In her golden years, as a grandmother in Toronto, Faye Schulman still held onto a vintage camera, a folding Zeiss Ikon with accordion-like bellows and a cable shutter release.
Her mastery of old cameras like that kept her alive during the Second World War. It spared her from a Nazi death squad that executed nearly all the other Jews in her hometown. It also helped her during the two years she spent with Russian partisans fighting the German occupation.
Ms. Schulman, whose wartime photos documented the resistance to the Nazi rule in Eastern Europe, died in Toronto on April 24. She was 101.
In documentaries, exhibitions and her own autobiography, she recalled how she and scores of other Jews took arms and joined Red Army stragglers, escaped prisoners of war and other resistance fighters who waged guerrilla warfare behind the Wehrmacht’s front line. “We were not like lambs going to the slaughter. Many fought back,” she said in the 1999 PBS documentary Daring to Resist.
It was a hard, dangerous life in the forests and marshes 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. Against all odds we struggled,” she wrote in her 1995 autobiography, titled A Partisan’s Memoir.
Faigel Lazebnik was born on Nov. 28, 1919, the fifth of the seven children of Yakov Lazebnik, a fabric merchant, and his wife, Rayzel (née Migdalovich), who ran a catering business. The family lived in Lenin, a Polish town near the Russian border.
As a teen, she apprenticed under her eldest brother, Moishe, the town photographer. After he moved away, she took over his studio.
In 1939, her town was occupied by the Soviet Union, until Germany invaded in 1941. Young Jewish men, including two of her brothers, were taken away for forced labour. Those who remained were packed into a small part of town, a ghetto. “It was overcrowded, with a lack of food to feed the hungry, and lots of ill people and disease,” she recalled in a 2014 interview for the March of Living commemoration.
She was allowed outside the ghetto to photograph German officials. Once, she had to snap a portrait of the Gebietskommissar, the local German district administrator. Looking at him through her camera’s viewfinder, she had to ask him to smile.
“He was like an animal. I knew he’s a killer. I knew he killed already in the thousands,” she recalled in the PBS documentary.
In August 1942, the ghetto’s survivors were rounded up. She, however, was pulled aside, joining a handful of Jews – including a shoemaker, a painter, a tailor, a carpenter – who were spared because they had skills the Germans still needed. She saw trucks take the rest away. “I could hear the cries, I could hear them. And then it was quieter and quieter.”
Later that day, 1,850 Jews were shot dead outside Lenin.
“Even now … some time I think to myself, how did my family died?” she said in the PBS documentary. “Did my mother have seen my father die first? Or the children have seen their mother die first? Or the other way around?”
She was ordered to train Marisha, an assistant, and knew this would make her expendable. So she showed Marisha as little as possible and stretched the teaching for weeks.
Soviet partisans then attacked the town in September, and she fled to the woods with them. They walked for hours through dirt paths and swamps. After sunset, they arrived at a camp and she fell asleep under an old tree.
“From now on my bed would be the grass, my roof the sky and my walls the trees,” she said in her memoirs.
She became one of the nurses and was given hands-on training from the brigade’s main doctor, who was actually a veterinarian.
Conditions were primitive. Wounds were disinfected with salt water. Soiled bandages were boiled in a bucket over a campfire and reused.
The partisans raided her hometown several more times to resupply themselves. She used those occasions to retrieve her photo equipment.
Thus, in addition to being a nurse, she became her detachment’s photographer. There was no darkroom, so she developed her photos at night or under blankets.
Her memoir painted portraits of tragic figures caught in one of history’s bloodiest land wars.
People such as Nicolai, a fellow partisan who accompanied her in a canoe to deliver messages to another guerrilla group. He told her to stay in the boat while he pulled it to the shore but stepped on a mine and was blown up.
Or Raika, an eight-year-old Jewish orphan whom Ms. Schulman looked after for a year. She had to throw away the little girl’s only memento from her parents, a watch, fearing Raika might get killed by a partisan who wanted to steal it.
Raika was eventually airlifted out of the area, along with wounded fighters, and Ms. Schulman never saw her again.
Ms. Schulman stayed with the partisans from September 1942 until July 1944, when the Red Army drove the Germans out of Belarus.
She reconnected with Moishe and Kopel, two of her brothers who had escaped from a labour camp and joined the partisans, too. Through her brothers, she met another former Jewish partisan, Morris Schulman, whom she married.
They immigrated to Canada in 1948. “We were poor, and it was hard to find work because we did not speak English. But we were young and healthy and determined,” she wrote in her memoirs.
They settled in Toronto and worked in a clothing factory until they were able to open their own hardware store.
“I am now an old woman. I love my two children and my six grandchildren dearly,” she wrote. “But my past life as a partisan, the Holocaust, the torture of our people: These I will never forget.”
Ms. Schulman leaves her daughter, Susan; son, Sidney; grandchildren and extended family. Her husband, Morris, predeceased her in 1992.