The recent 20th anniversary celebration of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington began with a fitting display of American patriotism and Jewish gratitude.
To the tunes of a U.S. military band, the flags of the U.S. military units that liberated German concentration camps were marched into the auditorium, and an announcer intoned the name of each unit and the camp that it liberated. The list of units was long, but the list of the camps was much shorter, because several military units had participated in the liberation of a single camp. The only familiar names that were announced were those of Buchenwald and Dachau.
Unmentioned went Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, Majdanek, Sobibor, and many others, for the simple reason that they weren’t liberated by the Americans, but by the Soviets. That moment reminded me of a basic fact that all too many Jews overlook: in 1945, most Holocaust survivors owed their survival to the Red Army.
The war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union began 72 years ago this month, on June 22, 1941, and ended with the Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945. Russia is the only major country that continues to celebrate the defeat of Nazi Germany as a national holiday. On Dien Pobedy (Victory Day), schools, businesses and government offices are closed; there are parades, concerts, picnics and parties. I wouldn’t argue that Israel should do the same, but Jews should acknowledge the fact, that were it not for the Red Army, there would not have been a victory against Nazi Germany, and there would probably not have been any Jewish survivors in Europe. The Soviet Union lost 10 million soldiers fighting the Nazis, while most of America’s armed forces were dedicated to the war against Japan in the Pacific.
Many early Holocaust memoirs depicted the survivors’ rush of exhilaration and the tears of joy when they encountered Red Army soldiers in 1944 and 1945. But during the post-war decades of the Cold War, the fact that the Jews’ liberators were Soviet soldiers was passed over by American Jews and the State of Israel in silence. Concerns about the present were more compelling than the recent past, and the present consisted of the Soviet Union’s shrill anti-Zionist propaganda, its arming of Egypt and Syria, its suppression of Jewish life in the USSR, and its refusal to allow free aliyah and emigration. Now that those chapters have receded into the past, and the Soviet Union itself has long since ceased to exist, there is no political harm or damage in remembering, and expressing gratitude.
This is about more than setting the historical record straight. Many of those liberators are still alive, and deserve some form of tribute. They are Russians, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Tatars, Kazakhs and others.
Jews from the Former Soviet Union in the United States and Israel have played a role in changing public perceptions on this subject. In 2005, Natan Sharansky, then a member of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s cabinet, and certainly not someone who could be accused of nostalgia or sympathy for the Soviet Union, prevailed upon Sharon to hold large-scale state ceremonies to mark the 60th anniversary of Victory Day. And just last year, in June 2012, a monument was unveiled in Netanya to honor the Red Army soldiers who fought and defeated the Germans in World War II. The Netanya monument is, in fact, the only such memorial located outside the borders of the former Soviet Union. At the opening ceremony, President Shimon Peres stated that “if not for the bravery of the Red Army, there is no certainty that we would be standing here today.”
But there is another aspect of our debt to the Red Army that is underappreciated and little known — the large-scale participation of Jewish soldiers in the Soviet war-effort. A half-million Jews served in the Red Army during World War II, or 77 percent of all male working-age Jews in the USSR. This was a recruitment rate unparalleled among Soviet nationalities. Thirty-six percent of the Jewish soldiers, some 180,000, fell in battle and in the line of duty. And yet, these Jewish fighters have largely been forgotten, not only by the Russians — who thump their chests about the heroism of the Russian people, as if Russians were the only ones in the Red Army — but, perhaps more unforgivably, by the Jewish people. While the ghetto fighters have deservedly been the object of much attention, these “other” Jews who fought the Germans have been rarely been honored.
A remarkable little book was published last year by the Blavatnik Archive — “Lives of the Great Patriotic War: the Untold Stories of Soviet Jewish Soldiers in the Red Army During World War II.” The archive has recorded over 1,000 interviews with Soviet-Jewish war veterans, and has collected tens of thousands of documents, including diaries and letters written by Jewish Red Army soldiers. The booklet provides first-person narratives by a dozen Jewish veterans. They were motivated to fight the Germans by a combination of Soviet patriotism and Jewish identification. The Germans were the invaders of their homeland, and the murderers of their family-members and childhood communities.
Jews in hiding, and the inmates of concentration camps were often liberated by fellow Jews in Red army uniforms.
When we think of Jewish heroism on Yom HaShoah we ought to include the 500,000 Jews who fought in the Red Army.
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David E. Fishman is professor of Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a senior research fellow at YIVO.