The Holo­caust in the Soviet Union in Real Time

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - SPOTLIGHT - • ALAN ROSEN­BAUM

The Nazis in­vaded the Soviet Union in the sum­mer of 1941, ram­pag­ing through vast amounts of Soviet territory, and from Septem­ber 1941, mur­der­ing tens of thou­sands of Jews daily. By the end of that year, more than half a mil­lion Jewish civil­ians had been ex­e­cuted in Nazi-con­quered ar­eas of the USSR. Re­cent re­search has demon­strated that dur­ing World War II, those who wanted to know about the de­struc­tion of Euro­pean Jewry had op­por­tu­ni­ties to do so from both the main­stream Rus­sian press as well as the Yid­dish lan­guage news­pa­per Eynikayt – the only Soviet Yid­dish news­pa­per at the time.

How did peo­ple in the Soviet Union re­act to the events of the Holo­caust dur­ing the war and in the years fol­low­ing? This topic will be the fo­cus of an in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence ti­tled “The Holo­caust as Re­flected in Pub­lic Dis­course in the Soviet Union dur­ing the Stal­in­ist Pe­riod, 1941–1953,” at Yad Vashem, the World Holo­caust Re­mem­brance Cen­ter, on De­cem­ber 2-3. The con­fer­ence will take place within the frame­work of the Moshe Mir­i­lashvili Cen­ter for Re­search on the Holo­caust in the Soviet Union, part of Yad Vashem’s In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute for Holo­caust Re­search.

Dr. Arkadi Zeltser, Holo­caust ex­pert and di­rec­tor of the Moshe Mir­i­lashvili Cen­ter, ex­plains that the con­fer­ence will pri­mar­ily fo­cus on how the in­tel­lec­tu­als in the Soviet Union re­sponded to the news of the hor­rific events that were oc­cur­ring through­out Europe at the time. Jewish and non-Jewish in­tel­lec­tu­als, writ­ers, cin­e­matog­ra­phers, painters, folk­lorists and the­ater folk felt ob­li­gated to re­act to the Jewish tragedy. De­spite the of­fi­cial Soviet nar­ra­tive that em­pha­sized the killing of the Jews as Soviet cit­i­zens and not as Jews, these artists still man­aged to trans­mit Jewish ideas and con­cerns in their writ­ings.

“They looked for a way to em­pha­size the Jewish per­spec­tive, while of­fi­cially main­tain­ing the Soviet line,” says Zeltser. He ex­plains that in wartime, Rus­sian Jewish writ­ers were per­mit­ted to write about Jewish he­roes such as Bar-Kochba and the Mac­cabees, and es­pe­cially Jewish sol­diers in the Red Army, but they had to in­cor­po­rate Rus­sian el­e­ments into their work as well.

Con­fer­ence ses­sions will fo­cus on the Yid­dish writ­ings of such Rus­sian Jewish po­ets as David Hof­shteyn and Peretz Mark­ish, and prose writ­ers such as David Bergel­son and Pin­chas Kaganovich, known by the pen name of Der Nis­ter, “the hid­den one.”

Kaganovich wrote sto­ries about the Ger­man per­se­cu­tion of Jews in oc­cu­pied Poland dur­ing the war. In 1942, he be­came a mem­ber of the Jewish Anti-Fas­cist Com­mit­tee, which was formed on or­ders of Joseph Stalin. The com­mit­tee in­flu­enced pub­lic opin­ion and or­ga­nized sup­port for the Soviet strug­gle against Ger­many. Some of the most prom­i­nent Yid­dish writ­ers in the Soviet Union at the time – in­clud­ing Bergel­son, Mark­ish and oth­ers – were not only mem­bers but wrote for this com­mit­tee.

Other ses­sions at the con­fer­ence will ad­dress how Yid­dish folk­lorists wrote about the Holo­caust dur­ing the war. “It is in­ter­est­ing,” says Zeltser, “to learn about and con­trast the writ­ings of Jews who wrote about the war in Yid­dish but were not in­tel­lec­tu­als.” Some of these writ­ings were com­posed in the ghet­tos, while oth­ers were writ­ten in the Soviet in­te­rior.

AN­OTHER TOPIC of in­ter­est, beyond the writ­ings of Jewish writ­ers, is what was writ­ten in the of­fi­cial Soviet press about the Holo­caust dur­ing that pe­riod. Zeltser says that Rus­sian news­pa­pers wrote about the mur­der of Jews at the time. For ex­am­ple, he notes, the first men­tion of the mas­sacre of the Jews in Minsk in July 1941 ap­peared in both Izves­tia and Pravda just a few weeks after it oc­curred. The Rus­sian press cov­ered mass killings that were tak­ing place through­out the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries, in­clud­ing at Babi Yar, where some 33,700 Jews from Kiev and the sur­round­ing ar­eas were bru­tally shot to death and buried in mass graves dur­ing the two­day ak­tion on Septem­ber 29-30, 1941.

The Rus­sian press knew about the mur­der of the Jews, ex­plains Zeltser, be­cause mass shoot­ings in places like Babi Yar and else­where gen­er­ally took place near pop­u­la­tion cen­ters. While he says it is hard to es­ti­mate the ex­act per­cent­age of the pop­u­la­tion that was aware of what was hap­pen­ing, the ma­jor­ity, es­pe­cially those who found them­selves un­der the Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion, knew.

In­ter­est­ingly, says Zeltser, the main Com­mu­nist Party news­pa­per Pravda es­ti­mated in a De­cem­ber 1944 ar­ti­cle by Ilya Ehren­burg – a prom­i­nent

Re­cent re­search shows that dur­ing World War II, those want­ing to learn about the Holo­caust could do so via the Rus­sian press and the Yid­dish­language news­pa­per ‘Eynikayt’

Rus­sian Jewish au­thor – that six mil­lion Jews had been killed by the Nazis. This was be­fore The New York Times ac­knowl­edged the num­ber.

In ad­di­tion to dis­cussing writ­ings of the Holo­caust in the Soviet Union, the con­fer­ence will also ad­dress other means by which in­for­ma­tion was dis­sem­i­nated dur­ing the pe­riod, such as through pho­tog­ra­phy and mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tions. Prof. David E. Fish­man of the Jewish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary in New York will present a ses­sion about the Jewish Mu­seum in Vil­nius, which was founded in 1944 by Holo­caust sur­vivors. This was the first mu­seum in East­ern Europe to present a record of the mass killings of the Jews by the Nazis and their col­lab­o­ra­tors. The mu­seum was closed down by the Sovi­ets in 1949 dur­ing a ma­jor an­tisemitic cam­paign.

Many of the Rus­sian com­bat pho­tog­ra­phers dur­ing World War II were Jewish. The con­fer­ence will ad­dress the im­pact of pho­to­graphs taken by Rus­sian pho­tog­ra­pher Dmitri Bal­ter­mants, who cap­tured images of the Ger­man de­struc­tion of Soviet Jews dur­ing the war. In Jan­uary 1942, Bal­ter­mants recorded the des­o­la­tion and de­struc­tion of the city of Kerch in Crimea. His pho­to­graphs, which were cen­sored for many years in the USSR, fi­nally ap­peared in Rus­sia dur­ing the 1960s.

An­other once-cen­sored work that will be dis­cussed at the con­fer­ence is The Black Book of Soviet Jewry, which was com­piled in 1944 by Vasily Gross­man and Ilya Ehren­burg. The book, which was first printed in Jerusalem by Yad Vashem in 1980, doc­u­ments the crimes of the Holo­caust in the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries. It was fi­nally printed in the USSR dur­ing the pe­riod of Per­e­stroika un­der Rus­sian pres­i­dent Mikhail Gor­bachev.

The two-day con­fer­ence will be open to the pub­lic, and will be con­ducted in English and He­brew (si­mul­ta­ne­ous trans­la­tion will be avail­able in English, He­brew and Rus­sian). Six­teen prom­i­nent schol­ars from lead­ing uni­ver­si­ties around the world, in­clud­ing the He­brew Univer­sity of Jerusalem, Columbia Univer­sity, Bar-Ilan Univer­sity, the Univer­sity of

Toronto and other in­sti­tu­tions will present the re­sults of their re­search.

This is the fourth annual In­ter­na­tional Con­fer­ence or­ga­nized and hosted by the Moshe Mir­i­lashvili Cen­ter for Re­search on the Holo­caust in the Soviet Union. It is gen­er­ously sup­ported by Michael and Laura Mir­i­lashvili and the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.

This ar­ti­cle was writ­ten in co­op­er­a­tion with Yad Vashem.

‘Pravda,’ the Com­mu­nist Party’s main news­pa­per, wrote about the es­ti­mated six mil­lion Jews mur­dered in De­cem­ber 1944 – be­fore ‘The New York Times’ ac­knowl­edged this num­ber

(Yad Vashem Photo Ar­chive)

MEM­BERS OF the Jewish Anti-Fas­cist Com­mit­tee.

(Yad Vashem Photo Ar­chive/Cour­tesy of Avra­ham Tori)

JEWS IN Kau­nas, Lithua­nia, wait in line in front of the Jewish Coun­cil’s hous­ing and wel­fare of­fice for as­sign­ment to their liv­ing quar­ters, 1941-1942.

(Yad Vashem Photo Ar­chive)

ABRA­HAM SUTZKEVER and Sh­merke Kacz­er­gin­ski on the bal­cony of their flat in the Vilna Ghetto.

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