Completing the narrative

In the past year, Yad Vashem purchased the right to copy a million documents stored in the archives of Poland and the former Soviet Union, including those in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, Belarus.

From the KGB file of Menachem Begin 390 (photo credit: Courtesy)
From the KGB file of Menachem Begin 390
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Minka Cakars, née Edelman, was a young woman whose world was turned upside down by the Nazi occupation of Latvia. Having just given birth to a daughter, she was forced to move into an apartment on 2 Katolu Street, in a neighborhood that was walled off from the rest of Riga and that was to become the Jewish ghetto. She was luckier than most of the 70,000 Latvian Jews who lost their lives during that period, for she was married to a gentile.
Her husband used any means possible to save his wife and daughter. Knowing that Jews who entered the ghetto usually had no way out, he bribed the security guard at the entrance to the ghetto. Minka and her daughter were safe, but the Nazi race laws would still leave an indelible mark on their lives.
When the Reichskommissariat Ostland, the top Nazi organization in charge of administering the Baltic states that had come under the German boot in 1941, issued an edict requiring that all Jewish women who were married to gentiles undergo sterilization, Cakars’s husband once again sought ways to avoid the fiat, this time producing a forged document that claimed that she had converted to Christianity.
Unfortunately for Cakars, there was no choice but to undergo the procedure.
The details of Minka’s story – and those of tens of thousands of other Jews from the former Soviet Union – are being pieced together thanks to a treasure trove of papers and documents that Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority has copied and examined after decades of being denied access to them due to the geopolitical realities of the Cold War.
“The ability to know what happened in the Holocaust is limited because not only did the Nazis destroy the Jews but they also tried to destroy the ability to remember what happened to them,” says Dr. Haim Gertner, the director of the Yad Vashem Archives Division. “So in order to understand what happened, you need to put together a giant puzzle whose pieces are scattered all over the world.”
Information on Minka’s fate, and that of millions of other Jews in the former Communist lands, is being culled from logs and registries that were meticulously documented by Soviet authorities who liberated the lands conquered by Germany in the early part of the war.
“We can’t even begin to understand what happened to a particular person, family or community without working very hard to obtain a document that is linked to a specific instance or event,” he says. “One part of that document could be in Moscow, another document about the same event could be in Germany, and another related part could be in South America, since somebody may have taken relevant bits of information to these places.”
In the past year, Yad Vashem has purchased the right to copy a million documents that were stored in the archives of Poland and the former Soviet Union, including those in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine and Belarus. The museum negotiated close to 30 agreements with various governments.
“Without these agreements, it is impossible to gain access to these materials,” Gertner says. “The deals with these archives also stipulate the terms, including the financial arrangements and the conditions of use. This has allowed us to undertake comprehensive research efforts throughout the former Soviet Union.”
Until the late 1980s, researchers in Israel as well as the Communist bloc countries had sought to gain access to these documents, but the cool diplomatic relations between the rival camps, as well as the desire to conceal the complicity of locals in Nazi crimes, gave these governments an incentive to prevent information from coming to light. If any research institute sought to dig into these governments’ past, it came with a price that was both financial and propagandist in nature.
“Some of the former republics also had an interest in crafting a new narrative,” Gertner says. “In some instances, they made it a condition whereby we would gain access only if we agreed to tell the story that they wanted to be told. For years, the previous Ukrainian government did not allow us to copy documents unless we agreed to reconsider the question of how many people regarded as national heroes in Ukraine were in fact accomplices in [the] murder [of Jews].
Research shows that while these figures were Ukrainian heroes, they were also involved in the deaths of Jews. So the new Ukrainians tried to create for themselves a new history. These are the types of things that we are not ready to agree to.”
The eastern European governments relented when they realized that they could gain financially from cooperating with Yad Vashem. In exchange for considerable sums of money, Yad Vashem, with the help of the Genesis Fund and the European Jewish Fund, was able to raise enough cash to allow them to sift through the millions of housing committee logs, hospital patient lists and KGB records. One of the more intriguing findings researchers came across is the KGB file of Menachem Begin, who was arrested by Soviet authorities for his activism in the Revisionist Zionist movement.
While the access is a welcome development for Yad Vashem, it will require a herculean effort on the part of researchers to sift through the millions of papers written in various languages and classified without the same focus on the Jewishness of its victims that could be discerned in Nazi documentation.
“The Communists did not acknowledge Jewish suffering as distinct from that of Soviet citizens,” Gertner says. “In memorials that were erected throughout Russia, there is only reference made to fallen Soviet citizens. They never made any differentiation between Jews and other Soviet citizens. The Communists did not even use the term ‘Holocaust.’ These events always took place within the context of ‘Catastrophe,’ or ‘the ‘Great Patriotic War.’” Yad Vashem researchers view this new information as vital for ascertaining the fate of eastern European Jewry, much of which died anonymously.
“The killing in these areas was different than that which took place in western Europe,” says Masha Yonin, who heads the FSU Acquisitions Section in Yad Vashem’s Archives Division. “As opposed to Jews being herded onto trains and sent to far-off camps, the victims in eastern Europe and the former Soviet lands were murdered closer to home.”
“We have the entire list of French Jews who were deported and sent to the camps. The same goes for most western European countries. But in the former USSR, the deaths were largely anonymous. In Ukraine, the Einsatzgruppen [SS paramilitary death squads] would take the Jews out into the woods or the forests and kill them.”
Researchers at Yad Vashem are intent on combing through the documents in hopes of discovering what happened to the two million Jews whose names are not listed in its database in Jerusalem. •