This month marks the 80th anniversary of the worst of the Nazis’ multitude of atrocities on Ukrainian soil, the massacre at Babi Yar on 29-30 September 1941, which began on the eve of Yom Kippur.
The Babi Yar tragedy was largest open-air massacre during the so-called Holocaust by Bullets, when 33,771 people – according to meticulous record-keeping by the SS – mostly women, children and the elderly, were shot. In the months that followed, tens of thousands more people were murdered at Babi Yar, the overwhelming majority Jews, but also Roma, Ukrainian nationalists and Soviet prisoners of war.
The killing came to a halt in 1943, with the Germans in retreat from the Soviet territory they had occupied. Berlin ordered that mass execution sites be excavated so the corpses could be burned, fearing that the Soviet Union would use them as evidence for propaganda purposes.
Until its collapse in the 1990s, the Soviet Union suppressed memory of the Jewish genocide that had taken place on its soil. National policy was to erase differences among the victims of Nazism. This included ‘erasing’ the ravine itself by filling it with industrial waste and making way for what exists at the site today – a wide street lined on one side with apartment blocks, and a grassy park on the other, where children play and lovers meet.
“Babi Yar is a symbol of the Soviet Union’s efforts to physically erase memory. They took the most tragic part of our history and tried to make it disappear. Thanks to an independent Ukraine, the policy was fully changed towards the memory of the Holocaust,” human rights activist and chairman of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, Natan Sharansky, said last year at a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the massacre.
The Memorial Center, established in 2016 to build a major new Holocaust museum in Kiev, is due to open its doors in 2026 but has already been the subject of considerable controversy. The disagreements stem largely from the appointment of the contentious Russian filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovsky as artistic director and his plans for a virtual reality installation, deemed inappropriate by many and dubbed a “Holocaust Disneyland” by one former curator when he quit the project. Objections have also been raised about the role of some of the Center’s Russian Jewish billionaire funders and its location in the grounds of an old Jewish cemetery.
But a number of research projects developed by the Center have yielded fascinating results. Last year a 3D model of the massacre site was created, led by former Scotland Yard investigator Martin Dean, who specialises in Nazi war crimes. By combining ground and aerial photography, maps, historical reports and witness testimonies, Dean was able to build an overall picture of a mass grave about 150 metres long, in which corpses were stacked in layers like sardines, and to pinpoint for the first time in three-quarters of a century exactly where it was located.
Another recent research initiative is the Names Project, which has uncovered the identities of more than 900 of the victims of Babi Yar, whose fates had previously been unknown. Estimates of the total death toll at Babi Yar in 1941-43 range from 70,000 to 100,000. Apart from details of the September massacre, records of those killed were sporadic. The Names Project is attempting to collect data on all those murdered at Babi Yar and the researchers hope eventually to have a web page for each identified victim, complete with details of their life story and a picture.
In partnership with the Memorial Center, Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa released a film this year to coincide with the 80th anniversary. Babi Yar.Context – a series of short documentaries – premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in July. Loznitsa was born close to Babi Yar but grew up in ignorance of what had happened there.
His film is based on archival material using footage from the period, including newsreels, court trials and amateur films by German soldiers. It begins with Germany’s invasion of Ukraine in 1941 and concludes in March 1961 with the little-known Kurenivka mudslide – a disaster that resulted from the Soviet authorities’ attempts to erase memory of Babi Yar by filling the ravine with industrial waste. A decade later, heavy rain caused a dam securing a brick pulp dump to collapse, triggering a mudslide that released up to four metres of mud, water and human remains onto the streets. A recent report estimates that 1,500 people may have died as a result.
The Soviet Union was not an easy place to live after World War II, and especially for Jews. Those who managed to survive the war by fleeing to Central Asia or the Urals and returned after the German retreat found their homes destroyed, their towns devastated, and their Jewish neighbours slaughtered.
In Kiev, then in Soviet Ukraine, where several members of my family lived, nearly 34,000 Jews had been shot at the ravine known as Babi Yar on the edge of the city on 29-30 September 1941. But this was far from the only anti-Semitic atrocity committed by the Nazis in the city. My grandmother’s first cousin Baya was among a group of Jews herded to the banks of the river Dnieper and forced aboard a ship that was set alight. There were no survivors.
And few rural Jews from the villages formerly known as shtetls survived the war either. In Pavoloch, my grandmother’s home town, on 5 September 1941 up to 1,500 Jews were shot beside a mass grave dug in the Jewish cemetery. The victims came from many outlying villages as well as Pavoloch, herded to the town for slaughter. The terrible event has become known as the Pavoloch Massacre and even featured in last year’s Amazon Prime series Hunters, which I found myself unable to watch.
Several hundred thousand Jews fled to the eastern republics of the Soviet Union in 1941 as the Nazis approached. You can read some of their stories here. Many never went back to the towns they had left, unable to contemplate returning to places where such terrible devastation had taken place. Most, inevitably, would have lost family members or friends to the Nazis. It is hardly a surprise that a great number emigrated to Israel or the United States as soon as the possibility arose, while some remained in Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan, or elsewhere.
But thousands of Jews did return to their homes in towns and cities that had been occupied by the Nazis. In my last article I wrote about my grandmother’s aunt Miriam (Mira) and her daughter Sulamia (Sulochka), who made it back from Central Asia to Kiev in December 1943. Mira’s son Moishe (Musenka) had been called up earlier the same year to a military academy in Turkmenistan, on the Afghan border, and did not come home with them.
To continue their story, in 1944, Musenka was transferred to the front – to Poland. In preparation for his departure, he was moved to an army camp on the outskirts of Kiev, where his mother and sister were able to visit him. Later, from Poland, Musenka wrote that his regiment was preparing for a major offensive in Warsaw. He died on 16 October 1944, ahead of the Soviet Red Army’s final offensive to liberate the Polish capital. He was 18 years old.
It was his sister Sulochka, rather than his mother Mira, who received the death notice sent by the Soviet military authorities. Sulochka was 13 and had become something of a tearaway – a fiercely independent girl who skipped lessons and swiped pastries from vendors at the old Jewish market. She hid the letter from her mother, knowing how deeply it would upset her.
But Musenka had been a loyal son and always kept in touch regularly with his family. Mira descended into a panic after his letters stopped. She contacted the military authorities searching for information, but when a second copy of the death notice arrived, once again it was Sulochka who intercepted it.
Mira wanted to die. She felt she couldn’t live without her precious only son and couldn’t bear not knowing what had happened to him. She returned to the ruins of her pre-war home in the hope that bricks from the half-demolished building would fall and kill her. She more or less ignored her living daughter, Sulochka, amid the pain she felt over her missing son. Her husband Yehuda – exiled to a labour camp near Krasnoyarsk – even wrote a letter to the war commissar Klim Voroshilov with a plea for help in finding any trace of Musenka.
Many families waited years, decades even, for their menfolk to return from the war. Some were lucky; many were not. As time passed, the small glimmer of hope that her son was still alive and would one day come home gave Mira the strength to go on living. It was not until 1964, twenty years after Musenka’s death, and after Yehuda – finally liberated from the gulag – had also passed away, that Sulochka confessed to her mother that she had hidden the letters from the military authorities informing them that her brother had died in action.
In the end, knowing the truth at last helped ease Mira’s distress. For all those years she had tormented herself with the thought that Musenka might have fallen into the hands of the Banderovtsy – the anti-Semitic Ukrainian nationalists led by Stepan Bandera, who allied with the Nazis and collaborated in the near-total destruction of Jewish life in Ukraine. The torture they inflicted on captured Red Army soldiers was notorious, and all the more so for those of Jewish descent.
Mira spent her post-war years enveloped in grief over the loss of her beautiful boy – and yes, photographs testify that he was indeed beautiful. Her love for her daughter remained in the background; it clearly existed, but was rarely overtly demonstrated. Mira could be a stubborn and awkward character and she and Sulochka were often at loggerheads. But Mira’s granddaughter Irina (Ira), who was 14 when Mira died in 1966, remembers her with warmth and affection.
This story will be continued in my next article.
Soviet Jews that survived World War II by fleeing eastwards found a tough life waiting for them on their return home to towns and cities that had been occupied by the Nazis. I wrote recently about the experiences of several Jewish families as refugees in Central Asia during the war, including my great-grandfather’s sister, Miriam (Mira) – you can read that article here. Mira’s granddaughter Irina (Ira), who was born in Kiev after the war and lived there until the 1990s, has shared with me her family stories of life back in that city after the return from Central Asia.
The family had lived before the war in the centre of Kiev, at 37 Pushkinskaya Street in a communal apartment – one room for each family, with shared cooking and washing facilities, as was typical of Soviet life during the era of Stalin and Khrushchev. Sometimes a family occupied just a section of a room, partitioned off with a curtain.
On their return from Central Asia after the Nazi retreat in late 1943, Mira and her daughter Sulamia (Sulochka) – Ira’s grandmother and mother – made their way from the station on foot – no public transport was running – through the ruins of the devastated city, to find out what had become of their home. They found the four walls still standing, but nothing more.
The building was restored after the war and exists to this day. “Whenever I go back to Kiev, I always wander around the courtyard and look up at the balcony, as if I’m looking for my mother as a little girl,” Ira says. A quick Google search shows an attractive four-story building on a tree-lined street, next door to a “hip Israeli eatery” called Pita Kyiv and just down the road from the Estonian embassy.
As Ira’s mother and grandmother stood weeping before their ruined home, a figure approached them – a woman they had been acquainted with before the war. Knowing what had happened to the Jews of Kiev at the end of September 1941, when 34,000 were shot at the ravine of Babi Yar on the edge of the city, the woman took pity on Mira and Sulochka. She led them back to her basement flat on Saksaganskaya Street, a mile or so away, and invited them to stay. There Mira recognised many of her own possessions and those of her neighbours, stolen when they had departed in haste during the evacuation of the city. Mira said nothing. She was grateful simply to have a roof over her head.
Every day Mira returned to her building on Pushkinskaya in the hope of meeting the postman, desperate for news from her son Moishe (Musenka) in the army, and her husband Yehuda in the gulag. And she petitioned the authorities for a place to live for herself and her daughter. For once she was lucky, and was assigned a room in a communal apartment, but at the expense of another family, who were forced onto the street.
The dispossessed family rushed at Mira and beat her in anger and despair at losing their home. With so much of the city destroyed and more evacuees returning by the day, the authorities would juggle the accommodation that was still standing, taking shelter from one family to give to another; a lottery of relief or desolation.
The room was ten metres square, with no running water or sewerage. Later it became smaller still, with three meters reapportioned to create a corridor where a cooker was installed. But it was a roof over their heads and it was precious. In this room, nearly a decade later, Ira was born.
How Mira found the means to live during this period, Ira doesn’t know. But she suspects it was Mira’s brother, Uncle Avrom, who came to their rescue, as he had during the evacuation of Kiev, finding transport for them and a place to live. Sulochka also told Ira about her cousin Beba. Ira says Beba’s real name was Volf. According to the family tree my grandmother and father drew up he was called Velvl, while his grandson – who now lives in Germany – refers to him as Vladimir. Such are the complications of Jewish genealogy!
Cousin Beba was the only relative that did not turn against Mira when she became the wife of an Enemy of the People, after her husband was arrested in 1938 and sent to the gulag. One day Beba visited and saw that Sulochka had grown out of all her warm clothes, and in the dead of winter. He went to the crowded flea market where people bought and sold new and second-hand goods and found her a pair of warm boots.
Mira continued to go back to the family’s old home on Pushkinskaya in the hope of seeing the postman and finding a letter from her son or husband. In 1944, Musenka wrote that he was being transferred to the front – to Poland – and that before his departure he would be based at a large camp on the outskirts of Kiev, by the Darnitsia train station across the river Dnieper. Mira and Sulochka were able to visit him there. Musenka was 18 years old and this was the last time his mother and sister ever set eyes on him.
This story will be continued in my next article.
The terrible numbers are known to us all: six million Jews died during World War II. Pitifully few of those living in Nazi-occupied Europe survived. But there was one large group of European Jews that did live to see the end of the war.
After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, around a million Soviet Jews – including up to 400,000 from the territories of Eastern Poland recently annexed by the Soviet Union – were either evacuated by the Soviet authorities or managed to escape on their own to the Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union, enabling them to escape almost certain death. Those who made the journey constituted the largest group of European Jews to survive World War II, and many later emigrated to Israel or elsewhere.
Conditions during evacuation were harsh, with cramped, overcrowded living quarters and terrible poverty, while disease was rife. Many succumbed to epidemics including typhus, dysentery and cholera, others to crime and despair. Some were arrested and thousands were deported to remote internal frontiers as “class aliens”. According to some estimates, as many as 300,000 of these deportees perished as a result of disease or starvation.
The majority of the of evacuees arrived in 1941-1942 in Central Asia – the Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan – and the region of the Urals mountains. The Uzbek capital Tashkent was one of the main refugee centres, and many passed through the city before moving on to other towns and villages, while some wound up working on collective farms.
Published first-hand accounts of the experiences of evacuees are rare. Until recently, I knew that members of my own family had escaped from Kiev to Central Asia during the war years but had never heard stories of their experience there. My cousin Irina, who was born in Kiev in 1952 and lived there until the 1990s, has filled me in on some of her mother’s and grandmother’s recollections of their wartime experiences in Kokand, Uzbekistan.
The authorities organised mass evacuations of Soviet citizens, particularly the cultural, technocratic, and educational elite, as well as entire industrial plants, away from the advancing front. The Soviet government and leading institutes were transferred to Kuibyshev, now Samara, some thousand miles southwest of Moscow.
But Irina’s grandfather had been arrested in 1938 as an ‘enemy of the people’ and sent to the gulag. The Soviet authorities had no interest in helping his wife Mira (known to me as Miriam) and two children, Musenka (Moishe) and Sulamia (Sveta), escape to safety, so they had to make their own way. They owe their survival to Mira’s brother Avram – a respected doctor and the youngest sibling of my great-grandfather Meyer.
Avram secured places for them on a cart with his wife’s brother, travelling east from Kiev to the city of Izyum in eastern Ukraine, and from there they were able to board a train bound for Kokand. They were robbed during the journey, and all their warm clothes stolen.
Once settled in Kokand, Avram managed to find a job in the hospital for his sister. Sulamia went to school and 16-year-old Musenka to a further education college. They lived on a thin gruel of flour and water that Mira was able to bring home from work, and Musenka received a white bread roll at college each day, which he gave to Sulamia, who was suffering from typhus. One day during Sulamia’s illness, when she was alone in the family’s lodgings, a burglar broke in. He left again empty handed: the family was so poor that they had nothing to steal. In 1943, Musenka was called up, first to a military academy in Turkmenistan, on the Afghan border, and then to fight. He was later killed in action in Poland.
Mira and Sulamia returned to Ukraine after the liberation, together with Avram, first to Kharkov and finally back to Kiev, in defiance of the authorities, which had refused them permission to return to the city.
However grim Mira and her family’s experience, they were some of the lucky ones. Avram’s assistance in finding transport and work for Mira saved them a worse fate. Accounts of the lives of Jewish evacuees in Central Asia are few and far between, so it is impossible to generalise about their experience. But it is known that many congregated for days or weeks in and around train stations, sometimes forced to keep moving when they could find no place to shelter, with the area already overwhelmed by the mass evacuations. Some were able to find work, but many did not. Jobs were often temporary and a large proportion of mostly men worked in the black market.
The largely Muslim Central Asian population was undergoing its own difficult and ambivalent process of Sovietisation, and was understandably bewildered by, and often resentful and suspicious of, the sudden influx of “western” evacuees. In spite of this, the local population could also be astonishingly generous given their own poverty and deprivation, sharing their food and inviting the newcomers to join their wedding celebrations.
Retired journalist and genealogist Bert Shanas, who has kindly shared his research with me, has unearthed several stories of members of his family evacuated to Central Asia from Ukraine during the war years.
Rochel Chasina and her mother fled Zhitomir for Kazakhstan. Before they had even got as far as Kiev, their train was requisitioned by the Soviet army, leaving them stranded in the middle of nowhere. Finally, they reached Kharkov, where they spent a month in a refugee camp, before fleeing again when the Germans drew nearer, this time to a small village near Stalingrad. “The trains were crowded; everybody was trying to flee the approaching Germans, and in those days when you got on a refugee train, you never knew for sure what your destination was. You only knew that the general direction was east,” Rochel recalled.
As the front drew closer, she and her mother spent more than two weeks sleeping on a bench at the station. "You had to be at the station all the time because you never knew when a train that could mean your escape would arrive.” A freight train took them to Uralsk, in western Kazakhstan, where they shared a room with two other families. “We had been wearing our shoes for protection for the entire month of the train trip. So when we took them off in the room, patches of our skin and flesh came off with the shoes because everything had been frozen together,” she remembered.
Rochel looked for a job, but owning only summer shoes, she was unable to work in winter when the ground was covered in snow. She and her mother both overcame serious illness and finally, a cousin found her a job at a military hospital in Novosibirsk, Siberia, about 1,200 miles to the northeast. There they were able to join other family members, living eight to a room. In 1946, they began a perilous three-year journey that would take them from Russia through Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Germany and France, and finally to Israel.
Another of Bert Shanas’ relatives, Rosa Zaydenberg, fled from Kiev to Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, a journey that took around four months under constant attack from German bombers. Once she finally arrived, Rosa had no warm clothes and no place to stay. She tried to sleep on a bench at the train station, but was chased away and ended up sleeping in a public phone box. She soon found work in a factory and in 1942 was able to bring other family members who were surviving in dreadful conditions in Fergana, Uzbekistan, to join her in Alma-Ata. She rented “one corner of one room” for the three of them, paying rent in the form of food for the landlord’s dog, which she scrounged from the factory where she worked. The family returned to Kiev in the summer of 1945.
Another Shanas relative, Faina Sheynise, went on hunger strike to persuade her stubborn father to leave Kiev when the occupation began. He had refused to depart, insisting that praying daily at the synagogue would keep him safe. At last, he agreed to flee and the family reached the chaos of Kiev’s train station shortly before the Germans arrived. They boarded a train heading to Kubah, in the Caucasus mountains, and as the invading army continued to approach, moved on to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and finally to Osh in Kyrgyzstan, close to the Chinese border. There Faina worked as a seamstress and took a job in a food store. Much of her family got separated during the war, with one sibling in Moscow and two others in Siberia. Faina had no desire to return to Kiev after the war. “Not after Babi Yar, where they killed so many thousands of Jews,” she said. “I just couldn’t go back there,” she recalled. She remained in Osh until 1991, when she emigrated to the US.
Faina’s niece, Ida Rosentsvaig, was a baby when the war broke out. She and her family managed to get on an already packed train heading to Siberia, where they spent most of the war in the town of Anzhero-Sudzhensk. Later, they were able to join Faina in Osh. “I remember how warm Osh felt after Siberia and all that snow, and suddenly we had enough food!” she recalled. But Ida’s mother became sick and spent two years in hospital from 1946-1948. Ida was left to fend for herself, while her brother – treated as an orphan – was adopted for a time by a local childless family. Eventually the children’s mother recovered and the family settled in the city of Andijan, Uzbekistan.
With grateful thanks to Bert Shanas for allowing me to use his research for this article.
The story of the Jewish shtetl is well known. These once vibrant communities that were so widespread across Eastern Europe until the 20th century were destroyed, first by pogroms and resulting waves of emigration, and later by the anti-religion policies of the Soviet Union, with their final remnants wiped off the face of the earth by the Holocaust.
But not so, it seems. A new documentary from the Russian filmmaker Katya Ustinova explores the existence of shtetls in Ukraine and Moldova right up until the 1970s and even beyond. Shtetlers premiered last year and was available to view during Russian Film Week USA in January. Unfortunately, is not yet available in Europe, so I am still awaiting an opportunity to watch it.
As the film’s website says, “In those small and remote towns of the Soviet interior, hidden from the world outside of the Iron Curtain, the traditional Jewish life continued for decades after it disappeared everywhere else. The tight-knit communities supported themselves by providing goods and services to their non-Jewish neighbours. The ancient religion, Yiddish language and folklore, ritualised cooking and elaborate craftsmanship were practised, treasured and passed through the generations until very recently.”
Ustinova is a Russian-born documentary maker living in New York who previously worked as a producer, host and reporter for a Russian broadcasting company in Moscow. Shtetlers is her first feature-length film. Ustinova’s grandfather was a Jewish playwright, but her family did not identify as Jewish until her father, a businessman and art collector, founded the Moscow-based Museum of Jewish History in Russia in 2012.
On discovering modern artifacts from shtetls in the former Soviet Union, Ustinova and her father came to realise that some Jewish communities had continued to exist for far longer than they had thought.
Shtetlers tells the stories of Jews in these forgotten shtetls by means of nine first-hand accounts of people who lived in them. In 2015, Ustinova visited several former shtetl residents, who have since scattered around the world.
Many of the stories in Shtetlers help break down the myth that only enmity existed between Ukrainians and Jews. Without distracting from the fact that many Ukrainians committed atrocities against the Jewish population before and after – as well as during – the war, the film reminds us of those gentiles who loved and cared for their Jewish friends and neighbours.
Meet Vladimir. He was not born Jewish, but converted after his mother – who is honoured at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Centre – sheltered dozens of Jews during the war. Growing up among Jewish neighbours, their culture imbued itself into gentile homes, and he remembers his mother baking challah during his childhood. Vladimir emigrated to Israel and now lives in the West Bank as part of an Orthodox Jewish family.
And Volodya and Nadya, Ukrainian farm workers still resident in a former shtetl in Ukraine, who remembered their Jewish neighbours so fondly that they decided to adopt Jewish customs, like making matzo brei and kissing the mezuzah attached to the doorway of their house – which once belonged to Jews – when they enter.
Emily, a Jewish shtetler who survived the war, escaped from a concentration camp and was saved by a gentile friend – the sister of a Ukrainian police chief – who brought her family food while they were in hiding. And then there’s the queue of Russian Orthodox Christians coming to Rabbi Noah Kafmansky to solve their problems and obtain his blessing, because “the Jewish God helps better”.
In the five years since Ustinova filmed Shtetlers, many of the people she met have passed away. “Their memories are a farewell to the vanished world of the shtetl, a melting pot of cultures that many nations once called their home,” the website says.
The trailer is available on the Shtetlers website: shtetlers.com/
And numerous extracts from the film, as well as some gorgeous animated clips, can be found on the Shtetlers Instagram page: www.instagram.com/shtetlers/
When I first began writing my grandmother’s story and turning her recollections into what would eventually become a book, the title I originally had in mind was The Breadbasket. To me, this encompassed much what the people and places in the book were about. Ukraine was known as the Breadbasket of Europe because of its huge grain production.
My great-great-grandfather Berl was a grain trader. And bread, or lack of it, played a big role in the family story, from the mill my family owned in the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th, to the prosperity Berl built through his thriving business, to his wife Pessy’s ability to make a ball of dough dance as she kneaded and shaped it in mid-air, and the challah on the Sabbath table.
And later, there were the Bolshevik grain requisitions, the great hunger that followed the revolution when there was no bread to be had and my grandmother travelled the land with a basket on her back, bartering food to keep her family alive.
But a literary editor who guided my early manuscript advised me to ditch the title. You need something more evocative and compelling, he said. Several weeks later, I finally settled on A Forgotten Land. This was a success and I was pleased with the change. The new title evoked the terrible loss suffered by towns and villages across a wide swathe of Eastern Europe, along with the people who lived there and their way of life.
In the Pale of Settlement of the Russian Empire, pogroms, war, famine, disease and emigration had torn Jewish families apart from the 1880s onward and seared the heart out of Jewish communities. The Nazis, of course, would do the rest, not just there but across Europe. The Pale did indeed become a forgotten land, a network of once vibrant communities whose people had all emigrated or died.
Three-quarters of a century on from the Holocaust, many people are working hard to bring to light the remnants of the deserted shtetls, to remind us of these communities that have been forgotten for so long. I will highlight just two projects, but please feel free to add others to the comments at the end of this article.
The first is a blog called Vanished World, which documents Cologne-based photographer and writer Christian Herrmann’s travels around Eastern Europe and elsewhere in search of visual traces of the Jews who once lived there - destroyed or misappropriated synagogues, overgrown cemeteries, tombstones in the street paving, traces of home blessings on door jambs.
“Neglected Jewish cemeteries, ruins of synagogues and other remains of Jewish institutions [are like] stranded ships at the shores of time. The traces of Jewish life are still there, but they vanish day by day. It’s only a matter of time until they are gone forever,” he says. His articles and photographs are both a commemoration and an act of justice towards the men, women and children who died as innocent victims in the Holocaust, and an act of justice to those who survived as well.
Christian’s photographs are beautiful and his commentaries on his travels tell a repeated and all-too- depressing tale of crumbling synagogues that were later used as museums, offices or factories during the Soviet era, fragments of tombstones incorporated into buildings or unearthed during construction works, and long-forgotten Jewish cemeteries that are now parks or wastelands.
Another project is taking place in Ukraine, where Vitali Buryak, a software engineer from Kiev, has taken on the immense task of attempting to catalogue hundreds of shtetls. He began by creating lists of every settlement with a historical Jewish population of more than 1,000 for each gubernia (province) in central and eastern Ukraine. “My plan is very simple – to write at least a small article for each place on my list,” he says. His articles include old photographs and maps, archival documents, historical references and information about local families as well as numerous photographs of his own.
Vitali only recently learnt of his own Jewish roots, and decided to offer his services as a tour guide for Jewish visitors from abroad. One of his early tours brought him to the town of Priluki. “Priluki is the place where I was born, and my grandma is still living there. I contacted the head of the local Jewish community and he showed me places that I didn’t know about before! In my city, where I was born! My grandma didn’t show me the synagogues, she didn’t show me Jewish cemetery, she didn’t show me the Holocaust killing sites, or the sites of the ghetto. I’ve walked on this street, I’ve seen this building before. But I didn’t know it was a synagogue. And it was a shock for me,” he recounts.
“I decided to make this website in dedication to the Jews of Ukraine. The purpose of it is the gathering of information and resources from the remaining Jewish communities in Ukraine, as well as the ones that have been destroyed” Vitali says.
Vitali’s website can be found here http://jewua.org/
And the Vanished World blog can be found here https://vanishedworld.blog/
Moving forward in time from my last article, which showcased a short film set in the Pale of Settlement in the mid-19th century, this one is about a full-length feature where the action takes place on the Polish/Ukrainian border during World War II. My Name is Sara is the story of a 13-year-old Polish Jew who flees from the Nazis to a small rural settlement and finds refuge – although a cold and insecure one - with a Ukrainian farming family.
The film is an American/Polish co-production directed by Steven Oritt. It was filmed on location in Podlasie, Poland, strongly evoking a sense of the nature of the area, the sweeping, rural landscapes, the forests and country towns as they would have looked in the middle of the last century. Filming locations included Tykocin, Czerlonka, Białystok and Puchły.
At her parents’ insistence, Sara and her brother escape from the ghetto in Korzec, Poland, close to the Ukrainian border, before it is liquidated in 1942. They flee in the middle of the night through miles of forest, across a river where Sara would have drowned had her brother not been there to save her. They eventually make their way to the home of a Ukrainian woman whom Sara’s parents had paid to take in and care for their two oldest children. They stay for some days, but sense that the woman is nervous, and that they should move on. Sara makes the decision to continue alone.
Walking on towards Ukraine, Sara creates a false identity and life story for herself, using the name of a Catholic friend. Luckily, she is well versed in Catholic prayers and rituals, knowledge that without doubt saves her life on several occasions. Determined above all else to guard the secret of her true identity, she finds work on a small farm owned by a Ukrainian couple, and soon discovers that they harbour secrets of their own.
The role of Sara is powerfully played by a young actress by the name of Zuzanna Surowy. There are moments of horror and sacrifice, as one would expect from a film depicting events that took place during the Holocaust, but this is not a depressing film. It is beautifully shot, to the extent that many of the scenes look almost like paintings. The film was released in the US in 2019, and in the UK, where it was oddly renamed The Occupation, in 2020.
My name is Sara is based on the true story of Sara Góralnik, who was born in Korzec on May 10 1930. She was the second of four children, the only girl, and the only one of her family to survive the Holocaust.
Her hometown was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1939, then by the Nazis in 1941. When Sara was just 12 years old, her family received word that all Jews living in the ghetto were to be murdered. “You and your brother will run away,” her mother said, according to Sara’s testimony to the Shoah Foundation in 2012. “And, I said ‘No. If they are going to kill you, let them kill me. I’m not going.’”
Sarah’s son Mickey Shapiro, who was born in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany in 1947, is one of the film’s executive producers. “I was curious and I knew bits and pieces of the story, but I didn’t get all of it and I wasn’t going to push her to tell the story,” says Mickey. “My mother never talked about it. She never really verbalised what happened.”
Sara began to talk a little more as she got older, then after a visit to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC with her grandchildren, she began to share her story in detail. “This is a strong movie about a strong woman who survives. It needs to be seen,” Mickey says. Sara died in 2018.
Books have provided me, like many others, with a place to escape during this strange Covid era. Perhaps paradoxically, my escape has not been to happier times, but to the bleakest, most terrible period of mid-20th century history, which has absorbed me during recent months. Bringing myself back again and again to the Holocaust has helped me appreciate all the freedoms we have still been able to enjoy this year, as opposed to those that the coronavirus has taken away.
The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe (translated from the Spanish) tells the fascinating story of Dita Kraus, who was 13 in 1942 when she was deported from her home in Prague to Terezin (Theresienstadt), and later to Auschwitz. Dita – a feisty, strong-minded teenager – and her parents were sent to the family camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, a showcase area established in September 1943 most likely in case a delegation of the International Red Cross were to come to inspect conditions there. The Nazis wanted to preserve the illusion that children could live in Auschwitz, and to contradict reports that it was a death camp.
In the event, though, the International Red Cross inspected Theresienstadt but chose not to come to Auschwitz after all, in the mistaken understanding that Theresienstadt was the Nazi’s final destination for Czech Jews. Perhaps if the visit had taken place, just perhaps, it would have created such a public outcry that the allies would have been forced to take action. But once the threat of a Red Cross visit disappeared, the family camp had no further purpose and was liquidated in July 1944. Of the 17,500 Jews deported to the family camp, only 1,294 survived the war.
Prisoners at the family camp were not subjected to selection on arrival and were granted several other privileges. Rations were a little better, heads were not shaved and civilian clothes were permitted. Family members were able to stay together; males and females were assigned to separate barracks, but were still able to meet one another outside their quarters. Prisoners were given postcards to send to relatives in an attempt to mislead the outside world about the Final Solution. Strict censorship, of course, prevented them from telling the truth.
Prisoners in the family camp had “SB6” added to the number tattooed on their arm, indicating that they were to receive “special treatment” for six months. When the six months were up, each transport was liquidated and a new one took its place. In spite of the privileges and so-called special treatment, living conditions were still abysmal by any standards other than those of a concentration camp, and the mortality rate was high. Dita’s father died of pneumonia in the camp.
The family camp was home to a clandestine school, established by Fredy Hirsch – a German Jew and former youth sports instructor – who persuaded the authorities to allow block 31 to act as a special area for the camp’s 700 children. Inside the block, the wooden walls were covered in drawings, including Eskimos and the Seven Dwarves, stage sets for plays performed by the children. Stools and benches took the place of rows of triple bunks. Education was officially forbidden, with the children permitted only to learn German and play games. But that did not prevent Hirsch and his teachers from organising lessons on all manner of subjects, including Judaism. There were no pens or pencils, of course, and the teachers would draw imaginary letters or diagrams in the air rather than on a blackboard.
And inside block 31 was something else, something “that’s absolutely forbidden in Auschwitz. These items, so dangerous that their mere possession is a death sentence, cannot be fired, nor do they have a sharp point, a blade or a heavy end. These items, which the relentless guards of the Reich fear so much are nothing more than books: old, unbound, with missing pages, and in tatters. The Nazis ban them, hunt them down.”
Dita became the custodian of block 31’s motley collection of books, which had been secretly taken from the ramp where the luggage of incoming transports was sorted. There were eight books – eight small miracles – which included an atlas, a geometry book, a Russian grammar, A Short History of the World by H G Wells, a book on psychoanalytic therapy, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas and a Czech novel: The Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk, as well as a Russian novel with no cover. The school also had six “living books”, stories learnt by heart and recounted by the teachers.
Dita cared for her eight books like she would her own children, caressing them, putting their pages back in order, gluing their spines and trying to keep them neat and tidy. She took huge risks on their behalf, removing the books from their hiding place each day and lending them out to teachers as requested, always alert to the possibility of an unplanned inspection or visit from the SS.
Despite the many books I’ve read about the death camps, and a visit to Auschwitz in 2018, literature on the subject still has the power to shock. In this book, for me, it was this passage, in which a woman, together with her young son, is told that they will be transferred from Birkenau to be with her husband – a political prisoner – in Auschwitz, three miles away:
“Miriam and Yakub Edelstein have sharp minds. They immediately understand why they have been reunited. No-one can begin to imagine what must pass through their minds in this instant.
“An SS corporal takes out his gun, points it at little Arieh, and shoots him on the spot. Then he shoots Miriam. By the time he shoots Yakub, he is surely already dead inside.”
This is a beautifully written story about a time and place that was hideous and brutal. As the author says, “The bricks used to construct this story are facts, and they are held together in these pages with a mortar of fiction.” I urge you to read it for yourself.
During lockdown, I have found my reading dominated by the Second World War, and have been struck by some parallels between that era and this strange period that we are living through now. The second of the wartime books to feature in my blog is The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather, which has the subtitle “The true story of the resistance hero who infiltrated Auschwitz”. I read it straight after finishing Bart van Es’ fascinating tale The Cut Out Girl about a young Dutch girl whose parents sent her away shortly before being deported to Auschwitz. The Volunteer picks up on their experience.
The book charts the true story of Witold Pilecki, a member of the Polish resistance who agrees to get himself sent to Auschwitz in September 1940 in order to build a rebel army within the concentration camp and lead an uprising against its Nazi oppressors.
Witold succeeds in developing an extensive network of resistance in Auschwitz, but he knows that ultimately a camp rebellion will be impossible without external support. His intention – through numerous oral, written and transmitted reports that he miraculously manages to smuggle out of the camp from October 1940 onwards at tremendous risk to all involved – is to get news of the camp to the Allied leadership. Each report makes the same request: that the Allies make bombing raids over Poland to sever the train lines bringing new transits of prisoners, and to destroy Auschwitz and thereby assist the prisoners with an uprising from within. Witold argued that although the bombing would kill hundreds, it would save the lives of many thousands more over the course of the war.
While the author describes some of the unimaginable horrors of Auschwitz, it feels sometimes that these no longer have the power to shock, so familiar are we today with the narrative of the Holocaust. Yet Witold’s reports smuggled out of the camp exposed to the outside world the events that are now so familiar. Just imagine being confronted with the atrocities of Auschwitz for the first time. Gas chambers. Daily transports of Jews being divided between those to be murdered immediately, and those to die a longer, slower death by starvation, hard labour and disease. Emaciated bodies. Random shootings and other acts of extreme violence. Obscene medical experiments.
It is hardly surprising that some dismissed reports of the mass killings as fiction, they must have read like the script of a horror movie. But the Polish resistance in Warsaw took Witold’s reports seriously and used a network of underground couriers to bring news of atrocities committed at Auschwitz to the notice of the Polish government in exile in London and its leader Wladyslaw Sikorski.
The experience of the couriers who carry his reports – transmitted verbally to Warsaw, then written up, microfilmed and sent to London – is an adventure story in its own right, fraught with danger at every turn. One courier, a Polish underground agent by the name of Napoleon Segieda, carried a microfilm with news of the first mass gassings of Jews in May 1942 in a false-bottomed suitcase from Poland via Austria, Switzerland, France, Spain, Gibraltar and Scotland finally reached London six months later. He called the delay “heartbreaking”. The Nazis had killed nearly a quarter of a million Jews in Auschwitz in that time.
Sikorski repeatedly attempted to engage the British government to pay attention to the horrors committed in Nazi concentration camps in Poland and, from 1942, the mass murder of European Jews. I was deeply shocked to learn how much the Allied leaders knew of what was happening in Nazi-occupied Europe that they kept from the media and from the public, and refused to act on. Churchill and Roosevelt were both briefed repeatedly about the events taking place in Poland, but failed to comprehend the true nature of Auschwitz and its central role in Hitler’s plans. And from late 1942 reports emerged from other sources that backed up the smuggled information from inside Auschwitz.
The Allied leadership knew what was happening, and yet they did nothing. Churchill over and again dismissed out of hand the idea of bombing the camp and its train lines, finding numerous excuses for inaction – he didn’t want to upset the local population with too many grim images, feared stirring up violent anti-Semitism at home, and was wary of reprisals against captured British airmen. Most damningly, he and Roosevelt believed bombing Auschwitz would a distraction from the overall war effort.
Indeed, in early 1943, the US State Department even instructed its legation in neutral Switzerland to stop sending information from Jewish groups about the situation in Europe as they might inflame the public.
Witold and his comrades continued to conduct their activities in Auschwitz – at huge personal risk and contending with sickness, hunger and deprivation – always with the expectation of support from the Allies that never materialised. Witold could not understand the lack of action, and wondered whether his reports were being intercepted and failing to get through to the Allies. He knew that a major uprising within the camp was destined to failure without help from outside, and several unsuccessful attempts to start a camp rebellion confirmed this belief.
During Witold’s time in Auschwitz, many of his co-conspirators were discovered and killed. Having finally learnt that his reports from the camp had indeed reached the Polish resistance in Warsaw and travelled from there to London, but that international focus was elsewhere and few paid much attention to Auschwitz, Witold lost heart and began to plot his own departure from the camp.
Miraculously, he and a colleague managed to escape in April 1943, but his work was not done. Witold continued his attempts to rally support among the Polish resistance for an attack on Auschwitz. But to his bafflement, his entreaties continued to fall on deaf ears. Few people in Poland were talking about the camp’s role in the murder of Jews, and meanwhile gangs of blackmailers roamed the streets in search of any Jews still in hiding.
From outside the camp, Witold continued to write reports and to work for the Polish underground in spite of his increasing frustration. He survived the war and worked on his memoirs, but his story of futile heroism was forgotten. He was arrested by the Soviet authorities in May 1947 and sentenced to death at a show trial a year later. Had the outside world heeded Witold’s calls, millions of lives could have been saved.
Churchill’s unwillingness to step in to help the Jews, Poles, gypsies, homosexuals, communists – all those deemed inferior by the Nazi ideology – brings me back to the current move to reassess many historical figures that have long been celebrated as national heroes. The recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in the toppling of statues of those who benefitted from the slave trade and colonialism.
The statue of Churchill in London’s Parliament Square was vandalised then boarded up to prevent further damage by anti-racism protestors. Posterity has for too long airbrushed out the uncomfortable bits of history – the racism and bigotry that most of us today can no longer accept. That the tragic death of George Floyd spawned a worldwide movement to highlight inequality and bring institutional racism to the very top of national agendas is testament to how far we have come in 75 years. But it also highlights just how far we still have to go before all lives are considered equal irrespective of colour, creed, nationality or sexual orientation.
Coronavirus has caused the greatest economic disruption globally since the Second World War and, for those of us who did not live through it, this would be our World War moment – a time of sacrifice, when we make huge changes to our own lives to help save those of others. So we were told repeatedly as governments around the world shut down shops, businesses and schools and imposed previously unimaginable restrictions on the lives of their citizens.
The comparison always seemed a glib one. Nothing will ever compare with the untold suffering forced upon hundreds of millions of people in World War Two. Perhaps for those on the front line of this pandemic – our healthcare workers and those looking after the elderly – the comparison may ring true, but for most of us, lockdown has been unusually peaceful. For me personally, the hecticness of everyday life has been stripped away, to be replaced largely with home-schooling and gardening – busyness of a different kind that has forced my blog to take a back seat for the last three months.
But the wartime analogies seeped into me and for this reason most of my reading in recent weeks has centred around experiences of World War Two. Now my children are finally back at school for a couple of days a week, I intend to spend some of my new-found time writing up my thoughts about the books I have read and how I feel they chime with current events.
One book I found deeply absorbing is The Cut-Out Girl by Bart van Es, the tale of a young Jewish girl in the Netherlands who is sent away by her parents in 1942 in the hope of saving her life. Their dream is realised, as the mother and father are deported to Auschwitz just weeks after giving up their adored only child.
Meanwhile young Lientje passes from one Christian family to another, from one town to another, gradually changing from a friendly and vivacious eight-year old to a solitary and withdrawn 11-year old. With her first foster parents she is welcomed as one of the family and able to play outside freely with the other children. Later she is forced into hiding and by 1945 she is kept as a house servant, made to feel unwelcome and suffering abuse.
Lientje’s experience is far from unique in the Netherlands. Unlike other occupied countries, Holland’s socialist and resistance organisations developed networks to rescue Jewish children following the Nazi occupation and place them in hiding. Anne Frank was just one of many Dutch children tucked away in hidden rooms, attics and cellars across the country. Many thousands of hidden war children – Jews who, unlike Anne, were given up by their parents in the hope of saving them – survived, but at great emotional cost.
For me the most shocking aspect of this book is the level of complicity among the local population and the lack of resistance to the Nazi occupiers – in a country that has a longstanding reputation for tolerance. Four-fifths of Holland’s Jews were murdered during the war, more than double the proportion in any other western European country.
Van Es offers several reasons for what he terms “the exceptionally low chance of survival”. The country’s population was largely urban, persecution began early, escape across borders was almost impossible, and registration, aided by the Jewish Council, was efficient. Another factor was help from the local population, thanks to a bounty of 7.5 guilders offered for every Jew caught, which made people all too willing to inform on their Jewish neighbours and helped the local police to exceed the quotas for Jew-hunting set by their German masters.
Added to this, in July 1942 the Dutch Reformed Church refused to make a statement of disapproval about the mass deportation of Jews. It wasn’t until late 1943 that the Church decided to reverse its position and backed active resistance, telling its members to protect their fellow citizens even at cost to themselves. This enabled Jews like Lientje to go into hiding with families in rural areas, which were inherently safer.
The author intersperses Lientje’s wartime experience with the story of his own present-day research, including interviews with Lien, as she is now known, in her 80s. Comparisons between the Dutch countryside of today, connected by wide, well lit motorways dotted with bright car showrooms, contrast with the bleak, flat, empty lands of three-quarters of a century ago. A park close to Lien’s apartment in Amsterdam, where she and the author go for a stroll, was a German military camp during the war, surrounded by barbed wire and embedded with deep concrete bunkers.
Other comparisons between the two eras also resonate. The long period of economic hardship and austerity in Germany that followed the First World War; and now the global financial crisis of 2008, both pushed voters further to the right in the years that followed. This loss of faith in the political centre ground has enabled the election of an American president who is unfit to govern, while emboldening powerful leaders in countries without democratic elections. The blind belief in government propaganda of the last century has transmuted into an unquestioning faith in ‘fake news’ on social media at the expense of expertise and journalistic rigour.
The other obvious parallel is the alarming rise in racism and anti-immigrant discourse and attacks in recent years, including many perpetrated against Jews. But perhaps the demonisation of the Muslim community following terror attacks by Islamic extremists – culminating in President Trump’s attempts to impose a ‘Muslim ban’ – comes closest to the anti-Semitism of the Nazi era.
Yet the newly resurgent Black Lives Matter movement brings hope of a rising opposition to anti-immigrant sentiment, and a hope that society will not return to the division of the 1930s and 1940s. Thousands of people around the world, most of them young and many of them white, are risking their own health to attend marches and stand up to racism. The rise in people power has even prompted corporations to make statements and put their money where their mouth is, withdrawing advertising from platforms that are not doing enough to root out racism.
I cannot help but think back to the past, when there were no marches, no boycotts. Anti-Semitism was rife in society and whipped up by propaganda, in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, as well as in Germany. The number of citizens standing up to racism was tiny, hardly surprising given that they did so at great risk to their own lives. In the words of the famous 1946 poem by the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller:
First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me
One hundred years ago
2017 marked the centenary of the Russian Revolution, an event that heralded the country's 1918-21 Civil War and a period of terrible suffering for my family and others who lived through it. This blog began as an investigation of current events affecting Jews in Ukraine today and comparing them with historical events from a century ago. It is broadening to include personal experiences and my exploration into Ukrainian history as my research for a new book, set in the country, develops.