- Soviet Jewry and Soviet History in the Time of War and Holocaust
The second issue of Kritika ever published (Spring 2000), contained a spirited call to “save” the momentous cataclysm of World War II on the Eastern front from the long-standing neglect of Soviet historians.1 That neglect, in the decade that followed, definitively became an artifact of the past. A flood of new sources about the war from former Soviet archives—along with a range of new inquiries about German occupation regimes on Soviet territory, the fate of Soviet Jewry and the Holocaust in the East, and the history of the Soviet home front—created a fast-moving historiographical surge in those several fields. Starting in the 2000s, this journal did its part in contributing to this development through a steady stream of publications about World War II on the Eastern front.2 Arguably, studies of the Holocaust, Soviet Jewry, the German occupation, and wartime Stalinism, each represented by overlapping yet distinct scholarly literatures, remain more separated from one another than they should be.3 The present special issue, while pursuing a specific focus on Soviet Jewry, in fact emerged from a scholarly initiative to bring all those areas into greater synergy. In December 2012, Kritika was one of the sponsors of an international conference on “World War II, German Crimes, and the Holocaust on Soviet Territory” that took place at the Center for the History and Sociology of World War II at the Higher School of Economics [End Page 471] in Moscow.4 The articles published in this special issue were all originally presented at that conference.
The contribution of this special issue can thus be understood on two levels. First, it reflects its origins in this broader initiative to pursue productive links and interconnections between the Soviet field and the study of wartime Stalinism, on the one hand, and the history of Soviet Jewry, the German occupation, and the Holocaust on Soviet territory, on the other. As explained below, these articles, even as they naturally pursue the specific interests and arguments of their authors, can fruitfully be read in light of what they have to say about those interconnections. Second, however, this particular set of articles, taken together, has its own specific focus, one that marks a departure for Kritika and distinguishes this publication from the journal’s previous work in this area. This is not merely a common exploration of the history of Soviet Jewry and antisemitism but a more targeted, unifying endeavor: to recover and analyze the voices, outlook, and (often horrific) experiences of “ordinary” Jews in direct juxtaposition with those of non-Jewish contemporaries and local perpetrators.
The article by Anike Walke, “Jewish Youth in the Minsk Ghetto,” with its deep investigation of one of the largest and longest-lasting “holding pens in preparation for genocide,” has the most exclusive focus on the Jewish victims and survivors.5 But even in this context, key connections to broader issues in Soviet history are very much in evidence. For example, the Soviet order dismantled civic and communal institutions starting in the 1920s and, along with them, Jewish religious and cultural organizations that later might have mobilized collective action in the ghetto. This was the precondition for the “individualized” ways of dealing with the calamity of ghetto life that the article so vividly analyzes in terms of age and gender. The German occupation regime in the Generalkommissariat Weißruthenien—in particular, the shifting balance between the exploitation of labor for the war economy and genocide—determined the pattern of waves of violence that set the framework for life and death in the Minsk ghetto. Walke’s article insists on the diversity of lived experience of the Holocaust and finds ways to individualize often anonymous parts of the Jewish population. [End Page 472]
Arkadi Zeltser’s study of views among Red Army soldiers about the annihilation of the Jews, in turn, is predicated on juxtaposing the views of Jewish and non-Jewish soldiers, first aggregating, then disaggregating, them as its central analytical device. Zeltser analyzes these views at a time, it is worth recalling, before the “Holocaust” had been named or conceptualized. He argues that soldiers’ views...