Timothy Snyder on the Forgotten Holocaust
Posted on Feb 15, 2008
“I felt a strong desire to sprinkle my head, my whole self, with ashes, to be nothing, to be changed into dust.”
The Unknown Black Book
Edited by Joshua Rubenstein and Ilya Altman
Indiana University Press, 446 pages
The east is where the killing began. The mass murder of Europe’s Jews began not in Germany or in German-occupied Poland, but on the eastern front, after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. As the German army swept forward in 1941 and 1942, four Einsatzgruppen (“Task Forces”) followed them to the east, assigned to liquidate political enemies and Jews. At the end of August, the Germans killed some 23,000 Jews in the Ukrainian city of Kamenets-Podolsk. After that the total elimination of Jewish populations in Ukraine and Belarus became the norm. The murderous work of the Einsatzgruppen combined an ideological and a racial purpose. In the Nazi worldview, Jews were racial inferiors and enemies, doomed to disappear from Europe. Yet in this paradigm Jews were also communists, and thus, as Yitzhak Arad notes in his introduction to “The Unknown Black Book,” the murder of Soviet Jews was regarded as a method of defeating communism. Adolf Hitler’s men in Minsk made the connection clear, carrying out mass killings on the anniversary of the October Revolution, on Red Army Day and then on International Women’s Day.
It was also in the east that Jews resisted. After the Red Army withdrew from Soviet Belarus and Soviet Ukraine, Josef Stalin endorsed partisan warfare. Communist partisans in Belarus and Ukraine were more important to the outcome of the war than the more celebrated resistance movements in the west. In Belarus in particular, but also in Ukraine, partisans often sheltered Jews who were escaping the ghetto and sometimes armed them. According to one of the accounts collected in “The Unknown Black Book,” Jews in the Minsk ghetto dug a 200-meter-long tunnel that began under a bakery stove, and hundreds of Minsk Jews used it to join the partisans to fight the Germans. According to the editors, perhaps 30,000 of the 350,000 or so partisans in Soviet Belarus were Jews. Not surprisingly, they were after revenge.
Soviet Jewish writers such as Vasily Grossman and Ilya Ehrenburg learned of the atrocities in Soviet Belarus and Soviet Ukraine soon after they took place. For a time, it was their job to document Nazi atrocities against Jews and spread knowledge of Jewish suffering. In February 1942, Stalin formed the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, appointing Jewish intellectuals such as Grossman and Ehrenburg as international ambassadors of Soviet Jews. Their press campaigns and tours abroad were designed to raise money and improve the image of the Soviet Union. It was one of several such committees; Stalin did not mean to pay any special attention to the Jews. Yet because the Jews were in fact Hitler’s special target, members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were forced to confront the particular horror of the Final Solution. After the Red Army halted the Germans in western Russia in early 1943, these intellectuals followed Soviet troops to the west, recording the atrocities that had been perpetrated by the Einsatzgruppen over the previous two years. They collected letters and essays from people who had survived by digging their way, wounded, out of death pits.
The documents published in English translation in “The Unknown Black Book” are among those collected and edited by members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, with the aim of publishing a catalog of German war crimes. During the war, committee members were in contact with American Jews, and the publication was to be a joint American-Soviet undertaking, with English and Russian editions. An English version did appear, but the publication of the Russian-language “Black Book” was suddenly halted in 1947. Then the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was dissolved, and its members persecuted. Thirteen of them had been killed by 1952. The publication of the Russian-language “Black Book” had to await the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russian edition of this second and equally valuable collection of documents, “The Unknown Black Book,” appeared at the same time, in 1993. The particular historical merit of these collections is that they assemble records collected in the months following the events they describe. The two books together provide one of the most important sources on the Holocaust, and the editors and Indiana University Press have performed an invaluable service by preparing an English-language edition of “The Unknown Black Book.”
Why was recording the Holocaust such a problem in the postwar Soviet Union? Stalin had led the peoples of the Soviet Union to victory, but not before allowing millions and millions of Soviet citizens to die at German hands. For the Soviet system to survive, the meaning of all of the suffering had to be the triumph of the united Soviet peoples over a terrible and relentless enemy. For this to work as propaganda, all citizens had to have suffered equally, and to have resisted the Germans with equal fervor. Yet, as the accounts collected in “The Unknown Black Book” recall, the Holocaust stands out even among the countless other German war crimes in the east, and the Germans could never have done their bloody work without local collaboration. The Einsatzgruppen numbered only about 3,000 men. To be sure, they were aided by German police and by the German army. But they needed local police forces to make and then to clear ghettos. The Soviet system punished collaborators, of course, but it could not tolerate the reality of systematic collaboration. No less than France or any other occupied country, the Soviet Union needed a myth of unified resistance.
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