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Surviving the Holocaust: Post-Soviet Jews
Text by Phil Baillie

Soviet Jews are arguably the most long suffering race of the modern age. Many Russian Jews fled the Russian Federation in the 1890s as pogroms against the race were already rife, but were further sparked by the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in St. Petersburg. Up to 2.3 million Jews, deeply affected by the events at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century fled the country. During the Communist regime from 1917, synagogues such as that on Bolshaya Bronnaya Ulitsa were closed and turned into Houses of Culture to promote party activities and values; an insult to worshipers and an abuse of their space. Of course religious repression was universal under the Bolsheviks, however, the Nazi master plan of the holocaust is an event that will be remembered as a crime against humanity that edged towards the total extinction of Jews, many of whom had previously suffered heavily under Soviet rule. I had the sobering experience to take a journey through time and space, from Berlin back to Moscow to find out how Soviet Jews have survived waves of repression over the last century up to the present day. The journey would take me through memorials in Berlin, Auschwitz near Krakow, to rebuilding Warsaw and a camp of holocaust survivors in Northern Poland, to return to tense atmospheres in the Moscow synagogues.

Book burning in Opera Square, Berlin, May 10, 1933.
Courtesy of U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum/NARA

Berlin — Engraving Survival in the Heart

The holocaust memorial in Berlin consists of slabs of silent stone, arranged in a quadratic order, a monument which is strikingly unspectacular. One may notice the order, but remain confused without an explanation or reason for the columns of slab reducing the visual range of a visitor to horizontal or vertical planes. The position of the memorial is possibly just as significant as it is situated in the heart of Berlin, enclosed by embassies and a block away from the Brandenburg Gate. One way to remember the holocaust for Jews is to ensure that it stays alive in the consciousness of new generations as Primo Levi urged in his novel, If This is a Man,

‘Never forget that this has happened, Remember these words, Engrave them in your hearts, When at home or in the street.’

The memorial stands in a prominent position in Berlin, crying out for people to remember the suffering of Jews, many of whom who were displaced from their lives in the Soviet Union. One monument which certainly remained in my consciousness was the ‘void’ room in the Jewish Museum. A long, towering ‘void’ of space is covered with thick face-shaped metallic pieces on the ground. An attendant indicated that it was permissible to cross the space. Every step, however, educed the open-mouthed faces to emit a resonating clinking echo in the vertical tunnel, light protruding through thin slits from several floors above. It seemed as if every step was letting out a cry that had been suppressed during the atrocities at the concentration camps.

Poland — Remnants of Survival

The Holocaust: Liberation of Majdanek –
the shocking Russian footage about one camp
called Majdanek

Taking a ten hour train journey to Krakow, Poland, the next challenge was to try and face the reality of the crimes against Jews at Auschwitz. Krakow, which is a friendly pedestrian town crowded at night by performers and stag parties, does little to let on what occurred an hour’s bus drive away from the buzzing town. Exhibitions at the compound conveyed the systematic nature of the ‘work camps’ by displaying the objects left behind by the victims. Rooms full of suitcases, toys, shoes, wheelchairs and human hair highlighted the scale of the events. From reading the works of Levi and seeing such evidence I could hardly believe how anyone could have survived.

Pay tribute at the ghetto wall in Warsaw (a piece of which is kept in Yad Vashem, Israel) or visit the gestapo headquarters, hidden away in the basement of the Ministry of Education and the same sickly feeling will rise to the back of one’s throat. It is the small detail of the stories that make surviving so difficult, rooms preserved as they were show methods of torture projected on the graffittied walls of the cells. Details provided by individual accounts are some of the most important but difficult testimonies to survival of Jews. I had the privilege to hear some at a Holocaust Survivors camp in Ostroda, Northern Poland.

Ostroda — Testaments of Survival

A peaceful lakeside town in the north of Poland hosts a yearly meeting for post-Soviet Jews, inviting elderly campers in groups from Warsaw, Minsk and Kaliningrad to spend time together and relate stories which have survived the Holocaust. Many of the attendees are children of survivors, yet still suffer the inherited effects of distress, and carry the burden of passing on their story, whether witnessed or affected through their families. One account in particular touched the camp, holding the attention of the hall as an elderly lady wavered as she described how Nazi soldiers took children from a local school to the trains and inevitably off to the concentration camps. Kazek, a Russian-speaking Jew who has lived in Poland all of his life holds the aim of bringing Soviet Jews together to support those who have suffered and to provide a necessary opportunity for those who need to retell their stories – each a testament to survival.

St. Petersburg — Soviet Survival

In St. Petersburg, surprisingly the second largest synagogue in Europe was kept open during Communism, although it was overshadowed by a glass- fronted KGB office across the road. Today one can still see the synagogue reflected by the office windows, the building now a labyrinth of shops selling specialist cooking equipment.

Moscow — Survival Continuing

A leaflet reminding us of one of
the victims of the holocaust in Poland

Back in Moscow, very few synagogues have survived severe repression during the last century. In Victory Park lies the Memorial Synagogue, where a visitor can learn about Jewish victims in Russia in the underground museum. Aside from the Jewish Autonomous region, many Jews fled to Europe, the US and Israel while it was still possible, before tight restrictions on movement out of the USSR in the 1960s were imposed. It was no surprise that my tour guide at the Memorial Synagogue was so intent on conveying the seriousness of continued repression of the Jewish race in Russia. While he explained that at the local circus monkeys had been mockingly dressed as Jews, more serious resonances of anti-antisemitism have been felt such as the knifing carnage at Bolshaya Bronnaya Ulitsa in 2006 where eight people were wounded. Survival has been built into the genes of the Jewish race and today is a testament to that characteristic, evident by the rebuilding of synagogues and youth initiatives. Those who survived the holocaust are retelling their stories and rebuilding their homes to ensure their survival today in post-Soviet Russia.

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