- A Colonial History of the Bloodlands
The four essays assembled in this issue of Kritika bring together a number of interesting points about the Holocaust in the USSR. The authors pose different research questions, use distinct methodologies to collect empirical evidence, write about specific demographic groups (Zeltser studies the Red Army personnel, for example), and offer commentary on a range of issues.
Anna Shternshis’s essay, because of its methodology, is among the last of its kind. Soon there will be no more Holocaust survivors for scholars to interview. The author managed to speak with some 200 Jews who were Soviet citizens before 1939 and were evacuated from their place of residence in the western USSR into the Soviet interior. Technically, since they never came into contact with the Nazis, they should not be considered Holocaust survivors, but the matter has not been sorted out in the historical literature.
Polish Jews deported into the Soviet interior in 1939–41—victims of Soviet repression to which they inadvertently owed their lives, and numerically the largest group of Polish Jews to survive the war—are “automatically” included among Holocaust survivors. They were allowed to return to their country after liberation and then, already after the war, massively fled from life-threatening Polish antisemitism to displaced persons (DP) camps in the American occupation zone in Germany. Only in 2007 did Attina Grossman begin to puzzle over why their status was not problematized in the literature.1 Their recollections—including what they learned during the stopover in Poland about their families’ deaths under Nazi occupation—are abundant in the archives of Holocaust testimonies, both in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and in Yad Vashem.
In Shternshis’s article a single pre-Holocaust finding ominously stands out. When queried about what motivated their evacuation decision before the [End Page 591] Nazis’ arrival her respondents quoted fear of neighbors—of pogroms, in other words—as the most important factor that induced them to flee. Memory of the German occupation from the time of World War I, which lingered among local residents, was benign. And since Soviet propaganda muted criticism of anything untoward that the Third Reich did after the Ribbentrop–Molotov Pact, there was no information about anti-Jewish Nazi policies in occupied Poland. People did, however, remember well the wave of pogroms that swept the area in the aftermath of the October Revolution and during the Civil War. With the prospect of collapse of the Soviet state authority as the front was rapidly approaching, many Jews fled, mindful of their neighbors’ aggression a generation earlier.
The study by Vladimir Solonari is grounded in the most promising sources of all those drawn upon in these essays. The historiographical breakthrough in Holocaust studies that we have observed in Poland in the last decade came through the systematic exploration of court files produced, for the most part, in the late 1940s when people were brought to justice for alleged wartime collaboration with the Germans. Solonari’s essay demonstrates that similar materials—postwar trials and investigations—provide rich details about the mechanism of, and personnel involved in, killings of Jews in southern Ukraine. His study is limited to the area occupied by the Romanians, but there is no reason, it seems to me, why a similar quality of evidence could not be culled from the Soviet-era secret police archives about other regions of Ukraine and Belorussia.
Anika Walke’s article about Jewish youth in the Minsk ghetto makes in passing an interesting point that Soviet Jews were the most impoverished (542–43). They had no personal property to speak of, which in itself adversely affected their chances of survival in hiding compared to Jews from “capitalist” Eastern Europe. Among young Jewish boys raised in the Soviet Union, however, only “some of them were circumcised” (551), which gave them as a cohort more survival chances outside the ghetto. Unfortunately, this did not shield them from denunciation by their Russian or Belorussian peers, who could unmistakably detect traces of Yiddish accent in their speech.
Zeltser foregrounds a familiar story about Soviet propaganda which continued to ignore the uniquely tragic fate of the Jews under Nazi...