Faye Schulman was a Jewish partisan photographer who courageously fought against Nazis with both a gun and a camera. She was the only photographer to document resistance efforts in Eastern Europe during World War II.
Faigel “Faye” Lazebnik Schulman was born on November 28th, 1919, in the Eastern Poland city of Lenin (a town that’s in modern-day Western Belarus).
Faye’s brother Moishe was a photographer, and he taught her the skills of shooting photos, developing film, and making prints.
When the Nazis invaded the area in 1941, 1,850 of the Jews in the town were rounded up in a ghetto except for six “useful Jews” that included a tailor, a carpenter, and a photographer. That photographer was Schulman.
The following year, on August 14th, 1942, the Nazis killed all 1,850 Jews living in the ghetto, including Schulman’s family. Schulman was one of just 26 people spared that day due to her skills as a photographer, J. reports.
“After the killing, I continued to work as a photographer for them and I was hoping maybe there will be somehow a way how I could escape and I could join the Partisans,” Schulman says. “I could have escaped when the people were alive. But if I would have escaped, the whole family would be killed, another 50 people.”
Schulman was working as a photographer for the Nazis when she was given film of the massacre to develop. While working with the photos, Schulman was horrified to find photos of her own murdered family in the mass graves, and this steeled her resolve to join the partisans.
Schulman spoke about this memory in this interview she gave some years ago:
“[T]hey brought me again the films to develop and […] in one of the films I noticed this is the trenches where my family is,” she says. “[T]his picture is the exact […] trench where my family is shot — my father, my mother, my 2 sisters, my sister’s 2 children and the husband, and my 2 younger brothers and they’re all shot all in those 3 trenches and they covered up […]”
“I knew what’s going on and can you imagine how painful it was when I helped. […] [W]hen I developed the film, I made the positives and I made a few copies for myself and that’s how I saved the real pictures where my family’s killed in our town.”
When partisans raided the area, Schulman fled into the forest and joined a partisan group called the Molotava Brigade. She served in this group as a nurse for a couple of years.
When the group raided Lenin again, Schulman managed to recover her old camera equipment, and this is when she began documenting the resistance effort she was involved in.
“During the next two years, she took over a hundred photographs, developing the medium format negatives under blankets and making “sun prints” during the day,” the Jewish Partisan Education Foundation writes. “On missions Faye buried the camera and tripod to keep it safe.
“Her photos show a rare side of partisan activity — one is a funeral scene where two Jewish partisans are being buried alongside Russian partisans, despite the intense antisemitism in the group. In another image, Schulman and three young Jewish men smile joyously after an unexpected reunion in the forest — each believing that the other had been killed.”
Schulman showed and talked about the camera she used in this interview she gave:
“Here is my camera, the original camera that I have since 1939,” she states. “This camera I took pictures when the Russians occupied. I took pictures when the Nazis occupied and I took pictures in the Partisans. This camera was buried in the ground many times when I was in the Partisans and I were attacked and I was on assignment and many time I took it the camera out and it still works.
“And the same camera, all my pictures that I took was all with this particular camera. I would never like to part as long as I live with this camera. So many memories and so many stories and so many things happen and this camera has seen everything.”
Schulman was one of the only known Jewish partisan photographers who documented the valiant struggle.
“I want people to know that there was resistance,” she stated. “Jews did not go like sheep to the slaughter. I was a photographer. I have pictures. I have proof.”
After the war, in 1948, Schulman immigrated to Toronto, Canada, where she would live the rest of her life. Schulman passed away surrounded by family on April 24th in Toronto at the age of 101.
Image credits: Header portrait via the Jewish Partisan Education Foundation