- Pioneers and Partisans: An Oral History of Nazi Genocide in Belorussia by Anika Walke
In the last pages of her outstanding book, Anika Walke poses several unsettling questions. "Are mass shootings less specific, too similar to other genocides in history? Do they too closely resemble the mode of warfare known from other invasions...? Can they not be included in a portrayal of a historical caesura, which is constituted by the industrial killing of people?" (p. 230). Indeed, Nazi genocide in the occupied Soviet territories did not resemble the industrial murder in the killing centers in occupied Poland, taking place far from Auschwitz, the metonymic capital of the Holocaust. The role of ghettos in Belorussia during the "Final Solution" differed substantively from that in Poland and other German-controlled areas: rather than "transitional spaces of internment from which inmates were deported to extermination camps," they were "themselves, or were in close proximity to, sites of mass murder" (p. 4). By telling the stories of death, survival, and memory as experienced and narrated by Soviet Jews in Soviet and post-Soviet contexts, Walke takes us beyond a shadowy corner of Holocaust historiography pushed to the margins of public memory of the Holocaust, illuminating instead the nexus between histories and memories of the Holocaust on the one hand, and the Soviet Jewish experience on the other.
On the most immediate level, the book delivers what it promises in the subtitle: it is "an oral history of Nazi genocide in Belorussia." The author duly weaves together the stories of about a dozen survivors she has interviewed over a decade, most of them more than once, in Minsk, Moscow, and St. Petersburg. While it is their war experiences that constitute the primary focus of the book, the author carefully embeds them within what she calls the "scaffolding" of the wider Soviet context, which both preceded and followed the traumatic rupture of the German occupation and genocide. After the introduction and the chapter on methodology, which Walke suggests that readers skip if they are "interested in the story rather than how it is produced" (p. 22), the book moves to the prewar decade, the period in which her interviewees experienced childhood. Listening to her multiple interlocutors, Walke characterizes these childhoods as falling "between tradition and transformation"—the subtitle of the chapter. They were the first Jewish generation to experience childhood in which Jewish communal organizations played no role, for whom the Soviet ideals of gender equality, interethnic solidarity, and internationalism were not merely Party rhetoric but a largely lived experience, and for whom Jewishness was, for the most part, reduced to a legal designation in their identity documents. Walke's interviewees paint a somewhat nostalgic picture of the period in which Soviet Jews experienced an explosion of social and geographical [End Page 117] mobility, when relatives were alive, and in which children lived without many cares. This perspective differs markedly from the primary concerns of scholarship on the period, which have focused on traumatic aspects of Soviet history such as collectivization, famine, and state terror.
The next part of the book depicts the German invasion and the onset of the genocide. Suddenly finding themselves in a world in which the ideas and practices that had characterized their Soviet socialization were turned on their head, they discovered the now very real consequences of their Jewishness amidst the Nazi genocidal policy and the collapse of interethnic solidarity among the Soviet citizens in the occupied territories. The Soviet Jewish survivors experienced the sudden "end of childhood" (the title of chapter 3). Over two chapters, interviewees narrate the deaths of their loved ones, tell of the harsh new realities they had to navigate, and revisit the strategies of survival they pondered at the time. Age and gender played critical roles in decisions to flee or hide (in plain sight or otherwise), and the earlier interethnic coexistence left fragile networks to summon in the new circumstances.
The last two chapters recount the Jewish experience in Soviet partisan units—whether regular...