By Sheldon A. Goldberg, Ph.D.
Before the remodeling of the National Museum of American Jewish Military History several years ago, an exhibit called “The Liberators” featured American GI’s who came in contact with the effects of the Holocaust as they marched across Nazi Germany. Unfortunately all that remains of that exhibit are several recordings made by a few of the liberators describing what they saw and experienced. This confrontation with the Holocaust, even for those Jewish GI’s who saw the horrors inflicted on the dead and those who survived, was for the most part a foreign and impersonal experience.
The approximately 300,000-500,000 Soviet Jews who served in the Red Army felt a personal connection to the ravages of the Holocaust they encountered. These soldiers saw their homes, towns, and villages destroyed, as well as the murders of their families, friends, and relatives. It engendered in them a deep hated of the Nazis, and a desire for revenge at all costs. Furthermore, their contact with the results of the Holocaust undermined the Soviet propaganda that there was no such thing as a Jewish nation, nor could there be.
This change of attitude became evident to many of them, including those who had no Jewish or religious upbringing. It became evident as they experienced anti-Semitism at the front, and in the ruined towns and villages they liberated from the Nazis, where surviving neighbors looted homes after Jewish families were taken away and murdered. They saw the remnants of Jewish books and scrolls, pages that were filled with what one Russian historian called “square letters,” used to wrap produce and other items for sale or disposal. It was these “square letters” that drew thousands of Jewish Red Army soldiers together, many of whom had no knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet, as they became symbols of Jews murdered by the Nazis.
These are only a small portion of what one learns from this book, which contains a collection of essays that was presented at a conference sponsored by the U.S. Holocaust Museum, the Blatavnik Foundation, and the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. Contributors to this volume describe the participation of Soviet Jews as soldiers, journalists, and propagandists combatting the Nazis during what the Russians call the Great Patriotic War (June, 22, 1941-May 9, 1945). The essays include newly discovered and previously neglected oral testimony, poetry, cinema, diaries, memoirs, newspapers, and archives. The importance of these sources lies in the fact that except for poets and writers, Red Army soldiers were forbidden to keep dairies or take notes of what they saw and experienced during the war.
The book is divided into two parts. The first part includes a chapter on the writing and personal thoughts of Russia’s most famous journalist, Ilya Ehrenburg. Part two includes conference papers that analyze the works of various Soviet Jewish poets, including Boris Slutskii and Il’ia Sel’vinskii, the film “The Unvanquished,” the work of Russia’s best known photojournalist, Evgenii Khaldei, and several memoirs. The excellent essays by the various authors presented in the volume do not necessarily portray a unified vision of the Soviet Red Army Jews. It does however, take the reader on an emotional journey through the eyes of the Russian Jews who lived and died during the Great Patriotic War.
Soviet Jews in World War II: Fighting,
Edited by Harriet Murav and Gennady Estraikh
Brighton MA: Academic Studies Press, 2014
214 pages with index
Available at the NMAJMH online store
Volume 73. Number 3. 2019