Liev Schreiber was in Chicago to discuss his film “Defiance” when Skokie octogenarian Leon Figa stepped up to meet him.
Schreiber — whose 2008 movie told the story of the Bielski partisans, Jewish World War II guerillas who battled the Nazis from the forests of Belarus — stopped to listen.
Mr. Figa had been an explosives expert with the Lenin Brigade, another group of resistance fighters who committed sabotage, blowing up trains, then disappearing into the woods.
Stewart Figa introduced his father, saying, “I’d like you to meet a real partisan.”
His son described what happened next.
“So you were there?” Schreiber said, and he asked whether the elderly man had known a particular commander.
“He used to ride on a horse!” Mr. Figa replied.
“Yes!” said Schreiber.
That began a discussion of people they both knew — Mr. Figa from the forests of World War II, the actor from his research.
“There was a line of people to meet him,” Stewart Figa said of Schreiber. “But he leaned over and talked to my dad for five minutes.”
Mr. Figa died last month at Belmont Village Senior Living of Oak Park at 97. Even when he lost his sight and was confined to a wheelchair, “He never kvetched,” said his son, a cantor at a west suburban synagogue.
“Leon Figa was a terrific example of the kind of spirit and character that drove him and so many others to defy the odds and fight back,” Schreiber said. “After meeting Mr. Figa and hearing his remarkable story, I realized how lucky we are to have had grandparents like this. What I think I will remember most was his extraordinary smile.”
In a 2009 interview, Mr. Figa told Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown, “They used to say the Jewish don’t fight, but they fight. We don’t want to kill, but, if you want to kill me, I kill you first.”
Mr. Figa was born in Warsaw. He had two older brothers, Shmuel and Avram, and a sister, Brucha. The Figas owned a butcher shop.
“We had chicken, we had everything,” Mr. Figa said in a 1997 interview with the USC Shoah Foundation. “My mother used to . . . make a chicken soup. She put in little eggs — about 10, 15 little eggs. And there’s no cholesterol!”
Young Leon did three years of tool-and-die training.
Then, when Germany invaded Poland, he fled Warsaw. He wound up in Slonim. Jews were being rounded up, placed in a ghetto and put to work. He was assigned to a German army ammunition facility.
Mr. Figa witnessed things that roiled his sleep the rest of his life, including seeing an official shoot a Jewish woman in cold blood.
“He was going on the street, going down with two dogs, and take out the gun,” he told the Shoah Foundation, which records and preserves the memories of Holocaust survivors. “A Jewish woman, shoot her right there. . . . it was nothing, like a fly.”
After Mr. Figa was told to fit a canvas cover over a flatbed truck, Jewish people were ordered onto the vehicle at gunpoint and driven off, his son said.
“They took out people and kill them, and we listen to all the hollering,” Mr. Figa later recalled.
That was when he resolved to work with the underground, according to his son.
On a mission to retrieve discarded weapons, his group was ambushed by a group of Russian partisans. The so-called Lenin Brigade killed the Germans in his group and anyone deemed a collaborator but let Mr. Figa live when they found out he’d been smuggling weapons to the resistance. Despite anti-Semitism among brigade members, they valued his skill with ammunition and explosives.
“I didn’t know how to hold a gun, but I learned how to dynamite everything,” he said.
When Mr. Figa saw trains coming, he dug holes and hid explosives on the tracks.
“I know how to. . . .make the hole, put it in under the railroads,” he said in the Shoah interview. “You have to set it up exactly and put the dirt from the hole you made . . . cover it up.”
After the war, he was unable to find his family. At Foehrenwald, a camp in Germany for displaced persons, he met his future wife, Sarah Mandelkorn. She’d been interned in a Soviet labor camp. They moved to Chicago, where she had relatives, and got married in 1950. They raised their two sons, Stewart and Phillip, in Skokie.
Mr. Figa did painting and wallpapering and operated a garden center at 59th and Pulaski.
Mr. Figa’s wife died before him, as did his son Phillip, a federal judge in Colorado. In addition to Stewart Figa, he is survived by four grandchildren. Services have been held.