Tales of tri­umph and tragedy

At Yad Vashem’s Moshe Mir­i­lashvili Re­search Cen­ter, sto­ries of heroic Jews serv­ing in the Red Army are told side by side with sto­ries of how the Nazis at­tempted to erad­i­cate the Jews of the oc­cu­pied Soviet Union

The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - OBSERVATIONS - • DAVID BRUMMER

‘Ican con­firm to­day that Ein­satzkom­mando 3 has achieved its goal of solv­ing the ‘Jewish Prob­lem’ in Lithua­nia. There are no more Jews in Lithua­nia, apart from work­ing Jews and their fam­i­lies.” So be­gins a re­port from Karl Jaeger, a com­man­der of Ein­satzkom­mando 3, one of the Ger­man killing squads re­spon­si­ble for mur­der­ing Jews across the Ger­man-oc­cu­pied Soviet Union dur­ing World War II. In a painstak­ing, mat­ter-of-fact man­ner, Jaeger de­scribes ex­actly why the Jews in Lithua­nia needed to be an­ni­hi­lated and how he did it.

Mean­while, in Moscow, a Jewish writer is hor­ri­fied by the Nazi atroc­i­ties and vol­un­teers to fight for the Red Army. His dis­patches are over­whelm­ingly pop­u­lar among the Soviet brass, and de­tail the har­row­ingly in­fa­mous bat­tles in Moscow, Stal­in­grad, the Kursk salient and Ber­lin. Vasilii (Iosif) Gross­man was even­tu­ally pro­moted to the rank of lieu­tenant-colonel for his coura­geous ded­i­ca­tion in cov­er­ing the front­lines of war. Un­like the Jaeger re­port, Gross­man’s story is a tale of hero­ism not of­ten as­so­ci­ated with the tragedy of the Jewish peo­ple dur­ing the Sec­ond World War.

Nev­er­the­less, Gross­man, born to sec­u­lar Jewish par­ents, be­came renowned for doc­u­ment­ing a part of the war that hit close to home: the suf­fer­ing of Jews at the hands of the Nazis and their col­lab­o­ra­tors, which he wit­nessed as a war cor­re­spon­dent.

“In Ukraine, there are no Jews. Nowhere – not in Poltava, Kharkov, Kre­menchug, Borispol, not in Iagotin. You will not see the black, tear-filled eyes of a lit­tle girl, you will not hear the sor­row­ful drawl­ing voice of an old woman, you will not glimpse the swarthy face of a hun­gry child in a sin­gle city or a sin­gle one of hun­dreds of thou­sands of shtetls [small towns]. Still­ness. Si­lence. An en­tire peo­ple has been mur­dered,” he wrote in the Jewish Anti-fas­cist Com­mit­tee’s news­pa­per Eynikayt.

Doc­u­ments from these two po­lar­iz­ing fig­ures – a ruth­less SS of­fi­cer and a cel­e­brated Jewish in­tel­lec­tual – are some of the thou­sands that have found their home in Yad Vashem’s ex­ten­sive archival col­lec­tion, much of which is now avail­able on­line. For ed­u­ca­tors and re­searchers at­tempt­ing to fill in the blanks as to what hap­pened dur­ing the Holo­caust in the area of the oc­cu­pied Soviet Union, these fig­ures serve as two pieces in a com­plex and in­tri­cate puz­zle.

To­day, these first­hand ac­counts are ac­ces­si­ble as part of the ef­forts of the Moshe Mir­i­lashvili Cen­ter for Re­search on the Holo­caust in the Soviet Union, part of Yad Vashem’s In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute for Holo­caust Re­search.

The tes­ti­monies in­di­cate that the Jewish ex­pe­ri­ence dur­ing the Holo­caust was not ho­mo­ge­neous; but that just as Jewish iden­tity is com­plex and di­verse, they give in­sight to an ad­di­tional piece of the com­plex puz­zle of the Holo­caust that needs to be ex­am­ined.

Jaeger’s ac­count comes from the cen­ter’s flag­ship on­line re­search project: “Un­told Sto­ries: The Mur­der Sites of the Jews in the Oc­cu­pied Ter­ri­to­ries of the For­mer USSR.” There, re­searchers, ed­u­ca­tors and stu­dents can learn from a mul­ti­tude of first-per­son ac­counts how, where and when Jews were sys­tem­i­cally mur­dered across the oc­cu­pied Soviet Union. Tes­ti­monies from by­standers, SS of­fi­cers and col­lab­o­ra­tors have, iron­i­cally, helped un­cover how the Nazi regime slaugh­tered so many Jews in so lit­tle time.

“Our aim is to pro­vide a kind of en­cy­clo­pe­dia of events of the Holo­caust in the Soviet Union us­ing Soviet wit­nesses, Jewish wit­nesses, di­ary en­tries, let­ters and also Ger­man ma­te­ri­als – all first-per­son ac­counts,” ex­plains Dr. Arkadi Zeltser, Direc­tor of the Mir­i­lashvili Cen­ter. “With the fall­ing of the Iron Cur­tain and the open­ing up of pre­vi­ously closed ar­chives in the for­mer Soviet Union, Yad Vashem has be­gun to raise pub­lic aware­ness re­gard­ing a pre­vi­ously un­known chap­ter of the Holo­caust. Fur­ther­more, the Mir­i­lashvili Cen­ter aims to en­cour­age schol­ars to delve deeper and in­ves­ti­gate Nazi atroc­i­ties to

The tes­ti­monies in­di­cate that the Jewish ex­pe­ri­ence dur­ing the Holo­caust was not ho­mo­ge­neous; but that just as Jewish iden­tity is com­plex and di­verse, they give in­sight to an ad­di­tional piece of the com­plex puz­zle of the Holo­caust that needs to be ex­am­ined

ensure that the sto­ries of en­tire Jewish com­mu­ni­ties that were erased from ex­is­tence will never be for­got­ten. We are con­stantly sur­prised by how much in­for­ma­tion we don’t know; a hid­den tes­ti­mony, a let­ter, a di­ary en­try that we just didn’t know about. Each piece advances our un­der­stand­ing and re­search.”

‘Our aim is to pro­vide a kind of en­cy­clo­pe­dia of events of the Holo­caust in the Soviet Union us­ing Soviet wit­nesses, Jewish wit­nesses, di­ary en­tries, let­ters and also Ger­man ma­te­ri­als – all first-per­son ac­counts’ – Dr. Arkadi Zeltser, direc­tor of the Mir­i­lashvili Cen­ter

IF HIS­TORY is the study of chron­i­cling how one in­ci­dent af­fects the next, then it is ap­pro­pri­ate that the cen­ter also fo­cuses on Jews who were not vic­tims, but fight­ers. As such, the Cen­ter’s other on­line project, “Jews in the Red Army” (of which Gross­man’s writ­ing is an ex­am­ple) gives a voice to the Jewish fight­ers who fol­lowed in the foot­steps of his­tor­i­cal fig­ures such as Si­mon bar Kokhba, sac­ri­fic­ing their lives for their peo­ple.

“One project ex­am­ines how the mur­der of Jews hap­pened, while the other shows the Jews’ re­ac­tion to the atroc­i­ties,” Zeltser ex­plains.

From 1941 to 1945, be­tween 350,000 and 500,000 Jews en­listed to fight for the Sovi­ets and while many of them were not ob­ser­vant Jews, they were deeply shaken by what was hap­pen­ing to their brothers and sis­ters across the con­ti­nent. How they coped with a dual iden­tity, be­ing both loyal to their army and their peo­ple, is one of the many prob­ing ques­tions the cen­ter ex­am­ines in its re­search.

“The war ob­vi­ously holds a cru­cial place in their bi­ogra­phies,” adds Zeltser. Within this broader topic, the cen­ter seeks to in­ves­ti­gate how Jewish soldiers in the Red Army viewed the fight against Nazism. “Were they mo­ti­vated by their Soviet or their Jewish iden­tity?” Zeltser asked rhetor­i­cally.

Their brave voices have of­ten been over­looked. With the no­table ex­cep­tion of the War­saw Ghetto Upris­ing and other pock­ets of armed re­sis­tance, there is a ten­dency to see the Jewish ex­pe­ri­ence dur­ing the Holo­caust en­tirely through the prism of vic­tim­hood, suf­fer­ing, de­struc­tion and death – par­tic­u­larly in Eastern Europe. How­ever, the pres­ence of so many Jewish soldiers in the Red Army may change that per­cep­tion.

Zeltser main­tains that the cen­ter’s work and devel­op­ment is in­creas­ingly im­por­tant for young re­searchers to­ward the start of their ca­reers in this field.

“It is im­por­tant to ad­vance op­por­tu­ni­ties for young re­searchers, for ex­am­ple, PhD stu­dents or those do­ing im­me­di­ate post-doc­toral work.”

As such, he sees value in new co­horts of re­searchers pro­vid­ing a dif­fer­ent ap­proach to the study of Jews and the Sec­ond World War pe­riod.

“In the last few years, it has be­come in­creas­ingly im­por­tant that young peo­ple are work­ing in the field; they can bring new ideas, new knowl­edge, work­ing in ar­chives – it gives great ad­vance­ment to the re­search.”

The cen­ter uses a ro­bust and com­pre­hen­sive in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary ap­proach to ac­quir­ing its find­ings. Re­search­ing a sub­ject as com­plex as the Holo­caust, af­ter all, is im­pos­si­ble with­out ex­am­in­ing its his­tor­i­cal, an­thro­po­log­i­cal and so­ci­o­log­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions.

“You can­not ex­plain ques­tions about cul­tural and col­lec­tive mem­ory with­out an in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary ap­proach,” Zeltser ar­gued.

In ad­di­tion, the Cen­ter works through­out the year to reach out to re­searchers and ed­u­ca­tors world­wide and pro­vides schol­ar­ships, work­shops and con­fer­ences for those look­ing to deepen their un­der­stand­ing of the Holo­caust.

“It’s im­por­tant for young re­searchers to be part of an in­ter­na­tional net­work. It is also im­por­tant that they are aware of method­olog­i­cal ad­vance­ments in this field,” he said.

AS THE Jewish world cel­e­brates the Fes­ti­val of Lights, we may be in­clined to push the hor­rors of the past aside. Like the Mac­cabees be­fore them, it be­hooves us to re­mem­ber, that if not for the he­roes among us like the brave Jewish soldiers in the Red Army, our tri­umphs would not be pos­si­ble.

“I want to in­tro­duce you to the life in [the city of] Grodno [Be­larus],” dec­o­rated Red Army Lt.-Col. Rafail Mil­ner wrote to his wife. “Many Jews were liv­ing here be­fore the war, but now not a trace is left. Only the ghetto sur­rounded by barbed wire re­mains, [as well as] the ter­ri­ble mem­o­ries of the hor­rors suf­fered by the peo­ple who wore the yellow Stars of David on their chest and back….”

It is partly thanks to soldiers like Mil­ner, Gross­man and thou­sands of oth­ers that we not only bet­ter un­der­stand the hor­rors that hap­pened to the Jewish peo­ple, but also, we are able to salute and honor these in­trepid fig­ures who helped the world de­feat the tyran­ni­cal Nazi regime.

This ar­ti­cle was writ­ten in co­op­er­a­tion with Yad Vashem. Noa Amouyal con­trib­uted to this re­port.

(Cour­tesy Eynikayt)

JEWISH SOLDIERS of the 23rd tank bri­gade. (Left to right) Mark Ko­valev, Matvei Gam­pel, Sholem Sh­varts­man, Zal­man Sh­punt and Grig­orii Gure­vich, as ap­peared in the pub­li­ca­tion ‘Eynikayt.’

(Yad Vashem Photo Archive)

A SS man shoots a Jewish man in front of Ger­man soldiers over a mass grave circa 1941 in Vin­nitsa, Ukraine.

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