Last night, thanks to JDL-Canada, we had the rare opportunity to meet a remarkable woman. Faye Schulman is one of the last survivors from a world that has disappeared long time ago. With most of us and our families, the past fades away naturally, while her world was deliberately and abruptly destroyed during one of the worst wars known to mankind.
When we talk about the fate of the Jews in World War II and the Holocaust in general, we usually think about the concentration camps, the mass murders, and the suffering. That’s natural, because we know quite a lot about those crimes – after all, the Germans kept detailed records about what was going on. It will be unfair to blame the Jews who perished there that they never took action to resist. Most of them were caught by surprise, they simply couldn’t imagine the magnitude of the catastrophe that was awaiting them.
On the other hand, we know very little about those who resisted, because nobody in the underground groups or in the woods kept any records or lists. That fact makes people like Faye Schulman very important for preserving our historical memory, for not only did she survive a massacre, but she also went on to fight against the Nazis and on top of that she documented the resistance in her photographs. No known Jewish survivor has achieved that.
Right now Faye is 93 years old, but she is remarkably vibrant and alert at that age. Her voice is confident and her memory hasn’t been affected by the burden of the many decades she has lived through.
In 1939 she was a beautiful 20-year old girl, who lived with her large family in a Polish town near the Russian border, and had no idea what horrors she was about to go through. Eventually, the whole town, both the buildings and the people, was almost completely wiped out.
There were about 10,000 people living in the town (later renamed Lenin) – about 5,000 Jews and the rest mostly Polish and Russian. She doesn’t recall any anti-Semitism – the life was peaceful and unremarkable, with trips to the fields, playing music, going to the synagogue, etc.
Everything changed in September 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland. Stalin did the same from the Eastern border and soon her town became a part of the Soviet territory.
Things didn’t change drastically under Soviet occupation. She even went to a Russian school for two years and learned the language. However, some of the Jews in the town, who didn’t speak Russian and were unable to find jobs, wanted to go back to the German part (obviously not knowing what was going on there). The Russians tricked them into thinking they’ll drive them there; instead they deported the Jews to Siberia. Those of them, who later came back, talked about the horrible cold and bad living conditions. Ironically, despite the severe colds and the bad life, most of them survived, while those who remained in the town eventually perished.
In June 1941 the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. Stalin didn’t expect that and his army was unprepared, which allowed the Nazis to advance deep into Russia. Faye’s town became a part of the German Reich. Initially the town wasn’t that severely affected. What helped Faye survive was that she was an avid and skilled photographer. The Nazis noticed that and started using her skills.
The Nazi hostility toward Jews started manifesting itself in the confiscation of Jewish properties – first they took most of the houses, the land, then the fur coats, valuables and other personal belongings. The random killings, just for “entertainment” became more and more frequent.
Once she had a terrifying experience, which involved her 12-years old brother. She had to go to a house outside of the Jewish ghetto to develop a few films, which belonged to the Germans. She was with her brother. She left him alone in the house to guard it, because she needed to get a pail of water to mix the chemicals.
When she came back, her brother told her that three older boys came looking for stuff to steal. Among other things they took was one of the films. Faye was terrified – she knew that she could be killed for that. In her desperation she went to the house of a Russian who knew everybody in the town. In a very short time he was able to locate the three boys, but they told him that they threw the film into the lake. Her brother, feeling guilty for causing trouble, took a small boat and went to look for the film. Fortunately, he found it floating on the surface of the water. That saved their lives.
Another time the Germans rounded up about 10 boys to kill them (those random killings were already common). While leading them to the place where they were to be shot, one of the boys disappeared. Thinking that he escaped, the Nazis took several adult hostages; among them were Faye’s father and the local Rabbi. They threatened to kill them, if the boy wasn’t found. That put the Jews in a horrible situation – choosing between two impossible choices. A few days later, the boy’s body was found floating in the lake (nobody knew how he died) and the hostages were released.
A few months later, the Germans decided to exterminate all the remaining Jews in the town – they rounded up everybody near three large trenches and shot them. Among the killed were Faye’s father and mother, her brothers (including the 12-year old), her sister with her husband and her children (aged 2 and 4) and other relatives.
The only relative who survived was her older brother, who wasn’t in the town at the time. He later joined the Polish army and fought against the Nazis (he is still alive in New York, he is a Rabbi).
Later the Russians placed a small memorial at the place where the Jews were killed:
The inscription reads: “Here the German-Fascist Occupiers Savagely Murdered 1850 Soviet Citizens from Lenin Town, August 14, 1942”. One of the attendees (originally from Russia) immediately made the remark that the Soviet authorities deliberately omitted the fact that the killed were Jews. As a person, who grew up in one of those countries, I can confirm that it was common to downplay the atrocities against Jews.
The absolute horror of the massacre was that not only did Faye have to watch the slaughter of her family, but she also had to develop the film that the Germans used to document it.
Out of nearly 2,000, the Nazis left only 25 Jews alive. Faye was one of them – they still thought they could use her.
A few days later the Russian partisans stormed the town and she was able to go away by following them. They were reluctant to take her with them, because the Jews didn’t have weapons, while most of the partisans came from the Russian army and had access to arms.
Faye spent the rest of the war with them having the rare opportunity to document their life in photographs. It was a constant struggle for survival, chased by an enemy that often outnumbered them. In the fights she lost many of her comrades.
She showed us a picture of her with another partisan in boat – they were supposed to go on a mission against the Germans. A few hours later, after they reached the coast, he stepped on a landmine and died.
She wasn’t the only Jewish girl fighting on the side of the Russians. She recalled another girl she knew. When her unit was ambushed by the Germans, the men tried to run away. The Jewish girl with them called them “cowards” and urged them to fight. Embarrassed, the men turned back, fought the German unit and won.
After the war she worked in Belarus, went to Israel, was in Canada and received medals from several countries. Her husband died in 1991.
Then she answered many questions and talked to the people, who wanted to take pictures with her.
And here she is with the members of JDL:
Her uncompromising fighting spirit is still with her. One of the most important things she said that night was: “We shouldn’t be afraid of our enemies – our enemies should be afraid of us.”
She lived all her life following that thought.
Faye Schulman is a truly remarkable woman, the type of person that is more and more difficult to find in our society, where bravery and honour are quickly becoming things of the past.
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