Wartime photographer Faye Schulman captured lives of the partisan resistance

faye schulman
Photo courtesy “A Partisan’s Memoir: Woman of the Holocaust”

Faye Schulman, for decades an outsized presence in Holocaust education whose survival as a partisan photographer in the forests of Poland was the stuff of Hollywood, died in Toronto on April 24. She was 101.

Schulman will be remembered “for her remarkable story, courage, and resilience,” said Rachel Libman, manager of public programs at the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre, who worked closely with her when the centre presented Schulman’s “Pictures of Resistance” exhibition at the Miles Nadal JCC in 2011.

“I will also remember her openness, warmth, and kind smile, framed by her neatly combed white hair and blue jacket with its medals pinned to the chest,” Libman said. “She leaves behind a tremendous legacy of resistance, creativity, continuity, and above all, survival.”

faye schulman
Photo courtesy “A Partisan’s Memoir: Woman of the Holocaust” by Faye Schulman, published by Second Story Press.

Faigel “Faye” Lazebnik was born into a family of seven children on Nov. 28, 1919 in the eastern Polish town of Lenin (not named for the Bolshevik revolutionary but for Lena, the daughter of a wealthy aristocrat). The town was on the shore of the Sluch River; the Soviet Union was on the other side.

She learned technical skills and how to operate a camera from her older brother, Moishe, who opened a photo studio in the family home to make ends meet. “I remember spending hours in the darkroom as a young girl, developing negatives,” she wrote in her book, A Partisan’s Memoirs – Woman of the Holocaust, published in 1995.

In August 1942, Nazi troops killed 1,850 Jews from the Lenin ghetto, including Faye’s parents, two sisters and two younger brothers. They spared only 26 people that day – “useful” Jews, like a carpenter and a tailor. Among them was Faye for her photographic abilities.

Photo courtesy “A Partisan’s Memoir: Woman of the Holocaust”

“The Germans ordered Faye to develop their photographs of the massacre,” says a biography at the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation. “Secretly, she also made copies for herself.”

One day, she developed a photograph of a mass grave of Jews who had just been murdered. Peering closely at the print, she recognized members of her own family. She hid the negative in a box of photo paper to assure it would remain safe and unseen.

Schulman fled to the dense forests that surrounded the town, where she joined the Molotava Brigade, a partisan group comprising mostly escaped Soviet Red Army POWs, almost all men and non-Jews, who carried out frequent guerrilla missions. Faye was deputized as a nurse.

“She knew nothing of medicine, but quickly got over her squeamishness” – to the point where she performed open-air surgeries on an operating table made of tree branches and using vodka to numb pain, even lancing her own infected flesh, says the recently published The Light of Days, The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos by Montreal-born author Judy Batalion.

She was barely into her 20s. “I had lost my youth in a painful way,” Faye reflected, as Batalion relates.

She was able to retrieve her old photography equipment during a raid on her hometown in which she happily participated, and over the next two years, used her clunky German camera, a Photo-Porst Nurnberg Compur, to take dozens of pictures that captured a rare side of partisan activity – of camaraderie and a sense of purpose.

She developed the photos by creating a makeshift darkroom with blankets, and while on missions, she buried the camera and tripod for safekeeping, said the American Society for Yad Vashem in a tribute.

She made prints by placing the negative onto the light-sensitive photographic paper and holding it toward the sun.

She gave her fellow fighters the photos. “They treasured their pictures and respected me for it,” she said in a 2009 interview.

But all the while, she had to conceal her Jewish identity from the violently anti-Semitic Soviet partisans in her brigade. On Passover, she ate only potatoes.

Going through the mountains of records and photos left behind, Schulman’s grandson, Michael Tward, said that “as many photos (we saw) and stories we heard, it’s just an absolute drop in the bucket compared to what we’re finding.”

Among them is a treasure trove of pictures of her hometown, Lenin, before the war. They show her family leading normal lives, smiling, out for a stroll, frolicking on a beach.

“That’s one of the things that’s so shocking because before the war, she obviously had no idea what was about to happen,” Tward said.

Schulman’s wartime images – those she took herself and those taken of her – are significant, said Doris Bergen, a historian of the Holocaust at the University of Toronto.

Faye Schulman with her camera/Moshe Lazebnik

“They show the many faces of armed resistance. Those faces belonged to women and men, to Jews and non-Jews, to hardened, somber people who look older than they could possibly have been, and to attractive youths with dazzling smiles and sparkling eyes, like Faye,” Bergen wrote in an email.

The photos are also important as material objects, she added.

“They speak to the conscious efforts of partisan resisters to create a record and communicate their message. Why else would a young photographer with no military training be a valued member of a partisan unit? Schulman’s photos show partisans as they wanted to be seen.”

For example, one photograph in Schulman’s memoirs shows four bodies in open caskets, surrounded by a group of mourners all facing the camera. The caption reads, “Harmony in death. Jewish and gentile partisans buried in one grave, 1943.”

“Arranging, taking, developing, preserving, and showing this image demonstrated, or at least imagined, solidarity between Jews and non-Jews against a common enemy,” Bergen noted.

Another shows Schulman resplendent in a leopard print coat and matching cap, aiming a rifle – expertly, it appears – with a splendid winter forest behind her. “This is my ‘new’ automatic rifle,” reads her caption. “I really had to practice how to shoot this one.”

Schulman’s partisan photos live on in books, exhibits, commemorative events, and websites, “where they illuminate the existence and vitality of Jewish resistance to the Holocaust.”

After liberation, Faye married Morris Schulman, also a Jewish partisan. The couple “enjoyed a prosperous life as decorated Soviet partisans,” according to the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, but wanted to leave Poland. They lived in the Landsberg displaced persons camp in Germany for the next three years and immigrated to Canada in 1948.

Following the war, Schulman didn’t allow herself to experience the joy she felt before the Holocaust, out of a sense of guilt, said Tward. “She decided it was not fair for her to enjoy music. She cried herself to sleep every night.”

Only towards the end of her life did she reconnect with that old joy, singing Russian and Polish songs, he said.

Schulman spoke publicly about her war experience for decades. “Sometimes (the) bygone world feels almost more real to me than the present,” she wrote, as Batalion’s book relates.

Schulman is survived by two children, Sidney and Susan, six grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

“I want people to know that there was resistance,” she once said. “Jews did not go like sheep to the slaughter. I was a photographer. I have pictures. I have proof.”

She never parted with her rugged camera. “It has so many memories and so many stories and so many things happened,” she said once. “This camera has seen everything.”