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25. November / „Preserve my letters“ (Russian: „Сохрани мои письма...“) – Presentation of the second edition

On the basis of more than 1000 letters, diaries and photos from the archives of the Holocaust Center in 2007, the first collection of Soviet-Jewish memories of the Second World War was published. Due to this book, the archive of the center was substantially complemented with new personal documents. They include among other things, letters and diaries of many well-known writers, poets, scholars and war heroes. The anthology includes also some other letters from other museums and archives. The documents examplify the events from the beginning to the end of the war. The book is not only intended for historians, but also to the wider readership.

„Preserve my letters… A collection of Jewish letters from the time of the Great Patriotic War (2nd edition). Eds: IA. Altman, LA Terushkin, IV Bordskaya; text and foreword by IA Altman, 2010, 328 p., ISBN 978-5-87902-222-3

 Natalie Belsky
University of Chicago
Sokhrani Moi Pis’ma…:Sbornik pisem evreev perioda Velikoi Otechestvennoi Voiny [Save my Letters: Collection of Jewish letters from the period of the Great Patriotic War]
Vypusk 2
Comp: Il’ia Altman, Leonid Terushkin, Irina Brodskaia
Foreword: Il’ia Altman
Moskva: Tsentr i Fond ‘Holocaust’, 2010

This important volume is the second installment of a collection of letters penned by Soviet Jews during the Great Patriotic War which has been compiled and published by Moscow based Russian Holocaust Center. It is an incredible testament to the Center’s painstaking efforts in collecting and bringing together family archives. In fact, as the introduction indicates, many of the letters and diaries featured in the present volume have been acquired by the Center just over the 2.5 years since the publication of the first volume.  The volume brings to light a vital body of sources that reveal a great deal about Soviet Jewish life during the war years.

The bulk of the collection consists of letters sent by Soviet Jewish soldiers at the front to their families in the rear. Their stories give the reader a glimpse of everyday life at the frontlines. They describe the living conditions servicemen had to contend with and the responsibilities that they shouldered. Moreover, the soldiers offer incredible accounts of their experiences in battle and reflect upon their thoughts during those critical moments when their lives seemed to hang by a thread. Surrounded by the enemy with bullets whizzing by inches above his head, Aleksandr Abramovich Anikst contemplated the landscape all about him – the trees, the ground, the sky, and the ant unhurriedly climbing the tree trunk: “I lay on the fallen autumn leaves, holding in front of me the self-loading rifle on the ready. Squeezing it in my hands and concentrating on what lay ahead, I thought: is this really the end? And I could not believe that….A tree trunk stood right in front of me, behind which I planned to hide in case of danger. A brown ant crawled along its uneven bark.” (p. 85). Along with the letter writers, the reader celebrates victories and laments the setbacks of the Red Army. Though the letters are largely personal, they convey the patriotism of the soldiers, their commitment to liberating their homeland from the Nazis, and, to some extent, their dedication to the Soviet project. We hear about their disappointments about the progress of the war, expectations of future developments, and, most of all, hopes for victory and a bright future ahead.

One of the many benefits of the collection is the inclusion of accounts from men and women who served in different capacities and in different zones. The collection features accounts from artillerymen and navy men, seasoned commanders and teenage recruits, war correspondents and medics, and even the director of a jazz orchestra that entertained soldiers at the front. The diversity of the authors allows the reader to get a multi-faceted view of the events and appreciate the distinct perspectives of the participants. Deeper insight into the daily routines of Soviet Jewish soldiers at the front is provided by excerpts from several diaries. This is truly a unique source that gives the reader a sense of the daily tribulations soldiers faced and the rhythm and pace of their days and weeks on the frontlines. While soldiers certainly tried to be optimistic in their letters home in order to assure their loved ones of their well-being, diary entries can be trusted to be more candid about the grim realities of life. Diaries also allow us to examine the changing tide of the war effort and the transformations within the authors themselves. At the same time, we must pause before assuming that these materials are either objective or representative of the perspective of the ‘typical’ Jewish soldier. First of all, while many letters were carried to their destinations by fellow soldiers who were traveling to the rear, soldiers still had to contend with the possibility that their letters and diaries would fall into the hands of censors. Thus, they had to be careful about the kind of information they shared. Moreover, it is important to bear in mind that letter and diary writers are a self-selecting group – descriptive and well-written letters like the ones included in the collection could only have been written by soldiers who were relatively well-educated. Furthermore, the collection privileges letters from urbanites who had been living in cities in the RSFSR (particularly Moscow and Leningrad) and eastern Ukraine in 1939. The reason for this is simple – letters would only have survived if their recipients were fortunate enough to not fall under Nazi occupation. Most of the letters were written to family members who had evacuated to the East; evacuation initiatives largely targeted the cities and were most successful in the RSFSR, and eastern Ukraine and Belorussia (the western regions of the Soviet Union, where significant populations of Jews lived, were occupied so quickly that it often did not allow for effective evacuation).
 Concern about loved ones and consternation over lack of information of their family’s whereabouts is a main theme in the correspondence.  Most soldiers regarded service at the front as both a duty and an honor, but they often felt frustrated at their inability to support their families. Far away from the frontlines, soldiers’ wives, parents and children often confronted a great deal of deprivation as well. Soldiers’ letters reflect their concern that, with men at the front, their families would find it difficult to make ends meet; many soldiers tried to send as much of their earnings home as possible. Of course, the separation caused not only material troubles but also emotional tribulations. Among the most memorable letters within the collection is Solomon Mendelevich’s birthday greetings to his daughter whom he has never met because she was born after he left for the front:  “It is possible to send birthday greetings in a letter to a friend, an acquaintance, a relative. But it is very difficult to send birthday greetings in a letter to my own one and only daughter, whom I have not even seen.” (p. 235) An interesting and important component of the present collection are letters from evacuated family members to soldiers at the front which describe their harrowing journey East and their uncertain existence in unfamiliar lands. It is important to bear in mind that it was not only soldiers who were constantly on the move, but their families as well. Displacement coupled with poor postal service meant that many did not receive tidings from relatives for weeks and months at a time. In many cases, elaborate networks of contacts were devised to facilitate the flow of information. Stationed in Leningrad, lieutenant Mikhail Binevich found that most of his relatives and friends had left the city for various destinations. Eager to re-establish family ties, he writes to his wife: “in short, I decided to become the connecting link between all you refugees.” (p. 89). Family correspondence both to and from the front help us gain a better understanding of the many facets of Soviet Jewish experience during the war years. One of the most fascinating aspects of the correspondence are soldiers’ accounts of the Red Army’s liberation of the occupied territories of Ukraine and Belarus and its offense into Poland and Germany. With a mixture of heartbreak and resentment, the liberators describe the devastation that they find in the western Soviet republics. For many, the pain is even more acute for these are the places where they had been born and raised. In November of 1943, Pavel Kopysitskii writes to his wife that his unit is liberating Ukrainian territory and that “local residents, who were under German occupation, tell us terrible things. The regions where they [the German forces] were able to entrench themselves are completely destroyed – the homes are burned down and the youth has been deported into slavery in Germany” (p.144). Once they enter Poland, the troops describe their encounters with local peoples and the amazement at the incredible (in comparison!) living conditions that they find there. For many, it is the first time in three years of war that they are able to sleep in a proper bed and enjoy delicacies. The diary of medic Abram Shevelev records his impressions of the three foreign lands that he has visited during his tour of duty– Bessarabia, Romania and Hungary. Shevelev describes the cities and towns through which his unit has passed, the attitudes of local peoples, their culture and habits (pp. 264-5). For many servicemen and women, it was difficult to even conceive of the incredible journey they had traversed during the years of the war. As Bela Zel’bet writes to her loved ones, “Did any one of us even think about finding ourselves so far away from our familiar places? In my childhood, I dreamt of entering German towns as a traveler, now I enter them as a master [khoziain]” (p. 210)  
 As they made their way to the West, Soviet soldiers confronted the gruesome realities of the Holocaust. In town after town, they found out that the Jewish population was gone and heard the tragic accounts of how Jews had been rounded up and either shot or sent to death camps in Poland. For Jewish soldiers, this news was particularly horrifying. Passing through Briansk, Lev Tsukerman learned of the fate of his relatives who had stayed behind under Nazi occupation. Writing to his parents (who had evacuated to Siberia), he recounts his eerie and heartbreaking experience there: “I was at the home of Chaim Eisef Shapiro on Sovetskaia st., no. 67, where grandfather and his family lived in the ghetto, I sat on the couch where grandfather had slept, and I was served breakfast at the table where our family had supped for the last time in Briansk, on November 6, 1942” (p. 261). At the same time, for many soldiers, their Jewish identity was a key motivating factor that pushed them to fight even harder to repay the Nazis for their crimes against the Jewish population. In a letter to his parents from the spring of 1943, Iakov Zaslavskii writes, “we must firmly avenge the Germans. And I especially, as I am a Jew” (p. 200).  
Still, it is important to mention that discussion of the Holocaust and references to one’s Jewish identity are relatively few and far between. There might have been several reasons for this, such as the lack of information about the catastrophe that had hit the Jewish population. The Soviet press was by and large unwilling to admit the Nazi targeted attack on Soviet Jewry and tended to group everyone under the heading of Soviet victims of Nazism. Secondly, the fear of censorship as well as the growth of anti-Semitism at the front may have encouraged soldiers themselves to avoid discussing their Jewish identity. Lastly, the fact that the majority of the letters come from well-educated, urban members of the intelligentsia would indicate that many of the letter writers were not observant and practicing Jews.     
Undoubtedly, this volume will become an invaluable resource for both historians and non-specialists alike for it offers readers a privileged view of the everyday lives of the Soviet Jewish servicemen who sacrificed so much in order to secure a victory over Nazism. It will enable readers to appreciate the mentality of Soviet Jewish soldiers – their  day-to-day concerns, preoccupations and hopes. Among the many volumes on the war that deal with epic battles and military strategy, this collection will fill an im


 

 
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