Svetlana Shklarov, MD, RSW
Interdisciplinary Graduate Studies, University of Calgary
Paper Presented at the 18th Annual International Conference of Holocaust Child Survivors,
Second Generation and Families in Detroit, MI, on August 27, 2006
In 1975, I was a grade 8 student in Moscow, Russia. My school held an essay contest entitled “No One is Forgotten, Nothing is Forgotten”, on the heroic history of WWII, or the Great Patriotic War, as it was called in Russia. Every student in our school wrote about soldiers, Red Army heroes who sacrificed their lives for the victory, and would never be forgotten.
My grandmother and mother, having miraculously survived the War as Jews, had very different images of the unforgettable. They suggested that I write about Vilna Ghetto, using a book which they just had me read, and which made me cry endlessly. The book was by Icchokas Meras, a Lithuanian Russian-language novelist, one of the very few who wrote about the Holocaust at that time. I remember struggling with an intense inner conflict. By choosing this theme for my essay, I had to make a very unusual statement which would single me out among my peers. Besides, I had another, bigger problem: I would have to explain the very basics, because nobody would even know what I was talking about. I was sure that nobody in my class knew anything about the Holocaust. The very word Holocaust was never spoken, and the Nazi atrocities against the Jews were never mentioned in history classes.
My first reaction to my grandmother’s idea was to say that this theme was not appropriate for the contest. It was expected that students would write essays about Soviet fighters and heroes. I was sincerely scared of being exposed. How could I write about the Jews? How could I write about people who were mere victims, who suffered and fought, but did not defeat the enemy?
In my mind, the memories of the Holocaust belonged to my “home world”. This theme did not belong, in any possible way, to my outside, “school world”. As a rule, these two worlds, two cultures, did not intersect. To bring the inside theme out, in my mind, would have been a violation of the very basic rule I learned during my childhood years.
My grandmother and mother insisted, and I finally succumbed. I wrote my essay just the way they had envisioned. I did not win the contest, but my literature teacher who was Jewish was deeply moved. (Most likely, if my teacher was not Jewish, my family would not have prompted me to write such an essay, neither would I have dared to submit it.) I remember my teacher’s face when she talked about my essay in class. It was a moment of recognition for me. It was intense. It was a lesson of bringing my “hidden” identity to the outside.
My mother was a child during the War. She and her both parents fled and survived, although they lost many close, beloved family members. I belong to the second generation of Soviet Jewish Holocaust survivors. I have lived in Canada for the last eleven years. I feel exceptionally fortunate, because soon after my immigration I became exposed for many years to an overwhelming experience of listening to the Holocaust survivors. A former paediatrician, I became a seniors’ social worker at Jewish Family Service Calgary, responsible for the entire area of advocacy associated with a variety of Holocaust era restitution claims through different international organizations representing survivors. I listened to and recorded the accounts of persecution and survival. If the stories were told in Russian, I translated them into English before entering them into the application forms. I read official response letters to the survivors, communicated to them the decisions about their eligibility for restitution, and helped them with their appellations if their claims were rejected. I cried together with them as they recounted their experiences, and had my share of nightmares and flashbacks from the returning memories of my own family history, which intersected with what I was hearing and recording every day.
Many survivors who I interviewed were Soviet Jews like me, and most of them were telling about their past to a stranger for the first time. They had never previously been identified as Holocaust survivors. Neither had I thought about myself as belonging to the second generation. The vivid sense of my identity began to reemerge in my mind. Although I did not realize it at that time, it was a great honor to be trusted and record these first-time, long hidden stories. It was a bitter honor mixed with the hardship of my parallel intense mental work on processing the memories of my own and my family’s past.
There was another side to my experience as a story recorder, which I am beginning to analyze only now. At that time, I was simultaneously immersed into the two worlds. One was the world of the Soviet Jews whose Holocaust memories had been long silenced and never publicly recognized, whose stories had been never told, and whose identities had remained hidden for many years. The second of the two worlds was new to me – the world of Western Jewry, where preserving and honoring the Holocaust memories had become part of the culture for many decades, where the personal trauma of being persecuted as a Jew had been recognized and eligible for psychological treatment and academic research, and where Holocaust education was part of the ordinary social life.
In the first lines of this article I told a simple story from my school years. By doing so, I was trying to give a flavour of the social context of my childhood, and to convey meanings that I could not have explained in abstract concepts, without a live example. Narratives are the most human way of making sense of life events. To comprehend and communicate our understanding of the world, we tell stories to ourselves and others more often and naturally than we formulate abstract explanations. I know that a few years ago, before I learned so much from my conversations with the Holocaust survivors, I would have told about same events in a very different way. It might not even have occurred to me to recount my grade 8 essay story at all. It may be true that my fifteen years of immigration and immersion into Israeli and Canadian Jewish cultures have shaped the way I now present the past events of my life. Our personal stories are shaped by broader collective narratives that are ordinarily told in our societies, by cultural discourses, and by the influence of the established collective memory. Changing the environment of the “collective consciousness”, as a context of recounting, may result in changing the ways in which we retell.
The following account is a reflection of my history of belonging to Soviet Jewry, blended with my assumed and current Canadian vision. In this article I will retell and refer to a number of personal, literary, and collective narratives, with the intent to communicate my vision of some life aspects of Soviet Holocaust survivors who were children during the War and who belong to the second generation. By narrating, I hope to describe the social context of their lives better than by merely listing the features that I seem to know, because, according to Hannah Arendt, “storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it”.
Soon after the liberation, many European Jewish survivors moved to the Western countries that became home for them and their children. They were encouraged to assimilate in their new countries and forget their past. Many of them were silenced and could not talk about their Holocaust experiences, at least in the first decades after their immigration. We know that this situation was very common among the newcomers to the US, Canada, Australia, and even Israel, most intensely among those survivors who were children at that time (see, for example, Novick, 1999; Fogelman, 2001; Cohen, 2005). The survivors built their lives anew in the cultures that gradually became their own, even though many felt strongly rejected at first.
Most of those survivors who were children during the Holocaust grew distant from the cultures of their countries of birth. Their intense memories about the culture of their childhood remained “frozen in time”: many survivors still remember their countries as they were decades ago, before and during the War. Even those who went back to visit their old countries, and who have done deep research into their roots, are not exposed to the live, renewed, and evolving cultures of their places of birth. The second generation, children of survivors, grew up in English-language countries, and entirely embraced Western culture, including the culture and collective memories of Western Jewry. Stories told in this part of the world about the Holocaust and the Jewish life after the War became part of these people’s identity, part of their own life histories. In Israel, the cultural environment and historically shaped public discourse also influenced the personal narratives of survivors and their children (Cohen, 2005).
All these aspects are well known, and I have to explain why I am referring to them. With respect to many common events and experiences, we tend to take for granted our society’s ordinary interpretations that are embedded in the everyday images and descriptions that we receive from the media, literature, art, politics, and community gatherings. Sometimes we forget the history of these routine interpretations. In the decades after the 1970s, when the Holocaust became one of the central themes in American collective memory and culture, the general public awareness of the Holocaust gradually began to be taken for granted. Most young people don’t even realize now that only forty or fifty years ago Western Jewish communities were not ready to hear about the experiences of Holocaust survivors arriving from Europe. Similarly, we tend to embrace as given our local society’s established complex of images and stories without thinking about the social contexts in other countries. We may have to be reminded about the existence of Jewish people in other parts of the world, whose after-Holocaust life histories evolved in the midst of other cultural environments. These people’s personal interpretations of their Jewish and Holocaust experiences were shaped by a dominant public consciousness and collective memories that were fundamentally different from those in the West.
A large part of the she’erit hapleta, the remnants of European Jewish communities, survived in the Soviet Union and stayed in this country after the liberation (often against their wish). These survivors and their children remained immersed into the Soviet culture and Russian language, shared Russia’s historical turmoil, and often became subject to severe discrimination and secondary trauma. For decades, these people were practically isolated from their brothers and sisters who survived the Holocaust alongside them, but left for the West or Israel shortly thereafter. The isolation of Soviet Jews from the Jewish groups in other countries was most unspeakable, and their repeated, permanent re-traumatization due to overwhelming anti-Semitism was most severe. As a result of the isolation, Western communities knew little about this large and diverse group of people with a rich culture and an important history. This lack of knowledge deepened with the years, despite the wide awareness of many historical facts and the sense of keen solidarity with Soviet Jewry.
The Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation has created a unique archive of Russian and Ukrainian-language voices that would have otherwise been lost. The collection of these testimonies is scarce in comparison with those in other languages. The number of videotaped testimonies from the USA and Canada is 22,681, from the Ukraine 3,433, whereas in Russia only 675 interviews have been recorded. This contribution is unique and immensely important, because in the Former Soviet Union, as a home country of Russian-speaking Holocaust survivors, virtually nothing has been done to archive the survivors’ testimonials (except the suppressed efforts during the War that I describe below).
The Others’ Pathways
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Western Jewry has been reminded about the profound diversion between Soviet and Western Jewish histories and cultures on many occasions. Two pathways of exchange are particularly eye-opening. First, the information flow from the former Soviet republics has become very intense, including the media, art, and rich literature available in translation. Second, large numbers of Russian-speaking Jews have immigrated to the Western countries, bringing their baggage of experiences, expectations, and sorrows, along with many unanswered questions related to the essence of Jewish identity, the meaning of community participation, the memories of the Holocaust, and the ways of transmitting the knowledge to the younger generations. These unanswered questions puzzle many Western Jewish community leaders, psychologists, and academics.
There seems to be a barrier of confused and unexpected non-understanding between the established North American Jewish communities and Soviet émigrés, including the two respective groups of Holocaust survivors. Considering the large numbers of the newcomers, these issues are becoming visible. It is not only the language that creates barriers between the Russian-speaking and English-speaking Jews. Perhaps, the differences have emerged because the historical pathways of the two groups diverted after the War. Many memories of the tragedy and survival are common, but the contexts of recounting these memories are not identical. People in the two groups do not share rituals of remembering or memorial dates, possibly, because they have different evolvement history of their memories’ interpretations. (How many Russian-speaking survivors attend the Holocaust Remembrance Day or other survivors’ group gatherings in North American communities? How many Western Jewish community members are aware of the newcomers’ remembrance rituals?) The two groups speak different languages not only in the linguistic sense, but also in interpreting the meanings of seemingly similar events and experiences.
Misunderstandings often come from the lack of listening. When Soviet Jews began to arrive in the West, the expectation was that they would be “Jewish” in the traditional Eastern European sense or in the contemporary Western or North American sense. Since neither of these expectations proved true, the Soviet Jews were seen as different (Glicksman & Van Haitsma, 2002).
Conclusions were often drawn from superficial observations, brief community encounters, or, in academic research, from pre-composed survey interviews. For example, Kliger (2004) concluded in his study of Soviet Jews’ identity and integration that “in any individual case, these [various] identities may present with different intensity, making Russian-speaking Jews a specific cocktail of mixed identities” (p. 5). In a very insightful, compassionate article by Glicksman and Van Haitsma, it was stated that “Soviet Jewry… while identifying as Jews, did not have a clear idea of what that could mean in terms of their own lives” (p. 230). I believe that the themes of identity, diversion, and knowledge exchange are fundamental for the discussion of social contexts of Soviet Holocaust survivors. However, these themes are too large for this article. I do not intend to argue at length against the notions of “mixed identities” of the Soviet Jews, their lack of Jewish education, their being “culturally Russian”, or other “psychological myths”. (In 2001, Eva Fogelman used this term in relation to the stigmatization of generations of the Holocaust in Western countries and Israel. Are we witnessing the repeating of history, at this time with Russian-speaking newcomers?) As a response to these conclusions, and instead of theoretical counter-arguments, I will just retell one more family story. My mother tells:
I remember very well that he [my mother’s father] was dying to go… you see at that time the state of Israel had already been established, but to go there [it was a taboo even to talk about it]… He wanted, he longed to go and see that land, and he bought – you know, at that time [in Russia] it was very difficult to find a radio receiver which could tune in to the Voice of Israel broadcast. And he used to tune in, and when he listened to this music, when he heard this call-sign – he looked all transformed in these moments. And we all, the entire family, we listened to these broadcasts. It was after Stalin’s death, of course, it was in the late 1950s, close to the 1960s.
And my father and my uncle Nuhimka, they were great singers, and they used to sing Jewish songs in Yiddish very well. And when we had family celebrations, even if these celebrations had nothing to do with the Jews, everybody used to ask, ‘Grigory Abramovich, sing something’. And he used to always sing. He sang romances, and he sang Jewish folk songs, especially from the repertoire of Appelboum – there was this singer, and then there was another very good singer, Alexandrovich… Well, of course, he used to buy all LP records which were available. At that time Lifshitzaite, Alexandrovich already started to issue records, and we listened to these with great joy, and we all memorized and knew these songs – we children. (excerpt from a transcribed interview)
There was at least one important social context feature that was common for both Western and Soviet Jews – the socially imposed silence. Having arrived from Europe to North America or Israel shortly after the War, many immigrant survivors were silenced for a long time before the themes of the Holocaust became part of social discourse. It has been shown that the shift from silence to awareness in the collective consciousness also shaped the ways in which survivors were able to tell about their personal life events (Novick, 1999; Cohen, 2005). The Jews who stayed in the Soviet Union had similar experiences of rejection after the liberation, but the pervasive suppression of their voices lasted much longer. For many Soviet survivors, it never ceased. It did not only mean the “conspiracy of silence” within families or small communities. In addition to the overwhelming psychological and personal biographical factors, which are so well familiar to all survivors, the voiceless state of Soviet Jews was imposed by the dominant public modes of interpreting history. In the Soviet Union, the Holocaust memory remained an “ideologically taboo” long after it had become accepted as a significant part of social consciousness in the Western world (Gitelman, 1999, 2001, 2002; Altman, 2005). The social and political atmosphere inevitably shaped the ways in which personal memories were shared within families and between generations.
Child survivors of the Holocaust in North America, Australia, and Israel are no strangers to the context of forced silence. The silence surrounded them for decades, because soon after the liberation they were told that their stories were not important, that they had been too young to clearly remember, or that their suffering was not the “real” suffering in comparison with that of concentration camp survivors (Krell, 1999). Most child survivors have the experience of living in the world of hidden memories which were not allowed to be recounted. They know what it feels like “to be a survivor but on the margin of survivorhood” (Krell, p. 5). They were enabled to publicly identify themselves as survivors and retell their stories only in the mid-1980s. Hence, child survivors in the West may feel close to the Jews of the Soviet Union who were silenced after the War. When recent Russian-speaking newcomers are questioned about their past, they often leave the westerners with an impression that they are “hesitant to talk about the Jewish aspects of their war experience because of their fears from past times spent in the Soviet Union” (Glicksman & Van Haitsma, 2002, p. 229). Soviet official ideology effectively suppressed the public memory of the Holocaust for many decades.
Ignoring the history of the Holocaust in the Soviet collective consciousness may still influence the ways in which Soviet survivors and their children tell their personal stories. The Soviet state used to impose a specific kind of “hierarchy of suffering” that was present in the media, literature, historical texts, school education programs, and historical memorializing policies. The suffering of the Jews during the War was ignored in public opinion, because it was not supposed to be seen as greater than (or even equal to) the suffering of the Soviet people in general. The official cult of Soviet victorious military heroism left the “passive victims” in a deep shadow. The particular role of the Jews in the heroic history of the War victories was also largely underplayed through the intentional ignoring of statistics and facts that demonstrated the considerable Jewish participation in the partisan movement and the Red Army battles (Altman, 2005). The statement was standard that Jewish stories were not in any way unique or significant. The argument that “not only Jews died here” was routinely used by the government officials to forbid the Jewish communities to establish visible monuments on the sites of mass killings. At times, such projects were even denounced as “Zionist propaganda”.
In spite of the recent revival of the Holocaust memory recognition in Russia (beginning, roughly, in the late 1980s with single, isolated actions and public statements of the Jewish activist movement), it has not become part of the general public consciousness. There is a rich documentary archive at the new Moscow Holocaust Education Center (the first public organization in the post-Soviet Russia, established in 1991), and an exposition in one Moscow synagogue. Yet, there are no museums or large public expositions for Holocaust remembrance or genocide studies in Russia. Holocaust educational programs are scarce. Only due to the many efforts of the Moscow Holocaust Education Centre, has the term Holocaust been included in the recently approved educational standard for high school history programs (Altman, 2005).
One cannot refer to the social context of the Holocaust survivors in the Soviet Union without describing the events of the 1940s and early 1950s associated with the creation and consequent persecution of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC). One of the most significant projects of the JAC was its work on preparing The Black Book that contained witness testimonies and documented facts about the tragedy of Soviet and Eastern European Jewry. The book was intended for immediate publication in 11 languages, but the plans were not realized. It is beyond the scope of this article to give the full historical account of these well known events, but I present some key historical points, because they are seminal for the understanding of the entire system of attitudes surrounding the Holocaust memories in the Soviet Union. The following brief summary is based on the articles by Shimon Markish (1999), David Markish (2005), and Ilya Altman (2005), and the book by Veidlinder (2002).
The JAC was established by the Soviet authorities in April 1942 with the intent to mobilize moral and financial support of Western Jewry for the Soviet struggle against Nazi Germany. The Committee was composed from the brightest and most visible Jewish artists, writers, musicians and scientists of the time. Solomon Michoels, the prominent Moscow actor and director of the Moscow Jewish State Theater, was appointed the Committee’s chairman. The Presidium also included celebrity Soviet writers Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasilii Grossman. Both served as military media reporters during the War, and there was literally no person in the Soviet Union, Jewish or Russian, who did not know their names. Vasilii Grossman, according to Shimon Markish, was the first writer in the world who described extermination camps in detail (his Treblinka Hell was published in the Russian language during the War, but later its disappearance from the public memory was ensured).
In 1943 Solomon Michoels was delegated by the Soviet government to a seven-month official tour to the USA, Mexico, Canada, and the UK. The trip was a great success, considering that for a long time no official contact was permitted between the Soviet and Western Jewish communities. As a result of this tour, many millions of dollars were raised for the Soviet military forces.
Together with the American Jewish organizations, the JAC developed a plan to publish The Black Book that would document the Nazi crimes and the Jewish resistance movement in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Ilya Ehrenburg, in his position as a military journalist, had an invaluable collection of letters, photos, witness accounts, and personal diaries, and the Committee used these materials in compiling the manuscript. The Black Book was published in the USA in 1946. In the Soviet Union, the book did not see the light of the day at that time (it was not published until 1991). In 1947, the work on The Black Book was banned. In January 1948, Solomon Michoels was covertly killed by the Soviet officials’ agents. The Committee was dismissed, and its most active members were arrested in 1948 – 1949. Twenty five of them, including the writer Peretz Markish, were secretly executed in 1952 (Markish’s sons, future writers Shimon and David were exiled together with their mother).
Ilya Altman commented in 2005 that, tragically and ironically, The Black Book was exhibited as evidence of crime in two trials simultaneously: in the Nuremberg trial on the one hand, and in the Soviet 1948 – 1952 trial of the JAC members, on the other. In the Soviet Union, the book was denounced as an example of “bourgeois nationalism”, “rootless cosmopolitism”, and “fawning on the West”.
The JAC was the first and only Jewish official body in the Soviet Union. It was composed of the best and most talented representatives of the Jewish Soviet intelligentsia. Their execution became a catastrophe for Soviet Jewry. With the liquidation of the JAC, hundreds of Jewish authors, artists, actors and journalists were arrested. The Soviet authorities orchestrated a violent attack on what was left of the Jewish culture.
In addition to books and articles, there is another source of knowledge in which my above summary is rooted. I must have been ten or twelve years old when I first heard about these events and the fate of people involved. It was my grandmother who told my cousins and me about the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and its leader Solomon Michoels. My grandmother was a survivor of both the Holocaust and the many Soviet regime threats, including the discrimination and persecution related to the “doctor’s plot” (a physician in one of the head Moscow institutes, she was among those who lost their jobs and feared for their lives). I remember her tears as she told about the arrests and murders. We children learned the history of the Holocaust and the persecutions of the Soviet regime from the stories of our grandmother. Many years later I saw the name of my grandmother’s brother in the Russian version of The Black Book, in the long list that acknowledged people who provided documentary eyewitness reports for the Committee’s manuscripts.
I consider my grandmother’s courageous disclosures an invaluable gift to me, although the meanings of her stories were long dormant, hidden in my mind, until they were re-awakened by my own experiences. She managed to pass her historical and personal knowledge and the strong sense of identity to her grandchildren. What amazes me most is how my grandmother was able to put into words for us, children, the entire heritage of her Jewish survivorship, against all the odds of overwhelming suppression inflicted by the outer world. I know many Soviet Jewish families in which at least one person played a similar role. The silence was not total.
Soviet Holocaust survivors were deprived of the basic right to openly recognize their losses and to honour the memory of those who did not survive. Their stories became invisible in the Soviet public discourse. No memorials were allowed to be established in the sites of mass killings. Silencing the Holocaust by Soviet official ideology represented a kind of oppression so pervasive, common, and ordinary that its presence may have gradually and subtly become invisible to the victims themselves. The history of oppression may have become an inhibiting background for the narratives of many Soviet Jews who now begin to identify themselves as survivors and tell about their experiences.
It takes a great strength of spirit to resist the influence of the dominant ideological taboo, and it is not limited to resisting the fear of punishment. There are many meanings to the “hesitation” of Soviet Jews in talking about the Jewish aspects of their lives. It would be wrong to explain the silence by fear alone. It is not the mere fear that still interferes with these people’s ability to retell. I also oppose the identifying of the survivors’ difficulty to retell with the “internalization” of the official attitudes, when the imposed disbelief can become part of one’s own way of thinking. No Holocaust survivor will ever internalize the denial of the Holocaust. Perhaps, the barriers for recounting have something in common with Henry Greenspan’s (1998) notion that only those stories can be recounted which are “tellable by us and hearable by our listeners” (p. xvi). Our ability to narrate not only depends on the nature of the experiences or our openness for disclosure, but also is strongly influenced by the anticipated readiness of the listener to hear and comprehend. For the Soviet survivors, it has been too long that their voices were not supposed to be heard. Many of them are not prepared to ever trust a listener, especially a collective listener. Here is my observation from just last week – my own regression, after the 15 years of immigration, into my Soviet Jew state of mind:
In a conversation with my Russian (non-Jewish) acquaintance who emigrated from Russia about 7 or 8 years ago, I showed him a book I was reading. At his first glance at the book title, he asked me what the word Holocaust meant. When I explained, he was embarrassed, and said, ‘Oh, of course I know’. When he asked what exactly I was doing for my research, I could not force myself to tell him. I caught myself on speaking about the War and the consequences of psychic trauma in later life, but I stopped short of telling about interviewing the Holocaust survivors. I am still trying to understand why.
Not only were the consequences of the Holocaust ignored by Soviet official political science and history, but also they were missing from the professional psychological and psychiatric discourse. Moreover, the general theme of psychic trauma was practically absent from medical and other academic literature in Russia until the last decade (Tzygankov & Bylim, 1998; Tarabrina, 2001). Discussions related to psychic trauma and posttraumatic stress, psychological help, psychotherapeutic treatments, or any kind of personal or social consequences of traumatic events were unheard of in the media, professional and sociological writings, and the educational system. Concepts related to this area of human experiences were virtually missing from the commonly used language. Accordingly, people did not generally expect the system to provide any kind of acknowledgement or psychological support for their psychic wounds. Lindy and Van der Kolk (1991) in their article on the state of knowledge in the area of trauma among the Soviet scientific community quoted their Russian colleague’s words, “In the west, you have few victims and many healers; in the Soviet Union we have millions of victims and nearly no healers” (p. 439). It is illustrative, however, that virtually no studies of the Holocaust survivors have been initiated even in the last ten years, in spite of the increasing body of research literature related to posttraumatic stress disorder in Russia. The theme continues to be practically invisible.
The language in which Soviet survivors may describe their experiences was never part of the common social lexicon. The words survivor and Holocaust are relatively new and rare in the ordinary Russian vocabulary. How can one recount events and feelings for which no words exist, or for which the words are perceived as awkward? How can one express the deepest emotions in a language that does not welcome the corresponding words, does not hold them, and expulses them from the ordinary speech, like a foreign body? Language is shaped by collective consciousness, and through language, the collective consciousness influences the way individuals talk abut their identity and personal history. Tells Joseph Brodsky:
The real history of consciousness starts with one’s first lie. I happen to remember mine. It was in a school library when I had to fill out an application for membership. The fifth blank was of course “nationality.” I was seven years old and knew very well that I was a Jew, but I told the attendant that I didn’t know. With dubious glee she suggested that I go home and ask my parents. I never returned to that library, although I did become a member of many others which had the same application forms. I wasn’t ashamed of being a Jew, nor was I scared of admitting it. In the class ledger our names, the names of our parents, home addresses, and nationalities were registered in full detail, and from time to time a teacher would “forget” the ledger on the desk in the classroom during breaks. Then, like vultures, we would fall upon those pages; everyone in my class knew that I was a Jew. But seven-year-old boys don’t make good anti-Semites. Besides, I was fairly strong for my age, and the fists were what mattered most then. I was ashamed of the word “Jew” itself – in Russian, “yevrei” – regardless of its connotations.
A word’s fate depends on the variety of its contexts, on the frequency of its usage. In printed Russian “yevrei” appears nearly as seldom as, say, “mediastinum” or “gennel” in American English. In fact, it also has something like the status of a four-letter word or like a name for VD. When one is seven one’s vocabulary proves sufficient to acknowledge this word’s rarity, and it is utterly unpleasant to identify oneself with it; somehow it goes against one’s sense of prosody. I remember that I always felt a lot easier with a Russian equivalent of “kike” – “zhyd” (pronounced like André Gide): it was clearly offensive and thereby meaningless, not loaded with allusions. A one-syllable word can’t do much in Russian, but when suffixes are applied, or endings, or prefixes, then feathers fly. All this is not to say that I suffered as a Jew at that tender age; it’s simply to say that my first lie had to do with my identity. (Brodsky, 1986, p. 7-8)
The Literature: The Dual Survivorship
In the context of silencing the Holocaust in the Soviet history and human sciences, the reflection of this theme in literature and art was largely suppressed for many decades. Ilya Altman (2005) identified four major periods in the history of the Holocaust literature in the Soviet Union. In the first period, during the War, for the purposes of the Soviet authorities’ political agenda, a limited permission was given for publishing some fragmented works of literature on the topic of Nazi atrocities against the Jewish people (e.g., the novels by Ehrenburg and Grossman). Soon after the War the second, silent period began, when the theme became taboo, and between the mid-1940s and late 1950s practically no literature works were published in the Soviet Union about the tragedy of Soviet and European Jews.
The third period began in the early 1960s, during Khrushchev’s “thaw”, and introduced some literary revival. In 1961, first Russian edition of the Diary of Anne Frank appeared with the introduction by Ilya Ehrenburg. A few poetry works and novels were published (e.g., Evtushenko’s Babiy Yar and Galich’s Caddish devoted to Janusz Korczak), although they caused controversial responses orchestrated by the authorities. It was symbolic that, whereas in some literature works the themes of the Holocaust were central, many other novels reflected on this topic only in the secondary, hidden, or background plots. However, even these masked or disguised disclosures were noticed and often considered rebellious. A number of novels were published in Yiddish in the magazine Sovetish Heimland (The Soviet Homeland), and were never published in Russian for broad audiences.
Two major Russian-language literary works were particularly significant during this third period. The first one was Anatoly Rybakov’s Heavy Sand (published in a literary journal October in 1978, in a very small number of copies, so one had to wait in a long library line up to access the novel). The second, seminal novel Life and Fate was written by Vasilii Grossman in the late 1950s, but the author never saw it published (Ellis, 1994). The manuscript was confiscated by KGB in 1960, and because the author managed to hide a copy, it was published in Russia when the perestroika began (following its earlier publication abroad). It is noteworthy that a certain body of literature devoted to the Jewish and Holocaust themes was always hidden away in samizdat (underground publications, for example, Boris Slutskii’s Jewish Poems in the mid-1950s), but reprinting and reading this literature was dangerous. The fourth, current period of the Russian Jewish and Holocaust-related literature history identified by Altman, began with perestroika, when the ideological taboo was lifted. Despite the habitual denial, reluctance, political pressure, and passivity, the new freedom allowed for a revival of lavish Jewish cultural life introduces in books, films, drama, art, and literary periodicals. This revival represented, among the wide array of topics, the long suppressed themes related to the Holocaust history and the after-Holocaust Jewish life. A variety of English-language Jewish literature works became widely available in Russian translations.
In a public lecture on Russian Jewish literature (published in the Central European University Yearbook of 1996 – 1999), Shimon Markish referred to Mordechai Menahem Kaplan’s Judaism and Civilization (1932). The main idea of this theory was that “Jews could belong to two cultures (worlds, civilizations) simultaneously” (p. 1): the Jewish civilization and the one of the particular country of the Diaspora. Using the criterion of the degree to which the author belonged to either of the two cultures, Markish divided Russian writers with Jewish background into several categories. In his view, there was a category of writers who were authentically “Russian Jewish”, entirely committed to the Jewish world. The genuine Russian Jewish writer “looks at his material with Jewish eyes and longs for the Jewish world which has disappeared” (p. 4). This cohort included Isaac Babel with his “corollary, keen binocular vision”, Anatoly Rybakov, and the Jewish poet Boris Slutskii. Another category of great authors were “Russian writers with the Jewish fate”, such as, for example, Vasilii Grossman. For them, Judaism was not a civilisation, but rather “a wound, something painful, a complex” (p. 3). Many great figures in Jewish Russian literature were not essentially Jewish writers at all, for example, Osip Mandelshtam, “the great Russian poet in whom, despite his origins, there is no trace of Jewishness” (p. 3). Markish noted that under the violent oppression of the time, the Jewish identity of the authors often had to be divorced from their Russian identity and sometimes hidden in the underground work, and then Babel’s binocular vision had to be replaced by dichotomy. The vision was also obscured and limited by the tragic history of disappearance of the traditional, authentic Jewish civilization of Eastern Europe, and by the pressure of totalitarian regime:
Slutskii and Rybakov were bound by the fact that their memories of what was left [after the Holocaust] of the Jewish civilization which they still saw with their own eyes, were limited. Rybakov was additionally limited by the fact that he wrote not for himself but for the Soviet printing press. The young American and French Jews who search for their roots are completely free. This is their priceless advantage. (Markish, 1999, p. 5-6)
The history and content of the Russian Jewish literature prompt a thought that not only did the Nazi occupation of the Soviet Union produced generations of the Holocaust survivors, but the Soviet regime also created Jewish victims, survivors, and children of survivors of the militant anti-Semitism, repressions, and persecution. Perhaps, there is no Soviet Jewish survivors’ family in which the history of survival would not be rooted in both historical tragedies, and where the scars of both traumatic pasts would not intertwine. The history of Peretz Markish and his sons Shimon and David represent one of the most devastating family and personal tragedies in this dual context of persecution. Literary examples of such “dual survivorship” were lavish. To name a few, traces of both historical catastrophes are inseparable in the novels by Vasilii Grossman, the poetry by Boris Slutskii, the poetry and prose by Joseph Brodsky, and the literary critique writings by Shimon Markish himself. In the newest Russian Jewish literary periodicals, such as the newspaper Eyvreyskoye Slovo (The Jewish Word) or the literary magazine Lechaim, many articles and fiction prose works devoted to the historical experiences of Soviet Jewry simultaneously touch on both themes of the Holocaust and the Soviet regime oppression.
Conclusion: Between Worlds
In the introduction to his book “Child Survivors”, Paul Valent (1993) described a moment when he was “named” as a child survivor by Sarah Moskovitz. Before that moment, he did not think about himself as a “real” Holocaust survivor, but rather was convinced that he was just “lucky”. The author continued, “I met another child survivor who had been in Budapest during the war. We talked and talked. We must have been like two Martians meeting our own kind for the first time” (p. 3). The experiences of Soviet child survivors and children of survivors are unique in that, not unlike in the case of Paul Valent, nobody ever told any of them, “You are a survivor”, until very recent time. For many of them, when this “Martian” discovery occurs, it may open up an entire world of hidden, suppressed, untold memories. For so many decades the Soviet survivors were living between worlds: how many dimensions of this splitting dualism have they experienced? They may have struggled with the tension between the world of memories about their tragic experiences and the world of their everyday life. They may also have experienced the conflict between the burden of silent, untellable stories and the inner world of pressing, vital need to retell (as described by Greenspan, 1998). They have managed to adjust to the living between the world of their proud Jewish survivor’s identity and the world of Soviet dominant stigmatizing discourse. For those who recently came to live in the Western countries, the immigration could not erase the traces of the inner conflict, or resolve their many questions, but instead often added another layer to their multidimensional between-worlds experiences.
In the Soviet Union, the Jews were encouraged to assimilate, similarly to what happened with those who lived in the West. Through the pressure towards assimilation, the Soviet dominant ideology deprived the Jews of the right to express their authentic voice. At the same time, paradoxically, the Jews were constantly reminded, through their country’s state anti-Semitism, that they were Jewish and could never entirely belong to the mainstream culture. Hannah Arendt (1978) referred to this paradoxical Jewish experience of being a stranger in two different worlds, and not being welcome to express one’s identity in either of them, as she interpreted the meaning of Kafka’s Castle; she quoted, “You are not of the Castle and you are not of the village; you are nothing at all” (p. 84). Having immigrated and settled in Western Jewish communities, Soviet survivors often continue living between worlds, both in their minds and on the outside. These people have ample experiences of being and feeling “different”. Once again, on this continent, they often find themselves non-affiliated with any formal political, religious, or social groups. Their quiet, self-sufficient and proud non-belonging may be, for many, a habitual way of adjustment to the social environment. Once again they see and accept without much analysis the barriers between themselves and the mainstream “others”. They are used to the others not wanting to hear their stories, and may even consider it most comfortable to only share their thoughts among themselves. Do they wish to retell? Is it important for the others to hear? If only we knew how to ask.
I have brought The Black Book home from my University library. I show it to my father. He cannot read a word in English and has never seen the Russian-language version of the book. He knows the story of its writing and the tragic biographies of its Soviet editors. He handles the book with awe, in silence. I think I can feel how holding it resonates in his mind, with his memories. The Black Book belongs to the other world, about which my father is not used to talk much. Does the memory of that world have to be put into words in this language, on this continent? Will it ever be?