WINNIPEG — In the Soviet Union, public recognition of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust was strongly discouraged, but Jewish survivors kept the memory of the Holocaust alive by telling their stories to their children and grandchildren.
Anna Shternshis, keynote speaker at Winnipeg Jewish community Kristallnacht program
“It was a remarkable example of private resistance against a dominant ideology. The stories became family secrets,” Anna Shternshis, a Russian-born professor of Russian history and Jewish studies at the University of Toronto, told an audience in Winnipeg on Nov. 9. They were gathered to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
Shternshis said that the party line in the Soviet Union was that everyone suffered during the war, and, therefore, no particular ethnic group should be singled out for its suffering at the hands of the Germans. After all, an estimated 25 million Soviet citizens were killed during the war, and the Jewish dead were an estimated 1.5 million.
It is an attitude that hasn’t changed in the post-Soviet states, Shternshis noted.
Yuri, who was born in Romanov, Ukraine, in 1921, couldn’t understand why Soviet Jews were prevented from honouring their Jewish family members and friends who were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators, Shternshis said.
She met Yuri and interviewed him about 10 years ago, in Brooklyn, N.Y. She would not reveal his last name as she said it would destroy the confidentiality of her interview with him.
Shternshis told her audience that his small apartment was awash in papers, as he had extensively documented the lives of Jewish residents of Romanov. All of them had been shot by the Nazis and their collaborators in 1942.
Yuri served with the Red Army during the war. On his return to Romanov in 1947, he found that nobody he knew had survived. He found work in town as a mechanic and set about recording the stories of how the Jews of Romanov died.
“Yuri quickly discovered that the townspeople, including collaborators, were quite willing to describe what had happened,” Shternshis said. “He collected over 10,000 pages of notes about the fate of Romanov’s 3,000 Jewish families.”
Yuri and some of his friends raised money to build a monument in memory of the Romanov Jewish victims of the Nazis. He envisaged the monument’s inscription to be in Russian, Ukrainian and Yiddish. It took 15 years before he received approval to erect the monument, and the monument’s text was in Russian and Ukrainian. No mention of the victims’ Jewishness was allowed, either. Local political leaders in Romanov have never attended the yearly memorial service, Shternshis said.
Yuri immigrated to the United States in 1988, after the fall of communism, she said. The next year, Yiddish was added to the memorial.
Shternshis also told the story of a Russian partisan leader, Nikolai Kiselev, who led 210 Jews on a 2,000-kilometre walk to safety. After the war, ensconced in a safe bureaucratic job, he refused to talk about what he had done and discouraged any acknowledgment. It remained his – and his Jewish wife’s – secret until 20 years after he died and his daughter came across his diaries.
“Many Soviet Jewish survivors spent their lives hiding their past,” Shternshis said. “One woman who survived would only talk about her experiences with her mother, who is also a survivor. She never told her children.”
Shternshis spoke about another survivor, Svetlana Kogan Rabinowitch. Married at 16 in 1945, Rabinowitch didn’t talk about the war, either. But in the mid-1950s, she asked her brother-in-law, an artist before the war who lost his legs and an arm and had become an alcoholic, to paint scenes of what she had been through. When Rabinowitch immigrated to Canada in 1988, she brought with her more than 50 large paintings. She plans to donate them to the National Gallery in Ottawa after she dies.
“She realized that in Canada, survivors can talk openly about the Holocaust,” Shternshis said. “She and other Soviet Jewish survivors in North America believe that it is their mission to raise awareness about what happened to them.”