The Holocaust in the USSR and the memorial calendar

A conference at Yad Vashem will cover a wide array of topics on the relationship to and perception of time during the Holocaust for those caught in its inferno.

RAKHOV, BELARUS: A monument in the old cemetery. (photo credit: YAD VASHEM PHOTO ARCHIVES)
RAKHOV, BELARUS: A monument in the old cemetery.
How does one commemorate a yahrzeit (anniversary of a date of death) without a Jewish calendar, and without an organized Jewish community? These questions were real-life issues for the Jews of the Soviet Union after World War II, who wanted to mark the murder of their fellow Jews during the Nazi occupation of the USSR.
This subject will be the theme of the lecture delivered by Dr. Arkadi Zeltser, direct or of Yad Vashem’s Moshe Mirilashvili Center for Research on the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, at next week’s international research conference titled “The Time Dimension During and Regarding the Holocaust: In Real Time and in Retrospect.” Organized by Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research, the conference will cover a wide array of topics on the relationship to and perception of time during the Shoah for those caught in its inferno.
In 1941, when the Nazis invaded the USSR, they rampaged throughout vast amounts of Soviet territory, murdering tens of thousands of Jews daily in line with their genocidal antisemitic ideology. By the end of 1941, more than half a million Jewish civilians had been executed within the areas of the Soviet Union conquered by the Nazis.
At the war’s end, the surviving Jews wanted to commemorate the murder of their co-religionists. Yet, Zeltser says, “the attitude of the government in the USSR was not to discuss the Holocaust as a specific phenomenon directed at the Jews, but rather to say that the Nazis murdered the Jews because they were Soviet citizens, not because of their ethnicity or religion.” Moreover, he adds, Soviet authorities in general were more interested in commemorating their victories rather than marking days of remembrance and loss. Soviet officials were also opposed to religion, including Judaism, and made efforts to weaken all forms of official and non-official, Jewish religious practice.
Despite difficulties in commemorating the deaths of their loved ones, however, the Jews succeeded in erecting more than 700 monuments dedicated to Holocaust victims. When a monument was dedicated, Jews would travel from all over the country to mark its dedication. The Kaddish memorial prayer was recited by some of the religious Jews from the older generation, and often someone also spoke at the event. Unlike the mass murders in the extermination camps, in which the yahrzeits of individual victims were often not known, the Jews in the USSR knew the exact dates of the massacres of Jews in towns across the Soviet Union. Many of the monuments would be marked with Hebrew or Yiddish inscriptions listing the Hebrew date of the murder, and occasionally a verse from the Bible or other Jewish symbols, in addition to Cyrillic characters stating the facts of the massacre in more neutral terms. While the government did not officially support these types of memorials, they would frequently allow them, as part of the general commemoration of the events of World War II.
Zeltser explains that in this way, the dates of mass murders of Jews that were engraved on monuments – according to both the Gregorian and the Jewish calendars – became an inseparable part of the culture of memory of Soviet Jews relating to the Holocaust. Observance dates would vary. Many Jewish activists organized memorial ceremonies near the monuments directly on the date of murder according to the secular calendar, or on the closest Sunday to the secular date, when people were not at work. Still others would establish memorial visits on May 9, the day commemorating the victory in the Soviet Union at the end of World War II, because they shared the Soviet values regarding the victory over the Nazis or because it was a national holiday, and people would be able to travel to and from the event without missing work. Some groups of Jews and individuals would visit the monuments on dates when Jews would traditionally visit the cemetery in different regions, such as Tisha Be’av, during the Hebrew month of Elul immediately before Rosh Hashanah, or on Lag Ba’omer, between Passover and Shavuot.
However, commemorating these memorial days was complicated in the USSR, because the marking of events via public means of communication, such as radio, newspapers and other channels, could take place only with official government approval.
While the official Soviet calendar included specific dates and holidays such as International Women’s Day, International Workers’ Day, and November 7 marking the Russian Revolution, there were no national days of remembrance, and certainly no Jewish holidays listed whatsoever. Though Jewish communities in larger cities, such as Moscow and Leningrad, would print small quantities of calendars listing the Jewish holidays, Jews elsewhere would have no easy means of knowing when these memorial commemorations would be held, even if they were observed on the Gregorian date. Zeltser says that the Jews managed to spread news of the dates by word of mouth, rather than through any official means. “It was done all at the grassroots level,” he proclaims.
Nevertheless, the memorial activities united Jewish people throughout the vast territory of the USSR. Shared grave sites and memorials for Holocaust victims transformed individuals into cohesive units. The Jews’ insistence on the right to memorialize their tragedies within the context of Jewish observance indicated the need for Soviet Jews to have “their own public time,” Zeltser explains, not only for their collective past, but also for their shared present and communal future.
This article was written in cooperation with Yad Vashem.