University of Toronto Yiddish professor Anna Shternshis hopes a three-day conference on Soviet Jewry during the Holocaust will shed some light on a subject that, until recently, was virtually inaccessible.
The Moscow-born Shternshis – one of the organizers of the March 24-26 conference, to be held at U of T, titled “Jewish Life and Death in the Soviet Union during World War II” – explained that the Soviet Union never fully acknowledged Jewish suffering during the war.
“Twenty seven million Soviet people died during World War II, and they didn’t feel that separating the Jewish experience was worth it,” Shternshis said.
She added that 2.8 million Soviet Jews died in the Holocaust, but unlike Polish Jews, they weren’t sent to concentration camps.
“Instead, they were killed where they lived, in their villages and towns. Many were shot, many were killed by neighbours, many were killed by the Einsatzgruppen [Nazi death squads].”
She said while there is an abundance of records about the fate of Polish Jews, because the Nazis were very meticulous in keeping records there, “in the Soviet Union, because so much of it was locally executed… they didn’t have such records of what happened.”
This is coupled with the fact that the role of local collaboration is a highly contested topic in Russia today. As for archival materials that do exist, until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, they were virtually inaccessible.
“In the ’40s, Soviet Jewish writers and journalists were trying to put together a book about the testimonies from locals and Jews who survived called the Black Book of Soviet Jewry… What was allowed to be published was very selected parts of the testimony,” Shternshis said.
“There were government documents, special commissions that were sent to the villages and towns in the Ukraine and Belarus, that documented exactly what happened in 1943 and 1944. The results of those commissions were also not made public.”
She said that the conference will give the public an opportunity to hear from a number of Russian scholars who have since had access to these “secret documents and will talk about what the Soviet Union knew about the Holocaust, what they chose to share with the general public and what they chose to keep secret.”
Co-sponsored by U of T’s Centre for Jewish Studies, the conference will also present academics from Germany, the Netherlands, Israel, United States and Canada.
The keynote speaker, author, professor and co-founder of the Russian Research and Educational Holocaust Centre Ilya Altman, who will give a lecture titled, “The Holocaust in the Soviet Union: Unknown Pages,” was the first person in 1989 in the Soviet Union to speak publicly about the Holocaust from an academic perspective.
“That took a lot of bravery for him to do that, and even now, the discussion of the Holocaust in the [former] Soviet Union, is a very controversial issue,” Shternshis said.
In addition to lectures, there will also be a screening of Russian filmmaker Mikhail Kalik’s Goodbye, Boys!, which will be held March 24 at U of T.
The film, produced in 1964, follows three teenage boys, one of whom is openly Jewish, in the late 1930s.
“In the movie we see images of people wearing striped robes and behind the barbed wire. That was the first time the subject of the Holocaust was brought up in Soviet cinema,” Shternshis said.
Because of the references to the Holocaust, the film had a limited release and was rarely shown until the early 1990s. This screening is a Canadian premiere.
A photo exhibit from the Blavatnik Archive Foundation in New York called “Lives of the Great Patriotic War: The Untold Stories of Soviet Jewish Soldiers in the Red Army during World War II,” will conclude the conference, but will continue from March 27 to April 4 at Congregation Darchei Noam.
Through wartime memoirs, photographs, and interviews with Red Army veterans – 82 of whom are Russian-Canadians – the exhibit presents the story of the 500,000 Jewish soldiers who fought in the war.
Following the conference, on April 1 at Darchei Noam, Shternshis will take part in a panel discussion titled “Defending Communism or Saving Global Jewry: Legacy of Soviet Jewish Veterans of World War II,” which will examine the place of Soviet Jewish veterans, many of whom live in Toronto, in the Canadian Jewish community.
She suspects the panel discussion might “get a little controversial, because it might get away from the historical significance and go into the turbulent waters of modern Jewish politics.”
Among the panelists will be Darchei Noam Rabbi Tina Grimberg, World War II veteran Alex Levin and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto president Ted Sokolsky.
For more details on the conference, visit cjs.utoronto.ca/jewishlifeanddeath