When they saw that we took care of German collaborators they were more willing to help us. Without their help we would have never survived.”
According to partisans such as Blaichman, local allies could make all the difference in regards to survival. Even though unsympathetic locals could be tricked or forced at gunpoint to concede services and supplies, not all of survival relies on physical needs. After being chased by locals “like an animal”, when Blaichman found friendly households which sheltered and fed him there was a sense of hope. He said, “They treated us like human beings.”
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
JPEF: What do you think is important about Yom HaShoah v’HaGevurah?
Blaichman: People who wanted to remember the Holocaust created Yom HaShoah. They knew that they had to teach future generations the important lessons from the Shoah—so that it would never happen again.
JPEF: What lessons would you like to share with Jewish and non-Jewish youth today?Blaichman: Jews should never forget that they are Jews. The day we were liberated, we thought that Fascism and Nazism were buried. Today, we see that antisemitism is still all around us. It is important for us to remember—and youth should be taught—that Jews fought and will continue to fight against antisemitism, bigotry, and oppression.
Blaichman: I am very grateful that there is a day to remember what happened during that time—it is a good thing that the memory stays alive for generations.
JPEF: Any further reflections about this memorial?
Blaichman: Most importantly that Jews can defend themselves. The only way we survived as partisans was that we had the courage to fight back. Growing up in Poland, we were never taught how to survive. We had to have courage—early on we accepted our fate. It is important that people know that when I was fighting as a partisan, it was as a Jew—I am a Jew, I was fighting as a Jew, and I survived as a Jew. Jewish students, especially, should be proud to be Jewish and know that there were Jews who fought back and survived.
To learn more about Frank Blaichman, please visit his biography.
To download the study guide Frank Blaichman: A Partisan Leader's Story please visit JPEF's RESIST Curriculum.
Photo source: JPEF Archives