Mary Baldwin College, Staunton VA 24401
by Prof. Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
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Relations among the various ethnicities in the republics of the former Soviet Union have grown more coarse in the years since the overthrow of Communism there (1991). But, inter-communal relations never were as balmy as fraternal socialist propaganda would have had it. Simply put, in Russia since the end of Communism, traditional chauvinistic Russian attitudes more openly can be expressed; more frequently are heard; and hate groups of many stripes have grown stronger in the less restrictive social-political atmosphere that has evolved since 1991. The creation of a democratic civil society much is exacerbated by these trends. This reading describes the roots and branches of this general problem, as it focuses on the historic and modern dimensions of Russian relations with the Jewish minority there.
II. An overview of Jewish-Russian relations before the Russian Revolutions of 1917
The Jewish presence in Russia is longstanding, but Jews never have been regarded as Russians by the non-Jewish Russians. Several different ancient populations with ties to Judaism were found in pre-Russia, and it Russia at the time of its founding. Around the year 700 CE, and lasting until about 970 CE, a group of whose leaders practiced Judaism established and maintained a state known as Khazar in the southern part of what is now considered Ukraine and Russia. This state was conquered by the Duke of Kiev. Shortly thereafter, in 988, Christianity became the official religion of the Kievian state, and persecution of the Jews and other religious minorities was begun. These Khazar Jews probably originated in Turkic tribes of the steppe whose leaders had converted to Judaism during times of conflict with Islamic peoples from the south, and they did not apparently descend from the original Jewish population in the Middle East, unlike the Ashkenazi Jews further north living among the Rus, who did descend from Middle Eastern Jews. Ancestors of the Ashkenazi Jews appear in various Greek, Turkish, Roman, and other ancient accounts of the Mediterranean region, and their migrations northward are noted early in the histories of Poland and Germanic states. Migrations eastward of these Ashkenazi Jewish peoples brought this minority to live adjacent to the Rus for several hundred years. In later times some inter-marriage also may have occurred between the Khazar and Ashkenazi Jewish groups.
Events outside Russia would ultimately bring more Jews into close proximity with the expanding Russian state. Roughly contemporaneous to the Christian Crusades (c.1000 CE to c.1250 CE), Jewish immigrants from the German city states of Central Europe began settling in the lands to the East. There they were greeted favorably by the independent government of Poland under King Boleslaw the Pious, who in 1264 issued a Charter which invited Jews to settle in Poland, and to practice their religion. Polish laws encouraged Jews to act as a group to spur commercial activity, inasmuch as they were not bound by the anti-usury edicts that the Roman Catholic Church then demanded its followers, including most Poles, to follow. Many Jews already were well positioned to respond to this new Polish opportunity, inasmuch as some among them had long developed contacts with traders in Western Europe and Northern Africa.
The tolerance of the Polish governments eroded over time, and by about the year 1400 policies of forced baptism of Jewish children were common applied. Restrictions on the number of Jewish homes were enacted in the Polish cities of Posen and Warsaw. Nevertheless, the Jewish population in Poland continued to grow, rising from 50,000 in 1501 to about one half million by 1648, the year that the Central European religious wars ("Thirty Years' War") among Catholic and Protestant principalities and states ended with the Peace of Westphalia. This accord severely limited the preexisting, transnational influence of the Roman Catholic Church and increased the power of secular royal rulers.
At this beginning of the modern state system (1648), Russia still was a peripheral player: only recently free of threats from Asian military forces, and more preoccupied with Ottoman Turkey than with the quarrels still raging among the Christian princes of Europe. Indeed, the Romanov dynasty itself was in its infancy, having only had been founded in 1613. Thus, for Russia internal consolidation of power remained the most pressing problem. Nearly from the outset, however, Romanov Czars found it useful to stir up loyalty toward the Russian state among the Russian people by encouraging the public to reject religious and ethnic minorities among them. In this, they built on the official prejudices of their pre-Romanov predecessors. In 1545, for example, the rulers of the Duchy of Moscow had forbidden Jews from living within its territory. Thus, by the early 18th century, the zone of European Jewish settlement had come to have a definite eastern edge: Jews often were encouraged to leave the states to the east of Poland and to migrate there, though incompetent administration prevented any uniform policy of expulsions. The very threat of expulsion, however, kept Jews anxious. In Catholic Lithuania and in Orthodox Russia, official intolerance of minorities was one thing on which omnipotent rulers and powerless subjects could agree.
The 1700s were momentous years for the Eastern European Jews. In Poland, restrictions were enacted that limited the number of Jews who could live in the cities and most Jews came to make their livings as merchants and market shopkeepers in the small villages or shtetl. Taxes to the State were paid by the community as a whole, not by Jewish individuals, and enforcement of this requirement through the agency of the Jewish community elders (Kahal) reinforced the separateness of the Jews from their neighbors. Within this socially segregated context, Jewish culture thrived: by the year 1700, over one and a half million Jews lived in Poland, Lithuania and the other nations of Eastern Europe (Romania, Hungary, etc.). Thus, when Poland was erased from the map of Europe by the Prussian and Russian (and to a lesser extent, Austrian) Partitions of Poland (1772, 1792, 1795), a huge, new social group, the Jews, was incorporated into the Russian empire as Russia primarily absorbed Poland.
Catherine II "the Great" of Russia, who ruled 1762-1796, tried to solve what came to be called the "Jewish Problem" by restricting the areas of the empire in which Jews could live. She designated the western edges of the empire as the "Pale of Settlement," and, though Jews were not the majority within the Pale, all were required to migrate there if they resided elsewhere in the empire. This disrupted long extant remnants of Jewish culture. Since ancient times small numbers of Jews had lived virtually throughout the world, even in the obscure Asiatic cities that were being absorbed into the Russian Empire as it surged east and south from Moscow. The Pale of Settlement was in no real sense a Jewish homeland. Even within the Pale, Russia adopted policies that were disruptive of Jewish life: under Catherine, the old "none in the cities" rule was reversed. J ewish village communities that were up to 1000 years old were forced to be abandoned as the new Russian rulers required all to move into the larger towns in the Pale.
Under Alexander I (1801-1825), a far broader social repression was begun after the Napoleonic Wars were ended. Fearing public receptivity to the ideals that the French Army had brought with them ("Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!"), the Russian state adopted a campaign to turn the peasants' wrath against the Jews, not the autocratic government. In the dead of winter 1824, the entire Jewish population of the Russian cities of Moghilev and Vitebsk were deprived of all of their property and forced to move west into a now more narrowly drawn "Pale." This first "death march" of men, women and children in the dead of winter would not be the last forced onto the Jews of Eastern Europe.
Alexander's successor, Nicholas I (1825-1855), was a still more vicious anti-Semite. Over 600 anti-Semitic decrees were issued during his 30 year reign. Under his grand plans for the empire, a larger Russian Army was needed. Conscription to the army involved a 25 year period of service. For Christians, seven young men per thousand were so drafted; for the Jews, ten per thousand were given this obligation, and the term of service for each conscript was heavier: 31 years. Moreover, the Kahal was required to select youths between ages 12 to 18 to be these draftees, contributing to intra-communal tensions among Jews. Alexander Herzen's memoirs speak of his witnessing the departure for the Arctic of drafted boys: "...it was one of the most awful sights I have ever seen, those poor, poor children! Boys of twelve or thirteen might somehow have survived it, but little fellows of eight and ten...?" In 1843, the borders of the "Pale" in which the Jews could live again were redrawn, and the result was a narrowed zone. Again, Jews were forced to move by the Russian state. In 1851, new laws were declared which forbade Jews from earning a living as "middlemen" or merchants, reversing their access to roles that were among the few permitted them for generations. Since Jews already were barred from many other rural occupations, the effect of these laws overall was further to pauperize the once somewhat prosperous Eastern European Jewish community.
Initially, Alexander II (1855-1881) proved to be as enlightened toward the Jews as he proved to be toward other aspects of Russian national development. Juvenile conscription was abolished; Jews were allowed to enter some professions (medicine, pharmacy); and some Jewish businessmen and college students were permitted to move outside of the Pale. However, Alexander II bent to his more reactionary advisors after a time, and in 1871 reinstituted conscription, with the drafting of children confined to Jewish children, only. Terms were reduced to a five years obligation, but coerced conversions to Christianity within the Army continued and may even intensified. The Russian Army at the same time declared that no Jew in the Army could rise above the rank of private.
The 1881 assassination of Alexander II stimulated another period of vicious repression throughout Russian society. While liberals, radicals and many others also were targeted, the repression was so sweepingly applied toward Jews that many Jewish leaders urged a basic reevaluation of the overall situation of Jews in Russia. Indeed, the reign of Alexander III (1881-1897) has been described by many Jewish historians of the early 20th Century as a modern "disaster." In light of subsequent events, more recent historians sometimes adopt more cautious language. However, Irving Howe correctly identified 1881 as a major "turning point in (Jewish) history," noting the great growth in Jews' interest in Zionism, emigration, and Russian radical political organizations in the final two decades of the century. The repression forced people to make choices.
Anti-Semitism which always had been evident in Russian culture now spewed forth from the top of the Russian state. Alexander III personally held strongly anti-Semitic views, and once confided in an associate: "In the depth of my soul, I am always happy when they beat the Jews" (Tumarkin: 42). Twenty thousand Jews soon were expelled from Moscow. In the 1882 "Temporary Rules for Jews," also known as the "May Laws," the Czar proclaimed policies which:
- prevented Jews from moving within the Pale
- forbade Jews from entering into mortgages or leases
- forbade Jews from continuing housing contracts entered into before the May Laws, and thus, by ex post facto law, the property of many Jews was seized.
- made Jews subject to 24 hour notice (only) before police could expel back to the Pale Jews found to be living outside the Pale.
- required Jews to stay at all times within a new, even more narrow "Pale."
Repression quickened throughout the last two decades of the 19th Century, and ranged from mere official quotas to truly ugly mob violence. In 1887, a quota was placed on the number of Jews allowed to attend Russian universities: no more than ten percent of the student body could be Jewish within the "Pale;" no more than five percent of the student body in universities outside the "Pale" could be Jewish; and no more than three percent in the universities in Moscow and St. Petersburg could be Jewish. In 1889, and lasting until 1904, Jews were forbidden to practice law, unless a special royal grant of permission was issued to an individual Jew. None of these restrictions applied to any other ethnicity.
Most dramatically, in 1881 and regularly thereafter, the state authorities acquiesced to, and ultimately encouraged the practice of pogroms (or, in Russian, riots) in which Russian peasants would attack Jewish neighborhoods and steal, burn, rape, assault and kill at will. The Governor of Kiev, General Drenteln epitomized the role of the state in those times, saying: "I will not endanger the lives of soldiers for the sake of a few Jews." Pogroms were to become a continuing human plague that convinced even the most modern, secular Jews that the Russian state would never accept them as full citizens.
One Jewish reaction was hardly unpredictable: emigration. Many sought a new homeland: 10,000 went to Argentina and 100,000 to the USA in the year of 1891 alone. This was a remarkable surge: in the fifty years 1820-70, only about 7500 east European Jews had migrated to America; 40,000 more had come to the USA in the 1870s. Overall, between 1881 and 1914, 1.95 million Jews left Europe for America. Of these, 56.6% were males, and 43.4% were females; one fourth were children under the age of 14. This was the most family-type immigration of any immigrant group to the USA: the census of all immigrants arriving during the same period shows that, overall, immigrants of all nationalities were only 30% female and 12% children. Of all immigrants who came in that period, only two thirds stayed permanently, but 94.6% of the Jews remained in America (Howe: 58). The sentiment of the times is captured in the diary of Dr. George Price: "Sympathy for Russia? How ironical it sounds! Am I not despised? Am I not urged to leave? ... Do I not rise daily with the fear lest the hungry mob attack me?... It is impossible...that a Jew should regret leaving Russia" (quoted in Howe: 27).
Among other Jews who stayed in Russia, many who labored in factories began to organize Jewish urban workers' organizations or Bunds. Still others went further and joined the growing number of multi-ethnic, conspiratorial, socialist, and terrorist organizations seeking the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty. Still others began publicizing their plans for the reestablishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, following the Austrian Jew Theodor Herzl's Zionist movement.
Within this great variety of new, modern, secular political activity were several avenues for individual Jews to follow, all of which led away from the insular and religiously-dominated boundaries which previously had separated the political styles of the Jews from the wider Russian culture. Jewish politicization, of course, was part of a larger politicization running through all sectors of Russian society in the late nineteenth century. But even viewed as a separate phenomena, it contained the potential for considerable impact in selected specific places. At the turn of the century, approximately 4.9 Million Jews lived within the 386,000 square miles of the Pale. While this sum still was a local minority of about twelve percent of the Pale's overall population, it amounted to ninety four percent of the Jews in the Russian empire (Howe: 5).
Under the final Romanov, Nicholas II (1897-1917), conditions of the Jews deliberately were worsened further by the regime. While a parallel slide in living conditions of all Russian workers and peasants was occurring, the Czar again sought to turn public anger away from the failures of the Russian state and toward the Jewish neighbors of the Russians. In the very year of his ascent to power, Nicholas issued a number of anti-Semitic decrees. Bounties now were offered to Russians who would turn in to authorities Jews who were "illegally" living in the cities of central Russia, and the bounty was made twice as large as the reward given to those turning in a burglar! Also in 1897, the entire Jewish community in Moscow was declared illegal. Records of the Kahals indicate that at the turn of the century more than one third of all Jewish families in Russia were indigent, so deeply in need that help from the rest of the Jewish community was required in order for them to survive. Yearly pogroms were continued, with especially vicious ones taking place in 1902 and 1903.
In response to the unsuccessful revolutionary activity of 1905, the government sponsored death squads called the "Black Hundreds." They were let loose to target not just revolutionaries but to spawn fear in the general population. Again, Jews in general proved to be a convenient, if by and large innocent, target. After officials unfairly blamed the Jews for causing the 1905 revolt, these vigilantes were responsible for murders of Jews in over 50 Russian cities. In the Ukrainian sea port of Odessa alone, several hundred individuals were killed in the pogrom of 1905, and over 40,000 homes of Jewish families were destroyed. As the repression intensified by 1907, formal executions of revolutionaries were brisk, with several hundred Jews among the executed conspirators. Between 1905 and 1909, pogroms occurred in at least 284 Russian towns, and were responsible for at least 50,000 Jewish deaths. The world was not ignorant of these goings on: indeed, an American Jewish investigatory team visiting Russia in 1911 was barred from entering Russian territory by customs officials.
It is no wonder then that, while most Jews sought to escape to safer places, some joined revolutionary organizations. These organizations were melting pots of diversity, and Jews within them identified as part of revolution, not as Jewish advocates. Nonetheless, these organizations ultimately came to have broad appeal among Jews in general, much as most minorities supported actions leading to the seizure of power away from the Czars, his Army and the political-legal class that dominated the system. It must be emphasized that the largest number of the rank and file and the leadership of the revolutionary parties came from the ethnic Russian population, and this was true as much of the Communists (i.e., the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party) as it was of their rivals on the left. Those who opposed the Communists and other revolutionaries, however, could nonetheless sharpen their criticisms by appealing to traditional Russian anti-Semitic attitudes: among the leaders of the 1917 October Revolution were several who were born ethnic Jews, most prominently Leon Trotsky, organizer of the Red Army. Other ethnic Jews among the Old Bolsheviks included Grigorii Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Yakov Sverdlov, and Karl Radek (Adelman: 88). None of these men were particularly devout in their Jewish faith; their presence in positions of power was due to their belief in communist ideology, not their Jewishness. In any event, these Jewish individuals were greatly outnumbered by non-Jews even within the top reaches of the Bolshevik political party. Nonetheless, the exaggerated allegation that the Bolsheviks were excessively dominated by Jews was used to some effect by fecruiters for the anti-Boshevik White Army during the Russian civil war, 1918-1921. Anti-Semitism played an even greater role in mobilizing Ukrainian nationalists to oppose the Bolsheviks in that region during the horrific civil war.
Later, the "Bolsheviks-as-Jews" canard became a centerpiece of the German Nazis' propaganda, and in modern times it has been resurrected by extremists in post-communist Russia. For example, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democrats, a large political party in the lower house of the Russian parliament (the State Duma), in November 1994 stated: "...the fact is that a majority of people who made the [Bolshevik] Revolution possible, as well as perestroika, were of Jewish origin. In fact, the first Soviet government was almost 90% Jewish" (Kohan: 83). It must be emphasized: these false claims, in fact, are grotesque anti-Semitic exaggerations.
III. Russian-Jewish Relations After the Revolutions of 1917:
The preceding has clearly established why it was that, at the time of Russian Revolutions of 1917, nearly all East European Jews greeted the fall of the Romanovs as a major cause for celebration. Under the Provisional (Kerensky) Government, all anti-Semitic laws were declared void and within just a few months 48 Jewish newspapers were to be found in Russia.
After the Bolsheviks seized power in October/November 1917, these policies technically were continued, with Lenin, the new leader, himself embracing the need for Russia to atone for its heritage of anti-Semitism. However, the chaos of the civil war (1918-21) allowed for the long-gestating hatreds among the various ethnicities to continue to be carried out: no fewer than 10,000 Jews in the Ukraine are believed to have perished during that chapter of the civil war. Moreover, Lenin's appreciation of Jews did not extend to the level of an appreciation of all things Jewish: the teaching of Hebrew (then the language of religious rites, only; now the everyday language of Israelis) and of Jewish religion was banned by the Communists. From 1919 until the end of the communist regime in 1991, no Hebrew prayer books ever were permitted to be published in the USSR. In this Jews suffered as part of the wider anti-religious policy of the Communists: anti-Christian policies of the Bolsheviks dated from this same early period.
The Stalin Era
In the middle 1920s, the rivalry between the ex-Georgian Josef Stalin and Leon Trotsky served to provide new code-words through which traditional Russian anti-Semitism could be translated into the new lexicon acceptable to the Communist rulers. Jews in general were derided in public first for being "reckless internationalists," since Trotsky had advocated prompt, global revolutionary efforts whereas Stalin favored "socialism in one country" (i.e., Soviet Russia) rather than immediate world revolution. As had been the case under the worst Czars, the whole Jewish people were blamed for positions advocated in this case by a single Jewish individual, in this case, a secularized Jew who had himself been deported from the USSR. The anti-Trotsky campaign thus was used to silence all Jews, who were said to follow Trotsky in being too little concerned with the development of communism in "mother" Russia, as the newly named U.S.S.R. now called itself.
Further anti-Semitic responses were hatched by Stalin to deal with the still present Zionists, men and women who had been undeterred from their dream of leaving Russia by his veiled anti-Semitism or by more overt forms of repression that millions of Russians and minorities had begun to experience during the brutal collectivization of Soviet agriculture after 1929. In the 1930s, Stalin came up with the idea of a Soviet Palestine: that is, giving to the Jews their own S.S.R. within the USSR: Birobidzhan. Founded in 1934, and located near the Chinese border in Eastern Siberia (i.e., far from the traditional areas of concentrated Jewish settlement within Russia), this "homeland" really never took off. In 1970, only 11,452 of the approximately 2 million Soviet Jews lived there. Most Jews preferred to stay in the larger cities of western Russia and Ukraine: in 1939, for example, Moscow --a virtually Jewish-free city in the times of the Czars-- had 350,000 Jewish residents (Tumarkin: 42).
Code-words and phony "homelands" notwithstanding, Stalin's message to the Jews was never very subtle: assimilate or be exterminated. In the later 1930s and early 1940s, some Zionist agitators among the Soviet Jews began to advocate the obligation of Soviet Jews to join in the re-emergence in modern times of ancient Jewish state of Israel in Palestine. They demanded the Soviet state recognize their right under international law to emigrate. Again, the Stalinist dictatorship defamed all Jews as "rootless cosmopolitans." While the crass and explicitly anti-Semitic language of the Czarist era was gone, your average Russian knew perfectly well who the designated group of "bad guys" were in these official formulations.
But it was the events of the World War II years, 1939-45, that did most to end the uneasy truce between Jews and the Communist regime. The first crime was one of omission: due to the infamous, secret treaty between Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, Soviet Jews (and other Soviets) never were informed of the anti-Semitic essence of the Nazis' policies in Poland after German aggression began there in September 1939. Hence, Jews were in a particularly bad position to react rationally and move their families to the east once the war between Germany and the USSR began in earnest in June 1941. Ultimately, the sacrifices of all Soviets in the war were profound, and the Jews played their patriotic part: over 200,000 Jews in the Red Army died, along with 1.5 million Soviet Jewish civilians consumed in the Holocaust. Overall, no fewer than 20 million Soviets of all ethnicities, and perhaps as many as 32 million, died in what still is called in Russia the "Great Patriotic War." However, the specifics of what occurred in many places in that war permanently soured relations between Soviet Jews and their neighbors in a way that never has fully been repaired. At war's end, many Jewish survivors chose to conceal even from their own children their ethnic-religious origins. The separate agony of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis was covered up. In one example of this, the Ukrainian S.S.R. government erected a false gravestone over the mass murder site near Kiev known as Babi Yar, omitting mention of the fact that the greatest number of those buried there were Jewish victims. Why? To answer that question we can gain some guidance from the legacy of official anti-Semitism reviewed above, and from our knowledge of the ways the Communists characteristically manipulated the press and history curricula to serve their ideological ends. But these dimensions provide us an incomplete understanding if we ignore the specifics of what happened to real individuals, among specific Soviet citizens and their Jewish neighbors as they endured German occupation. To gain that perspective, a case study may help.
The Holocaust in Lithuania1
During the Second World War, ancient inter-ethnic feuds were played out once again, assisted by the Germans. In virtually every part of the U.S.S.R. occupied by Germany, some native collaborators greeted the Nazis as liberators from Soviet tyranny, joined with the Nazi Gestapo and their Einsatzgruppen ("mobile killing squads"), identified their Jewish neighbors to the Nazis, and in many cases committed the actual executions. This tragic chapter of the Jews' experiences in Eastern Europe and Russia differed from place to place only in its details. An extended look at but one former Soviet republic, Lithuania (below), can convey the process by which the Nazis exploited ethnic schisms so better to dominate all of the peoples of Eastern Europe.
Not one Holocaust victim should be forgotten. But standard history lessons teach us too obscurely, anonymously. Hearing repeatedly about the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust dulls what can be a sharply revealing lesson in the meaning of totalitarianism. Let us here take some effort to overlook no more the one hundred thirty-five thousand (Gilbert 1982: 244) to three hundred thousand Jews2 who were killed in Lithuania. Ninety-six percent of Lithuania's Jews perished in the Holocaust (Crossland: C3), a higher percent than of any other European Jewry. Real people, creative individuals are hidden beyond our reach by these numbers. The story of what individuals did and did not do in Lithuania during the Germans' occupation is one to be remembered.
Since the 1300s, Jews had lived in Lithuania, a Catholic, Christian nation that once was independent but which was absorbed by others as Prussia and Russia rose to dominate Eastern Europe by the 1790s. The defeat of Russia and then Germany in the final stages of the First World War put this minority under new governors all across the region. New governments attempted to build new states, often with limited resources and little authority. In this atmosphere of rising nationalist consciousness some politicians exploited old suspicions and fears. Quickly, Jewish communities were threatened by nationalistic mobs. The worst anti-Semitic violence was in the Ukraine where 60,000 Jews were murdered by followers of the Ukrainian nationalist Simon Petrula: 1700 perished in Proskurov on just one day (February 15, 1918). In the largest Eastern European city with a Lithuanian ethnic majority, Vilna, mobs indiscriminantly killed 80 Jews during April 1919 (Gilbert 1985: 22).
During the 1920s and 1930s, Vilna was the urban center of Lithuanian culture, but it had come under Polish administration when borders were drawn up at the close of the first World War. Poland's government in the inter war years little regarded Jewish rights. The Jews of Vilna endured frequent threats and occasional anti-Jewish riots that Polish officials did nothing to discourage, such as one on April 5, 1938 (Gilbert 1985: p. 60). Times were tough worldwide and up to one third of all Lithuanians in Lithuania proper emigrated elsewhere in the inter war years (Crossland: C3). But the exit door would shut.
As a result of the secret Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, the independent Lithuanian state that existed from 1920 to 1940 came to an end: it and the adjacent Eastern zone of Poland were occupied by the Soviet Red Army. Heavy handed Soviet behavior toward Lithuanian patriots in 1940-41 gave Lithuanian Jews a brief respite as others, primarily, were (identified as "enemies" by those holding power. But unpopular Soviet deportations of intellectuals, politicians and other Lithuanians contributed to many Lithuanians' initially positive attitudes toward the German Nazis when they arrived. The Nazis planned to exploit these anti-Soviet sentiments, and to join local dislike for the communists to their anti-Semitic objectives. On March 26, 1941, --months before war broke out between Nazi Germany and he USSR-- Reichmarshall Hermann Goering and Reinhard Heydrich met to discuss future administration of occupied Soviet territories. Heydrich's twelve point memorandum which merged from the meeting stated that German "troops should be warned of the danger of the OGPU [Soviet Secret Police], the political commissars, the Jews and so on. The soldiers should know who to put up against the wall and shoot!" (Crossland: C3). It is clear from this memo that high Nazi officials planned to murder Lithuania's Jews long before the Wanasee Conference at which, some allege, the Final Solution first was authorized.
The Nazis invaded the territories occupied by the USSR in June 1941 and quickly reached the main Jewish center of Vilna (now Vilnius). The city of Vilna had had so much Jewish influence that in 1815, on his retreat from Moscow, French dictator Napoleon had called it the "Jerusalem of Lithuania" (Dawidowicz: 334). When the Nazis invaded this bustling city, the Jewish population topped eighty thousand. During the first six months of occupation, that number was cut to barely twelve thousand (Dawidowicz: 172).
The other large city in Lithuania is Kovno. Shortly after the Germans began their Eastern Campaign in June 1941, hundreds of Jews were taken from their homes in Kovno. They were led down the streets to a cemetery and shot to death (Gilbert 1985: 168). For fun, Nazi soldiers in Kovno would take Jews at random into warehouses, place fire hoses in their mouths, and turn on the water "until they burst" (Gilbert 1985: 168). As oblivious Americans celebrated our Independence Day, on July 4, 1941, 463 Lithuanian Jewish men and women were murdered in their homes in a Nazi blitz. Two days later, 2514 more were killed (Gilbert 1982: 169). But these deaths in Kovno and Vilna were just a preview of what was to come.
At sunset on August 31, 1941, 2019 women, 864 men, and 817 children were taken in trucks from Vilna to Ponary. Jewish citizens of Vilna were told that Ponary was a labor camp, but at least several hundred Lithuanian Christians knew otherwise: hundreds of armed Lithuanian collaborators assisted the Nazis in the roundup. Those Jews who refused quickly to board the trucks summarily were killed: one baby perished as a German soldier publicly bashed its head into a wall while the mother begged for mercy to no avail (Gilbert 1985: 192). In fact, the deportees' fates differed little: Ponary was a death camp, a primary one used to slaughter the Lithuanian Jews. The true fate of these deportees became still more clear to the other Jews of Vilna on September third. On that date a Jewish woman named Sonia returned to Vilna, bandaged and barefoot. She told a Dr. Meir Mark Dvorjetsky that Ponary was not a labor camp, that it was a death camp. She had been left for dead in "The Pit" with thousands of corpses, but somehow got out and was helped back to Vilna by a sympathetic Polish peasant woman (Gilbert 1985: 193-195). But few believed the monstrous truth. Meanwhile, the Nazi SS dutifully recorded exact details of their Einsatzkommando's dirty work: 3434 on September 12; 1267 on September 17; 2357 women; 1018 children; etc.
Methodically, and with active help from hundreds of Lithuanian collaborators, from June to December of 1941, forty-eight thousand Jews were murdered at Ponary. Just six escaped (Gilbert 1985: 207). This sum understates the real total, for many perished outside Ponary, too. Lithuanian apologists later have pointed to the danger posed to Lithuanians compelled to serve as trigger men for the Nazis or themselves be shot. This convenient rationalization does not square with the historic record. Collaborators volunteered: no reprisals were carried out against Lithuanians who refused to join in the killings. And the Lithuanian collaborators were among the most zealous. After 4000 Jews were swept up off Vilna streets and sent to Ponary on October 24, 1941, thousands of Jews hid in cellars, attics. Lithuanian neighbors helped the Nazis' searches, often returning two or three times to the same house. One 15 year old boy described these October raids: "we feel like beasts surrounded by hunters" (Gilbert 1985: 217). Eight-hundred eighty five Lithuanian Jewish children were among those dryly enumerated as killed during these raids. All of this had nothing to do with the German war effort against the Red Army, which had retreated far to the east and was in no sense engaged in significant combat with the Germans in or near Lithuania at this time.
On December 1, 1941, SS Colonel Karl Jaeger ("Standartenfuehrer" of Lithuania, commander of Einsatzgruppe 3) reported to Berlin that only fifteen percent of the population of Lithuania's prewar Jews were still alive and that they were all Arbeitsjuden (i.e.: Working Jews). His report clearly stated that genocide was his objective: "I am in a position to give you evidence that the Jewish problem has almost been solved here. Today there are almost no Jews left in Lithuania, except those Jews who are working for us" (Crossland: C3). That same day --seven days before Pearl Harbor was attacked--, Jaeger's records state that "two American Jews killed at Kauen" or Kaunas (Crossland: C3), less than a mile from Jaeger's palatial stucco mansion. The same memo proudly enumerated that 143 Jewish children had been murdered in Kaunas, and 599 more in nearby Kedaininc. As of that date, approximately 15,000 Jews remained alive in Vilna, 15,000 in Kovno, and 4500 in the city of Siauliai (Gilbert 1985: 234). Of the fate of these 34,500, Jaeger opined "I was about to kill these people too but the civil authorities were against it. The Reichkomisser [Alfred Rosenberg] issued an order not to shoot them" (Crossland: C3).
For reasons of maintaining public order, Hitler's Holocaust functionary Adoph Eichmann decided that Jaeger's early method --public shootings-- were a problem. These had driven some Jews to attack and kill German executioners (Gilbert 1985: 184), so Eichmann wrote that public shootings "will no longer be tolerated" (Gilbert 1985: 219). A false normalcy needed to be created so to get work out of the lucky living targets. In 1942, therefore, a semblance of cultural activities were arranged among the Jews of the Vilna Ghetto (see documents in Dawidowicz: 208-213).
At the same time, however, the Ministry of Occupied Eastern Territories formally determined that these "working Jews" also were not to be spared irrespective of the value of the work that they were doing: "as a matter of principle, no economic factors are to be taken into consideration in the solution of the Jewish question" it formally declared in December 1941. So, though for the next two years the killing of the Lithuanian Jews would continue to be conducted primarily out of sight in the camps (e.g., Ponary), even the healthy "working Jews" in Vilna's factories were marked for eventual murder. A Jaeger report sharpened the logistics of this task: "the distance between the assembly point and the grave should be more than four or five kilometers," due to problems with escapes (Crossland: C3). And when even the working Jews crossed undefined lines, the Germans' plans for them were moved up: on December 21, 1941, as Vilna Jews were assisting half-naked Soviet POWs to clear snow-covered rail lines, one Jewish woman gave a crust of bread to one of the Soviet soldiers. Both were immediately shot dead (Gilbert 1985: 246).
Jaeger's unusual zeal for killing created tension among the Germans and their Lithuanian friends. Of the survivors early in 1942 he wrote: "The Jews who have been kept alive for work should be killed after the winter. I also believe that after sterilization of the male Jews an end will be put to them, and if any Jewish woman gets pregnant she should be killed" (Crossland: C3). A Gestapo official, Heinrich Mueller, complained in May 1942 that Jaeger had killed off 630 Jewish craftsmen "despite their qualifications" (Crossland: C3), and urged Reichfuehrer SS Heinrich Himmler to issue instructions not to continue these executions but, rather, to demand that the surviving 16 to 32 year olds be sent to labor or concentration camps.
The final roundup of Lithuanian Jews began in the Spring of 1943. At first, Jews from throughout the region were gathered in the Vilna ghetto. (For documents on the relatively orderly delivery of Social Welfare services among these Jews at this time, see Dawidowicz: 187-193). Then, on April 5, 1943, four thousand of these Jews were taken by rail ostensibly bound for the Kovno ghetto, where the Nazis claimed there was more room for them. Just outside Ponary the captives revolted. The Lithuanian guards and their Nazi commanders machine gunned the Jews right on the trains; only a few dozen managed to escape the massacre (Gilbert 1985: 554-555). Hours later one of these Jews, poet Shmerl Kaczerginski, came back to Vilna exclaiming "Everyone, everyone was shot!". When he was asked "Who? The four thousand being taken to Kovno?", he replied "Yes!" From that date on the Vilna ghetto became a hotbed of revolt, spurred on by a song Warsaw Ghetto escapee Hirsh Glik sang in Vilna: "Never say you have reached the very end; though leaden skies a bitter future may portend; And the hour for which we've yearned will yet arrive; And our marching step will thunder; We survive;..." (quoted in Gilbert 1985: 568-569).2
The Jewish resistance in Vilna, called the United Partisans Organization, was led by Yitzhak Wittenberg and in 1943-44 it conducted several actions that made difficult the rule of the Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators. In July 1943, a heroic woman named Vitka Kempner sneaked a homemade land mine from the ghetto, planted it on train tracks and blew up a German ammunition train. In retaliation, one resistance member was tortured by the Germans into revealing the name of their leader. After arresting Wittenberg, some days later the Nazi contingent deporting him was itself attacked and Wittenberg was freed. However, a Nazi threat to kill all in the ghetto unless the resistance leader was surrendered led Wittenberg to turn himself in; he died in captivity (Gilbert 1985: 592-593). Shortly thereafter, new deportations began to slave labor camps in Estonia (for the healthy) and to the death camp of Birkenau (for the rest). On August 6, 1943, Vilna Jews rose in resistance to related deportations and were shot (Gilbert 1985: 598). The deportation of September 1, 1943 included songwriter Hirsh Glik. By the sixth of the month 7000 of the surviving residents of the Vilna ghetto had been deported. In recognition of the critical nature of the time, the resistance asked its members to flee by any means possible to the forests to fight.
Some resistance heroes stayed on in the dangerous city. Vitka Kempner led additional actions including the blowing up of an electric transformer, successful organization of the escape of several dozen prisoners from the labor camp in the Vilna suburb of Keilis, and the burning of a turpentine factory in Olkiniki (Gilbert 1985: 607). Unable to counteract the growing assertiveness of the Jewish partisans, on September 23, 1943 the Nazis liquidated the Vilna ghetto, deporting some to slave labor in Estonia, some to Majdanek (death camp) and several hundred of the elderly and sick to the killing ditches of Ponary to be machine gunned. Of the two thousand remaining Vilna Jews, all were confined to four small labor camps (Gilbert 1985: 608). Lithuanian Christians then were invited to move into the former ghetto and take what they might find and to live there. Jewish survivors took a different approach. On October 7, 1943, a group of Vilna Jewish partisans under the command of Abba Kovner destroyed more than 50 telegraph poles on the Vilna to Grodno road; on October 17, they destroyed two rail engines and two bridges; on the 23rd, telegraph/telephone lines leading adjacent to the Vilna to Lida railway were destroyed.
In late June 1944, the city of Vilna sat anxiously awaiting the imminent arrival of the Soviet Red Army; the surviving 2000 Jews at least hoping for liberation from the Nazis. But the advance stalled and, on July 2, eighteen hundred of these surviving Jews were taken by the Nazis and machine gunned at Ponary (Gilbert 1985: 699). Only two hundred Jews were still alive in Vilna when the Red Army finally fought their way into the city on July 13. This same pattern was repeated elsewhere in Lithuania: the Nazis assembled all surviving Jews from nearby labor camps (i.e., Panevezys and Joniskis) with the ghetto residents in Siauliai, Lithuania, then deported all 7000 to Stutthof Concentration Camp. About 100 Jews who tried to stay behind were killed on the spot (Gilbert 1985: 705). Siauliai was liberated 12 days later.
These facts all are about real people, someone's mother, sister or brother. Numbers may obscure this essence, but we have an obligation to seek clarity. The world remembers that Karl Jaeger, the butcher of Lithuania, lived anonymously but as free man in Germany until his arrest in 1959; he then committed suicide. The Bowens --and hopefully my students-- remember the others, and our own. The personal connection I have to these Lithuanian Jews is through the great-grandmother of my daughters, Bessie Shmedofsky. A native citizen of the Russian Empire, she was born near Vilna on December 18, 1888, the daughter of a butcher. Traveling in steerage in a ship to Ellis Island, in 1909, she escaped Russia's "Pale of Settlement" for the sweatshops of New York's lower East Side. With money saved from sewing in a shirt waist factory, she moved to Cleveland, met and married Harry Ginsberg in 1911. Harry and Bessie were the parents of four children: Louis, Jeannette, Leah, and my wife's mother --Jenni's grandmother--, Esther.
Though it was very fortunate that Bessie came to America when she did, three of her sisters remained in a small village in Vilna region of Poland/Lithuania: Sorel Shmedofsky, Rochelle Shmedofsky, and Sprinseh Shmedofsky. Our family was divided by distance, but kept in close touch through the mail and by word of mouth. As friends and neighbors of the Shmedovsky's also would come to America in the 1920s and 1930s, older relatives would hear stories of life back there. The last package of food, clothes, and money successfully sent by our relatives in Los Angeles to their village of Dzubrun near Vilna was in 1938.3 In the late 1940s, the Red Cross informed our American family that sometime during the occupation, in response to the murder of a Nazi near Dzubrun,4 the entire Jewish population of the village had been forced to dig a ditch into which all then were machine gunned to death.
Today Lithuania has celebrated the apparent end of its long quarrel with its Russian and Soviet neighbors: all Russian troops have left. But those who know the full story of the Jews of Lithuania cannot forget that it was those foreigners of the Soviet Red Army --not the Catholic Lithuanians-- that liberated the few survivors from the Nazis' grasp. How sad it is that a city known a hundred and seventy-five years ago as the "Jerusalem of Lithuania," in 1945 had just two hundred Jews still alive. Even by 1976, the Jewish population in Vilna had grown only to just twelve thousand (Dawidowicz: 316). In the 1990s, by and large, free Lithuania has taken few steps to atone for these sorry truths.5
In America, the remnants of the Eastern European Jewry that survived continue to bear witness through the actions of organizations like the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Anti-Defamation League of B'Nai B'rith; and through public education projects such as the recently completed Holocaust museum in Washington DC and the Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. In individuals' memories, as much as in cinema such as "Schindler's List," the story of what it took to commit genocide, and what it took to resist it, also reaches new generations. Yet, separated from Americans by oceans and from all the lucky living by time these most searing moments of modern moral history still recede to become mere history, flat words, text. In many American public schools the subject of the Holocaust remained but a marginal topic well into the 1980s, or was omitted altogether (see Pate).
An obligation to our ancestors requires that the Bowens never forget these Jews of Lithuania. But there is also an imperative here that free peoples everywhere would do well to regard as their personal instruction. The whole of the Holocaust, in Lithuania and beyond, surely was planned according to the demonic beliefs of the German Nazis. In one sense, it took a super-powerful totalitarian state to carry their beliefs out on a grand scale. These states now are rare. But it also took some things still found in abundance: morally indifferent masses and opportunistic hordes of obedient followers. Much of the Holocaust was carried out by ordinary Lithuanians, ordinary Poles, ordinary Ukrainians, etc.
"In Lithuania local non-Jews were among the most savage killers" (Gilbert 1982: 68); right from the beginning of the German occupation "in the Vilna region of Lithuania... the killing squads... had strong local support. The Jews were unarmed, and surrounded by an extremely hostile peasantry, who sometimes attacked them even before the killing squads arrived" (Gilbert 1982: 76). Without the widespread racism and anti-Semitism long condoned and frequently fomented by political leaders and religious authorities within their cultures, a climate conducive to collaboration in the Nazis crimes would not so easily have existed.
For the Bowens, it is not within our power, indeed it is not in the realm of any mortal, to forgive the Shmedofsky's murderers. But all chapters of the Holocaust have meaning beyond family memories. The Nazis' power is long gone, but the impulse hastily to judge others by their race, ethnicity or national origin, even the scourge of anti-Semitism, still is widespread. In this still imperfect world, humankind will benefit little by ritualistically blaming long dead Nazis so to "remember the Holocaust." Much as we also might too narrowly just "remember the Shmedovskys," the enduring meaning requires we confront the more uncomfortable elements here. In this sense, by our thoughts and actions, by the attitudes we accept within our polite society, by the values we inculcate in our children, every day we can choose to try to inoculate tomorrow and thereby to renew the world.
Soviets and the Holocaust
In spite of mountains of clear evidence of similar situations in every single part of German occupied USSR, until the Revolution of 1991, Soviet officials never acknowledged the particular terror civilian Jews suffered at the hands of their fellow Soviet citizens during the German occupation. For example, the memorial to the Nazi victims at Babi Yar, just outside Kiev, until October 1991 did not acknowledge that these mass graves were primarily Jewish ones, nor that the executioners were Ukrainians (i.e., Soviet citizens) who collaborated with the Nazis. Yet between 100,000 and 120,000 Kiev-region Jews died in the atrocities at Babi Yar in 1941-42. Only after Ukrainian independence had been declared did the Ukrainian government leader, Leonid Kravchuk, acknowledge that "part of the blame is on us [Ukrainians]" (Freeland: 31). On the fiftieth anniversary of the tragedy, October 5, 1991, the free Ukraine government consecrated a new era by conducting an honest ceremony in recognition of the truth of Babi Yar both at the site and in special school lessons. One Babi Yar survivor, Raisa Dashovskaia, recounted the human costs of the Soviet and Ukrainian cover-up of Nazi-era crimes: "I never spoke about what happened. For 48 years, I lived without my name and my nationality." Freeland (31) states that Dashovshaia, a "blond, fair-skinned young woman changed her name from Rebecca to Raisa and hid her Jewish identity from everyone, including her new husband, for nearly half a century." Only after Ukraine began to atone for its citizens' role in the Holocaust did Dashovshaia tell her story to Ukrainian television so that "the younger generation will understand." Such was the impact of Soviet totalitarianism that not only did neighbors not know the traumas of neighbors, but families did not even dare to share the most basic facts about who they were.
Remembering now the trivialization of the value of ones' neighbors' lives helps us measure the chasms that still divide the peoples of the former USSR. In Byelorussia (i.e., today Belarus, the republic around the city of Minsk, nominal capital of the "Commonwealth of Independent States"), the Nazi reward to a White Russian resident there who turned in to the authorities a Jewish neighbor in hiding was two kilograms of sugar (about 4 1/2 lbs.). There were many takers of this reward.
In fairness, it must also be noted that the behind-the-lines resistance movements against the Nazis in western USSR (called the "partisans") generally did accept Jews into their units and many Jews who escaped the Nazi ghettos did fight in indirect support of the Red Army. This should be contrasted favorably with the approach taken, by and large, by the non-communist element of the Polish resistance which rejected Jewish volunteers. Further, as the eastern front was pushed relentlessly toward Berlin, and immediately after the war ended, de-Nazification was swift in the areas controlled by the Red Army. Collaborators who were identified simply were shot. This swift turn of the tables happened under Red Army supervision, though the motivation seems more to have been to punish those who had helped those who murdered Soviet prisoners of war than to punish the war crimes of Nazis against civilians, Jewish or non-Jewish.
Jews and Soviets in the Post-War Eras: Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev
New pogroms against the Jews were carried out after the end of the war at Kielce, Lublin, Biala Podlaska and other cities in Poland. These do not appear to have had any approval from the occupying Soviet authorities, but nonetheless they were catalytic in prompting over 100,000 surviving Polish Jews to flee from Poland to Palestine and Western Europe, 1945-47. As Red Army control gradually evolved into routine Communist administration, matters changed.
To most Soviet Jews it was completely inexplicable that inside the Soviet Union and throughout occupied Eastern Europe, Stalin would launch a new anti-Semitic campaign after the war ended. Both Russians and Jews had so recently been ravaged by a common enemy that, at first, many Jews simply did not believe that a resumption of official Soviet anti-Semitism was under way. In 1948, the "Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee," a Soviet war-time front was disbanded, and in 1949, in the so-called "Doctors' Plot" a group of Jews were accused of trying to kill Stalin. This signaled the green light to a broader campaign of anti-Semitism throughout Soviet and East European society. Toward the Jews, employment discrimination, discrimination in schools and public life quietly came to be perceived as acceptable among Russians. One of Stalin's own principal advisors, V. Molotov, even had to endure the humiliation of his Jewish wife being shipped off to the labor camps. In his final years, 1948-53, Stalin enacted numerous new anti-Semitic policies and hundreds of Jews perished. On his deathbed, Stalin again was poised to launch yet another sweeping anti-Semitic pogrom; his passing prevented its full implementation.
In the first years after Stalin, the "thaw" and rehabilitation of Stalin's victims under Khrushchev did not extend to include his Jewish victims. Unlike the relative openness of some post-Stalin governments on other issues related to freedom of conscience and expression, Soviet policies that had an anti-Jewish effect did not slacken after the dictator's death. Discriminatory restrictions against Jews, it must be recalled, did not formally exist in Soviet law, but were informally applied in practice. These practices were continued. In net, they amounted to the strangulation of Jewish culture in the 1950s and 1960s.
Official but unannounced anti-Semitism took on many forms. Among all Soviet ethnicities, only Jews and Gypsies were required to carry their ethnic identification on the mandatory identification cards; all others simply had their place of residence designated. Attrition also took its toll: with the passing of time, the properly trained rabbis (i.e., Jewish teachers) died off. No training of new rabbis was permitted until 1989. Synagogues long had been under secret police surveillance, had fallen into unrecognizable disrepair, and their congregations withered with age. To keep Judaism alive, worship was primarily conducted secretly in homes; ceremonies passed from father to son, mother to daughter. Only in 1990 did the Soviet government officially end its laws and policies designed to discourage religious worship by believers in all faiths. Unofficial anti-Semitism had a substantial effect. In 1956, there were 450 synagogues in the USSR, but by the end of Khrushchev's rule, the number still open had declined to 60. The Brezhnev era continued these trends: fewer than forty synagogues were operating in 1980.
Combined with this continued pattern of unannounced anti-Semitic policies, official policy under Brezhnev became more strident after the Israeli Army ended the era of Jordanian control over Jerusalem with its victory over the Arabs in the 1967 "Six Day War." Soviet propaganda, which had studiously avoided any mention of discriminatory, anti-Jewish Jordanian policies there, soon began to denounce Israeli "aggression." (Note: from 1947 to 1967 Israelis and all foreign Jews were barred from the sacred Western, or "wailing" Wall of the Second Temple in the Old City of Jerusalem, and Jordanian road builders used Jewish gravestones to pave streets, etc.)
Official Soviet publications in the Brezhnev era delicately claimed that their enmity with Israel was rooted in "Anti-Zionism," not anti-Semitism. This terminological distinction notwithstanding, official but unannounced anti-Semitism continued within the USSR, and continuously was directed not just at Israel's foreign policy, or at Soviet Zionists, but also at the Jewish religion of citizens of the USSR and at Jews in general.
While no official quota then barred Jews from universities, some historic figures can be revealing: in the school year 1968-69, there were 110,000 Jews enrolled in Soviet institutions of higher education; by 1978-79, the figure had fallen to 44,000. As late as April 1983, an official "Anti-Zionist" committee was formed by the government of the USSR. That Spring, official Party presses published a new, viciously anti-Semitic tract called "The Class Essence of Zionism," which was glowingly reviewed in Pravda and other leading organs of official opinion. The book (by Lev Korneev) alleged that from ancient times "profit was the ideology" of Jews, that the world's wars were due to a "Jewish military-industrial complex," it attacked the "Jewish bourgeoisie" of pre-revolutionary Russia, and claimed that the pogroms were planned and carried out by the Zionists to spur immigration to Palestine. These distortions of history were made still more unbelievable by the author's claim that the Jews participated in the Holocaust in a "Zionist-Nazi alliance." What was most remarkable about this book, then, was that it was published by and positively praised by officials of the USSR in the middle 1980s, not proto-Nazis in some backwater of Paraguay!
Jewish Activism on Behalf of Emigration
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations' General Assembly (1948) states at article 13, section 2, "Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country." In the the final years of Soviet communism and in the decades since, this one issue has dominated the agenda of Jews in Russia: the right to leave should individuals chose to go. Given the historic relations among these peoples, the aspiration is hardly surprising. But, though the USSR granted formal diplomatic recognition to the Jewish state of Israel in 1948, this gesture soon was lost as the Middle Eastern region became a battlefield in the Cold War, and Israel a U.S. ally. Thus, in the 1950s and 1960s, not many Soviet Jews were able to take advantage of the above cited "universal" right; few were permitted to emigrate to Israel. In 1967, even these formal diplomatic relations were broken between the two states, and little constructive dialogue between them occurred until after the end of the Soviet Union. As one Jewish emigre of my acquaintance told me, "after the overthrow of the government of Czechoslovakia [in August 1968], we gave up all hope for reform in Russia." In May 1969, student activists at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel, began protests to urge the Government of Israel more actively to advocate on behalf of the right of Jews to leave the Soviet Union. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir embraced their cause, and the State of Israel made vocal its previously quiet diplomatic pressure on the Soviet leaders.
Thus, a worldwide campaign of Jewish activists arose in the 1970s and 1980s that sought to compel the USSR to allow its approximately 2 million Jews to leave. This campaign had roots in fundamental human rights principles to which the USSR obligated itself to by continuing its membership in the U.N. after 1948. The USSR, however, had voted against the Universal Declaration, and until its demise never fully embraced many of its principles in practice.
The campaign for Soviet Jewish emigration, after 1970 involved both Jewish activists within the USSR and foreign supporters (e.g., U.S. Senator Henry Jackson D-Washington State, a Christian) of this goal. Within the USSR, Jewish emigration advocates worked closely with other elements of the human rights movement, broadening the concerns of that incipient political movement. By the early 1980s, over 400,000 Jews formally attempted to exercise the right to emigrate. Some progress was made toward and unofficial accommodation: despite suspension of Soviet-Israeli diplomatic relations in 1967, nearly 200,000 Soviet Jews were allowed to emigrate during the 1970s. This represented the worldwide relaxation of tensions known as the era of "detente" between the Soviets and the West. For Soviet Jews, 1979 was the most open year: 51,000 left; in 1978 another 39,000 emigrated.
However, after Soviet-Western relations soured over the Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan in 1979-1980, the gates closed. By 1982, Soviet Jewish emigres numbered only 2688; still in 1985, only 1140 were permitted to go. After Mikhail Gorbachev's appointment as Soviet leader (March 1985) matters improved only slowly at first. Indeed, the first full year of the Gorbachev era (1986), a meager 914 were allowed out, fully 20% less than 1985 (WP 1987a: 15). In 1987, about 8000, in 1988, less than 10,000 got out.
Speaking of the overall situation, it is therefore fair to say that for the most part, during each year 1980-1989, more and more Soviet Jews were denied exit. These individuals commonly were called the "Refuseniks." The struggle inside Russia and beyond on behalf of the refuseniks formed a major part of the Soviet human rights movement. Even despite official discouragement, by the mid 1980s, nearly 25 percent of the Jews in the Soviet Union --about 383,000 people-- had had enough. They requested and received formal affidavits from a relative in Israel, the first step in the emigration process. By the early 1990s, nearly 1.1 million have sought this. For merely asking for an affidavit, thousands were jailed: Ida Nudel and Natan Sharansky being the best known. In custody, they joined other Jewish activists, like Josef Begun who was jailed in the 1980s for trying to teach Hebrew to Jewish youth.
Using these affidavits, the over 380,000 who formally applied to Gorbachev-era Soviet authorities asked to be allowed to emigrate abroad, to Israel, to the USA and elsewhere. Let us recap briefly this emigration process of the 1980s:
Step one. After requesting and receiving an affidavit from a close blood relative living abroad, an individual could apply for an exit visa. To receive an affirmative response the applicant must have presented evidence of a sponsor in Israel who was a direct relative of the applicant. Officially, until 1986, a distant relative was good enough, though closer ties often were insisted upon by officials. Under Gorbachev's "reformed" emigration code, the affidavit was required to come from a brother, sister, mother, father or spouse. No other Jews were even permitted to apply to leave. On November 8, 1986, new regulations governing emigration were published which had the effect of speeding up the review process for some applicants. Moreover, as this was the very first legal code to describe emigration regulations ever to published in the USSR, it must be conceded that it represented a change. One of the provisions of the regulations, however, was worrisome. "Refuseniks" and their advocates pointed out that the new rules required a six month delay in reapplying for exit if a family or individual was turned down. Under the regulations as they were applied, 1986-91, distant relatives --sometimes even non Jewish in-laws-- were given the power to veto the exit of relatives.
Step two. Until 1989, the applicant ordinarily could expect to lose their job once they applied to leave. Since processing took up to two years, many families were rendered indigent by this bureaucratic delay in the absence of work. Some then were classified "social parasites" for being unemployed and were sent off to the labor camps. Services such as telephones often were cut off to the exit applicant and his family.
Step three. Even when a communist-era exit visa was granted, educated applicants then were required to compensate the State for their skills, and this "education tax" frequently was beyond the means of applicants. For some (e.g., Vladimir Slepak), past work with "State Secrets" --even 15 or 20 years earlier, even in outdated technologies (e.g., the television industry)-- long was used to disqualify the applicant and all of his family from ever emigrating. These policies to actively discourage outward migration were forcefully defended by General Secretary Gorbachev in an interview with NBC News' Tom Brokaw in December 1987, who said that advocates of Jewish outward migration were trying to precipitate a "brain drain" from the Soviet Union. This reflected a tension between Gorbachev's acceptance of Western humanitarian concepts and his residual, traditionally Russian attitudes. Gorbachev's claim rested squarely on the traditional Soviet definition of the status of all citizens in which he/she was construed to be the property of the state, not individuals with inherent, human rights. Thus, his 1991 removal from power was a matter celebrated by many Soviet Jews.
Soviet Jews had known a different face of Gorbachev. In October 1985, when virtually no Jews were being permitted to leave the USSR, he attempted to deflect pressure on Jewish emigration concerns by telling reporters in Paris: "Nowhere in the entire world do Jews enjoy such extensive political and other rights as they do in the USSR" (Wiesenthal 1986: 4). Soon thereafter, and despite the claim of "extensive rights" he himself had made, gestures were begun which suggested that the leader felt a need to act. First came the release of notable Jewish "refuseniks" (e.g., Anatoly "Natan" Sharansky). His emigration to Israel, widely celebrated, brought international attention to the leader's posture on this issue even though less than one thousand Soviet Jews enjoyed the same right to emigrate that year! Despite the clear record of continuing denial of the right to emigrate then in evidence, Soviet emigration officials even claimed (WP 1987a: 15) that it was not official anti-Semitism that delayed the process but "bureaucratic behavior" and "procrastination."
If leaders' attitudes are revealing, so is a candid look at cold facts. By a quantitative measure, no Soviet leader ultimately would let more Jews go than did Gorbachev. The change began in 1987, the same year that steps first were taken toward a more general glasnost in the arts and other spheres of Soviet life. In 1987, a little over 8000 Soviet Jews were allowed to emigrate, a substantial increase over the mere 912 who were allowed out in 1986.5 The trend was generally upward throughout the year: In January 1987, 98 left; in February, 146 were allowed to go; in March 470; in April 717; in May 871; in June 796; in July 819; in August 787; in September 724; and in October 912 (monthly figures are from National Conference on Soviet Jewry, WP 1987b: 23). The trend continued in 1988. In January 1988, 658 left; in February 1988, 723; and in March, 944. Overall, in the first quarter of 1988, 2325 were permitted to emigrate, compared to 714 in the comparable period of 1987 (WP 1988c: 35). In January through August of 1988, 9687 Soviet Jews emigrated for Israel and other Western destinations.
Agitation on behalf of emigration rights, however, was discouraged as late as 1987-88. On February 9, 1987 a group of 6 to 10 refuseniks began daily public picketing in the Arbat district of Moscow. Western television crews attempting to film the extraordinary public appearance of banners declaring "Let Us Leave for Israel" (etc.) were attacked by Soviet youths who destroyed their equipment and obstructed their filming. The refuseniks fared worse: "hecklers...encircle them, ripping away their banners and yelling anti-Semitic slogans" (WP 1987c: 30). Similar beatings of Zionist demonstrators occurred in Moscow as Gorbachev and Reagan signed the historic INF nuclear weapons treaty (December 1987). Nearby Soviet militiamen, in each case, stood idly and did not interfere; indeed, in December 1987, they detained and beat US Newsman Peter Cesno (of CNN) who attempted to cover the event.
In 1989, great change finally became evident, foreshadowing the breaking apart of other communist orthodoxies elsewhere later that year. About 50,000 Soviet Jews emigrated during the first ten months of the year (WP 1989: 31). This trend continued into 1990: preliminary figures indicated that 132,000 Soviet Jews exited, January to July (WP 1990: 14). Figures for 1991 indicate about twice that number got out in the first half of the year. In August, the ending of the Communist era --and with it the systematic denial of all human rights-- began.
It is also true that the Gorbachev government moved much faster in recognizing other ethnic groups' rights to emigrate. For example, over 21,000 Volga Germans (whom the former West German government welcomed without restriction) exited in the first half of 1988, a rate four times higher than that granted to Soviet Jews in that same year. In 1986, 753 and in 1987, about 14,000 Volga Germans had been permitted to leave the USSR (WP 1988d: 53). Inasmuch as there are approximately the same number of each ethnicity in the USSR (1.9 million), and since far more Jews had officially applied to emigrate, the discrepancy seemed to many to be an echo of long established Russian and Soviet anti-Semitism.
Why did Gorbachev let many of the Jews go? This is a question with which historians may one day arrive at an answer. From our close perspective, it seems plausible to argue that, to some degree, the Gorbachev regime, overall, did genuinely entertain broad intentions to liberalize Soviet society. Jews were a means to this end. But, Gorbachev's words (above) to an extent betray this simple explanation of his actions. A more complex picture emerges when we survey the ruined economy, the stagnation and collapse of the Soviet Union, that coincided with his emigration choices. A Soviet GNP of $1.664 trillion (US) in 1988 grew only slightly, to $1.694 trillion (1989), then declined slightly to $1.587 trillion (1990), then collapsed to an estimated $1.350 trillion in 1991 (Dobbs 1991: 18). In such a setting, foreign aid and international loans had, by 1991, become so important to the survival of the system that Gorbachev simply could not alienate the West without risking collapse of the communist regime (which of course happened anyway). In this perspective, Jewish emigration permitted both a reduction in the total number of mouths to feed and served to remove one of the long-standing obstacles to further foreign aid to the Russian and Soviet economies.
Modern Russian - Jewish Relations
Under Gorbachev, there were meaningful improvements in Soviet-Jewish relations beyond the relaxation of emigration policies. First, a conference held by Soviet refuseniks to which Western reporters were invited, went unobstructed by the KGB in 1987. Then, at Baku in 1987, came the official recognition of the first instructional classes in the Hebrew language ever authorized in the USSR. Another small gesture that year, the opening of a privately owned Kosher restaurant, was permitted in Moscow. In 1988, came the release of the last Jewish political prisoners (i.e., prisoners of conscience who were imprisoned for having publicly promoted Judaism. In 1988, an informal library on Jewish subjects was permitted to be unofficially established in the Moscow apartment of a retired Red Army officer, Yuri Sokol, who is a Jew (WP 1988a: D12). In February 1989, the opening of an officially sanctioned, independent center for Jewish culture in Moscow signaled another significant first.
Moreover, the opening of the Soviet press to freer debate as part of the general policy of glasnost permitted reexamination of previously taboo subjects such as the CPSU's anti-Semitism. The Communist Party newspaper Sovyetskaya Kultura, in February 1989, accused Brezhnev-era anti-Zionism of being designed to sew "mistrust and suspicion of Jews" and compared some official anti-Zionist vitriol to the writings of Adolf Hitler! (Remnick 1989: 34).
It is now clear that Gorbachev's relative relaxation of Soviet anti-Semitic policies, 1987-89, were a reflection of deeper struggles underway to define a new, freer future for the USSR. It is well to recall that simultaneous struggle. In November 1987, Boris Yeltsin, then Moscow CPSU Party chief and then a Gorbachev supporter, was forced from his position after making a speech to the CPSU Central Committee highly critical of conservatives' resistance to economic restructuring (or "perestroika"). Yegor Ligachev, leader of this traditionalist Communist element in the Politburo of the Central Committee of the CPSU at the time, was instrumental in Yeltsin's initial firing and in Yeltsin's removal from the Politburo (February 1988). By early 1988, Ligachev frequently published sharp criticisms of Gorbachev's general policies of "glasnost" (i.e., openness) in the arts, focusing some of his harshest criticisms on Soviet rock music and other manifestations of "bourgeois morals" (WP 1988b: 15).
These quarrels were not fully settled by the failure of the neo-Stalinists' abortive Moscow coup of August 1991, nor have they fully been resolved in the unstable years since. Though Yeltsin served since 1990 as President of the Russian Federation, the legislative chamber with which he contended in the 1990s remained dominated by a coalition of Ligachev-type, former CPSU hacks (even though Ligachev himself was forced into retirement in 1991)6 and hyper-nationalist followers of Russian neo-fascist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Yeltsin's successor as Russian President, Vladimir Putin (2000-2008), did a better job in reducing the influence of these extremists in the legislature, but did so by encouraging the re-emergence of a strongly authoritarian state at the expense of the consolidation of democracy.
From the perspective of Jewish interests, it is certainly encouraging that since 1991 democratic revolution, several hundred thousand additional Jewish families have succeeded in emigrating. The process of regularizing this massive relocation of people was further advanced by the re-establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the Soviet/Russian and the Israeli governments, in October 1991, and the continuation of this policy by the Russian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian successor governments. By 1996, over 600,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union had left for Israel and the West in the preceding decade, an exodus of near Biblical proportions. By 2006, over one and one half million Jews from the former Soviet Union had left for Israel and the West.
For the approximately one million Jews who remained in Russia, however, the ever-present social phenomenon of anti-Semitism was compounded by the breakdown in governmental authority after the August 1991 coup. Explicitly anti-Semitic politicians are heard on the airwaves; and anti-Semitic activist groups (e.g., Pamyat) now parade in chaotic, violent, crime-filled streets, and anti-Semitic political parties compete in free elections. Rumors of new pogroms have circulated widely, and, while no widespread violence has occurred, these rumors have served to intimidate and sow fear not inconsistent with known facts.
Prejudiced Attitudes. A scientific survey conducted by a joint team of Soviet and Western sociologists in Moscow in the Summer of 1990 found that 27.7 percent of those polled agreed with the statement "If they have to choose between people and money, Jews will choose money" (Tumarkin: 36). A visiting American journalist from Boston interpreted this data by commenting: "If I learned that 'only' a quarter of Boston-area residents held anti-Semitic views, I would be horrified." Moreover, according to a 1990 survey published in Moscow News, nearly one in ten Moscow residents --8.8 percent-- seemed then to hold attitudes that went even further than hypothetical hostility. Considerable numbers appeared to be potentially violent anti-Semites, in that in the survey they expressed agreement with the statement "The Jews deserve to be punished, because they crucified Christ" (Tumarkin: 45). We can appreciate some of the ill-ease of Moscow's Jews then felt when we realize that this was a sentiment then embraced by eight hundred thousand Moscow residents. Not a great deal of progress in overcoming this prejudice was accomplished during the whole of the Yeltsin years. A 1999 study by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith (a U.S. Jewish advocacy group) found 60 percent of Russians to agree that "Jews have too much power in world business," and 42 percent to believe that "Jews don't care what happens to non-Jews." Unlike the situation in most of the West, levels of Russian anti-Semitism have actually risen since the 1960s, and that college graduates in Russia display nearly as great a number of anti-Semites (39 percent) as is found among less educated persons with only high school education (47 percent anti-Semitic). A 2005 poll found a third of Russians to believe Jews should be barred from holding political office in Russia (BBC).
Political anti-Semitism. Prejudiced attitudes have not yet translated into broad public support for anti-Semitic political parties in Russia, but such groups also have not withered away. An early political group to openly foment anti-Semitic hatred in post-communist Russia, Pamyat, appeared for most of the 1990s to enjoy significant support. Though its leader, Konstatin Smirnov-Ostashvili, in 1990 was given a two year jail term for using a megaphone to shout down and otherwise disrupt a meeting of Jewish writers, his prosecution was an exception to the larger pattern of legal indifference to the advocacy of hate. He was the very first Soviet citizen ever convicted for stirring up ethnic hatred toward Jews (Shogren: 14), and there have been few prosecutions since. Pamyat's growth in the 2000s was eclipsed by other hate groups (e.g., Russian National Unity, or RNU, a paramilitary force), even though one of the RNU leaders, Igor Semyonov, served a two year term for incitement. These phenomena, of course, are not confined to Russia: still other anti-Semitic groups have appeared in other former Soviet republics especially in the western regions of Ukraine (i.e., around Lvov), in Belarus and in parts of the Baltic states. In short, democratic processes have permitted public anti-Semitism to become more visible; and periods of economic decline such as 1990-99 have made their wild charges appear more plausible. Voters have at times responded to their hateful messages. Troublingly, in December 1993 general elections for a new parliament, Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democrats --a Pamyat supported neo-fascist group-- out polled all other parties, receiving 23 percent of the national vote. Though its support fell in subsequent Duma ballotings, the Liberal Democrats remain one of the parties that have retained seats in Putin's legislature.
Elements of the contemporary leadership of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) also have exploited anti-Semitic themes in their rhetoric. CPRF Duma member General Albert Makashov repeatedly has blamed Jews for Russia's problems, calling for re-creation of the Pale of Settlement as a zone in which to confine all Jews, and using derogatory terms to blame "Yids" in an October 1998 editorial for being "a bloodsucker feeding on the misfortunes of other people. They drink the blood of the indigenous peoples of the state; they are destroying industry and agriculture." On more than one occasion, Makashov called for the extermination of Jews, and did so at public rallies in Moscow and Samara that year. Prosecutors have declined to bring criminal charges in any of these incitements by CPRF leaders, and the Duma itself pointedly refused to pass a resolution condemning Makashov.
Public authorities who have refused to go along with this trend toward the popularization of anti-Semitism have, however, continued to enjoy success. In April 1993, for example, the Yeltsin Administration received a strong vote of confidence in a series of public referenda focused on whether the public still supported him, and his government's policies, even as anti-Semitic rivals were gaining traction with their hate-based agenda. Even the worrisome December 1993 election that propelled the (neo-fascist) Liberal Democrats occurred concurrently with public ratification of a new Constitution that substantially increased the powers of the presidency. This can be read to represent solidification of governmental authority based on democratic consent. Seen in this light, Yeltsin's re-election as Russian President (July 1996) reinforced the impression that the anti-Semites were in retreat: indeed, Zhirinovsky's 1993 support fell by more than half by 1996; and the presidential elections of Vladimir Putin in the new millennium (2000, 2004) certainly put in office a candidate far less anti-Semitic than his Russian Communist opponents. But disturbingly, President Putin's anti-corruption campaign against the "liberal" media in Russia, heavily focused on media owned by Jewish individuals.
During an April 2005 state visit to Israel by President Putin --the first such visit to the Jewish state by any Soviet or Russian leader-- Ibrahim Berkowitz, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of The Former Soviet Union, said "Putin's administration is very strong against any acts or forms of anti-Semitism" (BBC April 28, 2005). Yet, despite his accumulation of new authority, the Putin team has been unable to bring a stop to a chain of violent attacks against Jews, as the Anti-Defamation League regularly has chronicled. Among these were the vandalizing of a Jewish cemetery in Pyatigorsk in June 2003 and in April 2004; an attack on St. Petersburg's only kosher restaurant (March 29, 2004); the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in St. Petersburg (February 15, 2004); and the bombing of a synagogue in Derbent in Dagestan (January 27, 2004). It is in this context we must evaluate the meaning of the January 11, 2006 attack on the Chabad Bronnaya synagogue in Moscow in which eight persons, including one American, were seriously assaulted with knives. The rabbi of this synagogue, Yitzhak Kogan, summed up the situation for Jews in modern Russia:
"There is no more anti-Semitism on the state level, as we saw in Soviet times, but instead we have a lot of freedom for anti-Semitic groups in Russia, and the incident (of January 11, 2006) was one of its manifestations."
The story of the Jews in Russia is both a part of Jewish history and a lens through which to better understand the Russian political experience. The 2000's are not the best of times, but they certainly are not the worst of times, either. In a very real sense, the durability of policies more tolerant of Jews and other minority peoples, in the first decade of the new millennium and beyond, are likely to be a byproduct of the outcome of the deeper conflict to define what sort of civil society, with what sort of government, will be Russia's.
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1. This section grew out of a 1989-1990 family history research project conducted as part of her bat mitzvah study by then fourteen year old Jennifer Bowen, daughter of the author, who in 1999 became Jennifer Bowen Wieland. Mrs. Wieland currently is an attorney in private practice in Kansas City, MO. This section of the reading has been co-authored by Prof. Bowen and Jennifer.
2. Mauricy Orzech, in Der Veker, an underground newspaper published in the Nazi-controlled Warsaw Ghetto, stated in the April 30, 1942 issue that in just the Kovno area of Lithuania, 300,000 Jews already had been slaughtered. Later investigations have placed the verified figure lower, but it is of interest that the broad contours of the Holocaust appear to have been so widely known so early. Orzech's article appears in Dawidowicz (1976): pp. 294-295.
3. Documentation of the family's correspondence in the 1920s and 1930s is linked here.
4. Spelling of the village name is a transliteration based on memories of surviving family members and for this reason may not appear exactly the same in archival sources.
5. Lithuanian President Landsbergis, in 1990, formally wrote Israel's President Chaim Herzog to apologize to the Jewish people for this widespread Lithuanian collaboration during the Nazi occupation. In his letter, which was made public on Israel's Independence Day, Landsbergis pledged to renew Jewish culture in Lithuania and to establish a permanent day to observe the memory of Lithuania's once vital Jewish community ("The Worldwide Battle...": p. 10). However, by late 1991, credible reports had surfaced in the west that the Landsbergis government had released or otherwise exonerated large numbers of Nazi-era Lithuanian war criminals. The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles was reported to have asserted that "at least eleven people we believe clearly are war criminals have been exonerated. There may be hundreds more" (Goshko 1991: 34). Landsbergis rebuffed the allegations but agreed to meet with Jewish leaders to receive their charges so that he might investigate further. In 1993, the German Government began paying pensions to former members of the Latvian and Lithuanian S.S.; however, no compensation to the few surviving heirs of the Latvian and Lithuanian Jewish communities they demolished ever has been paid. Only in February 2001 was the first Lithuanian, Kazys Gimzauskas, convicted by a Lithuanian court of Holocaust related crimes, and that individual was not incarcerated after the conviction (WP 2001: 20).
6. Goshko (1988) reported 8011 emigrated in 1987, while 8155 were said to have emigrated that year according to figures reported by the (US) National Conference on Soviet Jewry, in WP 1988a: D12.
7. For further discussion of Ligachev's career, views of glasnost and the roots of hardline opposition to Gorbachev, see Hazan: 9-81.
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