The Fall of the Soviet Jews

The Soviet Government and the Jews, 1948–1967

by Benjamin Pinkus
Cambridge University Press, 612 pp., $59.50

Forty years ago, on May 9, 1945, the defeat of Nazi Germany was celebrated throughout the Soviet Union. On that day, the 2.5 million Jews of the Soviet Union were not without hope for a better future. More than a million Jews had been murdered by the notorious Nazi Einsatzgruppen killing squads on Soviet soil. Several hundred thousand more Jews had fallen in battle in the ranks of the Red Army. More than two hundred Jews had risen to the rank of general in the Red Army, a figure confirmed by Benjamin Pinkus in his comprehensive documentary study. From the earliest months of the war, Soviet Jews had been active behind German lines in the ranks of the partisans. A Red Army officer, Alexander Pechersky, had been among the leaders of the revolt of Jewish slave laborers in the Sobibor death camp.

As Professor Pinkus documents, Soviet Jews had also played a leading part during the war years in making Russia’s torment known in both Britain and the United States. In 1942 almost every leading Soviet Jewish writer and intellectual joined the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Among the members of the committee were three of the leading Yiddish poets, David Hofshteyn, Itsik Fefer, and Perets Markish. The committee’s chairman was the Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels, a winner of the Lenin Prize. Fefer and Mikhoels visited the United States and Britain in 1943, becoming international advocates of Allied unity in the fight against Nazi Germany and, as Professor Pinkus notes, raising $2 million for Soviet hospitals and children’s homes.

With so many demonstrations of patriotic zeal and suffering in Russia’s “Great Patriotic War,” Soviet Jews could expect after that euphoric May 9 to be allowed greater recognition of their specifically Jewish culture and aspirations, or at least sufficient recognition to match the designation “Jew” which was (and is) inscribed in the “nationality” section of the internal passport carried by Soviet citizens. Surely these “Soviet citizens of Jewish nationality,” as they are still officially described, would now be granted some of the rights enjoyed by the other Soviet nationalities.

Between 1945 and 1947, the three years preceding the opening of Professor Pinkus’s volume of documents, some of these hopes seemed briefly to be realized. Most monuments set up in Soviet cities to the victims of the Holocaust made it clear whenever those victims were Jews. Many accounts of Jewish heroism were published. In 1947, Soviet policy supported unequivocally the coming into being of the state of Israel. On May 14, 1947, Andrei Gromyko told the General Assembly of the United Nations:

During the last war, the Jewish people underwent exceptional sorrow and suffering. Without any exaggeration, this sorrow and suffering are indescribable. It is difficult to express them in dry statistics on the Jewish victims of the Fascist aggressors. The Jews in territories where the Hitlerites held sway were subjected to almost complete physical annihilation. The total number of members of the Jewish population who perished at the hands of the…

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