Frank Blaichman, a leader of the Jewish partisans in Poland who, armed with little more than their courage, scavenged for food and arms and risked their lives to stymie the Nazi war machine during World War II, died Dec. 27 at his home in New York City. He was 96.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington counts Mr. Blaichman among the 20,000 to 30,000 Jews who joined partisan groups that fought the Nazis from hideouts in the forests of Eastern Europe.
Despite their efforts, and despite such heroic episodes as the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943, popular understanding of the Holocaust has come to include the narrative — the false, even pernicious narrative, historians note — that Jews went like “sheep to the slaughter.”
“Frank Blaichman commanded a Jewish partisan platoon,” the eminent British historian Martin Gilbert wrote in an introduction to Mr. Blaichman’s memoir, “Rather Die Fighting.” “These seven words, so simple, and at the same time so unusual, mask a story of drama and danger, a story of which the Jewish people can be proud.”
Mr. Blaichman — his surname was an Anglicized spelling that he adopted after immigrating to the United States — was born Franek Blajchman to an observant Jewish family in the eastern Polish town of Kamionka, near Lublin, on Dec. 11, 1922. His parents and all six of his siblings would perish in the Holocaust.
His grandmother ran a general store frequented by Jews and non-Jews alike. Her friendships with gentile farmers “would prove crucial,” he wrote in his memoir, to his survival during the war. So, too, was the reputation of his father, a grain dealer.
Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, marking the beginning of World War II. From the outset, Mr. Blaichman, then 16 years old, resisted Nazi efforts to subjugate the Jews. He refused to wear the Star of David, as Jews were required to do, and flouted prohibitions on travel.
He helped support his family by transporting food and goods by bicycle between cities and farms. When he was ordered to report for forced labor, he further jeopardized his safety by paying an acquaintance to stand in for him. He went on the run after rumors began circulating that the Jews of Kamionka were to be deported.
“I was a young man then,” Mr. Blaichman said in an interview posted on the Holocaust Museum’s website. “I understood the fate awaiting me, that someday we are next in line. So I made up my mind that I will not go to any of those camps if I can escape.”
He lived briefly with a farmer before seeking haven in the forest, where he found more than 100 Jews subsisting in bunkers. He and others began mounting an organized defense for the group, which would grow into full-fledged partisan activities.
All they had, he said, was “the will and the courage” to fight.
According to the Jewish partisan foundation, Mr. Blaichman was valued in particular for his insight into the Polish farmers who assisted the partisans — or, in other cases, were motived by anti-Semitism to work against them. The foundation described him posing as a Polish police officer to confiscate arms from a farmer. Behind him were partisans carrying what looked from afar to be bayonets; in fact they were broken pitchforks.
The foundation also recounted the execution of two German collaborators by Mr. Blaichman’s unit. “They admitted they were the ones who brought the Germans when our people were murdered,” he was quoted as saying in the documentary “Resistance: Untold Stories of Jewish Partisans” (2001).
“And we punished them accordingly,” he added.
Mr. Blaichman survived a German ambush of his encampment that killed as many as 80 Jews, according to the foundation. The remaining partisans later joined other groups to become a more formidable and heavily armed force, with Mr. Blaichman serving as a platoon commander.
He said that he took pride in his group’s efforts to protect civilian life amid their activities. According to the foundation, his group’s exploits included dynamiting bridges and rail lines, destroying telephone lines, attacking trains that were carrying Nazi troops and supplies and bombing Nazi headquarters. The foundation also credited him with helping protect 200 Jews living in the forest.
“We were not afraid to die,” he once said, “because all our families were gone. We were just trying to do the best we can.”
Shortly after the war ended in 1945, Mr. Blaichman married Cesia Pomeranc, whom he described as his “dearest comrade” in the resistance. They came to the United States in 1951, settling in New York, where Mr. Blaichman became a developer of hotels and residential buildings. At the time of his death, he lived on Fifth Avenue. He often remarked, recalled his daughter-in-law, Aviva Blaichman, that at earlier moments of his life, he would never have thought it possible.
Cesia Blaichman died in 2015. Survivors include their two children, Bella Sekons and Charles Blaichman, both of New York; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Mr. Blaichman was a trustee of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, where he helped organize a monument to Jewish partisans.
“It is important that people know that when I was fighting as a partisan, it was as a Jew,” he once said . “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.”