The Holocaust in the Soviet Union in Real Time

‘Pravda,’ the Communist Party’s main newspaper, wrote about the estimated six million Jews murdered in December 1944 – before ‘The New York Times’ acknowledged this number.

MEMBERS OF the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. (photo credit: YAD VASHEM)
MEMBERS OF the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.
(photo credit: YAD VASHEM)
The Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, rampaging through vast amounts of Soviet territory, and from September 1941, murdering tens of thousands of Jews daily. By the end of that year, more than half a million Jewish civilians had been executed in Nazi-conquered areas of the USSR. Recent research has demonstrated that during World War II, those who wanted to know about the destruction of European Jewry had opportunities to do so from both the mainstream Russian press as well as the Yiddish language newspaper Eynikayt – the only Soviet Yiddish newspaper at the time.
How did people in the Soviet Union react to the events of the Holocaust during the war and in the years following? This topic will be the focus of an international conference titled “The Holocaust as Reflected in Public Discourse in the Soviet Union during the Stalinist Period, 1941–1953,” at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, on December 2-3. The conference will take place within the framework of the Moshe Mirilashvili Center for Research on the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, part of Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research.
Dr. Arkadi Zeltser, Holocaust expert and director of the Moshe Mirilashvili Center, explains that the conference will primarily focus on how the intellectuals in the Soviet Union responded to the news of the horrific events that were occurring throughout Europe at the time. Jewish and non-Jewish intellectuals, writers, cinematographers, painters, folklorists and theater folk felt obligated to react to the Jewish tragedy. Despite the official Soviet narrative that emphasized the killing of the Jews as Soviet citizens and not as Jews, these artists still managed to transmit Jewish ideas and concerns in their writings.
“They looked for a way to emphasize the Jewish perspective, while officially maintaining the Soviet line,” says Zeltser. He explains that in wartime, Russian Jewish writers were permitted to write about Jewish heroes such as Bar-Kochba and the Maccabees, and especially Jewish soldiers in the Red Army, but they had to incorporate Russian elements into their work as well.
Conference sessions will focus on the Yiddish writings of such Russian Jewish poets as David Hofshteyn and Peretz Markish, and prose writers such as David Bergelson and Pinchas Kaganovich, known by the pen name of Der Nister, “the hidden one.”
Kaganovich wrote stories about the German persecution of Jews in occupied Poland during the war. In 1942, he became a member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which was formed on orders of Joseph Stalin. The committee influenced public opinion and organized support for the Soviet struggle against Germany. Some of the most prominent Yiddish writers in the Soviet Union at the time – including Bergelson, Markish and others – were not only members but wrote for this committee.
Other sessions at the conference will address how Yiddish folklorists wrote about the Holocaust during the war. “It is interesting,” says Zeltser, “to learn about and contrast the writings of Jews who wrote about the war in Yiddish but were not intellectuals.” Some of these writings were composed in the ghettos, while others were written in the Soviet interior.
ANOTHER TOPIC of interest, beyond the writings of Jewish writers, is what was written in the official Soviet press about the Holocaust during that period. Zeltser says that Russian newspapers wrote about the murder of Jews at the time. For example, he notes, the first mention of the massacre of the Jews in Minsk in July 1941 appeared in both Izvestia and Pravda just a few weeks after it occurred. The Russian press covered mass killings that were taking place throughout the occupied territories, including at Babi Yar, where some 33,700 Jews from Kiev and the surrounding areas were brutally shot to death and buried in mass graves during the two-day aktion on September 29-30, 1941.
The Russian press knew about the murder of the Jews, explains Zeltser, because mass shootings in places like Babi Yar and elsewhere generally took place near population centers. While he says it is hard to estimate the exact percentage of the population that was aware of what was happening, the majority, especially those who found themselves under the German occupation, knew.
Interestingly, says Zeltser, the main Communist Party newspaper Pravda estimated in a December 1944 article by Ilya Ehrenburg – a prominent Russian Jewish author – that six million Jews had been killed by the Nazis. This was before The New York Times acknowledged the number.
In addition to discussing writings of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, the conference will also address other means by which information was disseminated during the period, such as through photography and museum exhibitions. Prof. David E. Fishman of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York will present a session about the Jewish Museum in Vilnius, which was founded in 1944 by Holocaust survivors. This was the first museum in Eastern Europe to present a record of the mass killings of the Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators. The museum was closed down by the Soviets in 1949 during a major antisemitic campaign.
Many of the Russian combat photographers during World War II were Jewish. The conference will address the impact of photographs taken by Russian photographer Dmitri Baltermants, who captured images of the German destruction of Soviet Jews during the war. In January 1942, Baltermants recorded the desolation and destruction of the city of Kerch in Crimea. His photographs, which were censored for many years in the USSR, finally appeared in Russia during the 1960s.
Another once-censored work that will be discussed at the conference is The Black Book of Soviet Jewry, which was compiled in 1944 by Vasily Grossman and Ilya Ehrenburg. The book, which was first printed in Jerusalem by Yad Vashem in 1980, documents the crimes of the Holocaust in the occupied territories. It was finally printed in the USSR during the period of Perestroika under Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev.
The two-day conference will be open to the public, and will be conducted in English and Hebrew (simultaneous translation will be available in English, Hebrew and Russian). Sixteen prominent scholars from leading universities around the world, including the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Columbia University, Bar-Ilan University, the University of Toronto and other institutions will present the results of their research.
This is the fourth annual International Conference organized and hosted by the Moshe Mirilashvili Center for Research on the Holocaust in the Soviet Union. It is generously supported by Michael and Laura Mirilashvili and the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.
This article was written in cooperation with Yad Vashem.