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The Holocaust in Russian literature

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Abstract

The Soviet Jewish mortality toll during World War II was over 2 million, including over 200,000 soldiers killed at the front. Yet the total number of Soviet citizens who perished during the war was over 20 million. This proportion made it possible for Soviet literature to downplay the specificity of the Holocaust, representing the slaughter of the Jews mainly in terms of the Nazi murder of civilian populations in occupied areas. The subject of the Holocaust was taboo for long stretches of Soviet history; the transliterated word itself came into use only after perestroika. In fact, the Soviet blocking of information about the Nazi persecution of the Jews following the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939 was one of the reasons for the insufficiently strenuous efforts of Jewish civilians to evacuate eastwards during the first days of the war. As if by inertia, news of the massacres of Jews on the Soviet territories in late summer of 1941 likewise received little or no media coverage.

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... Die Erzählung Ponary -Baza [Ponary -Basis] des polnischen Schrifstellers Józef Mackiewicz über die Massenerschießungen im litauschen Ort Ponary im Sommer 1941 oder das Gedicht Ja eto videl! [Ich sah es!] des russischen Lyrikers Ilya Selvinsky über die Exekutionen an der Krim im Dezember 1941 (Bolecki;Toker;Roskies) sind einige solcher Beispiele. Drittens wurde in der Sowjetunion -teilweise auch im heutigen Russland und Belarus -der Opfer pauschal als ‚sowjetische Bürger' gedacht. ...
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Die Erinnerungskultur entsteht nicht aus dem Nichts. Sie wird von sozialen Akteuren verhandelt und konstruiert. Anhand des Romans, des Hörspiels und der Fernsehserie „Am grünen Strand der Spree“ (1955-1960), in denen eine Massenerschießung von Jüdinnen und Juden in der besetzten Sowjetunion während des Zweiten Weltkrieges geschildert wird, untersucht die Autorin die westdeutsche Zirkulation der Erinnerung an den sog. Holocaust by bullets. In drei mikrohistorischen Studien analysiert sie die Akteure, die Wirkung sowie die Materialität dieser Schilderungen. Dabei geht sie tief ins Detail, um die Mechanismen nachzuzeichnen, die das kulturelle Gedächtnis an die Massenerschießungen in Bewegung bzw. zum Stillstand bringen. Wie war es möglich, dass eine umfangreiche Darstellung eines NS-Verbrechens in der frühen Bundesrepublik erschien und fürs Radio und Fernsehen adaptiert wurde? Wieso wurden alle Fassungen von „Am grünen Strand der Spree“ über Jahrzehnte nur Spezialistinnen und Spezialisten bekannt? Aus welchen Gründen gewinnen der Roman, das Hörspiel und die Fernsehserie allmählich wieder an Popularität?
... Furthermore, Rol'nikaite's books in many ways conform to Leona Toker's observation that "works that touched the Holocaust had better chances of making it into the press if they seemed to have some other agenda," or if they did not mention the Holocaust expressis verbis. 62 But this approach proves to be ambivalent, especially when dealing audiences who had no firsthand knowledge of the war and the Holocaust and who had grown up with Soviet war narrative, since extensive background knowledge is needed in order to fully understand the Jewish dimension of the texts, their Holocaust theme and to distinguish different kinds of perpetrators. 63 While this style of writing can be found in Western literature too, especially in texts for younger audiences, the objective is different in Rol'nikaite and the price the author paid was high. ...
Article
The article is concerned with three fictional works by the Soviet writer Masha Rol’nikaite: Tri vstrechi (Three Encounters, 1970), Privykni k svetu (Get Used to the Light, 1974), and Dolgoe molchanie (A Long Silence, 1981). It discusses how these texts fit within Soviet memorial culture of World War II. Rol’nikaite is used to illustrate the difficulties of commemorating the Holocaust in Soviet literature, and goes on to show how she confronted Soviet readers with topics such as the trauma of survival, the grey zone, and survivor’s guilt in post-war Jewish culture. It emphasizes the aesthetic strategies she used for integrating these topics into a discourse that was indifferent and sometimes hostile to them.
Thesis
Soviet Jewish mourning practices after the Second World War offer a valuable opportunity to study the evolution of ritual life in a period of dramatic social transformation and demographic decline. Immediately after liberation and continuing throughout the postwar decades, Soviet Jewish individuals and communities revived and adapted prewar mourning practices to suit contemporary concerns and conditions. The resulting commemorative culture defies linear narratives of secularization. It also offers a valuable case study in ritual persistence through partial observance, improvised substitutes, and misremembered traditions. While ritual idiosyncrasy contributed to the atomization of Soviet Jewish religious life, such adaptation was precisely what allowed traditional practices to survive. In turn, mourning sustained a distinctive Jewish culture and reinvigorated Jewish communal life under unlikely circumstances. Just as Soviet Jews strategically selected the rituals they observed, they also strategically chose the venues in which they performed these rituals—cemeteries, private homes, synagogues, shtiebls, mass graves, and monuments. The first chapter of my dissertation addresses the interaction of families, local Jewish communities, and varying levels of the Soviet bureaucracy in the maintenance and usage of Jewish cemeteries. The second chapter analyzes individual and familial commemorative practices in the domestic sphere where the distinction between “religious practice” and “folk practice” remained murky. The third chapter examines individual and communal mourning practices in local Jewish cemeteries and emphasizes the ability of the burial landscape to elicit traditional observances. The fourth chapter turns to public mourning rituals in the synagogue or shtiebl and analyzes the role that these rituals played in sustaining holiday observance and synagogue attendance in the postwar period. The fifth chapter turns to a final site of mourning and commemorative activity—the mass grave—and examines Soviet Jews’ efforts to construct Holocaust memorials and conduct memorial services at the sites of Nazi mass shootings. By focusing on smaller towns and cities in Ukraine and Belarus, my project emphasizes local specificity and trans-regional comparison while examining regions in which Soviet secularization remained incomplete and contested well into the post-war era. To craft a compelling historical narrative that integrates state policy, material culture, and individual experience, this project draws on three major categories of primary sources: archival documents, memorial objects (such as monuments and memorial plaques), and personal accounts (including oral history interviews, memoirs, and yizkorbikher). Collectively, these sources compensate for each other’s silences, yielding a nuanced and unique perspective on postwar Soviet Jewish mourning culture. In the wake of the Holocaust and the Second World War, Soviet Jewish individuals and communities faced the dual challenge of commemoration and rebuilding. Despite logistical challenges and political barriers, Soviet Jews forged an autonomous memorial culture centered on local landscapes, experiences, and networks. The survival of traditional Jewish mourning rituals in postwar daily life reminds us that secularization is neither inevitable nor linear. Furthermore, it suggests a symbiotic relationship between mourning and rebuilding—death and the affirmation of communal bonds among the living. As a site of encounter between elderly and young, secular and religious, mourning fostered intergenerational continuity and revitalized otherwise crumbling communities.
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