The claim that Jews did not contribute sufficiently in the war effort of their host country, or to put it otherwise, stayed in the rear instead of fighting, is not new and was never limited to Russia. Suffice it to mention the accusations made against German Jewry during the First World War and its aftermath at the official level and in public opinion. In the Tsarist Empire such charges were especially pronounced during the First World War when they were made by the country’s military and civil authorities.
The situation in the Soviet Union during the Second World War was different. Soviet government never accused its Jewish citizens of sitting on the fence. Yet, Soviet public opinion was permeated to no small extent by such accusations. This came partly from traditional centuries-long perception of Jews as a nation that did best to refrain from getting involved in fighting. Much more perilous, however, was the Nazi propaganda claim that attempted to inculcate in the Soviet population the idea of Jewish cowardice and of their sending non-Jews to fight for Jews.
In a way, it seems to me that Nazi propaganda succeeded, at least partly, in this respect. That Soviet Jews excelled on the fronts of the Great Patriotic War, as the Soviet-German war in 1941-45 came to be known in the USSR, was known to masses of Soviet Jews by virtue of the fact that very many of them served in the army, worked in military plants, and, to a smaller extent, were involved in anti-German activities in the occupied territories. Yet, apart from a circle of those with whom Jews fought and worked to achieve the victory over Nazi Germany, this was far from being clear to many in the midst of the Soviet population.
Furthermore, the fact that many Soviet Jews, whether in the occupied territories or in those under Soviet control, struggled and were “not led to slaughter like cattle” remained for years far from being clear to Western and Israeli audience. This had to do with the main Holocaust narrative underlining suffering and martyrdom. In Israel, Jewish heroism was largely associated with the Warsaw ghetto uprising. But the main reason why this knowledge escaped the attention of Western and Israeli public was “Iron curtain”. During the Cold War, the overwhelming trend in Holocaust research was to downplay the affinity of Soviet and Jewish interests in the Second World War. Only the fall of the USSR made it possible for Holocaust scholars to acknowledge high profile fighting of Jews on the Soviet side or alongside the Soviet side. And Yitzhak Arad, himself a Jewish fighter who fought on the Soviet side against the Nazis, and who rose to prominence in Israel both as a public figure and a leading Holocaust historian, is probably the ideal one to chronicle the heroic saga of Jews who struggled “under the Red banner” against Nazi Germany.Arad’s account is truly panoramic, multidimensional account and encompasses, to borrow his own words, “the broad spectrum of Jewish activities during the war in their entirety: the army, the underground, the partisans, the battle waged by the prisoners of war for survival and the development and manufacture of weapons” (p. xvii).
The volume provides a solid background describing the developments in Eastern Europe from the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in August 1939 to the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. The author then studies meticulously the participation of Jews in fighting in the ranks of the Red Army on the fronts, in the branches (including medical corps, political administration, air forces, navy, and intelligence) throughout the entire war period. Part two covers Jewish participation in the war industries. Arad then turns to depicting the Nazi occupation of the Soviet territories and the activities of varied partisan movements operating there. This serves him as a background for the Jewish armed resistance in the occupied territories (underground in ghettos -- the subject where the book is particularly strong -- and fighting in forests) described in the next chapters.
One of the delights of this volume is the verve with which its author knowingly describes the Jewish fighting. He does not write in numbers -- although his conclusions rely heavily on statistics, Arad admits that in too many cases such data are controversial or simply unavailable – but describes in details hundreds of examples of Jewish heroism.
In the Shadow of the Red Banner corresponds to no small extent with previous books by Yitzhak Arad, in particular with his “History of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union” (two volumes in Hebrew and one volume in English). In my opinion, part of this background information, could be omitted from the present volume, without jeopardizing its integrity.
I feel a certain amount of discomfort because in such a big (in all senses) book Yitzhak Arad did not tell us explicitly how he gauges Jewish contribution to the Soviet military effort, below the average, at the average, or over the average. Nor did he provide a clue to the question that haunted me: why did the Jews fight the way they did? Was it only fighting against the Nazis because understandably, they had no choice? If so, what about the first period of the war, when the news of German mistreatment of Jews did not reach Jewish soldiers and civilians?
Despite my concerns and questions, In the Shadow of the Red Banner, offers a rich and comprehensive history of Jewish contribution to the Soviet victory. The author should be particularly praised for a wide range of sources in several languages and an updated bibliography. In short, this is a wonderful and well-written study of a critically important case that continues to have impact both for the Jewish audience and beyond its borders.D-r Kirill Feferman,
Martyrdom and Resistance 37, 3 (January-February 2011).