Faye Schulman obituary: Jewish photographer who debunked Nazi lies

‘Jews did not go like sheep to the slaughter. I was a photographer. I have pictures’

An undated photo of herself by Faye Schulman (then known as Faigel Lazebnik), via Second Story Press. Photograph: Faye Schulman

An undated photo of herself by Faye Schulman (then known as Faigel Lazebnik), via Second Story Press. Photograph: Faye Schulman

 

Born: November 28th, 1919
Died: April 24th, 2021

On August 14th, 1942, barely seven weeks after German troops invaded Soviet-occupied Poland, they massacred 1,850 Jews from a shtetl named Lenin near the river Sluch. Only 27 were spared, their skills deemed essential by the invaders.

The survivors included shoemakers, tailors, carpenters, blacksmiths, a barber and a young novice photographer named Faigel Lazebnik, who later in marriage would become known as Faye Schulman.

The Germans enlisted her to take commemorative photographs of them and, in some cases, their newly acquired mistresses. (“It better be good, or else you’ll be kaput,” she recalled a Gestapo commander warning her before she, trembling, asked him to smile.) They thus spared her from the firing squad because of their vanity and their obsession with bureaucratic record-keeping – two weaknesses that she would ultimately wield against them.

At one point the Germans witlessly gave her film to develop that contained pictures they had taken of the three trenches into which they, their Lithuanian collaborators and the local Polish police had machine-gunned Lenin’s remaining Jews, including her parents, sisters and younger brother.

She kept a copy of the photos as evidence of the atrocity, then later joined a band of Russian guerrilla Resistance fighters. As one of the only known Jewish partisan photographers, Schulman, thanks to her own graphic record-keeping, debunked the common narrative that most eastern European Jews had gone quietly to their deaths.

“I want people to know that there was resistance,” she was quoted as saying by the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation. “Jews did not go like sheep to the slaughter. I was a photographer. I have pictures. I have proof.”

Schulman, who emigrated to Canada in 1948, continued offering up that proof – in exhibitions of her photographs; in a 1995 autobiography, A Partisan’s Memoir: Woman of the Holocaust; and in a 1999 PBS documentary, Daring to Resist: Three Women Face the Holocaust.

She recounted her life in pre-second World War eastern Europe and how a ragtag band of Red Army stragglers, escaped prisoners of war, and Jewish and gentile Resistance fighters – including some women – harassed the Germans behind the Wehrmacht’s front lines in the forests and swamps of what is now Belarus.

“We faced hunger and cold; we faced the constant threat of death and torture; added to this we faced anti-Semitism in our own ranks,” she wrote in her memoir. “Against all odds we struggled.”

Youngest partisan

She died on April 24th in Toronto, said her daughter, Dr Susan Schulman. Faye Schulman was believed to be 101.

Susan said her mother had not been in contact with her fellow partisans for years. “She was the youngest,” she said.

According to the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, as many as 30,000 Jews joined Resistance groups on the Eastern Front during the second World War; only hundreds are still living.

An undated photograph by Faye Schulman of herself, third from right in back row, with fellow partisans. Photograph: Faye Schulman
An undated photograph by Faye Schulman of herself, third from right in back row, with fellow partisans. Photograph: Faye Schulman

Faigel Lazebnik was the fifth of seven children born to Yakov and Rayzel (Migdalovich) Lazebnik. Her mother was a caterer, her father a fabric merchant. Records list her birth date as November 28th, 1919, which would have made her 22 in August 1942. But in her memoir, she wrote that she was 19 at the time, which would have made her birth year 1922 if she was born in November.

The Lazebniks, who were Orthodox Jews, lived in Lenin (named for Lena, daughter of a local aristocrat, not the Bolshevik revolutionary) in what was then Poland. Faye had apprenticed to her brother Moishe, the town photographer, since she was 10 and had taken over his studio when she was 16.

In September 1939, after signing a nonaggression pact with Hitler, Soviet troops crossed the river Stulch and occupied eastern Poland, including Lenin, just 16 days after the Germans had invaded the country from the west. By August 1942, Nazi Germany had broken the treaty, declared war on the Soviet Union and pushed farther east, drawing Moscow to the Allied side.

Schulman realised that among the photographs she was processing for the Germans that August were images of the bodies of her own family members. “I just was crying,” she told The Memory Project, a Canadian historic-preservation programme. “And I – I lost my family. I’m alone. I’m a young girl. What shall I do now? Where shall I go? What shall I do?”

Fleeing the Nazis

The Germans ordered her to train a young Ukrainian woman as an assistant, but she stalled, knowing what would happen when she was no longer considered essential. After Soviet partisans attacked the town that September, she fled with them.

“From now on my bed would be the grass, my roof the sky and my walls the trees,” she said. Her rifle became her pillow.

Schulman remained with the brigade until July 1944, when the Red Army liberated Belarus. She reunited with two of her brothers, who reintroduced her to a fellow partisan, Morris Schulman, an accountant whom she had known before the war.

They married later that year and lived in Pinsk, in Belarus, as decorated Soviet heroes.

In addition to her daughter, Schulman is survived by a son, Sidney; a brother, Rabbi Grainom Lazewnik; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

The 100 or so photos that she took during the war and preserved in her move to Canada will remain her legacy, Susan Schulman said. And among the few other belongings that Faye Schulman was able to bring from Europe was her Compur camera, the folding bellows model that she had used in August 1942. She treasured it, her daughter said, but she apparently never used it to take another photograph again.