A Partisan's Memoir

224 pages,
ISBN: 0929005767

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Horrors & Woodland Beauty
by Libby Scheier

Much of the literature on the Holocaust in the decade or two after the end of the war wondered why Jews had gone docilely to slaughter, instead of offering up resistance. More recent writing has debunked this view-which is not unconnected to other anti-semitic views, both outside and inside Jewish communities-and has described the many instances of rebellion and resistance, from the Warsaw uprising, to smaller town and village rebellions, to the work of Jewish fighters in urban resistance movements and forest partisan bands. Faye Schulman's book adds admirably to this growing body of literature.
A Partisan's Memoir is a riveting book, simply, clearly, and sometimes gracefully and lyrically written. It starkly outlines the horror of the times and vividly captures the hardships, dangers, battles, and moments of beauty of two years lived in the Russian woods, sleeping outdoors with a rifle in all weathers and conditions. In the epilogue, Schulman writes of her days in the forests: "Sometimes this bygone world feels a lot more real to me than the present." The book reflects this sense of hyper-reality; the sections on the partisans' struggle in the woods stand out with an electric clarity.
An abiding layered irony of the book is the fact that Schulman's childhood training as a photographer helped her survive: the Nazis used her to record their perpetration of horrors against her people. It enabled her to contribute to the body of Holocaust documentation, creating a "monument" to those who died and to the future of Jewish youth "who continue the Jewish heritage and carry on the memory" (as the dedication says), and adding to the material deployed against obfuscators and deniers. These photographs bring resonance to the book's story, from the touching family photos from Schulman's happy pre-Nazi life, to the stomach-wrenching ones of trenches filled with the dead bodies of slaughtered Jews. One such photo appears alongside a stark account of the murder of her family and townspeople at these trenches. I have seen such pictures before, but not with an accompanying text that personalized them. I found this chapter so emotionally affecting that after finishing it, I had to put the book down for a day.
Reading A Partisan's Memoir, I reflected on my father's stories of life in World War I Austria-Hungary. I grew up hearing how as a small child he witnessed his grandfather's murder (soldiers on a pogrom forced the old man to swallow his long beard), and how at the age of six he hid in a basement for several weeks, with his slightly older brother and sister, while soldiers marauded overhead. His mother was hiding elsewhere, for fear of being discovered and raped and murdered, as was happening then to Jewish women in the region. The basement was cold and damp and there was nothing to eat but rotting potatoes. He later described this period as the time he "became a man"-prematurely for the Jewish tradition, which invites boys to enter manhood at the age of thirteen. My father jumped from early childhood to adulthood. He lost his youth and also lost a normal adulthood, having never matured in any natural way.
As a girl, I heard stories of my father's traumatized wartime childhood over and over again. He used to recite a poem each time he told these stories:

When I was a beggarly boy
I lived in a cellar damp
I had neither a friend nor a toy
But I had an Aladdin's lamp.
When I could not sleep for the cold
I had fire enough for my brain
And built with roofs of gold
The beautiful castles of Spain.

His stories took on the character of myth, of fairy-tale, for me-like something that had never happened. I felt emotionally untouched by them, and was annoyed at hearing them so often. Later, when I watched Holocaust images on television or read about the Holocaust in books, I felt distant from all that. My upbringing in a militantly secular household further distanced me from identifying with Judaism and these events, and even from my own family history.
In recent years, I have been drawn in by the movement for Jewish renewal-a wide-ranging social, political, artistic, and spiritual series of developments-and have now ventured to experience Jewish identity personally. It has been difficult to dig down and know what that means. Reading books like Aimée and Jaguar-about a love affair between a Christian and a Jew in Nazi-ruled 1943 Berlin (by Erica Fischer, HarperCollins)-and now A Partisan's Memoir, I have come to feel closer to those times, and to identify with those Jews. It seems to me that a lot of what stood between me and Jewish identity was exactly a fear of acknowledging that these things happened to people like me and could happen to me. This is a gift: it makes me better able to see, speak out against, and help prevent anti-semitism, and to help Jewish people, and myself, flourish. Another wonderful thing about the renewal movement is that it has brought about a renaissance of rich and beautiful Jewish traditions, and made these come alive for me.
Schulman presents beautiful aspects of Jewish tradition in her description of her family's daily life and ritual observance in the days before Nazi rule. But the ugliness of anti-semitism is also a constant presence in Jewish life of the time, from the structural, "nonviolent" discriminations of pre-war Europe, to the Nazi brutalities, to the continuation of anti-semitic biases and practices after the war in Europe.
In describing prewar life in her small Polish border town, Schulman notes that Jews were barred from attending university and from entering the professions (thus her brother Moishe learns photography as "a skilled trade" and teaches it to Faye), and were not allowed to hold public positions. As a result, Jews were generally intimidated when they had to visit a government office and talk to a bureaucrat-and were thereby disadvantaged in obtaining goods, services, and rights.
But she also paints an almost idyllic picture of prewar town life, claiming that "Jews and Gentiles lived in harmony." She says that "anti-semitism was generally non-existent amongst the majority White Russian population" of her town, but that "attitudes towards Jews within the Polish minority varied." She then tells an anecdote of a pleasant chat between a strolling Polish shopkeeper and her mother. After some small-talk, the shopkeeper suddenly blurts out, "Mrs. Lazebnik, there will soon come a time when I will have the right to shoot all the Jewish people in this town." Faye's mother shoots back, "Mr. Olshevski, there will soon come a time when a big hole will appear in front of you and you will fall in and never be able to get out again." Compared to the Nazi horrors that followed, it strikes me as only natural that prewar family and town life appear as more idyllic in Faye Schulman's memory than they probably were. In fact, she downplays prewar anti-semitism. How could two peoples live in "harmony" when one people was structurally excluded from the privileges the other enjoyed? This is apartheid, and history has yet to provide a successful example of "separate but equal" practices.
Schulman herself exposes this superficial "harmony" when she writes of the deep and widespread anti-semitism within the forest partisans, on the part of White Russian partisans against Jewish partisans and against Jewish civilian refugees from the towns, living in enclaves in the woods. She further exposes Russian anti-semitism in her account of the attitudes she faced when trying to get housing in Pinsk after the war.
Interestingly, she does not minimize anti-semitism in her accounts of postwar Russia and Europe; having been through the Holocaust and fought among the partisans, she is militantly opposed to any small sign of it. Things start small; the lesson to be learned here-and Faye Schulman certainly intends her book to provide lessons-is to oppose bigotry when the problems are small. It will certainly be harder later.
A Partisan's Memoir adds to our knowledge of women's role in the war. Schulman notes that women would make up only about two or three percent of a unit of Soviet partisans, but "were essential as scouts and intelligence agents," as they "were often less suspected of espionage than their male counterparts." But some women, like Schulman, were regularly assigned to combat missions alongside men. She often volunteered for dangerous missions; she was anxious to do battle against the Nazis, wanting revenge for the brutal murder of her family.
Some of the most moving parts of the book occur when, among the partisans, Schulman experiences a quiet moment of pleasure in the beautiful woods. No such moment of beauty remains unscathed by horror; her thoughts always lead to grief:
"One day I found myself alone, away from the group, walking in the woods. This was in the springtime, after a rain. Moisture gleamed on the grass and the scent coiled slowly into the air. The ground was soft, and the greenery was light in colour. Leaves and flowers opened in beautiful colours.. Everything was gorgeous; the birds were singing. I took a deep breath. It was like a dream, as if I were back to a time before the war.
"The world was still beautiful, but my family and so many other Jewish people couldn't admire this beauty any more. How could I still enjoy it? The dreams I used to have, youthful dreams, where were they now? They drowned in the rivers of innocent blood. There no longer was a safe place where I could dream about a life of peace and quiet. My life was filled with violence, brutality, and terror.." "Only during the rare quiet moments-when there was no moving from place to place and no fighting-did the bittersweet tensions between the sexes suddenly arise. Then, particularly after a successful battle, everybody's mood would change. At these times I was noticed as a woman. I received compliments from all around: `so young, so pretty, so nice, so beautiful.'
"These were the times that I had a chance to think about the personal parts of my life that were missing. I had lost my youth in a painful way. It should have been easy to fall in love with one of the many young, handsome boys. But instead of embracing a loved one, I embraced a rifle.
"I felt that for me it would be a crime to fall in love, to have fun, to dance, or to sing. Before the war, as a teenager, I used to love dancing-and I danced a lot. All this was now over for me. I was alone in my mourning, an orphan with her memories. My family was killed, having been tortured and brutalized. I could not allow myself to have fun or be happy. At this time I felt I had only to fight for freedom and vengeance. Fighting and helping the wounded-that was my destiny. It was my duty to mourn as long as I lived."
After two years in the woods, Faye Schulman was liberated in Byelorussia, in July 1944. Coming to Pinsk, she found herself at "the lowest point in my life." Most of her Russian partisan friends had family and friends, and certainly a country, to return to. Her own family had been murdered, her entire town razed to the ground, and the Soviet Union did not feel like her country; nor now did Poland. Despite official Soviet policy at the time, prejudiced attitudes and behaviour were easy to find. And Schulman was not fond of Communism. In recent years, Faye Schulman has lectured extensively about her war experiences, and the Russian, American, and Canadian governments have decorated her for wartime bravery. Her photographs are on view in the Holocaust museums in Washington and Israel and in other exhibits through the world.

Libby Scheier is the founder/director of Toronto Writing Workshop and the author of five books, most recently Saints and Runners: Stories and a Novella.


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