I was in bed one night, mindlessly scrolling through Facebook as usual, when a post from the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation stopped me cold: “During Passover of 1943, Jewish partisan Faye Schulman observed the holiday by eating only potatoes.” Below the text was a black-and-white group photo taken in a forest. The men have rifles and ammunition belts draped around them. Standing in the back row is a smiling young woman in a leopard-skin coat. I was riveted.
The picture looked more like a behind-the-scenes still from the set of a wartime movie; the glamorous starlet posing with authentic locals working as background extras. But it’s not a manufactured Hollywood image. Faye Schulman, the young woman in the leopard-skin coat, was a partisan in a non-Jewish brigade. Having worked as a photographer before the war, she became the only known Jewish partisan photographer. This was her photograph, developed in the forest using a memorized formula for developer and a makeshift dark room made from blankets.
Not only did Schulman keep Passover in 1943, with only potatoes for nourishment, she had to do it in secret, lest her comrades in the Soviet Molotava brigade find out she was Jewish. Keeping Peysekh is hard. Keeping it without anyone else to complain with seemed to me superhuman.
Maybe it was the late hour, or social media overload, or despair about my own time and place, but I immediately reshared, and overshared, the Faye Schulman post. “I feel ashamed that I complain about keeping Peysekh, in all the comforts and safety of my home. I should aspire to have one tiny portion of her holiness.”
What had come over me? As a deeply unspiritual person I generally avoid “holiness”—a word I can’t help but associate with sanctimony and stuffiness. And since when did I care about my own holiness? Peysekh for me is generally marked by prolonged waffling followed by a last-minute perfunctory houseclean. Unlike the pain of childbirth, Peysekh cleaning is a punishment Jewish women are now free to abandon.
So why was I suddenly thinking about Seder menus and deep cleaning? What was it about this smiling woman in the striking coat that so moved me?
Focusing on examples of muscular Jewish resistance can be a way of coping with the psychological burden of having a mass death event at the center of your identity. If you find yourself obsessed with the question of what would I have done?, it’s comforting to think, yes, I, too, would have put on a chic overcoat and picked up a rifle. Yes, I would have done what had to be done.
The Jewish education I received went as far as it could, substituting visceral guilt for practical knowledge. We were exposed to extremely graphic materials describing the 20th century’s most grisly war crimes, with no thought as to how it might affect us. Our parents were not (as far as I know) asked for their permission to show us such materials. The idea, I assume, was to inspire us to continue being Jewish, not for ourselves, but for them, the 6 million.
On the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation website I found another picture of Schulman. She’s seated next to a woman, and two men are standing behind them. Schulman is in her leopard-skin coat, this time with a matching hat. In her hand is a rifle, a confident, Nazi-killing look on her face. I immediately bought Schulman’s autobiography, A Partisan’s Memoir.
As an adult I’ve worked hard to build an affirmative Jewishness, which, while not necessarily based in rigorous observance (see above), is based on a genuine love of being and doing Jewish. I feel deeply connected to my ancestors and my pantheon of Yiddishist heroes. But I don’t do what I do for them; I do it for me. If somewhere in yene velt (the other world) I’m winning Max Weinreich’s approval, that’s just icing on the cake. One of my core beliefs is that guilt and shame are terrible foundations for Jewish life. So I wondered all the more at my atavistic late night Facebook sentimentality. I needed to know more about Faye Schulman as a person, not just an idealized revenge fantasy guilting me into being more observant.
The portrait Schulman paints of prewar Lenin (her hometown in Poland) in her memoir is idyllic; a pious but modern misnagdish community, where Jewish life was lived in public and with gusto. “On the Sabbath and each Jewish holiday, the streets were filled with young people promenading in groups arm-in-arm, singing at the tops of our voices the Hebrew and Yiddish songs we had learned at home and in cheder,” she writes in A Partisan’s Memoir. “Never was there any fear of persecution or trouble from the gentile population.” A local theater troupe staged popular Yiddish dramas of the day like Mirele Efros and The Dybbuk. Proceeds were given to charity. The importance of charity, and communal responsibility, colors all of Schulman’s recollections of Lenin.
Of course, A Partisan’s Memoir is filled with the kind of harrowing wartime details you would expect. When the Lenin ghetto was liquidated, Schulman was spared by the Nazis so she could act as photographic documenter of their crimes. She then escaped into the forest, joining a partisan unit as a photographer and, despite lacking any training, nurse.
Her iconic leopard-skin coat was made of, yes, actual leopard-skin. When Lenin was occupied by the Soviets a number of leopard-skin coats were brought with them and she bought one. When the Nazis subsequently invaded, the coat was taken from her. Miraculously, Schulman was reunited with the coat when she joined the partisans on her first partisan raid on her hometown. She went hoping to retrieve her camera equipment and writes that at the time, she didn’t think much of regaining the coat. But the coat, which she described in her memoir as being “so light, so warm, and so strong” ended up being one of the things that kept her alive during her two years in the forest.
Another miraculous reunion resulted in her observance of Passover in 1943. Schulman writes that her two years with the partisans passed without awareness of any Jewish holidays, save one. In the fall of 1942 Schulman met up briefly with her brother, Kopel. Before the war, against her family’s wishes, Kopel had gone to the Mezerich Yeshiva. The frail young man Schulman describes as a “devout rabbi” nonetheless didn’t hesitate to fulfill his mandatory Polish military service, becoming a top marksman in the army. Later, when Kopel himself joined a partisan unit, he proved an indispensable fighter. During their brief fall meeting, Kopel gave her the secular date of Passover the following year.
Without a family, without a home, her only means of observance was through dietary restriction. Since the usual partisan meal was pork-based soup and bread, Schulman had to find excuses to miss communal meals as well as a way to eat her potatoes undetected. As Schulman surely knew, Jewish law is clear that it is permissible to violate the Sabbath to save a life, and no rabbi would have told Schulman to put her life at risk to avoid eating chometz during Peysekh. Schulman is without sentimentality regarding her choice to secretly observe the holiday. Dryly, however, she notes, “I was glad when Passover was over.”
Relatively few Jews were able to take up armed resistance, as Schulman did. For one thing, it was very difficult to find arms and ammunition and if they did find weapons, they were up against the most powerful army in Europe. At the same time, as Schulman dramatically describes, Jews, especially young Jews, who wanted to fight back were faced with a dilemma. Every act of resistance was met with vicious retaliation by the Nazis, who often targeted the families of resisters for special punishment.
It’s in that context that I read Schulman’s decision to keep her potato-only Peysekh, and in that context I take inspiration, not guilt, to improve upon my own observance. It’s our mistake to interpret armed resistance as more worthy than other kinds of spiritual or cultural resistance. Even in her relatively privileged position as an armed fighter, the urge to spiritual resistance was powerful. Keeping Peysekh meant asserting that as long as she lived, she lived as a Jew.
Erev Peysekh 1943 has taken on its own meaning as a secular holiday of remembrance. April 19, 1943, was the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. After the Great Deportations of 1942, out of 400,000 Jews in the ghetto only some 60,000 remained. Many of those who remained were young and healthy. Organizing themselves into militia groups, they decided they would go out fighting. Jewish resistance fighters fought Nazi troops all the way until May 16, at which point the Nazis finally razed the ghetto.
In 1947 a stone was placed in Riverside Park to mark the spot on which a memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising would be built. Every year, survivors, Bundist families, Yiddishists and anyone wishing to honor April 19 as a sacred day gather at Der Shteyn (The Stone). This year, as in 1943, April 19 falls on erev Peysekh.
2018 was the 75th anniversary of the uprising. The organizers of the annual gathering have just published the speeches and other material from the 75th anniversary program as a book and made it available free to everyone as a PDF. Edited and compiled by poet Irena Klepfisz, it’s a truly unique resource for English-Yiddish texts about the uprising, especially for people who cannot make it to New York. Klepfisz was born in the Warsaw Ghetto where her father, Michal Klepfisz, was a Bundist leader of the uprising and one of the first to fall in battle.
Riverside Park is still awaiting its Warsaw Ghetto Uprising memorial. The annual gathering is itself a memorial, one perhaps more powerful than any piece of stone or steel. As co-organizer Marcel Kshensky said at last year’s gathering, “Der Shteyn derives its meaning from us because it represents unspeakable horror and magnificent heroism, because it possesses the silent scream of death and the determination to fight against all odds, and to be able to say, ‘We will choose the moment of our death, not the Nazis.’”
MORE: You can read Faye Schulman’s amazing story in her own words. An exhibit of her wartime photos called Pictures of Resistance: The Wartime Photographs of Jewish Partisan Faye Schulman is now at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee through May 26, 2019. More information about the exhibit, produced by the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, is here … Marek Edelman was a Bundist activist and the last commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. He escaped the ghetto to take part in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. After the war he led a long and distinguished life as a cardiologist in Poland. This year would have been his 100th birthday and the Warsaw City Council has dedicated 2019 to him. … In Warsaw, Polin, The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, has launched a Daffodils Campaign to mark the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. They’ve provided downloadable instructions for making your own paper daffodils here. … My friend Eric Bednarski is a brilliant young Canadian filmmaker living in Poland. His new film is called Warsaw: A City Divided and features never before seen amateur footage of the ghetto taken in 1941. World premiere of the movie will be May 11, in Warsaw. … In New York, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Commemoration will take place on April 19 at 1 p.m. in Riverside Park, between 83rd and 84th Street.
LISTINGS: Playwright Miriam Hoffman will speak about her D.P. Camp Song Journal. (in Yiddish) Sunday, April 14, 1:30 p.m. at the Sholem Aleichem Center, 3301 Bainbridge Avenue, Bronx. … The Yiddish Book Center is dedicating a weekend seminar to the underappreciated Soviet Yiddish mystical prose of Der Nister. May 3-5, registration essential. … When I say that I’m a Yiddishist, one of the things people always want to talk about is dialects. And I always have to disappoint them because it’s something I don’t know much about. If you’re like me, this is your chance to deepen your appreciation of Yiddish dialects at the upcoming League for Yiddish all-day seminar, taught by linguist Dr. Hershl Glasser. May 5, 251 West 100th Street. (For advanced Yiddish speakers). … Oy, America is a new Yiddish song program, an exuberant exploration of the Yiddish music on the New York City soundtrack. With Miryem-Khaye Seigel (vocals) and Tracy Stark (piano). Thursday, May 9, 6 p.m., Forest Hills Library, 108-19 71 Avenue Forest Hills, free. … My friends at Toronto’s Ashkenaz Festival just opened their new Yiddish Spring, a season-long cultural initiative. It looks amazing and runs through the end of June. Information here. … Vaybertaytsh, the coolest Yiddish feminist podcast, is seeking summer interns. … 2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the Weimar Republic and the 20th anniversary of the most important European Yiddish festival, Yiddish Summer Weimar. The theme this year is the Weimar Republic of Yiddishland and includes Yiddish language intensives, as well as music, dance and theater making. Opens July 12. Information here.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.