A Story of Jewish Partisan Resistance During World War II
When the Nazis were gunning down Jews of the Eastern Polish town of Lenin into trenches, an officer pulled 17-year-old Faye Schulman (then called Faigel Lazebnik) aside. He’d seen her working at a studio earlier. So, he ordered her to take vanity pictures of him and other Nazis; he also told her to develop the negatives of the photos the Nazis had taken of the massacre. Almost 2,000 Jews were shot dead in Lenin. Several others were beaten, stripped naked, and sent to “work” camps in boxcars. Despite being terrified, the teenager secretly made extra copies of the photos to document the war crimes for future testimony.
Camera in hand, she later escaped to the forests and joined a group of Russian resistance fighters to avenge the death of her parents and six brothers and sisters. The group made her the resident “nurse”, hoping she may have picked up some skills from a brother-in-law who was a doctor. She assisted the group’s ‘doctor,’ actually a veterinarian. They’d dress wounds with cloth sterilized by boiling. But she was also an unemotional fighter who learned to use a rifle and stalk the forests in her leopard-fur coat. During a raid for food and weapons, she urged fellow fighters to burn her childhood home so that the Nazis wouldn’t be able to use it.
Her focus, though, remained on building evidence. She was so resolute about documenting Nazi atrocities and the partisans’ activities that she learned to develop photographs under a blanket. “I want people to know there was resistance. Jews did not go like sheep to the slaughter,” Schulman, who died last year in Toronto, aged 101, would say. Her more than 100 photographs of the massacre and her partisan years – and her life itself – are proof of that.
Four Winters: A Story of Jewish Partisan Resistance and Bravery in WW2, a documentary film written, produced, and directed by Julia Mintz, presents Schulman’s story, along with that of seven other teenaged fighters like her who lived in the forests of Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, and Ukraine, waging guerrilla warfare against the Nazis. It took Mintz over a decade to track down these fighters – in their 80s and 90s – for interviews and gather photographs and film footage.
The film intersperses photos of their youth with intimate present-day conversations about their exploits as resistance fighters. In the documentary, they speak of their transformation from innocents to ruthless partisans fighting the Nazis who murdered their families. Their singular focus was on seeing the Nazis defeated and staying alive. It’s a remarkable tale of the courage and diehard persistence of ad hoc resistance regiments that badgered the Nazi killing machine.
From 1941, when Germany violated the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and invaded Poland, to the very end of the war, some 25,000 Jews escaped ghettos and death camps to fight the Nazis. Some joined non-Jewish resistance fighters, some joined or formed all-Jewish groups. They learned to shoot, survive in the woods, withstand constant hunger, and handle medical problems.
They’d steal arms and ammunition from villagers, German soldiers, and German depots. They’d blow up railroads and bridges, and sabotage supply trains, power plants, and factories. Many of them engaged in direct combat with German soldiers; for survival, they’d even kill spies and collaborators in cold blood. Eventually, they received support. Help first came from the Russians, who found it expedient to keep them active with air-dropped food, radios, and armaments after the Germans captured hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers. Towards the war’s end, the advancing Allies too started helping the partisans.
Michael Stoll, a Polish partisan, was obsessed with disproving the notional reputation of Jews not being fighters. In the film, he recounts how, pulling his father with him, he jumped from a train speeding towards the Majdanek concentration camp. A Polish peasant sighted them, but Stoll’s fears of being handed back to the Nazis were unfounded; the peasant directed them to Jewish partisans nearby. Like Stoll, Isadore Farbstein too survived by jumping off a moving train bound for Treblinka. He says there were many groups of Jewish escapees living in hundreds of square miles of wilderness.
For partisans like Luba Abramowitz, whose parents, husband, and one-year-old son were killed by the Nazis, the ‘why’ for living was vengeance. “I have to behave not as a woman, I have to behave as a soldier,” Abramowitz told herself when she entered the forests to become a partisan. “The braveness, the courage, it grows from you.” With humor and a gleam in her eyes, she recounted how she stuffed bullets in her bra when her group would steal guns and ammo from Polish farms and Nazi factories: “As you know, women have more places to hide weapons than men, yes?”
Gertrude Boyarski, also featured in the film, describes the night of terror in 1942, when Nazis entered her hometown of Derechin, in Poland. As the soldiers massacred thousands of Jews, her family escaped into the forests. Her father and brother joined a group to attack a police station to steal arms and ammo. She later saw her mother, father, sister, and brother killed in an attack by German soldiers and antisemitic Poles who routinely hunted for Jews in the woods.
Not one to wallow in despair, she joined a Russian partisan group. For three years, they would attack German soldiers in nearby villages. Once, with no supplies whatsoever, she and a friend managed to destroy a bridge used by the Germans. They held up villagers with their rifles and demanded kerosene and straw. Then, under fire from the Nazis, they burnt the bridge.
She marvels at her transformation from a spoiled child, whose parents catered to her every whim, to a hard-as-nails combatant who killed the Nazi collaborator who had joined in the murder of her family. She had danced with the young man at a school prom and begged him to spare her life. “You’re a Jew, and you have to die,” he retorted. Another classmate’s mother had had the audacity to ask Boyarski’s mother for Boyarski’s nice clothes for her own daughter, since Boyarski “was going to be killed anyway!”
One survivor recounts the harsh conditions, sleeping without shelter in sub-freezing temperatures and snowstorms. They’d hollow out places in the ground under trees, often waking to find themselves under two or three feet of snow. They’d measure the passage of time by the difficult winters they endured in the forest – hence the title Four Winters.
Disease and infection were rampant, and medical supplies minimal. Schulman, who nursed the wounded, recounts dressing a wound filled with lice and using a stick to scrape them off. Bandages were reused after sterilizing them in boiling water over campfires. Food was scarce, and often had to be stolen or taken by force from villagers, many of them antisemites and Nazi collaborators. The partisans say they didn’t think of themselves as brave; it’s just that circumstances thrust bravery upon them.
Besides the Nazi atrocities and the Jewish resistance, Four Winters is also a record of how some Polish, Lithuanian, and Belarussian civilians collaborated with the Nazis. Archival footage of their participation is disturbing, for the Jews had been their neighbors and friends. For this very reason, unfortunately, the film cannot be screened in Poland, the homeland of many of the eight partisans: a Polish law of 2018 bans public discussion of Polish collaboration. Mintz is petitioning the Polish government to reverse the law so the truth can be known. It’s her personal contribution to ‘resistance’ of another kind – the struggle of memory against forgetting abominable evil.