Faye Schulman was a young Jewish photographer in Poland who became a resistance fighter after her family was slaughtered by the Nazis. For the next two years, she took pictures of what she witnessed, leaving an extensive photographic record for posterity.
Born Faigel Lazebnik in 1919, she was one of seven children in an Orthodox Jewish family in Lenin, a small village in Poland. Known as Faye, she learned four languages: Yiddish at home, Polish at school, Hebrew in religious school, and Russian among the non-Jewish townspeople. Her brother Moshe was a professional photographer and she worked as his assistant, developing a keen eye and a talent for photography. When Moshe moved to another town, Faigel took over his business.
After the Nazis invaded Lenin in 1941, they forced the town’s Jews into a squalid ghetto. On August 14, 1942, the Germans “liquidated” the Lenin ghetto by brutally murdering 1,850 Jews, including Faye’s parents, sisters, and brother. Only 26 Jews were spared because the Nazis could make use of their skills. Faye was ordered to develop photographs of the massacre that claimed the lives of her family as well as almost everyone she knew. She secretly made extra copies of the pictures and kept them to bear testimony to Nazi crimes against humanity.
Soon after, Faye escaped from the Nazis and joined the Molotava Brigade, a group of Russian resistance fighters in the forest of Belarus. She said, “This was the only way I could fight back and avenge my family.” They were known as “partisans” – an insurgent militia group opposing an occupation army. Despite rampant antisemitism in the group, she was allowed to join because she had some basic medical skills learned from her late brother-in-law, who had been a doctor in Lenin. Faye became the group’s nurse, serving alongside the resident doctor, a veterinarian. For almost two years, Faye dressed fighters’ wounds and did whatever she could for sick and injured fighters, despite a lack of medical equipment. She participated in armed raids, later remembering “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’s partisan brigade raided her hometown of Lenin, during which the resistance fighters acquired food, weapons and supplies. As they passed her childhood home, Faye urged her fellow partisans to burn it to the ground, which they did. “I won’t be living here. The family’s killed. To leave it for the enemy? I said right away: Burn it!”
Faye found her old photographic equipment, and brought it back to their forest encampment. For the next two years, Faye documented the dangerous existence of anti-Nazi partisans. It was vitally important to her because as she later said, “I want people to know that there was resistance. Jews did not go like sheep to the slaughter. I was a photographer. I have pictures. I have proof.”
Faye’s resistance group was liberated by the Soviets in July 1944. After the war ended, she was overjoyed to find that her brother Moshe had also survived and had been part of another resistance group. Faye and Moshe were the only survivors of their family of nine. Soon after Faye married Morris Schulman, who’d fought alongside Moshe. They decided to make a new life in Palestine, then occupied by the British, who made it difficult if not impossible for war-scarred Holocaust survivors to enter the land. For two years the Schulmans were stuck in a displaced persons camp in Germany, waiting for the opportunity to immigrate. They helped smuggle arms into Palestine to support the Jews fighting for independence. In 1947 Faye became pregnant, and they needed someplace safe to live. They were able to get visas to Canada, and settled in Toronto, where they ran a family business and raised two children. In 1995, Faye published a book about her experience as an anti-Nazi resistance fighter: “A Partisan’s Memoir: Woman of the Holocaust.”
Faye died on April 24, 2021, surrounded by her family, at age 101. Sadly, the last few years of her life saw an upsurge of antisemitism worldwide. Faye left an inspiring message for young people today: “To Jewish kids I would like to say – be proud to be Jewish. To non-Jewish kids I would like to say – if there is a war and you have to fight, fight for freedom and don’t be ashamed to be in the army.”
For saving lives, battling Nazis, and leaving a photographic record so the horrors of the Holocaust would not be forgotten, we honor Faye Lazebnik Schulman as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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