TORONTO — In discussions about the Holocaust, the number of Jews murdered on Soviet territory is often overlooked, minimized, or simply not examined due to a lack of accessible information, says Ilya Altman, a leading scholar in Holocaust studies from the Russian State University for Humanities in Moscow and a Yad Vashem fellow.
Altman was visiting Toronto for the first time to give the annual Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Lecture in Holocaust Studies. His talk was the keynote lecture of an international conference on Soviet Jewry during the Holocaust held by the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.
The conference, titled “Jewish Life and Death in the Soviet Union during World War II,” brought together academics from Europe, Israel and the United States during the last weekend of March.
“Soviet propaganda… was very clear that Nazis killing Jews was not special, but that they were killed as Soviet citizens,” said Altman.
He added that between 2.6 to 2.8 million Jews were killed on Soviet territory during World War II. This staggering number represents nearly half of all the Jewish deaths in the Holocaust. But this number was often eclipsed by the overall total of 27 million Soviet deaths during the war, he said.
Altman was working in the Central State Archive in Russia when, in the late 1980s, he found an extensive collection of accounts about the murder of Jews on Soviet land, and of how the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee tried to commemorate the horrible deaths. In 2008, he published an edited collection of these accounts, called The Unknown Black Book.
“Everybody’s family lost somebody during the war,” said Altman, explaining that this is partly why the massive number of Soviet Jewish deaths didn’t receive special attention in Russia.
Another reason, he added, was because the killing of Jews often occurred in shooting massacres or forced marches, and not in the death camps that are often associated with the Holocaust.
Even today, decades after research began on the topic of Soviet Jews in World War II, people around the world, and especially in Russia, are just beginning to realize the extent of the organized murder of Jews on Soviet territory.
“Only in more recent years, Russian society has come to understand the Holocaust,” Altman said.
In 1991, Altman co-founded the Russian Research and Educational Holocaust Center in Moscow. It was the first organization of its kind in eastern Europe.
As he explained in his lecture, which contained information and stories from the archival content that fills The Unknown Black Book, Altman has made it an important part of his career to ensure that Soviet Jewish Holocaust victims are commemorated and that the Holocaust becomes a part of Russia’s school curriculum.
Altman said he hopes to continue to bring to light the unknown atrocities and to have the Russian people see them as distinct from the millions of Soviet casualties of the war.
Altman began and concluded his lecture with the same message about the significance of public understanding and acknowledgement of the Holocaust in Russia: “Holocaust education in my country is very, very important,” he said.