What Have You Heard About the Holocaust?

In this area where I live, the Jewish community is absent and in order to explain to my students who the Jews even are, I have to engage in the following kind of dialogue that annoys me beyond what I can express.

Me: Have you heard of the Holocaust?

Students: Yes.

Me: So what is it?

Students: When many people died?

(Note the “died.” Like they just got old and died, or didn’t take their vitamins and died.)

Me: What people?

Silence.

Me: Why did they die?

Silence.

Me: Who killed them?

Students: Bad guys?

Me: Yes, you could put it that way. Bad guys.

Anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, Part III

What the veterans discovered when they came back from the war wasn’t just the poverty, the hunger and the destruction. They also came back to a country that had changed completely between 1941 and 1945. The former idealism, the faith in the revolution, communism, fraternity and equality were dead and gone. Profound cynicism and materialism set in. A very visible elite was formed that consisted of people who had connections and could get objects of luxury and trade them for other objects of luxury. The last generation of party leaders who took a tram to work was the pre-war one. The new generation led truly princely lifestyles. (This is something that would never change. Today, their grandchildren are the political leaders and the owners of the supposedly post-Soviet Russia.)

Understandably, the popular discontent was growing. People realized that even though they had won the war, all they had to come home to was misery and back-breaking labor that would only enrich the lucky few. Stalin needed to channel this massive unhappiness somewhere. As usual, he didn’t invent anything new but simply copied one of the people he admired the most in the world: Hitler.

The remedy took. People remembered how comforting it was to hate those greedy, nasty, scheming Jews and popular anti-Semitism grew.

There was another reason why Stalin encouraged anti-Semitism, though. There is ample evidence that at the time right before his death he was preparing to unleash World War III. Of course, he couldn’t initiate a nuclear conflict and expect the downtrodden of the world to support him. He needed to provoke his greatest enemy, the United States. I strongly believe that public trials of Jews ¬†and mass deportations were planned specifically to provoke the United States into doing something that would justify the entrance of the USSR into a global nuclear conflict.

After Stalin’s death, anti-Semitism remained the daily reality both on the popular and on the institutional levels until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nowadays, I don’t think that anti-Semitism is much of an issue in the FSU countries for the simple reason that most Jews left.

This concludes this series of posts. I will now accept questions and comments on how well I explain complex facts of history. ūüôā

Anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, Part II

In 1945, Soviet Union defeated the Nazi Germany and liberated the surviving Jews from the concentration camps. Soviet Jews had participated in the war effort heroically, in every capacity imaginable.

Three years later, a vicious anti-Semitic campaign was unleashed within the country against the Soviet Jews. If Stalin hadn’t died (or had been killed, which is far more probable), Soviet Jews would have been deported to Siberia. This was a very doable plan for Stalin, since he had already deported several nations to Siberia in their entirety. The deportations were going to be preceded by 1937-style trials over prominent Jews. The first such trial was going to be one where famous Jewish doctors would be condemned to death for, supposedly, organizing the murders of the Communist leaders of the Soviet Union, starting with Lenin and Gorky.

Many people believe even today that this anti-Semitic revival was a result of Stalin’s personal dislike for Jews. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no evidence that Stalin ever relied on personal sympathies or lack thereof in any of his crucial decisions. Let’s remember that he played the key role in the creation of the State of Israel. Besides, he collaborated with Jews in his government for decades. It’s very hard to believe that one day he just woke up and decided to entertain some long-held grudge against Jews all of a sudden.

Just like everything else he did, Stalin’s anti-Semitic policies served very practical purposes. On the one hand, anti-Semitism was what the country needed to vent the grievances caused by the war. During the war, many people crossed the Soviet borders for the first time in their lives. My Ukrainian grandfather was from a small village that had been ravaged by the Soviet policies aimed at destroying the Ukrainian agriculture. He walked across the entire Eastern and Central Europe with his regiment. And that was when he discovered that Soviet propaganda had been lying to him his entire life. Polish and German farmers lived incomparably better and richer lifestyles than he on the most fertile soil in Europe, in Ukraine. Even after the destruction of the war, it was obvious that he was a pauper compared to these “poor victims of capitalist greed.”

There were millions of soldiers and prisoners of war who came back with such stories. Many of them were sent to the concentration camps. Stalin couldn’t jail every single war veteran, however.

(To be continued. . . )

Anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, Part I

Reader el asked me to¬†write¬†a post on the trajectory of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, and I’m happy to oblige.

The revolution of 1917 was welcomed by most Jews. The Russian Empire  had been violently anti-Semitic. The Jews were only permitted to reside in the Pale of Settlement, their access to education and entrance into professions was severely constrained. The tsarist government encouraged pogroms that kept the Jews in constant fear for their lives. In my own family, we had a scientist, a brilliant mathematician, who had to renounce his religion and convert to Christianity in order to continue pursuing his research.

When the revolution took place, the absolute majority of Jews was extremely happy (Ayn Rand was an exception.) Now they had full rights and nobody discriminated against them.The opposite often took place. When the first round of cleansings started in the mid-1920s, Jews were pretty much the only people who had nothing to worry about. In case you don’t know, a cleansing was a process of investigating every person’s antecedents. Those who had a rich relative, a business-owner of some sort in their family, or, God forbid, an aristocrat (no matter how far removed) would¬†lose¬†their jobs and be ostracized in the first round of cleansings. In the second round, they would be sent to the concentration camps or exterminated.¬†For the Jews, cleansings represented no danger. They were all dirt-poor and in opposition to tsarism. The best thing you could be during the cleansings was a Jew.

Right after the revolution and until the end of World War II, the Jewish culture experienced a veritable boom in the Soviet Union. There were dozens of newspapers and magazines in Yiddish. Every major city had a Jewish theater of its own. Jews could have great careers and any kind of education they wanted. In case you haven’t read the story of my Jewish great-grandmother, who went from an illiterate family in a shtetl to a position of great¬†responsibility, you can find it here.

There was a price for all this, of course. In return for these great things, Jews had to abandon their religion. This wasn’t discriminatory, though, because everybody was expected to move away from religious practices. Exploited and degraded for centuries by corrupt priests, the former Christians of the Soviet Union forgot the religion they never really perceived as their own very easily. The Jews followed suit. They found non-religious ways of preserving their identity and practice their culture.

The popular anti-Semitism of the Russian Empire was¬†eradicated¬†during the first decades of the USSR’s existence. If a kid made an anti-Semitic joke at school, for example, that kid was berated and ridiculed forever. Among adults, an anti-Semite was perceived as a counter-revolutionary (once again, because the Jews were seen as extremely pro-revolution). By 1940s, people of the Soviet Union didn’t even know, for the most part, that it was possible to be anti-Semitic.

In my next post, I will tell you how this all came to an end, and why the USSR became profoundly anti-Semitic (both on the level of the government and among people at large) right after the Soviet Union defeated Nazism in 1945 and liberated the European Jews from German concentration camps.