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Watch: The INCREDIBLE Story of Faye Schulman

Watch our mini-documentary detailing the incredible life of Faye Schulman, a Jewish photographer in World War Two, captured by the Germans only to escape as a resistance member and fight for freedom from the woods of Eastern Europe.

Why Is Faye’s Story Important?

Casting away from the high-flying birds-eye view of world events and delving into individual stories, the true human experience can be found; stories of tragedy, hardship and the resilience of the human spirit. And often, in turn, we are able to learn more about ourselves than through any book or film about the great battles and political figures of that time.

Sometimes when looking back through history, there is a person who is placed in the position to capture snapshots of these moments. They provide us just a glimpse into the fringes of world events illustrating what it means to live through these times, hopefully giving us the inspiration to learn from their bravery, resilience and character of heart so that we might do the same.

One such individual is Faye Schulman. In 1942, with the world engulfed in war, far from the war rooms of London, pristine hallways of the Whitehouse and battlegrounds of the Pacific, was a 22-year-old who would otherwise be looking to have a life like any other.

The Beginnings

Born to a large Jewish family in 1919, in Lenin, Poland and finding her way through the world, Faye worked with her brother, managing a photography business, Faye assisted him and began the journey of learning the tools and skills of the photography trade, spending days in dark rooms developing images.

However, like countless others unlucky enough to be caught in the gears of history, Faye was caught in a time and place that, through no fault of her character or actions, found her persecuted for something she could not help, by those who should have been knowledgeable enough to know better, but who harboured hate in their hearts.

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. They justified the action by arguing Poland was persecuting ethnic Germans living there and claiming that the country was planning, alongside Great Britain and France, to encircle and dismember Germany. A false reasoning eerily similar to the events today in Ukraine.

Against some brave resistance, often forgotten, but with some 1 ½ million men, Germany swept through the country in a Blitzkreig lasting just few weeks, occupying Poland alongside the Soviet Union and propelling the world into war.

Nazi Occupation

Having initially been under Soviet rule, following Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, the town of Lenin was quickly overrun by increasing numbers of German soldiers. Almost immediately, the Jews of Lenin were forced to work for the new occupiers: rushing them to the river and forcing them to work on the construction of a temporary bridge, over which would later cross cars, weapons, horses, and tanks.

The cruelty of the new regime was unmistakable, with beatings, theft and murder common occurrences as the rights of the Jewish community were stolen away. All Jews were forced to live in a Ghetto, with 3 or 4 families living in a single apartment.

On August 14, 1942, the ghetto, which even in its horrendous condition had been the only space of safety left, was raided. From the youngest to the oldest, the order was given to awaken all of the residents and gather them all in the street. Surrounded on every side all 2,000 individuals were forcibly removed. It was a heartbreaking scene with mothers clinging to their children whilst families tried frantically not to lose sight of each other.

Recalling what he witnessed Mordekhai Zaytshik commented that at this moment “Everyone knew that they were being prepared for an inescapable death. They stood silently, frozen in place. Their hearts had turned to stone and they were unable to react in any way”.

Nearly 2,000 people within the Lenin Ghetto were taken to a hill on the main road to a pre-made ditch just outside the town: including Faye’s parents and 4 of her siblings. At the edge of the ditches, the murderers made the Jews undress, took their clothes and opened fire on them with their machine guns. In less than one hour, the lives of nearly 2,000 innocent people were stripped away from them.

Only 26 people were spared from this massacre, each due to having a particular skill sought after by the Germans. Tailors, shoemakers and builders still deemed useful, who would be put to work for those that had just murdered their loved ones.

Through her abilities and skills in photography, Faye was also saved. In another sickening turn, Faye’s first job was to develop the very photographs that had been taken of the massacre that had just claimed the lives of most of her family. With her only option for survival being to develop these photos, she did so. However, secretly, she developed duplicate copies for herself, preserving the proof of what had happened, so that hopefully one day she would have the opportunity to share these atrocities with the world,

I heard the Nazis open fire with their machine guns,” she wrote in her 1995 memoir. “The trenches were far away, but I heard the cries of my people, cries that still echo in my ears. I am still filled with indescribable sorrow when I think of how they came to their end. I flinch even today whenever I hear the roar of a crowd at an outdoor sports arena, sounds that reverberate.”

Joining the Partisans

With 100 German soldiers and 30 local policemen based in Lenin, Faye bided her time, waiting for an opportunity to escape, in an environment surrounded by some of the most evil and callous individuals modern history has known. One month following the massacre, a Soviet “Kalinin” partisan unit made up of roughly 150 individuals including a Jewish fighter called Borris Ginsburg attacked this Garrison killing 3 German officers, 14 soldiers and 13 policemen, as well as burning down the ghetto.

In the chaos, Faye managed to escape, fleeing to the forests alongside the other remaining Jews.

She joined the Molotava Brigade, working as a medic and doing what she could with their limited resources to nurse gunshot wounds and even perform surgeries with vodka as anaesthetic. When not caring for the wounded, she put the skill that had saved her life to work, taking photographs of life within this collection of individuals fighting for their liberty from the forest.

When asked why she decided to stay and join the partisans Faye said simply, “This was the only way I could fight back and revenge my family”.

There is little that needs to be said about these incredible photos because they speak for themselves, bringing to life the hardships of their day-to-day life; performing surgeries in operating theatres made of wood, burying their fallen and trying to find happiness within the darkness of World War 2. They are made all the more incredible however by the fact that by directing another to release the camera’s shutter once the scene had been framed, Faye herself is in many of them.

For 2 years, Faye and her comrades would continue to resist the Nazi occupation until in 1944 the ever-advancing red tide of Soviet advance swept through the territory from the east. She had survived.

Celebration and jubilation for some, but for Faye writing about this time, it was a day of reckoning.

“Never in my life had I felt so lonely, so sad; never had I felt such a yearning for the parents, family and friends whom I would never see again”.

Surviving the War

In December 1944 she married a fellow partisan Morris Schulman and after a period of working as a photographer in Pinsk, now Belarus, at the end of the war they spent several years in a displaced persons camp in Germany while seeking to move to the British mandate of Palestine, by joining the Bricha, an underground movement that spirited Jews into Palestine,

In December 1944 she married a fellow partisan Morris Schulman and when their daughter was born, they moved to Canada. By the time of her husband’s death in 1992 their family had grown to two children, six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Faye herself lived to 101, passing away on the 24th April 2021. She never parted with the camera that had been her companion throughout the war. In her words, “the camera had seen everything” and she would never like to part with it as long as she lived.

When asked about which photograph out of the hundreds that she had taken was her favourite, rather than the striking images of her and her companions geared up with rifles and leopard print coats, looking ready to strike revenge against those who had done them wrong, it was instead one that whilst perhaps simpler, was more unique than any other.

A portrait of her alongside her family together, happy, and hopeful for the future unaware of the approaching storm that would change their lives forever.

“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.”

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