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The Phantom Holocaust

Soviet Cinema and Jewish Catastrophe

by Olga Gershenson

Publication Year: 2013

Even people familiar with cinema believe there is no such thing as a Soviet Holocaust film. The Phantom Holocaust tells a different story. The Soviets were actually among the first to portray these events on screens. In 1938, several films exposed Nazi anti-Semitism, and a 1945 movie depicted the mass execution of Jews in Babi Yar. Other significant pictures followed in the 1960s. But the more directly filmmakers engaged with the Holocaust, the more likely their work was to be banned by state censors. Some films were never made while others came out in such limited release that the Holocaust remained a phantom on Soviet screens.Focusing on work by both celebrated and unknown Soviet directors and screenwriters, Olga Gershenson has written the first book about all Soviet narrative films dealing with the Holocaust from 1938 to 1991. In addition to studying the completed films, Gershenson analyzes the projects that were banned at various stages of production.The book draws on archival research and in-depth interviews to tell the sometimes tragic and sometimes triumphant stories of filmmakers who found authentic ways to represent the Holocaust in the face of official silencing. By uncovering little known works, Gershenson makes a significant contribution to the international Holocaust filmography.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Series: Jewish Cultures of the World

Title Page

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pp. 3-4


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pp. 5-6


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

Luckily, there are many people to thank. This project germinated in 2008, during the NEH Summer Institute on Russian and Soviet Visual Cultures, when I started thinking seriously about the representation of Jews in Soviet cinema. By 2009, I was en route to Russia, to work in the archives and interview the filmmakers...

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1: Screening the Holocaust in the Soviet Union: Jews without the Holocaust and the Holocaust without the Jews

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pp. 1-12

This book began with a paradox. Half of all Holocaust victims—nearly three million people—were killed on Soviet soil, mostly in swift machine-gun executions.1 And yet, watching popular Holocaust movies, whether European or American, the impression is that Holocaust victims were mainly Polish and...

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2: Soviet Antifascist Films of the 1930s: The Earliest Images of Nazi Anti-Semitism and Concentration Camps on World Screens

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pp. 13-28

Following the Kristallnacht pogroms in Germany in November 1938, a wave of anti-Nazi protests swept over the Soviet Union. The protests were government sanctioned, highly orchestrated, and featured celebrity writers, actors, intellectuals, scientists, and other public figures, Jews and non-Jews. A thousand people...

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3: The First Phantom: I Will Live! (1942)

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pp. 29-39

A few weeks after the June 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union, several prominent Soviet Jewish cultural fi gures initiated a rally intended to rouse Jewish international support for the Soviet war against fascism. The rally, which took place on August 24, was attended by thousands, broadcast on radio nationally...

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4: How a Soviet Novel Turned into a Jewish Film: The First Depiction of the Holocaust on Soviet Screens, The Unvanquished (1945)

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pp. 40-56

In October 1945, The Unvanquished (Nepokorennye) premiered in Moscow theaters. This was a noteworthy event for several reasons. Nazi crimes against Jews were at the core of the film. One of the central characters was a Jewish doctor played by the great Yiddish actor Veniamin Zuskin. A key scene in the film was mass...

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5: The Holocaust on the Thawing Screens: From the Fate of a Man (1959) to Ordinary Fascism (1965)

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pp. 57-70

In 1953, Stalin died. Two years later, Khrushchev’s speech at the Twentieth Party Congress heralded the so-called Thaw, often understood as a period of relative liberalization in both politics and culture. But a closer look reveals that the process of liberalization was actually rather tentative, and that new signs of...

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6: The Holocaust at the Lithuanian Film Studio: Gott mit Uns (1961)

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pp. 71-81

“Manuscripts don’t burn,” wrote the Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov. This phrase proved to be prophetic many times in Soviet history, when books, films, and other works of art that were seized, banned, rejected, or simply lost in archives came back to life in more liberal times. This chapter tells one of those...

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7: The Holocaust without the Jews: Steps in the Night (1962) and Other Films

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pp. 82-90

The rejection of Gott mit Uns had profound consequences for Lithuanian filmmakers. Film tsars in Moscow not only rejected it but also made it clear that even considering such submissions was completely out of line. This frightened Julius Lozoraitis, a head of the Lithuanian Film Studio.1 The result was increased selfcensorship...

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8: Kalik versus Goskino: Goodbye, Boys! (1964/1966)

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pp. 91-101

The biography of film director Mikhail Kalik seems to encompass the entire Soviet Jewish experience of the twentieth century—hopes for communism, World War II, Stalin’s purges, the gulag, opposition to the regime, and finally emigration to Israel. Today, Kalik is in his eighties; he lives in Jerusalem, seemingly...

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9: Stalemate (1965) between the Filmmaker and the Censors

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pp. 102-114

Mikhail Kalik’s film Goodbye, Boys! was reluctantly released after a prolonged delay, but his next project, a screenplay set in a Vilnius ghetto, was never even given a chance to become a film. The screenplay was based on a novel entitled Stalemate (Vechnyi Shakh) by Icchokas Meras, which was itself such an extraordinary...

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10: Kalik's Last Phantom: King Matt and the Old Doctor (1966)

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pp. 115-126

In the mid-1960s, around the time of his ordeals with Goodbye, Boys! and Stalemate, Mikhail Kalik, along with many other filmmakers and writers, moved to the “Metro Aeroport” area of Moscow. It was a new neighborhood, made up of tall Soviet-style block buildings of a ghastly pinkish hue. New residents...

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11: The Film That Cost a Career: Eastern Corridor (1966)

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pp. 127-144

Wartime Belarus was a site of the most horrific, unprecedented violence. Not only soldiers were killed in military combat between the German and Soviet armies but also civilians, Jews, and partisans—or people loosely affiliated with them. Killing of Jews, and retaliation against the partisans, took genocidal proportions...

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12: Muslims Instead of Musslmans: Sons of the Fatherland (1968)

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pp. 145-157

Simultaneously with the release of Eastern Corridor, another film was in the works in the distant land of Uzbekistan. This was Sons of the Fatherland (Syny Otechestva, 1968), directed by Latif Faiziev. Although it might not be immediately apparent, this film has much in common with Eastern Corridor. Both deal with...

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13: Commissar (1967/1988): The End of the Thaw

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pp. 158-172

In 1937, Sasha Askoldov was five. He was growing up a happy child until the day his father was arrested. One night soon after, the secret police also came for his beautiful mother. Little Sasha overheard that in a couple of hours they would return for him. He pulled himself together, figured out how to unlock the...

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14: An Alternative Track: Jewish Soldiers Fighting on Soviet Screens

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pp. 173-189

In 1941, the famous author and journalist Ilya Ehrenburg wrote, “I grew up in a Russian city. My native language is Russian. I am a Russian writer. Now, like all Russians, I am defending my homeland. But the Nazis have reminded me of something else: my mother’s name was Hannah. I am a Jew. I say this with pride....

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15: The Last Phantom--the First Film: Our Father (1966/1990)

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pp. 190-205

By all accounts, Boris Ermolaev was an unusual person. After being trained as a medical doctor, he developed an interest in supernatural powers and practiced hypnosis and teleportation. Perfectly reasonable and sane people in Moscow recall that he was able to keep a handkerchief floating in the air. One day, however...

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16: Perestroika and Beyond: Old Wine in New Bottles?

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pp. 206-222

The year 1986 was a game-changing one for Soviet cinema. The Filmmakers’ Union Congress demoted the old leadership, and Goskino lost its tight grip on the film industry.1 Soon small production companies, called kooperativ, sprouted like mushrooms. By 1988, Soviet censorship ended, and films on...

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17: Conclusions

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pp. 223-228

The received wisdom today is that the Holocaust simply was not represented on Soviet screens—the assumption is that films about Jewish suffering during World War II would have been banned just like The Black Book. However, the films analyzed in this book are evidence to the contrary: the Holocaust was represented...

Abbreviations and Acronyms

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pp. 229-230


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pp. 231-267


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pp. 269-275

E-ISBN-13: 9780813561820
E-ISBN-10: 0813561825
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813561813

Page Count: 304
Illustrations: 20 illustrations
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Jewish Cultures of the World