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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 6.4 (2005) 763-787

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First Victims of the Holocaust

Soviet-Jewish Prisoners of War in German Captivity

Institute of Geography
Russian Academy of Sciences
Staromonetnyi pereulok, 29
109017 Moscow
Russian Federation
Translated by Elaine MacKinnon
"When one's own does not sell, a stranger will not buy."
(Svoi ne prodastchuzhoi ne kupit.)
—Semen Orshtein
"How did you Yids [abramy] manage to stay alive?"
—From the questions of a SMERSH agent

Adolf Hitler successfully constructed several simple and accessible social hierarchies, which the German people mastered well. There was a racial table of ranks, with Jews at the bottom. There was also a scale for ideological opponents, based on how dangerous they were to the Reich and how much hatred they inspired. At the top of this scale were the carriers of communist ideology: the "Jewish–Bolshevik intelligentsia" and "political commissars." Even military prisoners had their own hierarchy, and Soviet POWs ranked the lowest among the many opponents of the Reich.1 So, imagine what it was like for [End Page 763] Soviet prisoners of war who were of Jewish origin, and moreover, were political instructors! What could be lower, more contemptible, more hated? The present article focuses on these prisoners.


The literature specifically devoted to German treatment of Jewish prisoners of war from the different countries in the anti-Hitler coalition is not very extensive. Unquestionably, the groundbreaking work on Soviet-Jewish prisoners of war is the article by Shmuel Krakowski, "The Fate of Jewish Prisoners of War in the Soviet and Polish Armies," which used primarily American and German archival documents (materials from the trials of Nazi war criminals), as well as literary sources.2 It also relied in part on more general Polish publications, where this theme is covered along with a number of other issues.3

Most of the leading American scholars of the Holocaust either pass right over this topic, or like Raul Hilberg, give it relatively little attention, providing only a few randomly selected facts and unusually broad discussions.4 This theme was only at the periphery of scholarly interest in the USSR as well. Even The Black Book has just two chapters that depict the tragedy of Jewish POWs.5 Similarly, Il´ia Al´tman's groundbreaking Zhertvy nenavisti: [End Page 764] Kholokost v SSSR, 1941–1945 gg. (Victims of Hatred: The Holocaust in the USSR, 1941–1945) devotes only one minor and disproportionately small chapter to this topic.6

At the same time, it is curious and, of course, not a coincidence that in I. A. Dugas and F. Ia. Cheron's Vycherknutye iz pamiati: Sovetskie voennoplennye mezhdu Gitlerom i Stalinym (Erased from Memory: Soviet Prisoners of War between Hitler and Stalin), written by representatives of the "second emigration" and published in Paris in 1994, the issue of Jewish POWs is simply ignored. Even when they discuss the Commissar Order, the authors manage to leave Jews out of the lists of its victims.7

Highly valuable material is found in the Central Archive of the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense in Podol´sk (TsAMO), which contains the collection Dokumenty obviniaiut: Kholokost. Svidetel´stva Krasnoi Armii (Documents Bear Witness: The Holocaust. Evidence of the Red Army), published by F. D. Sverdlov in the series "The Russian Library of the Holocaust." In particular, documents from the political departments of the Red Army include a few lines extracted from the troops' political reports, excerpts from the testimonies of local inhabitants and interrogations of German war prisoners, and resolutions of the combined military–civil commissions.8

The materials in the Sverdlov collection offer considerable evidence of Jewish genocide in Soviet territories, including what occurred prior to the formation in 1943 of the "Extraordinary State Commission for the Establishment and the Investigation of the Crimes of the Fascist German Invaders and Their Accomplices, and the Damage They Caused to Citizens, Collective Farms, Public Organizations, State Enterprises, and Institutions of the USSR...