Chapter 21


Chapter 21


During the war with Germany


After Kristallnacht (November 1938) the German Jews lost their last illusions about the mortal danger they were facing. With Hitler’s campaign in Poland, the deadly storm headed East. Yet nobody expected that the beginning of the Soviet-German War would move Nazi politics to a new level, toward total physical extermination of Jews.

While they naturally expected all kinds of hardship from the German conquest, Soviet Jews could not envision the indiscriminate mass killings of men and women of all ages – one cannot foresee such things. Thus the terrible and inescapable fate befell those who remained in the German-occupied territories without a chance to resist. Lives ended abruptly. But before their death, they had to pass through either initial forced relocation to a Jewish ghetto, or a forced labor camp, or to gas vans, or through digging one’s own grave and stripping before execution.

The Russian Jewish Encyclopedia gives many names of the Russian Jews who fell victims to the Jewish Catastrophe; it names those who perished in Rostov, Simferopol, Odessa, Minsk, Belostok, Kaunas, and Narva. There were prominent people among them. The  famous historian S.M. Dubnov spent the entire inter-war period in exile. He left Berlin for Riga after Hitler took power. He was arrested during the German occupation and placed in a ghetto; “in December 1941 he was included into a column of those to be executed”.”From Vilna, historian Dina Joffe and director of the Jewish Gymnasium Joseph Yashunskiy were sent to concentration camps (both were killed in Treblinka in 1943). Rabbi Shmuel Bespalov, head of the Hasidim movement in Bobruisk, was shot in 1941 when the city was captured by the Germans. Cantor Gershon Sirota, whose performance had once “caught the attention of Nicholas II” and who performed yearly in St. Petersburg and Moscow, died in 1941 in Warsaw. There were two brothers Paul and Vladimir Mintz: Paul, the elder, was a prominent Latvian politician, “the only Jew in the government of Latvia”. Vladimir was a surgeon, who had been entrusted with the treatment of Lenin in 1918 after the assassination attempt. From 1920 he lived in Latvia. In 1940 the Soviet occupation authorities arrested Paul Mintz and placed him in a camp in Krasnoyarsk Krai, where he died early on. The younger brother lived in Riga and was not touched. He died in 1945 at Büchenwald. Sabina Shpilreyn, a doctor of medicine, psychoanalyst and a close colleague of Carl Jung, returned to Russia in 1923 after working in clinics in Zurich, Munich, Berlin and Geneva;in 1942 she was shot along with other Jews by Germans in her native Rostov-on-Don. (In Chapter 19, we wrote about the deaths of her three scientist brothers during Stalin’s terror.)

Yet many were saved from death by evacuation in 1941 and 1942. Various Jewish wartime and postwar sources do not doubt the dynamism of this evacuation. For example, in The Jewish World, a book written in 1944, one can read: “The Soviet authorities were fully aware that the Jews were the most endangered part of the population, and despite the acute military needs in transport, thousands of trains were provided for their evacuation. … In many cities … Jews were evacuated first”, although the author believes that the statement of the Jewish writer David Bergelson that “approximately 80% of Jews were successfully evacuated”1 is an exaggeration. Bergelson wrote: “In Chernigov, the pre-war Jewish population was estimated at 70,000 people and only 10,000 of them remained by the time the Germans arrived. … In Dnepropetrovsk, out of the original Jewish population of 100,000 only 30,000 remained when the Germans took the city. In Zhitomir, out of 50,000 Jews, no less than 44,000 left.”2 In the Summer 1946 issue of the bulletin, Hayasa E.M. Kulisher wrote: “There is no doubt that the Soviet authorities took special measures to evacuate the Jewish population or to facilitate its unassisted flight. Along with the state personnel and industrial workers, Jews were given priority [in the evacuation] … The Soviet authorities provided thousands of trains specifically for the evacuation of Jews.”3 Also, as a safer measure to avoid bombing raids, Jews were evacuated by thousands of haywagons, taken from kolkhozes and sovkhozes [collective farms] and driven over to railway junctions in the rear. B.T. Goldberg, a son-in-law of Sholem Aleichem and then a correspondent for the Jewish newspaper Der Tog from New York, after a 1946-1947 winter trip to the Soviet Union wrote an article about the wartime evacuation of Jews (Der Tog, February 21, 1947). His sources in Ukraine, “Jews and Christians, the military and evacuees, all stated that the policy of the authorities was to give the Jews a preference during evacuation, to save as many of them as possible so that the Nazis would not destroy them.”4 And Moshe Kaganovich, a former Soviet partisan, in his by then foreign memoirs (1948) confirms that the Soviet government provided for the evacuation of Jews all available vehicles in addition to trains, including trains of haywagons – and the orders were to evacuate “first and foremost the citizens of Jewish nationality from the areas threatened by the enemy”.(Note that S. Schwartz and later researchers dispute the existence of such orders, as well as the general policy of Soviet authorities to evacuate Jews “as such.”5)

Nevertheless, both earlier and later sources provide fairly consistent estimates of the number of Jews who were evacuated or fled without assistance from the German-occupied territories. Official Soviet figures are not available; all researchers complain that the contemporaneous statistics are at best approximate. Let us rely then on the works of the last decade. A demographer M. Kupovetskiy, who used formerly unavailable archival materials and novel techniques of analysis, offers the following assessment. According to the 1939 census, 3,028,538 Jews lived in the USSR within its old (that is, pre-1939-1940) boundaries. With some corrections to this figure and taking into account the rate of natural increase of the Jewish population from September 1939 to June 1941 (he analyzed each territory separately), this researcher suggests that at the outbreak of the war approximately 3,080,000 Jews resided within the old USSR borders. Of these, 900,000 resided in the territories which would not be occupied by Germans, and at the beginning of the war 2,180, 000 Jews (“Eastern Jews”)6 resided in the territories later occupied by the Germans. “There is no exact data regarding the number of Jews who fled or were evacuated to the East before the German occupation. Though based on some studies …, we know that approximately 1,000,000 -1,100,000 Jews managed to escape from the Eastern regions later occupied by Germans”.7

There was a different situation in the territories incorporated into the Soviet Union only in 1939-1940, and which were rapidly captured by the Germans at the start of the “Blitzkreig”.  The lightning-speed German attack allowed almost no chance for escape; meanwhile the Jewish population of these “buffer” zones numbered 1,885,000 (“Western Jews”) in June 1941.8 And “only a small number of these Jews managed to escape or were evacuated. It is believed that the number is … about 10-12 percent.”9

Thus, within the new borders of the USSR, by the most optimistic assessments, approximately 2,226,000 Jews (2,000,000 Eastern, 226,000 Western Jews) escaped the German occupation and 2,739,000 Jews (1,080,000 Easterners and 1,659,000 Westerners) remained in the occupied territories.

Evacuees and refugees from the occupied and threatened territories were sent deep into the rear, “with the majority of Jews resettled beyond the Ural Mountains, in particular in Western Siberia and also in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan”.10 The materials of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (EAK) contain the following statement: “At the beginning of the Patriotic War about one and half million Jews were evacuated to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian Republics.”11 This figure does not include the Volga, the Ural and the Siberian regions. (However, the Jewish Encyclopedia argues that “a 1,500,000 figure” is a great exaggeration.”12) Still, there was no organized evacuation into Birobidzhan, and no individual refugees relocated there, although, because of the collapse of Jewish kolkhozes, the vacated housing there could accommodate up to 11,000 families.13 At the same time, “the Jewish colonists in the Crimea were evacuated so much ahead of time that they were able to take with them all livestock and farm implements”; moreover, “it is well-known that in the spring of 1942, Jewish colonists from Ukraine established kolkhozes in the Volga region” How? Well, the author calls it the “irony of Nemesis”: they were installed in place of German colonists who were exiled from the German Republic of the Volga by Soviet government order starting on August 28, 1941.14

As already noted, all the cited wartime and postwar sources agree in recognizing the energy and the scale of the organized evacuation of Jews from the advancing German army. But the later sources, from the end of the 1940s, began to challenge this. For example, we read in a 1960s source: “a planned evacuation of Jews as the most endangered part of the population did not take place anywhere in Russia” (italicized as in the source).15 And twenty years later we read this: after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, “contrary to the rumors that the government allegedly evacuated Jews from the areas under imminent threat of German occupation, no such measures had ever taken place. … the Jews were abandoned to their fate. When applied to the citizen of Jewish nationality, the celebrated `proletarian internationalism´ was a dead letter”.16 This statement is completely unfair.

Still, even those Jewish writers, who deny the “beneficence” of the government with respect to Jewish evacuation, do recognize its magnitude. “Due to the specific social structure of the Jewish population, the percentage of Jews among the evacuees should have been much higher than the percentage of Jews in the urban population”.17 And indeed it was. The Evacuation Council was established on June 24, 1941, just two days after the German invasion (Shvernik was the chairman and Kosygin and Pervukhin were his deputies) .Its priorities were announced as the following: to evacuate first and foremost the state and party agencies with personnel, industries, and raw materials along with the workers of evacuated plants and their families, and young people of conscription age. Between the beginning of the war and November 1941, around 12 million people were evacuated from the threatened areas to the rear.18 This number included, as we have seen, 1,000,000 to 1,100,000 Eastern Jews and more than 200,000 Western Jews from the soon-to-be-occupied areas. In addition, we must add to this figure a substantial number of Jews among the people evacuated from the cities and regions of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR, that is, Russia proper) that never fell to the Germans (in particular,  those from Moscow and Leningrad). Solomon Schwartz states: “The general evacuation of state agencies and industrial enterprises with a significant portion of their staff (often with families) was in many places very extensive. Thanks to the social structure of Ukrainian Jewry with a significant percentages of Jews among the middle and top civil servants, including the academic and technical intelligentsia and the substantial proportion of Jewish workers in Ukrainian heavy industry, the share of Jews among the evacuees was larger than their share in the urban (and even more than in the total) population.”19

The same was true for Byelorussia. In the 1920s and early 1930s it was almost exclusively Jews, both young and old, who studied at “various courses, literacy classes, in day schools, evening schools and shift schools. … This enabled the poor from Jewish villages to join the ranks of industrial workers. Constituting only 8.9% of the population of Byelorussia, Jews accounted for 36% of the industrial workers of the republic in 1930.”20

 “The rise of the percentage of Jews among the evacuees”, continues S. Schwartz, “was also facilitated by the fact that for many employees and workers the evacuation was not mandatory. … Therefore, many, mostly non-Jews, remained were they were.” Thus, even the Jews, “who did not fit the criteria for mandatory evacuation … had better chances to evacuate”.21 However, the author also notes that “no government orders or instructions on the evacuation specifically of Jews or reports about it ever appeared in the Soviet press”. “There simply were no orders regarding the evacuation of Jews specifically. It means that there was no purposeful evacuation of Jews.”22

Keeping in mind the Soviet reality, this conclusion seems ill grounded and, in any case, formalistic. Indeed, reports about mass evacuation of the Jews did not appear in the Soviet press. It is easy to understand why. First, after the pact with Germany, the Soviet Union suppressed information about Hitler’s policies towards Jews, and when the war broke out, the bulk of the Soviet population did not know about the mortal danger the German invasion posed for Jews. Second, and this was probably the more-important factor – German propaganda vigorously denounced “Judeo-Bolshevism” and the Soviet leadership undoubtedly realized that they gave a solid foundation to this propaganda during the 1920s and 1930s, so how could they now declare openly and loudly that the foremost government priority must be to save Jews? This could only have been seen as playing into Hitler’s hands.

Therefore, there were no public announcements that among the evacuees “Jews were over-represented”. “The evacuation orders did not mention Jews”, yet “during the evacuation the Jews were not discriminated” against23; on the contrary they were evacuated by all available means, but in silence, without press coverage inside the USSR. However, propaganda for foreign consumption was a different matter. For example, in December 1941, after repulsing the German onslaught on Moscow, Radio Moscow – not in the Russian language, of course, but “in Polish”, and on “the next day, five more times in German, compared the successful Russian winter counteroffensive with the Maccabean miracle” and told the German-speaking listeners  repeatedly that “precisely during Hanukkah week”, the 134th Nuremberg Division, named after the city “where the racial legislation originated” was destroyed.24 In 1941- 42 the Soviet authorities readily permitted worshippers to overfill synagogues in Moscow, Leningrad, and Kharkov and to openly celebrate the Jewish Passover of 1942.25

We cannot say that the domestic Soviet press treated German atrocities with silence. Ilya Ehrenburg and others (like the journalist Kriger) got the go-ahead to maintain and inflame hatred towards Germans throughout the entire war and not without mentioning the burning topic of Jewish suffering, yet without a special stress on it. Throughout the war Ehrenburg  thundered, that “the German is a beast by his nature”, calling for “not sparing even unborn Fascists” (meaning the murder of pregnant German women), and he was checked only at the very end, when the war reached the territory of Germany and it became clear that the Army had embraced only too well the party line of unbridled revenge against all Germans.

However these is no doubt that the Nazi policy of extermination of the Jews, its predetermination and scope, was not sufficiently covered by the Soviet press, so that even the Jewish masses in the Soviet Union could hardly realize the extent of their danger. Indeed, during the entire war, there were few public statements about the fate of Jews under German occupation. Stalin in his speech on Nov. 6, 1941 (the 24th anniversary of the October Revolution) said: “The Nazis are … as eager to organize medieval Jewish pogroms as the Tsarist regime was. The Nazi Party is the party … of medieval reaction and the Black-Hundred pogroms.”26 “As far as we know”, an Israeli historian writes, “it was the only case during the entire war when Stalin publicly mentioned the Jews”.27 On January 6, 1942, in a note of the Narkomindel [People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs] composed by Molotov and addressed to all states that maintained diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, the Jews are mentioned as one of many suffering Soviet nationalities, and shootings of Jews in Kiev, Lvov, Odessa, Kamenetz-Podolsk, Dnepropetrovsk, Mariupol, Kerch were highlighted and the numbers of victims listed. “The terrible massacre and pogroms were inflicted by German invaders in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. … A significant number of Jews, including women and children, were rounded up; before the execution all of them were stripped naked and beaten and then … shot by sub-machine guns. Many mass murders occurred … in other Ukrainian cities, and these bloody executions were directed in particular against unarmed and defenseless Jews from the working class.”28 On December 19, 1942, the Soviet government issued a declaration that mentioned Hitler’s “special plan for total extermination of the Jewish population in the occupied territories of Europe” and in Germany itself; “although relatively small, the Jewish minority of the Soviet population … suffered particularly hard from the savage bloodthirstiness of the Nazi monsters”. But some sources point out that this declaration was somewhat forced; it came out two days after a similar declaration was made by the western Allies, and it was not republished in the Soviet press as was always done during newspaper campaigns. In 1943, out of seven reports of the Extraordinary State Commission for investigation of Nazi atrocities (such as extermination of Soviet prisoners of war and the destruction of cultural artifacts of our country), only one report referred to murders of Jews – in the Stavropol region, near Mineralnye Vody.29 And in March 1944 in Kiev, while making a speech about the suffering endured by Ukrainians under occupation, Khrushchev “did not mention Jews at all”30.

Probably this is true. Indeed, the Soviet masses did not realize the scale of the Jewish Catastrophe. Overall, this was our common fate – to live under the impenetrable shell of the USSR and be ignorant of what was happening in the outside world. However, Soviet Jews could not be all that unaware about the events in Germany. “In the mid-thirties the Soviet Press wrote a lot about German anti-Semitism… A novel by Leon Feichtwanger The Oppenheim Family and the movie based on the book, as well as another movie, Professor Mamlock, clearly demonstrated the dangers that Jews were facing.”31 Following the pogroms of Kristallnacht, Pravda published an editorial “The Fascist Butchers and Cannibals” in which it strongly condemned the Nazis: “The whole civilized world watches with disgust and indignation the vicious massacre of the defenseless Jewish population by German fascists. … [With the same feelings] the Soviet people watch the dirty and bloody events in Germany. … In the Soviet Union, along with the capitalists and landowners, all sources of anti-Semitism had been wiped out.”32 Then, throughout the whole November, Pravda printed daily on its front pages reports such as “Jewish pogroms in Germany”, “Beastly vengeance on Jews”, “The wave of protests around the world against the atrocities of the fascist thugs”. Protest rallies against anti-Jewish policies of Hitler were held in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Tbilisi, Minsk, Sverdlovsk, and Stalin. Pravda published a detailed account of the town hall meeting of the Moscow intelligentsia in the Great Hall of the Conservatory, with speeches given by A.N. Tolstoy, A. Korneychuk, L. Sobolev; People’s Artists [a Soviet title signifying  prominence in the Arts] A.B. Goldenweiser and S.M. Mikhoels, and also the text of a resolution adopted at the meeting: “We, the representatives of the Moscow intelligentsia … raise our voice in outrage and condemnation against the Nazi atrocities and inhuman acts of violence against the defenseless Jewish population of Germany. The fascists beat up, maim, rape, kill and burn alive in broad daylight people who are guilty only of belonging to the Jewish nation.”33 The next day, on November 29, under the headline “Soviet intelligentsia is outraged by Jewish pogroms in Germany”, Pravda produced the full coverage of rallies in other Soviet cities.

However, from the moment of the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact in August of 1939, not only criticism of Nazi policies but also any information about persecution of the Jews in European countries under German control vanished from the Soviet press. “A lot of messages … were reaching the Soviet Union through various channels – intelligence, embassies, Soviet journalists. … An important source of information… was Jewish refugees who managed to cross the Soviet border. However, the Soviet media, including the Jewish press, maintained silence.”34

“When the Soviet-German War started and the topic of Nazi anti-Semitism was raised again, many Jews considered it to be propaganda”, argues a modern scholar, relying on the testimonies of the Catastrophe  survivors, gathered over a half of century. “Many Jews relied on their own life experience rather than on radio, books and newspapers. The image of Germans did not change in the minds of most Jews since WWI. And back then the Jews considered the German regime to be one of the most tolerant to them.”35 “Many Jews remembered, that during the German occupation in 1918, the Germans treated Jews better than they treated the rest of the local population, and so the Jews were reassured.”36 As a result, “in 1941, a significant number of Jews remained in the occupied territories voluntarily”. And even in 1942, “according to the stories of witnesses… the Jews in Voronezh, Rostov, Krasnodar, and other cities waited for the front to roll through their city and hoped to continue their work as doctors and teachers, tailors and cobblers, which they believed were always needed…. The Jews could not or would not evacuate for purely material reasons as well.”37

While the Soviet press and radio censored the information about the atrocities committed by the occupiers  against the Jews, the Yiddish newspaper Einigkeit (“Unity”), the official publication of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (EAK), was allowed to write about it openly from the summer of 1942. Apparently, the first step in the establishment of EAK was a radio-meeting in August 1941of “representatives of the Jewish people” (S. Mikhoels,  P. Marques, J. Ohrenburg, S. Marshak, S. Eisenstein and other celebrities participated.) For propaganda purposes, it was broadcast to the US and other Allied countries. “The effect on the Western public surpassed the most optimistic expectations of Moscow. … In the Allied countries the Jewish organizations sprang up to raise funds for the needs of the Red Army.” Their success prompted the Kremlin to establish a permanent Jewish Committee in the Soviet Union. “Thus began the seven-year-long cooperation of the Soviet authorities with global Zionism.”38

The development of the Committee was a difficult process, heavily dependent on the attitudes of government. In September 1941, an influential former member of the Bund, Henryk Ehrlich, was released from the prison to lead that organization. In 1917, Ehrlich had been a member of the notorious and then omnipotent Executive Committee of the Petrosoviet. Later, he emigrated to Poland where he was captured by the Soviets in 1939. He and his comrade, Alter, who also used to be a member of the Bund and was also a native of Poland, began preparing a project that aimed to mobilize international Jewish opinion, with heavier participation of foreign rather than Soviet Jews. “Polish Bund members were intoxicated by their freedom…  and increasingly acted audaciously. Evacuated to Kuibyshev [Samara] along with the metropolitan bureaucracy, they contacted Western diplomatic representatives, who were relocated there as well,… suggesting, in particular, to form a Jewish Legion in the USA to fight on the Soviet-German front”. “The things have gone so far that the members of the Polish Bund … began planning a trip to the West on their own”. In addition, both Bund activists “presumptuously assumed (and did not hide it) that they could liberally reform the Soviet political system”. In December 1941, both overreaching leaders of the Committee were arrested (Ehrlich hanged himself in prison; Alter was shot).39

Yet during the spring of 1942, the project of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was revived, and a meeting “of the representatives of Jewish people” was called forth again.  A Committee was elected, although this time exclusively from Soviet Jews. Solomon Mikhoels became its Chairman and Shakhno Epstein, “Stalin’s eye `in Jewish affairs´ and a former fanatical Bundist and later a fanatical Chekist, became its Executive Secretary”.  Among others, its members were authors David Bergelson, Peretz Markish, Leib Kvitko, and Der Nistor; scientists Lina Shtern and Frumkin, a member of the Academy. Poet Itzik Fefer became the Vice President. (The latter was a former Trotskyite who was pardoned because he composed odes dedicated to Stalin; he was “an important NKVD agent”, and, as a “proven secret agent”, he was entrusted with a trip to the West.41) The task of this Committee was the same: to influence international public opinion, and “to appeal to the ‘Jews all over the world’ but in practice it appealed primarily to the American Jews”,42 building up sympathy and raising financial aid for the Soviet Union. (And it was the main reason for Mikhoels’ and Fefer’s trip to the United States in summer 1943, which coincided with the dissolution of Comintern. It was a roaring success, triggering rallies in 14 cities across the US: 50,000 people rallied in New York City alone. Mikhoels and Fefer were received by former Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann and by Albert Einstein.43) Yet behind the scenes the Committee was managed by Lozovskiy-Dridzo, the Deputy Head of the Soviet Information Bureau (Sovinformbureau); the Committee did not have offices in the Soviet Union and could not act independently; in fact, it was “not so much a fundraising tool for the Red Army as an arm of … pro-Soviet propaganda abroad.”44


Some Jewish authors argue that from the late 1930s there was a covert but persistent removal of Jews from the highest ranks of Soviet leadership in all spheres of administration. For instance, D. Shub writes that by 1943 not a single Jew remained among the top leadership of the NKVD, though “there were still many Jews in the Commissariat of Trade, Industry and Foods. There were also quite a few Jews in the Commissariat of Public Education and in the Foreign Office.”45 A modern researcher reaches a different conclusion based on archival materials that became available in 1990s: “During the 1940s, the role of Jews in punitive organs remained highly visible, coming to the end only in the postwar years during the campaign against cosmopolitanism.”46

However, there are no differences of opinion regarding the relatively large numbers of Jews in the top command positions in the Army. The Jewish World reported that “in the Red Army now [during the war], there are over a hundred Jewish generals” and it provided a “small randomly picked list of such generals”, not including “generals from the infantry”. There were 17 names (ironically, “Major-General of Engineering Service Frenkel Naftaliy Aronovich” of GULag was also included).47 A quarter of a century later, another collection of documents confirmed that there were no less than a hundred Jewish generals in the middle of the war and provided additional names.48 (However, the volume unfortunately omitted the “Super-General” Lev Mekhlis – the closest and most trusted of Stalin’s henchmen from 1937 to 1940; from 1941 he was the Head of Political Administration of the Red Army. Ten days after the start of the war, Mekhlis arrested a dozen of the highest generals of the Western Front.49 He is also infamous for his punitive measures during the Soviet-Finnish War and then later at Kerch in the Crimea.)

The Short Jewish Encyclopedia provides an additional list of fifteen Jewish generals. Recently, an Israeli researcher has published a list of Jewish generals and admirals (including those who obtained the rank during the war). Altogether, there were 270 generals and admirals! This is not only “not a few” – this is an immense number indeed. He also notes four wartime narkoms (people’s commissars): in addition to Kaganovich, these were Boris Vannikov (ammunition), Semien Ginzburg (construction), Isaac Zaltzman (tank industry) and several heads of main military administrations of the Red Army; the list also contains the names of four Jewish army commanders, commanders of 23 corps, 72 divisions, and 103 brigades.50

“In no army of the Allies, not even in the USA’s, did Jews occupy such high positions, as in the Soviet Army”, Dr. I. Arad writes.51 No, “the displacement of Jews from the top posts” during the war did not happen. Nor had any supplanting yet manifested itself in general aspects of Soviet life. In 1944 (in the USA) a famous Socialist Mark Vishnyak stated that “not even hardcore enemies of the USSR can say that its government cultivates anti-Semitism”.52 Back then – it was undoubtedly true.

According to Einigkeit (from February 24, 1945, almost at the end of the war), “for courage and heroism in combat”… 63,374 Jews were awarded orders and medals”, and 59 Jews became the Heroes of the Soviet Union. According to the Warsaw Yiddish language newspaper Volksstimme in 1963 the number of the Jews awarded military decorations in WWII was 160,772, with 108 Heroes of the Soviet Union among them.53 In the early 1990s, an Israeli author provided a list of names with dates of confirmation , in which 135 Jews are listed as Heroes of the Soviet Union and 12 Jews are listed as the full chevaliers of the Order of Glory.54 We find similar information in the three-volume Essays on Jewish Heroism.55 And finally, the latest archival research (2001) provides the following figures: “throughout the war 123,822 Jews were awarded military decorations”56; thus, among all nationalities of the Soviet Union, the Jews are in fifth place among the recipients of decorations, after Russians, Ukrainians, Byelorussians and Tatars.

 I. Arad states that “anti-Semitism as an obstacle for Jews in their military careers, in promotion to higher military ranks and insignia did not exist in the Soviet Army during the war”.57 Production on the home front for the needs of the war was also highly rewarded. A huge influx of  Soviet Jews into science and technology during the 1930s had borne its fruit during the war. Many Jews worked on the design of new types of armaments and instrumentation, in the  manufacturing of warplanes, tanks, and ships, in scientific research, construction and development of industrial enterprises, in power engineering, metallurgy, and transport. For their work from 1941 to 1945 in support of the front, 180,000 Jews were awarded decorations. Among them were scientists, engineers, administrators of various managerial levels and workers, including more than two hundred who were awarded the Order of Lenin; nearly three hundred Jews were awarded the Stalin Prize in science and technology. During the war, 12 Jews became Heroes of Socialist Labor, eight Jews became full members of the Academy of Science in physics and mathematics, chemistry and technology, and thirteen became Member-Correspondents of the Academy.58  


Many authors, including S. Schwartz, note that “the role of Jews in the war was systematically concealed” along with a deliberate policy of “silence about the role of Jews in the war”. He cites as a proof the works of prominent Soviet writers such as K. Simonov (Days and Nights) and V. Grossman (The People Is Immortal) where “among a vast number of surnames of soldiers, officers, political officers and others, there is not a single Jewish name.”59 Of course, this was due to censoring restrictions, especially in case of Grossman. (Later, military personnel with Jewish names re-appeared in Grossman’s essays.)  Another author notes that postcards depicting a distinguished submarine commander, Israel Fisanovich, were sold widely throughout the Soviet Union.60 Later, such publications were extended; and an Israeli researcher lists another 12 Jews, Heroes of the Soviet Union, whose portraits were mass reproduced on postal envelopes61.

Even through I’m a veteran of that war, I have not researched it through books much, nor was I collecting materials or have written anything about it. But I saw Jews on the front. I knew brave men among them. For instance, I especially want to mention two fearless antitank fighters: one of them was my university friend Lieutenant Emanuel Mazin; another was young ex-student soldier Borya Gammerov (both were wounded in action). In my battery among 60 people two were Jews – Sergeant Ilya Solomin, who fought very well through the whole war, and Private Pugatch, who soon slipped away to the Political Department. Among twenty officers of our division one was a Jew – Major Arzon, the head of the supply department. Poet Boris Slutsky was a real soldier, he used to say: “I’m full of bullet holes”. Major Lev Kopelev, even though he served in the Political Department of the Army (responsible for counter-propaganda aimed at enemy troops), he fearlessly threw himself in every possible  fighting melee. A former “Mifliyetz” Semyon Freylih, a brave officer, remembers: “The war began … . So I was off to the draft board and joined the army” without graduating from the University, as “we felt ashamed not to share the hardships of millions”.62  Or take Lazar Lazarev, later a well-known literary critic, who as a young man fought at the front for two years until both his hands were mauled: “It was our duty and we would have been ashamed to evade it. … it was life – the only possible one under the circumstances, the only decent choice for the people of my age and education”.63 Boris Izrailevich Feinerman wrote in 1989 in response to an article in Book Review, that as a 17-year-old, he volunteered in July 1941 for an infantry regiment; in October, his both legs were wounded and he was taken prisoner of war; he escaped and walked out of the enemy’s encirclement on crutches – then of course he was imprisoned for `treason´” – but in 1943 he managed to get out of the camp by joining a penal platoon; he fought there and later became a machine gunner of the assault infantry unit in a tank regiment and was wounded two more times.

We can find many examples of combat sacrifice in the biographical volumes of the most recent Russian Jewish Encyclopedia. Shik Kordonskiy, a commander of a mine and torpedo regiment, “smashed his burning plane into the enemy cargo ship”; he was posthumously made a Hero of the Soviet Union. Wolf Korsunsky, “navigator of the air regiment”, became a Hero of the Soviet Union too. Victor Hasin, “a Hero of the Soviet Union … squadron commander … participated in 257 air skirmishes, personally shot down a number of the enemy’s airplanes”, destroyed another 10 on the ground; he was shot down over “the enemy occupied territory, and spent several days reaching and crossing the front lines. He died in hospital from his wounds”. One cannot express it better! The Encyclopedia contains several dozens names of Jews who died in combat.

Yet, despite these examples of unquestioned courage, a Jewish scholar bitterly notes “the widespread belief in the army and in the rear that Jews avoided the combat units”.64 This is a noxious and painful spot. But, if you wish to ignore the painful spots, do not attempt to write a book about ordeals that were endured together.

In history, mutual national perceptions do count. “During the last war, anti-Semitism in Russia increased significantly. Jews were unjustly accused of evasion of military service and in particular, of evasion of front line service.”65 “It was often said about Jews that instead of fighting, they stormed the cities of Alma-Ata and Tashkent.”66 Here is a testimony of a Polish Jew who fought in the Red Army: “In the army, young and old had been trying to convince me that … there was not a single Jew on the front . `We’ve got to fight for them.´ I was told in a `friendly´ manner: `You’re crazy. All your people are safely sitting at home. How come you are here on the front?´”67 I. Arad writes: “Expressions such as `we are at the front, and the Jews are in Tashkent´, `one never sees a Jew at the front line´could be heard among soldiers and civilians alike.”68 I testify: Yes, one could hear this among the soldiers on the front. And right after the war – who has not experienced that? – a painful feeling remained among our Slavs that our Jews could have acted in that war in a more self-sacrificing manner, that among the lower ranks on the front the Jews could have been more represent.

These feelings are easy to blame (and they are blamed indeed) on unwarranted Russian anti-Semitism.(However, many sources blame that on the “German propaganda” digested by our public. What a people! They are good only to absorb propaganda – be it Stalin’s or Hitler’s – and they are good for nothing else!) Now that it is half a century passed since then. Isn’t it time to unscramble the issue?

There are no official data available on the ethnic composition of the Soviet Army during the Second World War. Therefore, most studies on Jewish participation in the war provide only estimates, often without citation of sources or explanation of the methods of calculation. However, we can say that the 500,000 figure had been firmly established by 1990s: “The Jewish people supplied the Red Army with nearly 500,000 soldiers.”69 “During World War II, 550,000 Jews served in the Red Army.”70 The Short Jewish Encyclopedia notes that “only in the field force of the Soviet Army alone there were over 500,000 Jews”, and “these figures do not include Jewish partisans who fought against Nazi Germany”.71 The same figures are cited in Essays on Jewish heroism, in Abramovich’s book In the Deciding War and in other sources.

We came across only one author who attempted to justify his assessment by providing readers with details of his reasoning. It was an Israeli researcher, I. Arad, in his the above cited book on the Catastrophe.

Arad concludes that “the total number of Jews who fought in the ranks of the Soviet Army against the German Nazis was no less than 420,000-430,000”.72 He includes in this number “the thousands of Jewish partisans who fought against the German invaders in the woods” (they were later incorporated into the regular army in 1944 after the liberation of Western Byelorussia and Western Ukraine. At the same time, Arad believes that during the war “approximately 25,000-30,000 Jewish partisans operated in the occupied areas of the Soviet Union”.73 (The Israeli Encyclopedia in the article “Anti-Nazi Resistance” provides a lower estimate: “In the Soviet Union, more than 15,000 Jews fought against the Nazis in the underground organizations and partisan units.”74) In his calculations, Arad assumes that the proportion of mobilized Jews was the same as the average percentage of mobilized for the entire population of USSR during the war, i.e., 13.0-13.5%.  This would yield 390,000-405,000 Eastern Jews (out of the total of slightly more than 3 million), save for the fact that “in certain areas of Ukraine and Byelorussia, the percentage of Jewish population was very high; these people were not mobilized because the region was quickly captured by the Germans”. However, the author assumes that in general the mobilization “shortfall” of the Eastern Jews was small and that before the Germans came, the majority of males of military age were still mobilized – and thus he settles on the number of 370,000-380,000 Eastern Jews who served in the army. Regarding Western Jews, Arad reminds us that in 1940 in Western Byelorussia and Western Ukraine, during the mobilization of conscripts whose year of birth fell between of 1919 and 1922, approximately 30,000 Jewish youths were enlisted, but the Soviet government considered the soldiers from the newly annexed western regions as “unreliable”; therefore, almost all of them were transferred to the Labor Army after the war began. “By the end of 1943, the process of re-mobilization of those who were previously transferred into the Labor Army began … and there were Jews among them.” The author mentions that 6,000 to 7,000 Western Jewish refugees fought in the national Baltic divisions. By adding the Jewish partisans incorporated into the army in 1944, the author concludes: “we can establish that at least 50,000 Jews from the territories annexed to the USSR, including those mobilized before the war, served in the Red Army”. Thus I. Arad comes to the overall number of 420,000-430,000 Jews in military service between 1941 and 1944.75

According to Arad, the number of 500,000 soldiers commonly used in the sources would imply a general base (500,000 conscripts taken out of the entire Jewish population) of 3,700,000-3,850,000 people. According to the above-mentioned sources, the maximum estimate for the total number of Eastern and Western Jews who escaped the German occupation was 2,226,000, and even if we were to add to this base all 1,080,000 Eastern Jews who remained under the occupation, as though they had had time to supply the army with all the people of military age right before the arrival of the Germans – which was not the case – the base would still lack a half-million people. It would have also meant that the success of the evacuation, discussed above, was strongly underestimated.

There is no such contradiction in Arad’s assessment. And though its individual components may require correction76, overall, it surprisingly well matches with the hitherto unpublished data of the Institute of the Military History, derived from the sources of the Central Archive of the Ministry of Defense. According to that data, the numbers of mobilized personnel during the Great Patriotic War were as follows:

Russians – 19,650,000
Ukrainians – 5,320,000
Byelorussians – 964,000
Tartars – 511,000
Jews – 434,000
Kazakhs – 341,000
Uzbeks – 330,000
Others – 2,500,00077

Thus, contrary to the popular belief, the number of Jews in the Red Army in WWII was proportional to the size of mobilization base of the Jewish population. The fraction of Jews that participated in the war in general matches their proportion in the population.

So then, were the people’s impressions of the war really prompted by anti-Semitic prejudice? Of course, by the beginning of the war, a certain part of the older and middle-aged population still bore scars from the 1920s and 1930s. But a huge part of the soldiers were young men who were born at the turn of the revolution or after it; their perception of the world differed from that of their elders dramatically. Compare: during the First World War, in spite of the spy mania of the military authorities in 1915 against the Jews who resided near the front lines, there was no evidence of anti-Semitism in the Russian army. In 1914, out of 5 million Russian Jews,78 “by the beginning of WWI, about 400,000 Jews were inducted into the Russian Imperial Army, and by the end of war in 1917 this number reached 500,000”.79 This means that at the outbreak of the war every twelfth Russian Jew fought in the war, while by the end, one out of ten. And in World War II, every eighth or seventh.

So, what was the matter? It can be assumed that the new disparities inside the army played their role with their influences growing stronger and sharper as one moved closer to the deadly frontline.

In 1874 Jews were granted equal rights with other Russian subjects regarding universal conscription, yet during WWI until the February Revolution, Tsar Alexander II’s  law which stipulated that Jews could not advance above the rank of petty officer (though it did not apply to military medics) was still enforced. Under the Bolsheviks, the situation had changed radically, and during the WWII, as the Israeli Encyclopedia summarizes, “compared to other nationalities of the Soviet Union, Jews were disproportionately represented among the senior officers, mainly because of the higher percentage of college graduates among them”.80 According to I. Arad’s evaluation, “the number of Jews-commissars and political officers in various units during the war was relatively higher than number of Jews on other Army positions”; “at the very least, the percentage of Jews in the political leadership of the army” was “three times higher than the overall percentage of Jews among the population of the USSR during that period”.81 In addition, of course, Jews were “among the head professionals of military medicine … among the heads of health departments on several fronts. … Twenty-six Jewish generals of the Medical Corps and nine generals of the Veterinary Corps were listed in the Red Army.” Thirty-three Jewish generals served in the Engineering Corps.82 Of course, Jewish doctors and military engineers occupied not only high offices: “among the military medical staff… there were many Jews (doctors, nurses, orderlies).”83 Let us recall that in 1926 the proportion of Jews among military doctors was 18.6% while their proportion in the male population was 1.7% 84, and this percentage could only increase during the war because of the large number of female Jewish military doctors: “traditionally, a high percentage of Jews in the Soviet medicine and engineering professions naturally contributed to their large number in the military units.”85

However undeniably important and necessary for final victory these services were, what mattered is that not everybody could survive to see it. Meanwhile an ordinary soldier, glancing back from the frontline, saw all too clearly that even the second and third echelons behind the front were also considered participants in the war: all those deep-rear headquarters, suppliers, the whole Medical Corps from medical battalion to higher levels, numerous behind-the-lines technical units and, of course, all kinds of service personnel there, and, in addition, the entire army propaganda machine, including touring ensembles, entertainment troupes – they all were considered war veterans and, indeed, it was apparent to everyone that the concentration of Jews was much higher there than at the front lines. Some write that “among Leningrad’s veteran-writers”, the Jews comprised “by most cautious and perhaps understated assessment… 31%”86 – that is, probably more. Yet how many of them were editorial staff? As a rule, editorial offices were situated 10-15 kilometers behind the frontline, and even if a correspondent happened to be at the front during hostilities, nobody would have forced him “to hold the position”, he could leave immediately, which is a completely different psychology. Many trumpeted their status as “front-liners”, but writers and journalists are guilty of it the most. Stories of prominent ones deserve a separate dedicated analysis. Yet how many others – not prominent and not famous – front-liners settled in various newspaper publishing offices at all levels – at fronts, armies, corps and divisions? Here is one episode. After graduating from the machine gun school, Second Lieutenant Alexander Gershkowitz was sent to the front. But, after a spell at the hospital, while “catching up with his unit, at a minor railroad station he sensed the familiar smell of printing ink, followed it – and arrived at the office of a division-level newspaper, which serendipitously was in need of a front-line correspondent”. And his fate had changed. (But what about catching up with his infantry unit?) “In this new position, he traveled thousands of kilometers of the war roads.”87. Of course, military journalists perished in the war as well.

Musician Michael Goldstein, who got “the white ticket” (“not fit”) because of poor vision, writes of himself: “I always strived to be at the front, where I gave thousands of concerts, where I wrote a number of military songs and where I often dug trenches.”88  Often? Really? A visiting musician – and with a shovel in his hands? As a war veteran, I say – an absolutely incredible picture. Or here is another amazing biography. Eugeniy Gershuni “in the summer of 1941… volunteered for a militia unit, where he soon organized a small pop ensemble”. Those, who know about these unarmed and even non-uniformed columns marching to certain death, would be chilled. Ensemble, indeed! In September 1941, “Gershuni with his group of artists from the militia was posted to Leningrad’s Red Army Palace, where he organized and headed a troop-entertainment circus”. The story ends “on May 9, 1945, when Gershuni’s circus threw a show on the steps of the Reichstag in Berlin”89.

Of course, the Jews fought in the infantry and on the frontline. In the middle of the 1970s, a Soviet source provides data on the ethnic composition of two hundred infantry divisions between January 1, 1943 and January 1, 1944 and compares it to the population share of each nationality within the pre-September 1939 borders of the USSR..  During that period, Jews comprised respectively 1.5% and 1.28% in those divisions, while their proportion in the population in 1939 was 1.78%, Only by the middle of 1944, when mobilization began in the liberated areas, did the percentage of Jews fall to 1.14% because almost all Jews in those areas were exterminated.

It should be noted here that some audacious Jews took an even more fruitful and energetic part in the war outside of the front. For example, the famous “Red Orchestra” of Trepper and Gurevich spied on Hitler’s regime from within until the fall of 1942, passing to the Soviets extremely important strategic and tactical information. (Both spies were arrested and held by the Gestapo until the end of the war; then, after liberation, they were arrested and imprisoned in the USSR – Trepper for 10 years and Gurevich for 15 years.91) Here is another example: a Soviet spy, Lev Manevich, was ex-commander of a special detachment during the Civil War and later a long-term spy in Germany, Austria, and Italy. In 1936, he was arrested in Italy, but he managed to communicate with Soviet intelligence even from the prison. In 1943, while imprisoned in the Nazi camps under the name of Colonel Starostin, he participated in the anti-fascist underground. In 1945, he was liberated by the Americans but died before returning to the USSR (where he could have easily faced imprisonment). Only 20 years later, in 1965, was he awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union posthumously.92 (One can also find very strange biographies, such as Mikhail Scheinman’s. Since the 1920s he served as a provincial secretary of the Komsomol; during the most rampant years of the Union of Militant Atheists he was employed at its headquarters; then he graduated from the Institute of Red Professors and worked in the press department of the Central Committee of the VKPb. In 1941, he was captured by the Germans and survived the entire war in captivity – a Jew and a high-level commissar at that! And despite categorical evidence of his culpability from SMERSH’s [Translator’s note: a frontline counter-intelligence organization, literally, “Death to Spies”] point of view, how could he possibly surviveif he was not a traitor? Others were imprisoned for a long time for lesser “crimes”.Yet nothing happened, and in 1946 he was already safely employed in the Museum of the History of Religion and then in the Institute of History at the Academy of Science.93)

Yet such anecdotal evidence cannot make up a convincing argument for either side and there are no reliable and specific statistics nor are they likely to surface in the future.

Recently, an Israeli periodical has published some interesting testimony. When a certain Jonas Degen decided to volunteer for a Komsomol platoon at the beginning of the war, another Jewish youth, Shulim Dain, whom Jonas invited to come and join him, replied “that it would be really fortunate if the Jews could just watch the battle from afar since this is not their war, though namely this war may inspire Jews and help them to rebuild Israel. When I am conscripted to the army, I’ll go to war. But to volunteer? Not a chance.”94 And Dain was not the only one who thought like this; in particular, older and more experienced Jews may have had  similar thoughts. And this attitude, especially among the Jews devoted to the eternal idea of Israel, is fully understandable. And yet it is baffling, because the advancing enemy was  the arch enemy of the Jews, seeking above all else to annihilate them. How could Dain and like-minded individuals remain neutral? Did they think that the Russians had no other choice but to fight for their land anyway?

One modern commentator (I know him personally – he is a veteran and a former camp inmate) concludes: “Even among the older veterans these days I have not come across people with such clarity of thought and depth of understanding” as Shulim Dain (who perished at Stalingrad) possessed: “two fascist monsters interlocked in deadly embrace”. Why should we participate in that?95

Of course, Stalin’s regime was not any better than Hitler’s. But for the wartime Jews, these two monsters could not be equal! If that other monster won, what could then have happened to the Soviet Jews? Wasn’t this war the personal Jewish war? wasn’t it their own Patriotic War – to cross arms with the deadliest enemy in the entire Jewish history? And those Jews who perceived the war as their own and who did not separate their fate from that of Russians, those like Freylikh, Lazarev and Fainerman, whose thinking was opposite to Shulim Dain’s, they fought selflessly.

God forbid, I do not explain the Dain’s position as “Jewish cowardice”. Yes, the Jews demonstrated survivalist prudence and caution throughout the entire history of the Diaspora, yet it is this history that explains these qualities. And during the Six-Day War and other Israeli wars, the Jews have proven their outstanding military courage.

Taking all that into consideration, Dain’s position can only be explained by a relaxed feeling of dual citizenship – the very same that back in 1922, Professor Solomon Lurie from Petrograd considered as one of the main sources of anti-Semitism (and its explanation) – a Jew living in a particular country belongs not only to that country, and his loyalties become inevitably split in two. The Jews have “always harbored nationalist attitudes, but the object of their nationalism was Jewry, not the country in which they lived”.96 Their interest in this country is partial. After all, they – even if many of them only unconsciously – saw ahead looming in the future their very own nation of Israel.


 And what about the rear? Researchers are certain about the “growth of anti-Semitism … during the war.”97 “The curve of anti-Semitism in those years rose sharply again, and anti-Semitic manifestations … by their intensity and prevalence dwarfed the anti-Semitism of the second half of the 1920s.” 98 “During the war, anti-Semitism become commonplace in the domestic life in the Soviet deep hinterland.”99

During evacuation, “so-called domestic anti-Semitism, which had been dormant since the establishment of the Stalinist dictatorship in the early 1930s, was revived against the background of general insecurity and breakdown and other hardships and deprivations, engendered by the war.”100 This statement refers mainly to Central Asia, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, “especially when the masses of wounded and disabled veterans rushed there from the front”,101 and exactly there the masses of the evacuated Jews lived, including Polish Jews, who were “torn from their traditional environment” by deportation and who had no experience of Soviet kolkhozes. Here are the testimonies of Jewish evacuees to Central Asia recorded soon after the war: “The low labor productivity among evacuated Jews … served in the eyes of the locals as a proof of allegedly characteristic Jewish reluctance to engage in physical labor.”102 “The intensification of [anti-Semitic] attitudes was fueled by the Polish refugees’ activity on the commodity markets.”103 “Soon they realized that their regular incomes from the employment in industrial enterprises, kolkhozes, and cooperatives … would not save them from starvation and death. To survive, there was only one way – trading on the market or `speculation´”; therefore, it was the Soviet reality that drove “Polish Jews to resort to market transactions whether they liked it or not.”104  “The non-Jewish population of Tashkent was ill-disposed toward the Jewish evacuees from Ukraine. Some said, `Look at these Jews. They always have a lot of money.´”105 “Then there were incidents of harassment and insults of Jews, threats against them, throwing them out of bread queues.”106 “Another group of Russian Jews, mostly bureaucrats with a considerable amount of cash, inspired the hostility of the locals for inflating the already high market prices.”107

The author proceeds confidently to explain these facts thus: “Hitler’s propaganda reaches even here”,108 and he is not alone in reaching such conclusions.

What a staggering revelation! How could Hitler’s propaganda victoriously reach and permeate all of Central Asia when it was barely noticeable at the front with all those rare and dangerous-to-touch leaflets thrown from airplanes, and when all private radio receiver sets were confiscated throughout the USSR?

No, the author realizes that there “was yet another reason for the growth of anti-Semitic attitudes in the districts that absorbed evacuees en masse. There, the antagonism between the general mass of the provincial population and the privileged bureaucrats from the country’s central cities manifested itself in a subtle form. Evacuation of organizations from those centers into the hinterland provided the local population with an opportunity to fully appreciate the depth of social contrast.”109


Then there were those populations that experienced the German invasion and occupation, for instance, the Ukrainians. Here is  testimony published in March 1945 in the bulletin of the Jewish Agency for Palestine: “The Ukrainians meet returning Jews with hostility. In Kharkov, a few weeks after the liberation, Jews do not dare to walk alone on the streets at night. … There have been many cases of beating up Jews on the local markets. … Upon returning to their homes, Jews often found only a portion of their property, but when they complained in courts, Ukrainians often perjured themselves against them.”110 (The same thing happened everywhere; besides it was useless to complain in court anyway: many of the returning non-Jewish evacuees found their old places looted as well.) “There are many  testimonies about hostile attitudes towards Jews in Ukraine after its liberation from the Germans.”111 “As a result of the German occupation, anti-Semitism in all its forms has significantly increased in all social strata of Ukraine, Moldova and Lithuania.”112

Indeed, here, in these territories, Hitler’s anti-Jewish propaganda did work well during the years of occupation, and yet the main point was the same: that under the Soviet regime the Jews had merged with the ruling class – and so a secret German report from the occupied territories in October 1941 states that the “animosity of the Ukrainian population against Jews is enormous…. they view the Jews … as informants and agents of the NKVD, which organized the terror against the Ukrainian people.”113

Generally speaking, early in the war, the “German’s plan was to create an impression that it was not Germans but the local population that began extermination of the Jews”; S. Schwartz believes that, unlike the reports of the German propaganda press, “the German reports not intended for publication are reliable.”114 He profusely quotes a report by SS Standartenführer F. Shtoleker to Berlin on the activities of the SS units under his command (operating in the Baltic states, Byelorussia and in some parts of the RSFSR) for the period between the beginning of the war in the East and October 15, 1941: “Despite facing considerable difficulties, we were able to direct local anti-Semitic forces toward organization of anti-Jewish pogroms within several hours after arrival [of German troops]. … It was necessary to show that … it was a natural reaction to the years of oppression by Jews and communist terror. …  It was equally important to establish for the future as an undisputed and provable fact that … the local people have resorted to the most severe measures against Bolsheviks and Jews on their own initiative, without demonstrable evidence for any guidance from the German authorities.”115

The willingness of the local population for such initiatives varied greatly in different occupied regions. “In the tense atmosphere of the Baltics, the hatred of Jews reached a boiling point at the very moment of Hitler’s onslaught against Soviet Russia on June 22, 1941.”116 The Jews were accused of collaboration with the NKVD in the deportation of Baltic citizens. The Israeli Encyclopedia quotes an entry from the diary of Lithuanian physician E. Budvidayte-Kutorgene: “All Lithuanians, with few exceptions, are unanimous in their hatred of Jews.”117 Yet, the Standartenführer reports that “to our surprise, it was not an easy task … to induce a pogrom there”. This was achieved with the help of Lithuanian partisans, who exterminated 1,500 Jews in Kaunas during the night of June 26 and 2,300 more in the next few days; they also burned the Jewish quarter and several synagogues.118 “Mass executions of the Jews were conducted by the SS and the Lithuanian police on October 29 and November 25, 1941.” About 19,000 of the 36,000 Jews of Kaunas were shot in the Ninth Fort.119 “In many Lithuanian cities and towns, all of the Jewish population was exterminated by local Lithuanian police under German control in the autumn of 1941.”120 “It was much harder to induce the same self-cleaning operations and pogroms in Latvia”, reports the Standartenführer, because there “the entire national leadership, especially in Riga, was destroyed or deported by the Bolsheviks.”121 Still, on July 4, 1941, Latvian activists in Riga “set fire to several synagogues into which the Jews had been herded. … About 2,000 died”; in the first days of occupation, locals assisted in executions by the Germans of several thousand Jews in the Bikernieki forest near Riga, and in late October and in early November in the shootings of about 27,000 Jews at a nearby railway station Rumbula.122 In Estonia, “with a small number of Jews in the country, it was not possible to induce pogroms”, reports the officer.123 (Estonian Jews were destroyed without pogroms: “In Estonia, about 2,000 Jews remained. Almost all male Jews were executed in the first weeks of the occupation by the Germans and their Estonian collaborators. … The rest were interned in the concentration camp Harku near Tallinn”, and by the end of 1941 all of them were killed.124

But the German leadership was disappointed in Byelorussia. S. Schwartz: “the failure of the Germans to draw sympathy from the broad masses of locals to the cause of extermination of Jews… is completely clear from secret German documents … The population invariably and consistently refrains from any independent action against the Jews.”125 Still, according to eyewitnesses in Gorodok in the Vitebsk oblast, when the ghetto was liquidated on Oct. 14, 1941, the “Polizei were worse than the Germans”;126 and in Borisov, the “Russian police” (it follows in the report that they were actually imported from Berlin)  “destroyed within two days [October 20 and 21, 1941] 6,500 Jews. Importantly, the author of the report notes that the killings of Jews were not met with sympathy from the local population: `Who ordered that… How is it possible…? Now they kill the Jews, and when will be our turn? What have these poor Jews done? They were just workers. The really guilty ones are, of course, long gone.´”127 And here is a report by a German “trustee”, a native Byelorussian from Latvia: “In Byelorussia, there is no Jewish question. For them, it’s a purely German business, not Byelorussian… Everybody sympathizes with and pities the Jews, and they look at Germans as barbarians and murderers of the Jews [Judenhenker]: a Jew, they say, is a human being just like a Byelorussian.”128 In any case, S. Schwartz writes that “there were no national Byelorussian squads affiliated with the German punitive units, though there were Latvian, Lithuanian, and `mixed´ squads; the latter enlisted some Byelorussians as well.”129

The project was more successful in Ukraine. From the beginning of the war, Hitler’s propaganda incited the Ukrainian nationalists (“Bandera?s Fighters”) to take revenge on the Jews for the murder of Petliura by Schwartzbard.130 The organization of Ukrainian Nationalists of Bandera-Melnik (OUN) did not need to be persuaded: even before the Soviet-German War, in April 1941, it adopted a resolution at its Second Congress in Krakow, in which paragraph 17 states: “The Yids in the Soviet Union are the most loyal supporters of the ruling Bolshevik regime and the vanguard of Moscow imperialism in Ukraine… The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists considers the Yids as the pillar of the Moscow-Bolshevik regime, while educating the masses that Moscow is the main enemy.”131 Initially, the “Bandera Fighters” allied with the Germans against the Bolsheviks. During the whole of 1940 and the first half of 1941, the OUN leadership was preparing for a possible war between Germany and the USSR. “Then the main base of the OUN was the Generalgouvernement, i. e., the Nazi-occupied Poland. … Ukrainian militias were being created there, and lists of suspicious persons, with Jews among them, were compiled. Later these lists were used by Ukrainian nationalists to exterminate Jews. … `Mobile units´ for the East Ukraine were created and battalions of Ukrainian Nationalists,  `Roland´ and `Nakhtigal´, were formed in the German Army.” The OUN arrived in the East [of Ukraine] together with the frontline German troops. During the summer of 1941 “a wave of Jewish pogroms rolled over Western Ukraine. … with participation of both Melnyk’s and of Bandera’s troops. As a result of these pogroms, around 28,000 Jews were killed.”132 Among OUN documents, there is a declaration by J. Stetzko (who in July 1941 was named the head of the Ukrainian government): “The Jews help Moscow to keep Ukraine in slavery, and therefore, I support extermination of the Yids and the need to adopt in Ukraine the German methods of extermination of Jewry.” In July, a meeting of Bandera’s OUN leaders was held in Lvov, where, among other topics, policies toward Jews were discussed. There were various proposals: to build the policy “on the principles of Nazi policy before 1939. … There were proposals to isolate Jews in ghettoes. … But the most radical proposal was made by Stepan Lenkavskiy, who stated: `Concerning the Jews we will adopt all the measures that will lead to their eradication.´”133 And until the relations between the OUN and the Germans deteriorated (because Germany did not recognize the self-proclaimed Ukrainian independence), there were “many cases, especially in the first year … when Ukrainians directly assisted the Germans in the extermination of Jews.” “Ukrainian auxiliary police, recruited by the Germans mainly in Galicia and Volhynia,”134 played a special role. “In Uman in September 1941, Ukrainian city police under command of several officers and sergeants of the SS shot nearly 6,000 Jews”; and in early November 6 km outside Rovno, “the SS and Ukrainian police slaughtered 21,000 Jews from the ghetto.”135 However, S. Schwartz writes: “It is impossible to figure out which part of the Ukrainian population shared an active anti-Semitism with a predisposition toward pogroms. Probably quite a large part, particularly the more cultured strata, did not share these sentiments.” As for the original part of the Soviet Ukraine [within the pre-September 1939 Soviet borders], “no evidence for the `spontaneous´ pogroms by Ukrainians could be found in the secret German reports from those areas.”136 In addition, “Tatar militia squads in the Crimea were exterminating Jews also.”137

Regarding indigenous Russian regions occupied by the Germans, the Germans “could not exploit anti-Russian sentiments and the argument about Moscow’s imperialism was unsustainable; and the argument for any Judeo-Bolshevism, devoid of support in local nationalism, largely lost its appeal”; among the local Russian population “only relatively few people actively supported the Germans in their anti-Jewish policies of extermination.”138

A researcher on the fate of Soviet Jewry concludes: the Germans in Lithuania and Latvia “had a tendency to mask their pogromist activities, bringing to the fore extermination squads made up of pogromists emerging under German patronage from the local population”; but “in Byelorussia, and to a considerable extent even in Ukraine and especially in the occupied areas of the RSFSR”, the Germans did not succeed as “the local population had mostly disappointed the hopes pinned on it” – and there “the Nazi exterminators had to proceed openly.”139


Hitler’s plan for the military campaign against the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa) included “special tasks to prepare the ground for political rule, with the character of these tasks stemming from the all-out struggle between the two opposing political systems.” In May and June 1941, the Supreme Command of the Wehrmacht issued more specific directives, ordering execution without trial of persons suspected of hostile action against Germany (and of political commissars, partisans, saboteurs and Jews in any case) in the theater of Barbarossa.140

To carry out special tasks in the territory of the USSR, four special groups (Einsatzgruppen) were established within the Security Service (SS) and the Secret Police (Gestapo), that had operational units (Einsatzkommando) numerically equal to companies. The Einsatzgruppen advanced along with the front units of the German Army, but reported directly to the Chief of Security of the Third Reich, Reinhard Heydrich.

Einsatzgruppe A (about 1000 soldiers and SS officers under the command of SS Standartenführer Dr. F. Shtoleker) of Army Group “North” operated in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and the Leningrad and Pskov oblasts. Group B (655 men, under the command of Brigadenführer A. Neveu) was attached to Army Group “Centre”, which was advancing through Byelorussia and the Smolensk Oblast toward Moscow. Group C (600, Standartenführer E. Rush) was attached to Army Group “South” and operated in the Western and Eastern Ukraine. Group D (600 men under the command of SS Standartenführer Prof. O. Ohlendorf) was attached to the 11th Army and operated in Southern Ukraine, the Crimea, and in the Krasnodar and Stavropol regions.

Extermination of Jews and commissars (“carriers of the Judeo-Bolshevik ideology”) by the Germans began from the first days of the June 1941invasion, though they did so “somewhat chaotically and with an extremely broad scope.”141 “In other German-occupied countries, elimination of the Jewish population proceeded gradually and thoroughly. It usually started with legal restrictions, continued with the creation of ghettos and introduction of forced labor and culminated in deportation and mass extermination. In Soviet Russia, all these elements were strangely intermingled in time and place. In each region, sometimes even within one city, various methods of harassment were used… there was no uniform or standardized system.”142 Shooting of Jewish prisoners of war could happen sometimes right upon capture and sometimes later in the concentration camps; civilian Jews were sometimes first confined in ghettoes, sometimes in forced-labor camps, and in other places they were shot outright on the spot, and still in other places the “gas vans” were used. “As a rule, the place of execution was an anti-tank ditch, or just a pit.”143

The numbers of those exterminated in the cities of the Western USSR by the winter of 1941 (the first period of extermination) are striking: according to the documents, in Vilnius out of 57,000 Jews who had lived there about 40,000 were killed; in Riga out of 33,000 – 27,000; in Minsk out of the 100,000-strong ghetto – 24,000 were killed (there the extermination continued until the end of occupation); in Rovno out of 27,000 Jews – 21,000 were killed; in Mogilev about 10,000 Jews were shot; in Vitebsk – up to 20,000; and near Kiselevich village nearly 20,000 Jews from Bobruisk were killed; in Berdichev – 15,000144.

By late September, the Nazis staged a mass extermination of Jews in Kiev. On September 26 they distributed announcements around the city requiring all Jews, under the penalty of death, to report to various assembly points. And Jews, having no other option but to submit, gathered obediently, if not trustingly, altogether about 34,000; and on September 29 and 30, they were methodically shot at Babi Yar, putting layer upon layers of corpses in a large ravine.Hence there was no need to dig any  graves – a giant hecatomb! According to the official German announcement, not questioned later, 33,771 Jews were shot over the course of two days. During the next two years of the Kiev occupation, the Germans continued shootings in their favorite and so convenient ravine. It is believed that the number of the executed – not only Jews – had reached, perhaps, 100,000.45

The executions at Babi Yar have become a symbol in world history. People shrug at the cold-blooded calculation, the business-like organization, so typical for the 20th century that crowns  humanistic civilization: during the “savage” Middle Ages people killed each other en masse only in a fit of rage or in the heat of battle.

It should be recalled that within a few kilometers from Babi Yar, in the enormous Darnitskiy camp, tens of thousands Soviet prisoners of war, soldiers and officers, died during the same months: yet we do not commemorate it properly, and many are not even aware of it. The same is true about the more than two million Soviet prisoners of war who perished during the first years of the war.

The Catastrophe  persistently raked its victims from all the occupied Soviet territories.

In Odessa on October 17, 1941, on the second day of occupation by German and Romanian troops, several thousand Jewish males were killed, and later, after the bombing of the Romanian Military Office, the total terror was unleashed: about 5,000 people, most of them Jews and thousands of others, were herded into a suburban village and executed there. In November, there was a mass deportation of people into the Domanevskiy District, where “about 55,000 Jews” were shot in December and January of 1942146. In the first months of occupation, by the end of 1941, 22,464 Jews were killed in Kherson and Nikolayev; 11,000  in Dnepropetrovsk; 8,000  in Mariupol’ and almost as many in Kremenchug; about 15,000  in Kharkov’s Drobytsky Yar; and more than 20,000  in Simferopol’ and Western Crimea.147

By the end of 1941, the German High Command had realized that the “blitz” had failed and that a long war loomed ahead. The needs of the war economy demanded a different organization of the home front. In some places, the German administration slowed down the extermination of Jews in order to exploit their manpower and skills. “As the result, ghettoes survived in large cities like Riga, Vilnius, Kaunas, Baranovichi, Minsk, and in other, smaller ones, where many Jews worked for the needs of the German war economy.”148 Yet the demand for labor that prolonged the existence of these large ghettoes did not prevent resumption of mass killings in other places in the spring of 1942: in Western Byelorussia, Western Ukraine, Southern Russia and the Crimea, 30,000 Jews were deported from the Grodno region to Treblinka and Auschwitz; Jews of Polesia, Pinsk, Brest-Litovsk, and Smolensk were eradicated. During the 1942 summer offensive, the Germans killed local Jews immediately upon arrival: the Jews of Kislovodsk, Pyatigorsk and Essentuki were killed in antitank ditches near Mineralni’ye Vody; thus died evacuees to Essentuki from Leningrad and Kishinev. Jews of Kerch and Stavropol were exterminated as well. In Rostov-on-Don, recaptured by the Germans in late July 1942, all the remaining Jewish population was eradicated by August 11.

In 1943, after the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk, the outcome of the war became clear. During their retreat, the Germans decided to exterminate all remaining Jews. On June 21, 1943 Himmler ordered the liquidation of the remaining ghettoes. In June 1943, the ghettoes of Lvov, Ternopol, and Drohobych were liquidated. After the liberation of Eastern Galicia in 1944, “only 10,000 to 12,000 Jews were still alive, which constituted about 2% of all Jews who had remained under occupation.” Able-bodied Jews from ghettoes in Minsk, Lida, and Vilnius were transferred to concentration camps in Poland, Estonia, and Latvia, while the rest were shot. Later, during the summer, 1944 retreat from the Baltics, some of the Jews in those camps were shot, and some were moved into camps in Germany (Stutthof et al.).149

Destined for extermination, Jews fought for survival: underground groups sprang up in many ghettoes to organize escapes. Yet after a successful breakout, a lot depended on the local residents – that they not betray the Jews, provide them with non-Jewish papers, shelter and food. In the occupied areas, Germans sentenced those helping Jews to death.150 “But everywhere, in all occupied territories, there were people who helped the Jews. … Yet there were few of them. They risked their lives and the lives of their families. … There were hundreds, maybe thousands of such people. But the majority of local populations just watched from a distance.”151 In Byelorussia and the occupied territories of the RSFSR, where local populations were not hostile to the remaining Jews and where no pogroms ever occurred, the local population provided still less assistance to Jews than in Europe or even “in Poland, the country … of widespread, traditional, folk anti-Semitism.”152 (Summaries of many similar testimonies can be found in books by S. Schwartz and I. Arad.) They plausibly attribute this not only to the fear of execution but also to the habit of obedience to authorities (developed over the years of Soviet rule) and to not meddling in the affairs of others.

Yes, we have been so downtrodden, so many millions have been torn away from our midst in previous decades, that any attempt at resistance to government power was foredoomed, so now Jews as well could not get the support of the population.

But even well-organized Soviet underground and guerrillas directed from Moscow did little to save the doomed Jews. Relations with the Soviet guerrillas were a specially acute problem for the Jews in the occupied territories. Going into the woods, i.e., joining up with a partisan unit, was a better lot for Jewish men than waiting to be exterminated by the Germans. Yet hostility to the Jews was widespread and often acute among partisans, and “there were some Russian detachments that did not accept Jews on principle. They alleged that Jews cannot and do not want to fight”, writes a former Jewish partisan Moshe Kaganovich. A non-Jewish guerilla recruit was supplied with weapons, but a Jew was required to provide his own, and sometimes it was traded down. “There is pervasive enmity to Jews among partisans. … in some detachments anti-Semitism was so strong that the Jews felt compelled to flee from such units.”153

For instance, in 1942 some two hundred Jewish boys and girls fled into the woods from the ghetto in the shtetl of Mir in Grodno oblast, and “there they encountered anti-Semitism among Soviet guerrillas, which led to the death of many who fled; only some of them were able to join guerrilla squads.”154 Or another case: A guerrilla squad under the command of Ganzenko operated near Minsk. It was replenished “mainly with fugitives from the Minsk ghetto”, but the “growing number of Jews in the unit triggered anti-Semitic clashes” – and then the Jewish part of the detachment broke away.155 Such actions on the part of the guerrillas were apparently spontaneous, not directed from the center. According to Moshe Kaganovich, from the end of 1943 “the influence of more-disciplined personnel arriving from the Soviet Union” had increased “and the general situation for [the Jews had] somewhat improved.”156 However, he complains that when a territory was liberated by the advancing regular Soviet troops and the partisans were sent to the front (which is true, and everybody was sent indiscriminately), it was primarily Jews who were sent157 – and that is incredible.

However, Kaganovich writes that Jews were sometimes directly assisted by the partisans. There were even “partisan attacks on small towns in order to save Jews” from ghettoes and [concentration] camps, and that “Russian partisan movement helped fleeing Jews to cross the front lines. … [And in this way they] smuggled across the frontline many thousands of Jews who were hiding in the forests of Western Byelorussia escaping the carnage.” A partisan force in the Chernigov region accepted “more than five hundred children from Jewish family camps in the woods, protected them and took care of them… After the Red Army liberated Sarny (on Volyn), several squads broke the front and sent Jewish children to Moscow.” (S. Schwartz believes that “these reports are greatly exaggerated. [But] they are based on real facts, [and they] merit attention.”158)

Jewish family camps originated among the Jewish masses fleeing into the woods and there “were many thousands of such fugitives.” Purely Jewish armed squads were formed specifically for the protection of these camps. (Weapons were purchased through third parties from German soldiers or policemen.) Yet how to feed them all? The only way was to take food as well as shoes and clothing, both male and female, by force from the peasants of surrounding villages. “The peasant was placed between the hammer and the anvil. If he did not carry out his assigned production minimum, the Germans burned his household and killed him as a `partisan´. On the other hand, guerrillas took from him by force all they needed”159 – and this naturally caused spite among the peasants: they are robbed by Germans and robbed by guerrillas – and now in addition even the Jews rob them? And the Jews even take away clothes from their women?

In the spring of 1943, partisan Baruch Levin came to one such family camp, hoping to get medicines for his sick comrades. He remembers: Tuvia Belsky “seemed like a legendary hero to me. … Coming from the people, he managed to organize a 1,200-strong unit in the woods. … In the worst days when a Jew could not even feed himself, he cared for the sick, elderly and for the babies born in the woods.” Levin told Tuvia about Jewish partisans: “We, the few survivors, no longer value life. Now the only meaning of our lives is revenge. It is our duty – to fight the Germans, wipe out all of them to the last one.” I talked for a long time; … offered to teach Belsky’s people how to work with explosives, and all other things I have myself learned. But my words, of course, could not change Tuvia’s mindset… `Baruch, I would like you to understand one thing. It is precisely because there are so few of us left, it is so important for me that the Jews survive. And I see this as my purpose; it is the most important thing for me.´”160

And the very same Moshe Kaganovich, as late as in 1956, wrotein a book published in Buenos Aires, “in peacetime, years after the devastating defeat of Nazism” – shows, according to S. Schwartz, “a really bloodthirsty attitude toward the Germans, an attitude that seems to be influenced by the Hitler plague….  he glorifies putting German prisoners to `Jewish death´ by Jewish partisans according to the horrible Nazi’ examples or excitedly recalls the speech by a commander of a [Jewish] guerrilla unit given before the villagers of a Lithuanian village who were gathered and forced to kneel  by partisans in the square after a punitive raid against that village whose population had actively assisted the Germans in the extermination of Jews (several dozen villagers were executed during that raid).”161 S. Schwartz writes about this with a restrained but clear condemnation.

 Yes, a lot of things happened. Predatory killings call for revenge, but each act of revenge, tragically, plants the seeds of new retribution in the future.


The different Jewish sources variously estimate the total losses among Soviet Jews during the Second World War (within the post-war borders).
          “How many Soviet Jews survived the war?”, asks S. Schwartz and offers this calculation: 1,810,000-1,910,000 (excluding former refugees from the Western Poland and Romania, now repatriated ). “The calculations imply that the number of Jews by the end of the war was markedly lower than two million and much lower than the almost universally accepted number of three million.”162 So, the total number of losses according to Schwarz was 2,800,000-2,900,000.

In 1990 I. Arad provided his estimate: “During the liberation of German-occupied territories … the Soviet Army met almost no Jews. Out of the 2,750,000-2,900,000 Jews who remained under the Nazi rule [in 1941] in the occupied Soviet territories, almost all died.” To this figure Arad suggests adding “about 120,000 Jews – Soviet Army soldiers who died on the front, and about 80,000 shot in the POW camps”, and “tens of thousands of Jews [who died] during the siege of Leningrad, Odessa and other cities, and in the deep rear … because of harsh living conditions in the evacuation.”163

Demographer M. Kupovetskiy published several studies in the 1990s, where he used newly available archival materials, made some corrections to older data and employed an improved technique for ethnodemographic analysis. His result was that the general losses of Jewish population within the postwar USSR borders in 1941-1945 amounted to 2,733,000 (1,112,000 Eastern and 1,621,000 Western Jews), or 55% of 4,965,000 – the total number of Jews in the USSR in June 1941. This figure, apart from the victims of Nazi extermination, includes the losses among the military and the guerrillas, among civilians near the front line, during evacuation and deportation, as well as the victims of Stalin’s camps during the war. (However, the author notes, that quantitative evaluation of each of these categories within the overall casualty figure is yet to be done.164) Apparently, the Short Jewish Encyclopedia agrees with this assessment as it provides the same number.165

The currently accepted figure for the total losses of the Soviet population during the Great Patriotic War is 27,000,000 (if the “method of demographic balance” is used, it is 26,600,000166) and this may still be underestimated.

We must not overlook what that war was for the Russians. The war rescued not only their country, not only Soviet Jewry, but also the entire social system of the Western world from Hitler. This war exacted such sacrifice from the Russian people that its strength and health have never since fully recovered. That war overstrained the Russian people. It was yet another disaster on top of those of the Civil War and de-kulakization – and from which the Russian people have almost run dry. 


The ruthless and unrelenting Catastrophe, which was gradually devouring Soviet Jewry in a multitude of exterminating events all over the occupied lands, was part of a greater Catastrophe designed to eradicate the entire European Jewry.

As we examine only the events in Russia, the Catastrophe as a whole is not covered in this book. Yet the countless miseries having befallen on both our peoples, the Jewish and the Russian, in the 20th century, and the unbearable weight of the lessons of history and gnawing anxiety about the future, make it impossible not to share, if only briefly, some reflections about it, reflections of mine and others, and impossible not to examine how the high Jewish minds look at the Catastrophe from the historical perspective and how they attempt to encompass and comprehend it.

It is for a reason that the “Catastrophe” is always written with a capital letter. It was an epic event for such an ancient and historical people. It could not fail to arouse the strongest feelings and a wide variety of reflections and conclusions among the Jews.
              In many Jews, long ago assimilated and distanced from their own people, the Catastrophe reignited a more distinct and intense sense of their Jewishness. Yet “for many, the Catastrophe became a proof that God is dead. If He had existed, He certainly would never have allowed Auschwitz.”167 Then there is an opposite reflection: “Recently, a former Auschwitz inmate said: “In the camps, we were given a new Torah, though we have not been able to read it yet.”168

An Israeli author states with conviction: “The Catastrophe happened because we did not follow the Covenant and did not return to our land. We had to return to our land to rebuild the Temple.”169
               Still, such an understanding is achieved only by a very few, although it does permeate the entire Old Testament.

Some have developed and still harbor a bitter feeling: “Once, humanity turned away from us. We weren’t a part of the West at the time of the Catastrophe. The West rejected us, cast us away.”170 “We are as upset by the nearly absolute indifference of the world and even of non-European Jewry to the plight of the Jews in the fascist countries as by the Catastrophe in Europe itself. … What a great guilt lies on the democracies of the world in general and especially on the Jews in the democratic countries! … The pogrom in Kishinev was an insignificant crime compared to the German atrocities, to … the methodically implemented plan of extermination of millions of Jewish lives; and yet Kishinev pogrom triggered a bigger protest… Even the Beilis Trial in Kiev attracted more worldwide attention.”171

But this is unfair. After the world realized the essence and the scale of the destruction, the Jews experienced consistent and energetic support and passionate compassion from many nations.
              Some contemporary Israelis recognize this and even warn their compatriots against any such excesses: “Gradually, the memory of the Catastrophe ceased to be just a memory. It has become the ideology of the Jewish state. … The memory of the Catastrophe turned into a religious devotion, into the state cult. … The State of Israel has assumed the role of an apostle of the cult of the Catastrophe, the role of a priest who collects routine tithes from other nations. And woe to those who refuse to pay that tithe!” And in conclusion: “The worst legacy of Nazism for Jews is the Jew?s role of a super-victim.”172

Here is a similar excerpt from yet another author: the cult of the Catastrophe has filled “a void in the souls of secular Jews,” “from being a reaction to an event of the past, the trauma of the Catastrophe has evolved into a new national symbol, replacing all other symbols.” And “this `mentality of the Catastrophe´ is growing with each passing year”; “if we do not recover from the trauma of Auschwitz, we will never become a normal nation.”173

Among the Jews, the sometimes painful work of re-examining the Catastrophe never ceases. Here is the opinion of an Israeli historian, a former inmate of a Soviet camp: “I do not belong to those Jews who are inclined to blame the evil `goyim´ for our national misfortunes while casting ourselves as … poor lambs or toys in the hands of others. Anyway not in the 20th century! On the contrary, I fully agree with Hannah Arendt that the Jews of our century were equal participants in the historical games of the nations and the monstrous Catastrophe that befell them was the result of not only evil plots of the enemies of mankind, but also of the huge fatal miscalculations on the part of the Jewish people themselves, their leaders and activists.”174

Indeed, Hannah Arendt was “searching for the causes of the Catastrophe [also] in Jewry itself. … Her main argument is that modern anti-Semitism was one of the consequences of the particular attitudes of the Jews towards the state and society in Europe”; the Jews “turned out to be unable to evaluate power shifts in a nation state and growing social contradictions.”175

In the late 1970s, we read in Dan Levin’s book: “On this issue, I agree with Prof. Branover who believes that the Catastrophe was largely a punishment for our sins, including the sin of leading the communist movement. There is something in it.”176

Yet no such noticeable movement can be observed among world Jewry. To a great many contemporary Jews such conclusions appear insulting and blasphemous. 

To the contrary: “The very fact of the Catastrophe served as a moral justification for Jewish chauvinism. Lessons of the Second World War have been learned exactly contrariwise. … The ideology of Jewish Nationalism has grown and strengthened on this soil. This is terribly sad. A feeling of guilt and compassion towards the nation-victim has become an indulgence, absolving the sin unforgivable for all others. It is hence comes the moral permissibility of public appeals not to mix one’s own ancient blood with the alien blood.”177

In the late 1980s, a Jewish publicist from Germany wrote: “Today, the `moral capital´ of Auschwitz is already spent.”178 One year later, she stated: “Solid moral capital gained by the Jews because of Auschwitz seems to be depleted”; the Jews “can no longer proceed along the old way by raising pretensions to the world. Today, the world already has the right to converse with the Jews as it does with all others”; “the struggle for the rights of Jews is no more progressive than a struggle for the rights of all other nations. It is high time to break the mirror and look around – we are not alone in this world.”179

It would have been equally great for Russian minds to elevate themselves to similarly decent and benevolent self-criticism, especially in making judgments about Russian history of the 20th century – the brutality of the Revolutionary period, the cowed indifference of the Soviet times and the abominable plundering of the post-Soviet age. And to do it despite the unbearable burden of realization that it was we Russians who ruined our history – through our useless rulers but also through our own worthlessness – and despite the gnawing anxiety that this may be irredeemable – to perceive the Russian experience as possibly a punishment from the Supreme Power.

[Translator’s note: endnotes will be translated later. They can be found in the original form in the accompanying text document]

Published on September 24, 2010 at 6:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

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