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In Eastern Europe, in the immense area that was formerly the USSR, the question of the postmemory of the Holocaust, insofar as it concerns countless witnesses and, in the territories that fell under Nazi occupation, entire populations, is a question that must be asked with some urgency today. Yet for the second and especially the third generation of writers to emerge after World War II, there is nothing to compare with the kind of works that are available today in Western and Mitteleuropa Europe. Literatures of testimony, forged from “oeuvres-témoignages,” to borrow Claude Mouchard’s expression, were indeed written in Russian or in Yiddish, certain works even appearing in print shortly after the war began.1 Others appeared, heavily censored, in the course of the 1960s. But these works seem to have had no successors and to have generated little or no commentary.

If we consider that half of the victims of the Holocaust were killed here, in these territories, during the two-year Nazi occupation, we have to wonder where the postmemory of such a traumatic event is concealed today, and how it manages to stay hidden. We should first remember that many of the mass killings that occurred here were carried out under fundamentally different conditions from those that we commonly imagine in the West when we think of the Holocaust. They were committed in or near places where people lived, close to towns and villages, in ditches or ravines, with machine guns, rifles, and pistols. The Einsatzgruppen systematically [End Page 79] massacred the entire Jewish population in this region.2 The non-Jewish, Slavic population—whom the Nazis also despised—looked on or at least knew about these murders. I mention these facts, which other historians have already written about, only because they oblige us to reconsider the question of the witness and, of course, the transmission of trauma by literature. Shifting our attention to areas rarely considered by Western observers also forces us to ask whether the Holocaust might not have been experienced differently depending on the historical context in which it occurred. And if this is true, should we, or should we not, be calling for a norm for the traumatic memories that the twentieth century has left to the twenty-first? How should we understand what this literature reveals to us?

In these parts of Eastern Europe, knowledge of the catastrophe was not passed on as it was in the West, by survivors returning from concentration camps. These people spoke about the horrors they had experienced to an ignorant, incredulous population. Mass murder was “unrepresentable,” as Claude Lanzmann’s film showed us.3 In the Ukraine, in Belarus, in the former territories of the USSR where, for two years, the Nazis carried out their “Final Solution,” residents of these places witnessed the killings as they occurred. Everyone knew about them and was in some measure involved, from a distance or more closely. Very few survivors escaped from the ravines to find shelter in non-Jewish homes. And those who did said almost nothing about what they had suffered. But countless others were bystanders, and these people did see, hear, sometimes even accompany these victims, their own neighbors or family members, to their deaths. Especially numerous were the war correspondents and the thousands of soldiers who discovered the mass graves and other traces of recent massacres during the Red Army’s counterattack after Stalingrad. Hundreds of thousands of witnesses and “discoverers of traces” in some way experienced the trauma linked to the Holocaust. What came out of these experiences? Certainly not all of the non-Jewish witnesses expressed solidarity or even sympathy with the Jewish victims. Some of them—the numbers vary according to region—openly collaborated with the Nazis. They often benefited from the disappearance of their Jewish neighbors, a part of whose confiscated belongings went to them. Still others risked their own lives, particularly in Belarus, in order to help those in danger. Some of these [End Page 80] sought to bear witness by writing texts of moral revolt, appeals to memory, most often in the form of poetry. Such texts were rare, however, and with few exceptions, were not published.4 Thousands of soldiers and reporters were also traumatized by the discovery of massacres. Some were Jews who had lived there before: for them, the discovery of the annihilation of the Yiddish-speaking peoples was a terrible shock.5 What seems paradoxical today is that these mass murders, openly committed under the eyes of the local population, seen by countless numbers of witnesses, appear to have left little or no trace in the collective memory.

If the Nazis quickly sought to destroy the traces of their crimes when they began their retreat, the Soviet authorities went about erasing the traces of the Holocaust a second time. The various forms of official anti-Semitism that marked the postwar period, what was called the “fight against cosmopolitanism,” made any reference to the Jews punishable by law. The myth of the “great patriotic war,” of a nation of triumphant heroes, prevented any memorialization of the Holocaust. Works of literary witness were nevertheless written during this period, though they were heavily censored or hidden or have disappeared. Self-censorship meant that parents kept quiet in front of their children rather than talking about their forbidden memories, which were excluded from official history and which placed them in danger. Memory was subjected to terror. The repression of any subjective anchoring of memory and therefore of any individual perception of the past led to what I have elsewhere called a “forced de-memorization” of the population.6

This dememorization had first been deployed in all its violence in 1930–33 when the forced collectivization of the countryside ended in the Great Famine (Holodomor). It was forbidden to speak of, even to evoke the mass murder of the peasantry, or to pass on the memory of it. The poet Mandelstam is, with Platonov, one of the rare writers who has evoked this catastrophe in his works. In a poem from 1930 he speaks of this ban on memory:

Don’t speak to anyone,Forget everything you’ve seen,The bird, the old lady, the prisonOr whatever else.If you do speak, [End Page 81] As soon as you unlock your lips,At the first light of day,You’ll be seized uponBy shivers and pine needles.7

If forgetting is the internalized norm, the question of postmemory must be understood differently. We know that mutism, or the choice to remain silent, does not ordinarily mean the absence of transmission: parents’ silence can give rise in their children to acts of re-memoration, the creation of substitute images. This is what we see in the works of writers and artists who, born just after or just before the war, managed to transform this lack of transmission into creative art: the work of Perec, Sebald, or Anselm Kiefer demonstrates this.8 In these cases, silence has awoken a painful desire to understand and compensate for this lack. Today such a desire is nowhere perceptible in the former Soviet Union. The silence of the older generations has born no fruit. There were, however, works of this kind that appeared in the 1960s, during the period of liberalization: thus, for example, we had Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem and Dmitri Shostakovich’s symphony, then Anatoly Kuznetsov’s novel, all with the same title, Babi Yar. Though strongly censored, these works had a strong impact, openly calling on us not to forget the trauma of the Holocaust. But which is more correct: to speak of trauma or to speak of traumas? Should this term be singular or plural? Many writers from this period explicitly ask the question. Alexander Galitch is one of those poets who, in order to avoid censorship, sang his poetry aloud. The last strophe of his “Poem for Stalin” evokes traumatic memory under the sign of multiplicity:

They didn’t want to remember the dead.But shadows spread over the clay earth. …The shadows of all the Treblinkas and ButyrkasAll the betrayals, treachery and crucifixions.9

The plural is assigned to the two names that in Russian symbolize Nazism and Stalinism: Treblinka and Butyrka. Treblinka is the Russian Auschwitz, the extermination camp that Russian soldiers were the first to discover. Butyrka is the prison in Moscow where, if you were sent there, you did not return. Most of its prisoners were sent to the Gulag. This association [End Page 82] of the two totalitarian systems that had, at some time, held power in the USSR, the idea that they were equivalent, was on many people’s minds in the 1960s. More and more people were reading Vasily Grossman’s censored novel Life and Fate, which was then circulating underground. Folding together all the concentration, labor, and death camps, Nazi and Stalinist, allowed people to express a truth about the Gulag, but it also blurred the specificity of the Holocaust.

Kuznetsov uses the plural form in a similar way in his autobiographical novel. Babi Yar is the name of the ravine near Kiev where every Jew in the city was killed in 1941 after it was taken by the Nazis. It has become the symbol of the extermination of the Jews in the occupied territories. Kuznetsov was twelve years old when the war began. He lived next to the ravine and tells how he immediately understood that the Jews were being killed there. But he also understood the tragedy of collectivization and the Great Famine, the devastating effects of the years of terror and of Stalin’s crimes against the peasants and in the cities. When his grandmother died, he expressed the anguish he felt when confronted with death and human barbarity: “Is it really necessary that men be endlessly inventing new ways of putting people to death, organizing all these horrors, these shootings, these famines, these Babi Yars?”10

The use of the plural, “these Babi Yars,” is troubling to the Western ear: like the association of “all the Treblinkas and Butyrkas,” this plural form erases the uniqueness of the Holocaust. What should we think of witnesses such as these—Galitch, Kuznetsov, Grossman—who had firsthand experience of the war in the Soviet Union and, each a witness in his own way, left behind literary works of great importance? That they were ignorant of history and practiced conflation? Certainly not. These authors speak of polymorphous suffering, most often repressed. In the USSR, the traumatic experience of the Holocaust came after civil wars, organized famines, deportation, and repression. People’s memories were already saturated with suffering before the arrival of Nazism. This resulted in a state of polytraumatism.

From this point on, the survival reflex worked against the act of remembering. The accumulation and confusion of so many unbearable events has resulted in a syndrome whose effects are disconcerting to us. One of these is total rejection, a form of disgust in the face of recent history. [End Page 83] The generation of dissidents was committed to exposing the “historical truth.” After censorship ended, another generation came of age. But this generation was forgetful. They were concerned with the immediate present or with the fantasy of an older past, whose memory had been totally abolished during the Soviet period. This third generation longs for an imaginary past, a fantasy of elegance and spirituality. For them, this past serves as an antidote to the memory of recent history, conceived of as a deadly poison.

The tendency toward elimination is also a result of the new configuration of these territories: on the one hand, independent Ukraine rejects what is Russian, blames the Russians. The Great Famine has become the founding tragedy of its national myth. Destruction has paradoxically become pride. In this case, the blame is usually thrust on an enemy that now lies outside a country’s borders: it was Moscow that organized the famine. Victimization exonerates the country. Its new banner serves to hide the rather less glorious part of its national history—collaboration with the Nazis. On the other hand, Russia, contained within its new borders, has lost the two principle sites of Nazi genocide: Ukraine and Belarus. It now refers to these distant events as having taken place “abroad.” The massive emigration of Jews from Russia has also contributed to displacing the memory of the Holocaust “beyond its borders.”

These memories of the Gulag or the Holocaust are extremely difficult to live with, particularly because the suffering was inflicted by “Nashi,” which in Russian means “ours.” But it also means “good people.” Everyone, in this sense, is complicit, executioners and victims. Of course, this applies more to the Gulag than to the Holocaust. But even during the war, the worst crimes were carried out with the help of those the Nazis recruited locally: how is it possible, under these conditions, to separate innocence from guilt?

Only a few historians, working in the archives, are today attempting to shed light on this entangled past. Will they succeed in giving back to history its structuring power? We can only hope so.11 Postmemory is perhaps yet to come to this fragmented region where everyone is struggling to rediscover their history. [End Page 84]

Annie Epelboin

Annie Epelboin teaches Russian and comparative literature at Paris 8 University. She is a specialist in literature of the postrevolutionary period (A. Platonov, O. Mandelstam) and also a translator. Her recent research turns around the question of testimonial literature, in a confrontation between Western and Eastern Europe. Her publications include the preface and translation in French of Babi Yar: Roman-document, by Anatole Kouznetsov (Paris: Robert Laffont, 2011), and La littérature du ravins: Écrire sur en Shoah en URSS (Paris: Robert Laffont, 2013).


1. Claude Mouchard, Qui si je criais … ? Œuvres-témoignages dans les tourmentes du XXe siècle (Paris: Editions Laurence Teper, 2007). See Annie Epelboin and Assia Kovriguina, La littérature des ravins: Ecrire sur la Shoah en URSS (Paris: Laffont, 2013).

2. In 1965 Elie Wiesel, after returning from Kiev and having discovered Babi Yar, insisted on mentioning the silence surrounding the victims. Elie Wiesel, Les Juifs du silence (Paris: Le Seuil, 1966).

3. Claude Lanzmann, dir., Shoah, documentary film (France, 1985).

4. Masha Rolnikaite’s diary was published in 1965 in “Ia dolzhna rasshazat,” Zvezda Review, Leningrad.

5. I. Ehrenburg and V. Grossman, The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry, trans. David Patterson (Piscataway, nj: Transaction, 2003).

6. See Annie Epelboin, “Mémoire de la terreur, mémoire terrorisée,” in “Complot et terreur: Imaginaires politiques de la terreur,” special issue, Raison Publique 16 (2012): 136.

7. Ossip Mandelstam, Sobranie sotshinenii [Collected works] (Moscow: Artbizness-Tsentr, 1994), 1:40; translated by Brian Horihan and Annie Epelboin.

8. Georges Perec, W; ou, Le souvenir d’enfance (Paris: Gallimard, 1985); W. G. Sebald, Die Ausgewanderten (Frankfurt am Main: Eichborn, 1992).

9. Alexander Galitch, “Ave Maria” (1968–69), in A Whispered Cry, sung in Russian by Alexander Galitch, recorded at the Arne Bendiksen Studios, Oslo, Norway, 1974.

10. A. Kouznetsov, Babi Yar: Roman-document [A document in the form of a novel] (Laffont: Paris, 2011), 233 (French translation).

11. These hopes and difficulties were heard during the symposium Témoigner sur la Shoah en URSS, organized in May 2013 in Paris. See the proceedings, edited by Annie Epelboin and Assia Kovriguina, on the website of the online review Fabula, [End Page 85]

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