- The Phantom Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and Jewish Catastrophe by Olga Gershenson
Olga Gershenson’s book tells the Holocaust story of the Jews of Soviet Russia from the early 1930s to the present. She examines the representation or absence of the Soviet Jews in the corpus of Soviet film and calls this “the phantom Holocaust”—“Jews without the Holocaust and the Holocaust without the Jews.”
As a scholar of the visual representations of the Holocaust in western cinema, this reviewer would have thought that nearly everything has already been said, written, and researched on this subject. But Gershenson’s new book is a breakthrough, evidence that the research on this subject is not only far from being complete, but is only at its beginnings.
We usually think associatively, as Gershenson writes in the introduction, and think that the Holocaust is a tragedy that befell the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. Our perceptual borderline of the Shoah reaches Poland and stops at the large death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau.
Only on second thought does the memory of the Jews of Soviet Russia emerge. They somehow became invisible to western eyes, which are accustomed to “seeing” and “understanding” the Shoah through the cinematic medium. The memory of Soviet Jewry was buried and ignored publicly twice because of attempts to have them vanish from the public eye: by the Nazis, through mass killings, and by the Soviet authorities, through ideology. During the war, the Nazis left very little documentary evidence of the genocide in the territories of the USSR, while after the war the internal Soviet ideology flattened the memory of the killings to transform it into a universal instead of a particular tragedy.
This makes it easier to research visual materials on what does exist, especially when they are western sources available to all—much easier than studying materials which have disappeared from the public eye, and arguing that there was no documentation or representation of them at all. Furthermore, the reading of the cinematic corpus of the West is accompanied by set genre categories accepted by all, such as “victimhood,” “sheep [End Page 123] to the slaughter,” and physical enclosure in one location, such as a ghetto or concentration camp.
The viewpoint in western films is of the individual in the crowd, and their narratives are of community or family. In Soviet cinema, as Gershenson shows us, these characteristics barely exist; instead, they show the individual within the greater collective, with a viewpoint which is first and foremost universalist instead of particular. It is Soviet by its very definition; therefore, all protagonists are equal. The Jews were destroyed just as the Muslims and Ukrainians and others were wiped out; the fighters and those who resisted the Nazi occupation were men and women, whose representations are based on the acceptable representations of war in Soviet films—heroism and Soviet nationalism. Judaism does not take a central place in them as much as their belonging to the Soviet Union does. Almost any Soviet war film can definitely be seen as a Holocaust film, taking into consideration the year it was produced and screened and the number of hints “planted” in it as evidence of the embedded “phantom of the Holocaust.”
Perhaps we can mistakenly assume that the Soviet film industry flourished, but the title of the book is sufficient to convey the meaning that most of the material under discussion existed on paper, partially, or became a film but was not distributed and perhaps was even destroyed. On the other hand, such materials and findings are of tremendous importance. After all, even if the films had not been screened, they would still exist. These materials and the research on them map the lives that were being lived under the surface, the intentions of the Jewish community to tell the truth to the Soviet world, and the fruitless attempt to pass unscathed through the barriers of the various types of censorship.
This is the essential importance of Gershenson’s study: to look closely at the place of absence. She does...