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  • Between Life and DeathWhy Some Soviet Jews Decided to Leave and Others to Stay in 1941
  • Anna Shternshis (bio)

One Story of Escape in 1941

In 1941, 16-year-old Naum A., lived with his mother, his two sisters, his brother-in-law, a little nephew, and grandparents in a small house in Kherson, Ukraine. On 23 June 1941, the day after the war broke out, Naum’s brother-in-law voluntarily signed up with the Red Army and left town. A few days after his departure, in early July 1941, a neighbor, who held a position at the district executive committee (raiispolkom) came to the house for an informal visit and said to Naum’s mother: “You, especially, need to go, it seems.” Naum remembers this statement word for word. Neither Naum nor his mother understood the exact meaning of “especially.” The mother thought “especially” referred to the vulnerability of her young daughters, who could become easy targets of rape. Naum’s grandfather thought “especially” meant the danger for the family of having among its members a Communist and Red Army draftee. It was decided that Naum, his mother, and his sisters should try to get a horse and a wagon and leave Kherson, while his grandparents would stay to keep an eye on the house. The grandfather added: “No one will touch the old folks. Germans are cultured people, and locals respect me too much to hurt me.” It took Naum and his family about a month to get to Saratov, and eventually they made it to Kazakhstan. Naum was drafted into the army in 1943, was wounded a few times, but survived to see the end of the war. So did his mother and his sisters. In contrast, his brother-in-law was killed in military action in 1941, and his grandparents were killed, too. In the 1950s, [End Page 477] Naum found out that his grandparents, together with the remaining Jews of Kherson—including young children—were shot, and their corpses were piled up in wells a few kilometers from the town center. The wells have long since been closed, but locals whispered about bloody water seeping through for months after the shootings.

Naum became a family doctor and worked in Kherson for decades until his family immigrated to Israel in the late 1980s. He considers his own survival a miracle, one that imposes on him a tremendous responsibility to tell the story of those who were killed, such as his grandparents. Interviewed in the 2000s, he, of course, realized the importance of every detail in his story. He emphasized the significance of the word “especially,” dropped by the government official in that fateful conversation of 1941, and he wonders what that official actually knew. He sees now that, among other things, the word “especially” signified the beginning of a new era for him—an era in which he would regard himself as a Jew, and not just a Soviet person.

Human Behavior in the Face of Disaster

In the face of dangers such as war or natural disaster, humans go through several stages as they decide whether to stay or leave. The sociologist Thomas Drabek lists these stages as follows. First, people assess the reliability of information regarding the danger at hand by cross-examining various sources, including government officials, the mass media, and word of mouth. Second, they assess their ability to leave, including the availability of transportation. Finally, they factor in personal circumstances, such as the presence of sick and immobile family members and the fear of losing property. When the sense of danger prevails over the reasons to stay, residents seek all possible means to escape and often leave older family members behind in order to evacuate the young.1 Applied to the situation in the Soviet Union of June–August 1941, this theory helps us analyze the confluence of factors—the action of central and local governments, perceptions of Soviet policies, and individual considerations—that prompted some Jews to make a fateful decision to leave the war zone as opposed to hoping for the best under German occupation.

This article analyzes the process of decision making based on the oral...


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pp. 477-504
Launched on MUSE
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