Heroes of the Holocaust: Faye Schulman captured Nazi crimes for all to see (Part 2)
"When it was time to be hugging a boyfriend, I was hugging a rifle. Now I said to myself, my life is changed. I learned how to look after the wounded. I even learned how to make operations."
- Faye pictured here with young Russian partisans.
A fresh fugitive on the run from the Nazis still grieving her family’s death, cold and half starving in the woods, Faye Schulman wasn’t looking for a way out. She was looking for a way to fight back. She found it in the Molotova partisan brigade.
Like most resistance groups forged in the pressures of World War 2, the Molotova partisan brigade was an eclectic group. They included Russian soldiers taken as prisoners of war who had since escaped and now found themselves cut off from their comrades in a strange land. There were Polish men who objected to the crimes they saw the Nazis committing and pledged their lives to doing something about them. And there was one young Jewish woman. A photographer with no military training, no experience living in the wild, but a powerful drive to fight back in honor of her murdered family.
It wasn’t easy, and acceptance came slowly. Faye trained hard to prove herself as a useful member of the brigade. Despite a crippling fear of blood, she trained herself as a combat nurse after discovering there were no medical experts in the partisan group. Her skills quickly progressed from applying simple bandages and stiches to performing lifesaving field surgery. Skills she employed not just on wounded partisans, but also on Jewish fugitives in hiding. Faye learned the skills she needed to save families from the pain she was feeling.
- A group photo of the partisans. Faye is in the bottom row on the right. Notice the mixture of uniformed men and civilian dress. A mix of Russian supplied and captured German equipment can be spotted.
Of course, she also learned how to fight. A girl who never handled a weapon in her life quickly became familiar with the kick and weight of a submachine gun. One has to wonder if her skills at lining up the perfect shot for a photograph helped her pick it up faster. The very thing the Nazis spared her for coming back to haunt them.
Faye’s partisan group raided her own occupied town several times. It was not only to punish the Nazi murderers who lived there, but crucial to their own survival. Raids were essential for capturing supplies, food, and medicine that not only the partisans themselves needed to survive, but also several Jewish families they were sheltering in the woods. These were people living in the most precarious conditions imaginable, making their way in the woods often without proper shelter, never knowing when a Nazi patrol might stumble on them.
But Faye had additional business in town. As a personal symbol of her commitment to the cause, and an act of defiance against her oppressors, Faye had her old family home burned. "I won't be living here. The family's killed. To leave it for the enemy? I said right away: Burn it!" There was no going back to the way things used to be.
But before they did, they recovered Faye’s photography equipment. It was with these cameras and chemicals that she would document the resistance effort and bring us some of the only photographs we have of these men and women who risked everything for justice.
In our day of camera phones and overnight development, photography is seen as a common thing. But in the 40’s it was a specialized skill, one that required delicate equipment and conditions. Faye was living in the woods with roughneck Russian soldiers trying to stay one step ahead of Nazi bloodhounds, it wasn’t exactly a studio environment. Nevertheless, she managed to take and develop hundreds of photos. She made her own "dark rooms” with blankets and coats. She developed film with unlabeled chemicals using a formula she memorized. She cast "sun prints” on photo paper in the wild. An extraordinary documentarian effort, one borne of a burning need to shout to the world that yes, this is happening, and people are risking their lives every day to stop it.
- A rare photo of a partisan funeral captured by Faye. In attendance are a mix of Jews, Russians, and Poles, united in their shared grief and struggle. Precious few records exist of moments like this.
Over those hard years, Faye clung to her faith. Despite the incredible circumstances, she managed to keep Passover in 1943, eating nothing but potatoes. She was dedicated to living a Jewish life in whatever small ways she could. It was a way to hang on to the memories and customs of her family and spite the monsters that wanted to exterminate that way of life. Faye possessed not only remarkable inner strength to survive the ordeals she went through, but also an incredible clarity of vision to keep what was important in perspective and what would be necessary for future generations to know.
After the war, Faye moved to Russia where she was rightly considered a war hero. For the first time in years she enjoyed security and stability, with a quiet job as a newspaper photographer, a home to call her own, and three hot meals every day. Compared to the days working under the Nazis thumb or hiding in the forest patching up wounds and exchanging gunfire with German soldiers, it was paradise. But she was joyless. She missed her family terribly, they left a void in her heart that was impossible to fill.
Imagine the overwhelming happiness she felt when she discovered her brother Moishe was still alive. Unknown to her for years, Moishe escaped the work camp he was held at and had himself joined a different partisan outfit. For years they had been fighting the same battles for the same cause, holding on to the memory of each other and the rest of their family to keep them going. And now they were reunited in peace and comfort. A miracle.
Faye married her brother’s friend, a fellow partisan named Morris Schulman and they started a life, a real life, together. They immigrated to Canada where they had two children, started a business together, and put the past behind them to heal. Faye still lives in Toronto today, happy and content.
You can read her story in her own words in her autobiography "A Partisan’s Memoir: Woman of the Holocaust.”