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