In the prewar period, Soviet Jews thought they were just like everyone else.
Many didn’t pay attention to the word evrei (Jew) on their IDs, explained Dr. Arkadi Zeltser, director of the Moshe Mirilashvili Center for Research on the Holocaust in the Soviet Union of Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research.
“Many were very successful in society, engineers, lawyers, intellectuals. They were the most educated of all the ethnicities [in the USSR], so it was not important that they were Jews. The war [World War II] changed this,” he said.
“Based on information released by the Soviet Extraordinary State Commission, 25 years of research of letters, diaries, photos and testimonies (including those of Nazis and their collaborators) are now available online at the Yad Vashem website as part of the project ‘Jews in the Red Army,’ generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.”
Some of the diary entries talk about the feelings toward their Jewish identity, explained Zeltser, who is also the manager of the project.
“It is clear that they were all Soviet [citizens]. To be a Soviet and a Jew was their natural state, they didn’t question it, and there was no state anti-Semitism as such. That developed after 1948,” he said.
Many also behaved like Jews, at least at home. They circumcised their sons (“on the quiet”) and some were religious.
“Some still spoke Yiddish, but others already felt more modern and turned to Russian,” Zeltser said.
It was many of the more enlightened who began to come to grips with their Judaism during the war.
On June 22, 1941, the German Army invaded the USSR along with four SS death squadrons, Einsatzgruppen A, B, C and D, which shortly thereafter initiated their mission to liquidate Jews all the way from the Baltic (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) to Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.
Jews were murdered in antitank trenches, forests (shot into pits they or local residents were forced to dig), in Jewish cemeteries, rivers, and on river banks.
Between 1943 and 1945, as Jews in the Red Army advanced, they came across the mass graves and learned about the killing.
“They saw proof of the Holocaust,” Zeltser said.
The shocking information began to affect their Jewish identity, as recorded in letters and diaries from the time. Meanwhile, anti-Semitism grew in the Soviet interior.
Today, two Yad Vashem projects have surfaced from among the collection of documents, photographs and testimonies regarding this time, said Zeltser.
One of these, “Jews in the Red Army, 1941-1945,” deals with several hundred stories that represent the 350,000 to 500,000 Jews who were part of the Red Army during WWII.
The other is “The Untold Stories: the Murder Sites of Jews in the Occupied Territories of the Soviet Union.”
A total of 142,000 Soviet Jews died in action, he said.
“Jews were in submarines, aviation, tanks, all parts of the Red Army, there were many Jewish officers in the Red Army because of the high level of education in Jewish society, with many achieving university degrees that assisted the soldiers in climbing up the ranks.”
Many young men who “had just finished high school [or even junior high] were also drafted,” he said.
One of them was Yona Degen (born in Ukraine in 1925), subject of the 2014 film Degen, which was premiered at the Armed Corps Memorial at Latrun.
The son of hard-core communists, Degen volunteered at 16, rising to command a tank platoon by age 20 – the only Soviet tank crew member ever accepted into the Association for Israeli Tankists to be honored for heroism.
“I enlisted in the Red Army voluntarily,” he said.
“Even children were strongly committed communists, and as a young communist I had to be the first.” About this experience Degen said simply, “I had to kill, and I didn’t think about it. I did what I had to do.”
“[As Jews] We felt like doomed men and we didn’t give a damn where we would be killed, in a tank attack in our own brigade or by shooting in a punishment battalion,” he recalled.
“I try not to think about these things but eight bullets and 14 shards make it impossible for me to forget those days,” he added.
“At 20 I stopped fighting,” Degen said, “and at 31 I started to think about Judaism.”
He began to “learn Tanach [the Jewish Bible].”
“Before that I had thought that it was all myth and nonsense, but then I saw that a great part of what was written had already taken place. For the next 13 years I was finally a Jew,” he said, “but I still remained a communist.
“There are many socialist positions in the Tanach, such as leaving the corner of the field for the poor,” he explained.
“Finally,” he continued, “13 years later, my son, 15 at the time, was reading a book on Mussolini. He opened to a section on Lenin and showed me the awful truth about what he had done. At first I was angry and did not want to face it,” Degen said.
He made aliya in 1977 and worked in orthopedics until his retirement 20 years later.
Until that time he rose to become a leading Soviet specialist in orthopedic trauma, beginning this career six years after he climbed out of a burning tank and was hit by shrapnel in both arms and both legs in 1945.
Degen had been seriously wounded in 1941, but volunteered again in 1942, only to be wounded that year (on a mission behind enemy lines, commanding an intelligence unit, aged 18).
He then studied for a commission in the 2nd Guards Tank Brigade and took part in the Belorussian offensive.
He was recommended for the honorary title of Hero of the Soviet Union, twice, yet on both occasions received a lesser award. He still ruminates on whether this was because he was a Jew.
He did, however, receive the Soviet Order of the Patriotic War medal for his role in the liberation of Vilnius in 1944.
Degen, who wrote poems during the war and continued to do so afterward, is author of several books of poetry and short stories, including Vilnius (1990), in which he writes: “For five days I was fighting in the [former] Jewish ghetto without having any idea that I was doing so.”
Since the fall of the FSU, Yad Vashem has achieved access to, and is able to work with, state and local archives.
The nonprofit Blavatnik Archive Foundation was founded in 2005 by US industrialist and philanthropist Len Blavatnik.
It is composed of some 90,000 physical and digital primary historical resources relating to 20th-century Jewish and world history – focusing on both world wars. The nonprofit is committed to sharing its holdings for research and education and is working on making its entire collection fully accessible online.