L. Smilovitsky - Holocaust of the Soviet Jews: the Truth, that needs to be discovered
Holocaust of the Soviet Jews: the Truth, that needs to be discovered
By Dr. Leonid Smilovitsky
(Diaspora Research Center of Tel Aviv University)
Review of: Ilya Altman, Zhertvy nenavisti. Kholokost v SSSR, 1941-1945 gg. (Victims of Hatred. Holocaust in the USSR, 1941-1945). Foundation "Kovcheg". Moscow, 2002. 541 pages.
One cannot challenge the truth that the morals, the health and the intellect of a society are judged by its relation to Holocaust. The rise of neo-Nazism, anti-Semitism and racial hostility shows the significance of the lessons of the Second World War, which are inseparably connected with genocide of Jews. Out of six million Jews, who were killed in East Europe, the Nazis and their accomplices in the Soviet Union killed almost half. Thus, Ukraine lost 1,430,000 Jews, Belorussia – 810,000, Moldavia – 130,000, Lithuania – 220,000, Russian Federation – 170,000, Latvia – 77,000, and Estonia – 1,000, in all – 2,838,000 Jews. Dr. Ilya Altmans monograph is dedicated to the tragedy of Soviet Jews during the years of war with Nazi Germany and, without exaggeration, can be considered the first attempt in the Russian language to include the entire territory of the former USSR. This task has demanded the research and comprehension of an impressive amount of literature and other resources.
During the postwar period, the study of the Holocaust of Soviet Jews has gone through several stages. Up to the end of the 1980s, historians in the USSR were not allowed to research this problem for political and ideological reasons. In the West, the inaccessibility of Soviet archives forced the historians to pay main attention to the “new” Soviet regions that were included in the Soviet Union in 1939-1940. After 1991, in the countries of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) and Baltic States, numerous publications rapidly filled the information niche about the Holocaust. Publications began to appear with the memoirs of the prisoners of the ghettos and concentration camps, also of former Jewish partisans and Jewish soldiers of the Red Army. The collections of documents and materials about genocide of the Jewish population in the occupied territory have been compiled as well as lists of Jews shot by Nazis and their accomplices. Searches for places of mass burials of victims of genocide were conducted. The high point of these efforts became the number of studies on the separate regions of the former USSR. Simultaneously, the opening of the Soviet archives allowed the historians of Europe, USA and Israel to fill the missing blanks and to begin the preparation of new works on the history of genocide of Jews.
The great part of documented sources dedicated to Holocaust on the territory of the USSR remained still unpublished. That’s why the use by Dr. Altman collections of 23 central, local, and departmental archives from 16 cities and towns of Russia, CIS , as well as of The USA Holocaust Memorial Museum (Washington), The Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority (Jerusalem), Beit lohamei-ha-gettaot Museum (Israel), Museum of the deportation of Jews (Mechelen, Belgium) is so important. For the first time, the analysis of the Nazi occupational press published in languages of the peoples of the USSR (about 400 names of printed editions) was done. In the past, these materials were not accessible to historians and scientific community. The present research was implemented within the framework of the Russian foundation for historical-archival research "Kovcheg", the scientific-educational center "Holocaust" , and the grant from Memorial Foundation of the Jewish Culture (New York).
Dr. Altman, relying on his own experience with archival documents as well as on the works of colleagues, publicized in the course of four international conferences and symposiums of foundation “Holocaust” , has brought to the surface some of the questions which, in the past, evaded attention of the “Soviet” reader. The monograph consists of the “Introduction”, “Conclusion”, and five chapters: “The Nazi occupational regime and Jews in the USSR”, “The Ghetto in territory of the USSR”, "The Holocaust of Jews of the USSR: a plan, a course, the results”, “Resistance”, “The Society and the Holocaust”. The book includes a geographical index, the list of abbreviations and the bibliography.
In the “Introduction”, the author acquaints the reader with the prehistory of writing the book. He makes a detailed review of contemporary literature on a problem of Nazi genocide, and gives his view on the problem of the Holocaust of Soviet Jewry. The author voices an opinion about who was interested in distortion and concealment of the truth about genocide, what efforts were undertaken for the revealing of the basic consequences of the Holocaust. In the “Conclusion”, the general results are brought forth, conclusions are made, and the basic problems demanding the resolutions are named.
This is a well coordinated study which includes documentary material and its analysis, statistics and characteristics of the destiny of Jews in an occupied territory of the USSR. It contains a lot of new information about the organization of a ghetto (including a whole series of the small ghettoes which have been not taken into account until recently), their difference in Russia, the Ukraine, Belorussia, the Baltic and Moldova. Dr. Altman focuses in detail on daily life in a ghetto, forced labor, the struggle against famine, interrelations of the prisoners among themselves, opportunities for observance of religious tradition, the role of Jude rats and the Jewish police, and finally the stages of liquidation of a ghetto and statistics of the victims. The author touches upon such “inconvenient” for the non-Jewish audience in Russia/CIS sides of the Holocaust as a partnership of collaborators in the destruction of the Jewish population. He makes an attempt to find out the motives of cooperation of the local population with the Nazis and to establish its extent in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Bessarabia, the Northwest, the Center, and the South of Russia, Northern Caucasus, and Crimea.
A special chapter is devoted to the participation of Jews in the Resistance. The significance of this is difficult to overestimate. It allows overcoming of a myth in ordinary consciousnesses about the submissiveness of Jews, their passivity, inability and unwillingness to fight against the Nazis. The author examines such sides of the Jewish resistance as unarmed (moral, individual, and physical), organized (underground activity and uprising in a ghetto) and participation in the partisan movement.
The attitude of a society toward a policy of “The final solution of the Jewish question” became the integral part of the Holocaust. Dr. Altman analyzes the attitude of the Soviet government to this problem before 1939, after the beginning and during the Second World War and Soviet-German war. Special attention is made to the coverage of the Jewish genocide in official propaganda, displays of anti-Semitism in the Soviet backyard (home front), the position of the church on murder of Jews, and the ban on the memory of the Holocaust.
The monograph “Victims of hatred: The Holocaust in the USSR, 1941-1945” in many respects is intended for researchers and teachers of secondary and higher educational institutions of Russia/CIS focused on the studying and teaching of a history of the Second World War, but persistently “not noticing” the tragedy of the Holocaust. It is difficult to explain why until now none of the state scientific institutions, including The Institute of the History of the Russian Academy of Sciences, have not addressed this theme. Dr. Altman’s book will be useful not only to the readers from those countries, which were occupied by Nazi Germany during the war, but also from Israel, USA, England and other states, where the descendants of the survivors of the Holocaust live. The Western historiography of the Holocaust makes slow and painful for itself transition to understanding that it knows insufficiently about tragedy of the Soviet Jews and the special features of a Nazi genocide in the East. It took twelve (!) years after disintegration of the Soviet Union for The National Institute of Memory of Victims of Nazism and Heroes of Resistance Yad Vashem in Jerusalem began reconstruction of its exhibit, in which the tragedy of the Soviet Jews occupied hardly one quarter of the entire area. For example, until 2002, it spoke about a ghetto of Lvov (the Western Ukraine), but it did not present the ghetto of Minsk (East Belorussia). Thousands of visitors of this central memorial of Israel learn much and in detail about the uprising of the Warsaw ghetto, but nothing is said about the organized resistance in the ghetto of Minsk (100,000 prisoners), where eight partisan detachments were formed. Almost nothing is told about the centers of resistance in other ghettoes of Belorussia, while the underground organizations existed in the ghettos of Baranovichi, Bobruisk, Brest, Grodno, Slonim, Vileyka. On the eve of the mass executions, the uprisings broke out in the ghettos of Nesvizh, Mir, Lahva, Kamenets, Kletsk, the prisoners of the ghettos in Glubokoye, Kobrin, Novogrudok, Ljahovichi and a number of others started armed resistance.
How well has Dr. Altman reached the intended objective? The scale of a Nazi genocide on the occupied territories of the Soviet Union is so great, and the range of the problems set forth is so wide, that many sides of the Holocaust appear to be only mentioned, others are cursory defined and presented fragmentarily. It is not a task of this review to enter a polemic on what basis more attention is given to this or that aspect in the book, it is the choice and the right of the author. The monograph, despite its scientific character, bears a certain educational angle. It is focused beforehand on the Russian and Russian-speaking reader of the young generation, deprived of the personal experience of war and in a desperate need of an objective evaluation and correct reference points. The main thing is, that the edition of the book “Victims of Hatred. The Holocaust in the USSR, 1941-1945” marks the important qualitative transition of the post Soviet historians from accumulation of factual bases to its comprehension. The ice is broken, now the new summarizing works on a history of the Holocaust in the entire territory of the USSR will follow, which will allow confirmation of the first success. We shall express hope, that our expectations will not be delayed.
Ilya Altman (1955), graduated from the Moscow State Institute of History and Archives (M.A., 1972-1977), Institute of History of Academy of science of USSR, Leningrad department (Ph.D., 1979-1983), Professor of the Moscow Jewish University, Vice-President of the Russian Holocaust Foundation.
I.N. Pilat. Iz istorii evreistva Moldovy (From the History of Moldova Jewry). Kishinev, 1990; D. Starodinsky. Odessa ghetto. Odessa, 1992; A.E. Podolsky. Nazistski genozid evreiskogo naroda Ukrainy (Nazi genocide of the Jewish People of Ukraine), 1941-1944. Ph.D. thesis. Kiev, 1996; Y. Khonigsman. Katastrofa evreistva Zapadnoy Ukrainy (Holocaust of the Jewry of West Ukraine). Lvov, 1998; L. Sushon. Transnistria v adu (Transnistria in the hell). Odessa, 1998; Е.S. Rozenblat. Nazistskaya politika genozida v otnoshenii evreiskogo naselenia zapadnykh oblastei Belorussii, 1941-1944 gg. (Nazi policy of genocide according to the Jewish population of West regions of Belorussia). Ph.D. thesis. Minsk, 1999; G. Knat’ko. Gibel’ Minskogo ghetto (Destruction of Minsk ghetto). Minsk, 1999; I. Shenderovich (compeller). Martirolog. Lists of the Jews perished in WW2. Mogilev, 2001; Holocaust in Belorussia. Documents and materials. Compellers E.Yoffe, G.Knat’ko, V.Selemenev Minsk, 2002.
M. Altshuler. Soviet Jewry on the Eve of the Holocaust. A Social and Demographic Profile. Jerusalem, 1998; Y. Arad (ed.). Destruction of the Jews in the Soviet Union during the German occupation, 1941-1944. Collection of documents and materials. Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 1992; Ch. Gerlach. "Failure of Plans for an SS Extermination Camp in Mogilev, Belorussia" // Holocaust and Genocide Studies (Washington), vol. 11, No 1 (Spring 1997), pp. 60-78; D.J. Goldhagen. Hitlers Willings Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, New York, 1996; N. Tec. Jewish Resistance: Facts, Omissions and Distortions. Washington. 1997; A. Geier. Heroes of the Holocaust. New York, 1998; Bernhard Chiari. Alltag hinter der Front. Besatzung, Kollaboration und Widerstand in Weisrusland, 1941-1944. Schirften des Bundesarchivs, Bd. 53. Dusseldorf: Dorset Vela, 1998; D. Romanovsky. The Holocaust in the Eyes of "Homo-Sovieticus": A Survey Based on Northeastern Belorussia and North-western Russia // Holocaust and Genocide Studies, No 13 (3). Winter, 1999, pp. 355-382; M. Dean. Collaboration in the Holocaust. Crimes of the Local Police in Belorussia and Ukraine, 1941-1944 New York - London, 2000.
The most important of them are State Archive of the Russian Federation, Russian State Military (the former “Osoby”) Archive, Russian State Archive of the Social-Political History (the former Central Party Archive of the Marks, Engels, Lenin’s Institute of the CC of the SPSU), Central Archive of the Defense Ministry; Archive of the Federal Security Service of Russia, Archive of the Internal Policy of Russia, Central State Archive of the supreme organs of power of Ukraine (Kiev), National Archive of the Republic of Belarus (Minsk), regional archives in Brest, Vinnitsa, Odessa, Orel, Smolensk, Kharkov, Chernovitsy, Krasnodar, Elista.
The scientific-educational center "Holocaust” was founded in 1992, united scholars, journalists, public figures, teachers and students, has detachments in Sent-Petersburg, Blagoveshchensk, Birobidzhan, Voronezh, Vladimir, Rostov, Smolensk, Taganrog, Brest, published book set “Russian Holocaust library”, participated in creation of the State Museum of “Genocide-Holocaust-Tolerance”, prepared an exposition at the Memorial synagogue on the Poklonnaya Hill in Moscow, cooperates with museums and research centers of Europe, Israel, USA, Japan, CIS and Baltic states, president Michael Gefter (1918-1995), after him Alla Gerber.
«Shadow of the Holocaust. Lessons of the Holocaust and Contemporary Russia». Moscow, 1994, 1997,1998, 2002.
L. Smilovitsky. «The Minsk Ghetto: An Issue of Jewish Resistance» // Shvut (Tel Aviv University), No 1-2 (17-18), 1995, pp. 177-199