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Between life and death: why some soviet Jews decided to leave and others to stay in 1941.

One Story of Escape in 1941

In 1941, 16-year-old Naum A., lived with his mother, his two sisters, his brother-in-law, a little nephew, and grandparents in a small house in Kherson, Ukraine. On 23 June 1941, the day after the war broke out, Naum's brotherin-law voluntarily signed up with the Red Army and left town. A few days after his departure, in early July 1941, a neighbor, who held a position at the district executive committee (raiispolkom) came to the house for an informal visit and said to Naum's mother: "You, especially, need to go, it seems." Naum remembers this statement word for word. Neither Naum nor his mother understood the exact meaning of "especially." The mother thought "especially" referred to the vulnerability of her young daughters, who could become easy targets of rape. Naum's grandfather thought "especially" meant the danger for the family of having among its members a Communist and Red Army draftee. It was decided that Naum, his mother, and his sisters should try to get a horse and a wagon and leave Kherson, while his grandparents would stay to keep an eye on the house. The grandfather added: "No one will touch the old folks. Germans are cultured people, and locals respect me too much to hurt me." It took Naum and his family about a month to get to Saratov, and eventually they made it to Kazakhstan. Naum was drafted into the army in 1943, was wounded a few times, but survived to see the end of the war. So did his mother and his sisters. In contrast, his brother-in-law was killed in military action in 1941, and his grandparents were killed, too. In the 1950s,

Naum found out that his grandparents, together with the remaining Jews of Kherson--including young children--were shot, and their corpses were piled up in wells a few kilometers from the town center. The wells have long since been closed, but locals whispered about bloody water seeping through for months after the shootings.

Naum became a family doctor and worked in Kherson for decades until his family immigrated to Israel in the late 1980s. He considers his own survival a miracle, one that imposes on him a tremendous responsibility to tell the story of those who were killed, such as his grandparents. Interviewed in the 2000s, he, of course, realized the importance of every detail in his story. He emphasized the significance of the word "especially," dropped by the government official in that fateful conversation of 1941, and he wonders what that official actually knew. He sees now that, among other things, the word "especially" signified the beginning of a new era for him--an era in which he would regard himself as a Jew, and not just a Soviet person.

Human Behavior in the Face of Disaster

In the face of dangers such as war or natural disaster, humans go through several stages as they decide whether to stay or leave. The sociologist Thomas Drabek lists these stages as follows. First, people assess the reliability of information regarding the danger at hand by cross-examining various sources, including government officials, the mass media, and word of mouth. Second, they assess their ability to leave, including the availability of transportation. Finally, they factor in personal circumstances, such as the presence of sick and immobile family members and the fear of losing property. When the sense of danger prevails over the reasons to stay, residents seek all possible means to escape and often leave older family members behind in order to evacuate the young. (1) Applied to the situation in the Soviet Union of June-August 1941, this theory helps us analyze the confluence of factors--the action of central and local governments, perceptions of Soviet policies, and individual considerations--that prompted some Jews to make a fateful decision to leave the war zone as opposed to hoping for the best under German occupation.

This article analyzes the process of decision making based on the oral testimonies of survivors. It investigates the implications of these accounts for our understanding of Jews' perception of Soviet policies, the process of their implementation, and the impact of the war's early months on the ethnic identity of Soviet Jews. It does so by considering the historical circumstances of the evacuation and escape of Soviet Jews who lived either in the pre-1939 Soviet territories or in the territories annexed by the USSR in 1939-41. In an important article some 20 years ago, Mordechai Altshuler analyzed Soviet state policies that facilitated or hindered Jewish escape, the reasons behind the decision of Jews to relocate or stay behind, and the consequences for the survival of some Jews in the USSR during the Holocaust. (2) While continuing this line of analysis, this article examines these processes "from below," from the perspective of the subjects of state policies. I hypothesize that the decision to evacuate their places of residence, whether by choice or in response to an official order, often became the turning point after which Soviet Jews largely no longer saw themselves as average Soviet citizens but rather as Soviet Jews specifically--much like Naum A. To account for this crucial identity shift, I examine how Jews in the USSR learned about the Nazi treatment of Jews elsewhere, what they knew about the possibility of war before its outbreak in the USSR, how they reacted to the start of the war, and ultimately what all this meant for their chances of survival. The major innovation of the present study involves the extensive use of the oral testimonies, recorded between the 1990s and 2010s. Before turning to the content of those testimonies, I consider the numerous methodological challenges that they pose, while also asserting their tremendous unmatched value as sources.

Historical Setting and Historiography

During World War II, the majority of Soviet Jews went through one or more of the following four experiences: service in combat or participation in the partisan movement; imprisonment in a ghetto or concentration camp; internment in the Gulag; or "evacuation"--escape to the country's rear (Siberia or Central Asia). Yitzhak Arad estimates that in 1941 about 800,000 Jews escaped or were evacuated from the "old Soviet territories" and another 425,000-470,000 from the newly annexed Soviet territories. (3) Albert Kaganovich discerns three categories of Jews who made their way to the eastern part of the USSR: Soviet citizens before 1939; new Soviet citizens from the annexations of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, and the eastern portions of Poland and Romania; and foreign citizens who escaped to Soviet territory mainly from German-occupied parts of Poland after war began there

in 1939. (4) These men, women, and children either managed to flee the western territories of the Soviet Union on their own, as refugees, or were evacuated by the Soviet government as part of the massive relocation of industrial forces to the rear. Soviet policies toward Polish-Jewish refugees from both old and new Soviet territory has received some--though still insufficient--scholarly attention, as have the refugees' religious, cultural, and political life in the Soviet rear. (5) In addition, a significant number of memoirs and personal accounts describing the individual experiences of Polish-Jewish refugees have appeared in Hebrew, Yiddish, and, most recently, English. (6) In the present study, the focus is on the first category of Jews--that is, those who were Soviet citizens before 1939.

The fates of Soviet-Jewish refugees and evacuees have attracted little scholarly attention, with the exception of an important book by Rebecca Manley (which does not focus specifically on Jews) and a number of dissertations-in-progress. (7) The possibility of successful evacuation or escape is one of the features that render the Soviet Jewish experience during World War II unique among European Jews. During the postwar period, the Soviet government credited itself with saving many of its Jews during the war through the organized evacuation from the invading German army. Yet historians agree that despite numerous official claims to the contrary, the Soviet government did not have clear strategies and policies on evacuating civilians, including Jews, at the war's outset. As the historians Ben-Cion Pinchuk and Rebecca Manley assert after going through thousands of government documents, there is no evidence of a centralized plan or even a single directive from the central

government that supported the policy of evacuating Jews first. (8) At the same time, basing his conclusions on vast archival sources, the Israeli historian Kiril Feferman suggests that although Soviet authorities did not prioritize the escape of Jews in their efforts to organize the evacuation of Soviet citizens, neither did they prevent those Jews who escaped independently from exploiting the facilities offered by the Soviet evacuation program, including the provision of food, work, housing, clothing, fuel, medical aid, and schooling for their children. (9)

The nature of Soviet policies designed to evacuate civilians and industrial forces--a massive relocation campaign launched days after the war broke out in the Soviet Union--is critical for understanding the scope of the evacuation of Jews. Between the German invasion of June 1941 and October of the next year, as many as 17 million Soviet citizens were evacuated to the country's interior. First priority was given to industrial factories and their workers. Between July and November 1941, 1,523 industrial enterprises from Russia, Ukraine, and Belorussia were evacuated to the Volga region, the Urals, Siberia, and Central Asia. Civilians who were not associated with the factories in western parts of the Soviet Union, especially Ukraine and Belorussia, were often left to decide themselves whether to stay put and hope for the best or to escape eastward. (10) Moreover, as Altshuler explains, residents of the "first area of occupation"--the areas conquered by German forces within the first six weeks of the war--often did not have much choice in their actions. Lacking proper information, equipment, means of transportation, and, most important, time to think, they had no real opportunity to flee. Only 8 percent of the two million Jews who lived in western Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and eastern Belorussia managed to escape. The rest went into ghettos, camps, or partisan units. Most were murdered. (11)

In contrast, the residents of "area two," where German forces arrived only after August 1941, had more time to evaluate their situation, to digest information about the German occupiers, and to assemble the means of transportation necessary to flee. As a result, 70 percent of the 1.3 million Jewish residents from these other parts of Ukraine, Crimea, and the RSFSR managed to escape to the interior parts of the Soviet Union. (12) Of those, many did have a choice concerning whether they should leave or stay put; and this choice reflected a complex web of circumstances. According to Altshuler, reasons for this decision included proximity to railway stations, the attitude of the military and civilian authorities toward escape and evacuation, and the specific amount of time that elapsed between the German invasion of the Soviet Union and the occupation of a particular locale. (13)

In the chaotic first weeks of the war, the roles of evacuees, refugees, and state officials blurred, and individual fates were frequently decided by chance. These were conditions in which state officials had unprecedented power to show extraordinary compassion--or an extraordinary lack of it. The results and circumstances of this spontaneous decision making are discussed in more detail below.


This study is based on 198 in-depth interviews with Jewish men (75) and women (123) who spent at least a portion of the war years as evacuees or refugees in Central Asia or the Urals. I conducted most of the interviews myself but also availed myself of 229 interviews that were conducted in Kyiv by sociologists at the Kyiv Judaica Institute. Because I rely significantly on body language, intonations, and other nonverbal elements in my analysis of testimonies, I used the Kyiv interviews only occasionally. Although the study was not designed as a quantitative one, I tried to ensure broad representation of difference based on gender, countries of origin, social backgrounds, and educational experience. Some of the interviewees (27) originate from the territories that became Soviet in 1939 or 1940, such as eastern Poland and the Baltic states; the rest (171) grew up under the Soviet regime. In this article I utilize only the interviews of the latter, as the respondents who grew up under non-Soviet regimes had a considerably different perspective and story. However, if a respondent was born in the old Soviet territory but moved to the newly occupied part of the Soviet Union in 1939-40, his or her story was included.

Most of my respondents were born in the 1920s or earlier and lived in New York, Philadelphia, Moscow, Toronto, and Berlin in the 1990s-2000s, when the interviews were conducted. These people survived Stalinism, World War II, postwar antisemitism, and often a painful immigration process. When asked about the most important historical event of their lives, they would almost unanimously say "the evacuation." Many had especially strong feelings about this event when I mentioned that I was interviewing them to collect materials on Jewish life and culture in the Soviet Union. Indeed, World War II was not only the most significant historical event that these people remembered; it was also a turning point in their ethnic self-identification.

In my analysis of these oral sources, I follow the lead of the historian and literary scholar Irina Paperno, who has combined the historical method of analyzing tendencies with the literary approach of close reading of individual texts. (14) Oral histories have been shown in other contexts to provide valuable information on the reception, interpretation, and internalization of Soviet ideology. (15) The innovation of my approach is that I focus primarily on testimonies as tales built in accordance with a genre--a quest, a magic story, or a lament. Each narrative, therefore, has to include villains, heroes, obstacles, and ways of overcoming those obstacles. I have found that Vladimir Propp's approach of identifying such formal characteristics of a tale enables a sophisticated analysis of testimonies that considers not only what the respondents are saying but also when they are saying it. (16)

Such analysis is possible only when respondents are given a chance to follow their train of thought and not interrupted by an impatient interviewer, desperate for information on the specific topic of his or her research. The more people I interviewed, the more aware I became of the importance of the structure of narratives. Gradually, I stopped interrupting or changing the topic, allowing even for long (and awkward) silences to get the respondents to create their own story, as opposed to the story I thought they should be telling.

The focus of this study is on both the information that the interviews provide about the process of their decision making in 1941 and the ways in which respondents construct the narrative of those events. Comparative analysis of both aspects of the interviews provides rich data for consideration of the Soviet situation in 1941 and Jews' successful efforts to acclimate to different political systems and ideologies. (17) Moreover, comparing narratives against one another reveals that sometimes they can serve as a relatively clear reflection of perceptions experienced simultaneously with those remarkable events in the past; other times they cannot. I examine the wording that respondents choose to express their ideas, just as I search for hidden meanings, observe how my subjects move from one topic to another, and consider how they understand and interpret my questions. (18) For example, in Naum's story, I believe it is significant that he speaks about a piece of advice from a local government official (the mentor) and about the fact that the grandparents made their own decision to stay. Though impossible to verify fully, such elements of the story are typical in interviews, as they shift the responsibility for survival to the government official and for the death to the ones who decided to stay. In this sense, the story teaches us as much about what happened in 1941 as how survivors remembered and transmitted the story half a century or more later.

To ensure proper historical context, I rigorously fact-checked everything that the respondents said--as far as this was possible. I read their "military books" (official Soviet military records of each person), "work-history books" (trudovye knizhki), marriage certificates, Soviet letters of recommendations (kharakteristiki), military evaluations, award certficates, and other personal documents. If the respondent was not able to provide any documents relevant to the story, I did not use the testimony for the study. Generally, I do not quote from the interviews unless I can verify the information, at least partially. The combination of textual analysis, nonverbal cues, and historical context helps us extract the fullest possible meaning of the testimonies, which at first glance might seem to be "scattered" and even incomprehensible.

What Respondents Said They Knew

During the two years before the onset of the war in the USSR (1939-41), my respondents had access to three sources of information: state officials, the media, and rumors. Because the media was largely produced and controlled by central organs, we will consider it here as official information. Refugees from Poland were often sources of rumors and alternative information about the German army. Government officials delivered instructions at public meetings,

which generally confirmed newspaper reports. In informal settings, however, they often expressed doubt about newspapers' accuracy and presented their own interpretations. Therefore, the information coming from officials belongs somewhere in the middle ground between newspapers, official directives (which did not always concur with newspapers), and rumors.

Moreover, the messages in the Soviet media about Soviet-German relations and German antisemitism were by no means uniform. Before the Molotov--Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, the Soviet media condemned the policies of the Nazi regime, including discriminatory practices toward Jews. After the treaty, the Russian-language press did not speak about those injustices, whereas the Yiddish-language central press (which by then consisted of two newspapers, the Shtern [Star] in Kyiv and Oktober [October] in Minsk) continued to address them, albeit sparingly. (19) By the late 1930s, most Jews read the Russian-language press and trusted its message more than they did its Yiddish counterparts. (20) However, readers of the Yiddish press were able to relate its messages to their family members and friends; eventually the information published there reached many individuals, though in the form of rumors.

Most of my respondents could not pin down the exact source of official information about German treatment of Jews that was available to them before the war, but many shared the observation that at the time they regarded this information as irrelevant to them and their personal fates. In fact, most respondents did not understand why I was asking them about their prewar knowledge of the German treatment of Jews. Most suspected that I was testing their knowledge of history rather than evaluating the factors that played a role in their salvation.

I believe that there are three reasons for this misunderstanding. First, the respondents genuinely do not seem to remember the sequence of the information chain available to them before the war. They cannot recall their reactions to the rumors, to seeing a film, to overhearing a conversation from a grownup. Even the sources of information that they do name as important seem to appear as such only at the time of the interview, rather than in 1939. Indeed, respondents' exact recollections seem to be overshadowed by the exigencies they faced in 1941: the need to make quick decisions, to assess priorities, and to decide whom to trust and whom to heed. Recollections of the period between June and December 1941 are filled with astonishing detail, complete with the first names and surnames of individuals involved, train cart numbers, ticket costs, and such. As a result, we learn much more about what the respondents now choose to share about their behavior in the past than we do about the actual process of decision making at the time of the actions in question. Nevertheless, close textual analysis of testimonies can reveal common patterns and accepted modes of speaking about decision making, which in turn can help in ascertaining the influence of these factors on respondents' later lives.

Second, respondents often confuse whether they learned something that they know before or during the war, in the 1960s, or even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The fear of embarrassment informs the content of the interview and determines the nature of information volunteered if the respondent feels that he or she is being tested, as opposed to being learned from. (21)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for this study, respondents feel uneasy about admitting that they fell into the trap set up by the Soviet media and believed the official message that the war would not take place on Soviet soil. In their testimonies, in fact, this message overwhelmed rumors and other indirect sources of information about the war. Such trust of the Soviet media does not quite correspond to what we now know about Soviet society of the late 1930s, when, as new studies have showed, Soviet citizens apparently understood how to read and manipulate Soviet language without necessarily fully sharing the values of the Soviet regime and accepting state-sponsored ideology and directives. (22) I believe that this discrepancy is fully explained by the fact that respondents use the interviews as an opportunity to reconcile what they perceive as the mistakes of their past with their current understanding of how they should have behaved in situations of the past, and to make peace with these decisions in the spirit of what Robert Butler calls the life review process. (23) Stating one's belief in the Soviet message helps justify one's own choices, as well as the fatal choices of others.

To prove this hypothesis, in the section below I analyze four common statements that come up in almost all testimonies: (1) that the respondents were aware of Nazi treatment of Jews because they saw the film Professor Mamlok; (2) that members of the older generation did not want to leave home because they were convinced that the Germans would treat them fairly, as they had during World War I; (3) that the rumors of Polish refugees about Nazi treatment of Jews were treated with skepticism; and (4) that everyone believed that any war involving the USSR would take place on foreign soil.

Professor Mamlok

Directed by Adolf Minkin and Herbert Rappoport and produced by Lenfilm Studio, Professor Mamlok (1938) was based on a play of the same title by the famous German playwright Friedrich Wolf. The film tells the story of Professor Mamlok, a gifted surgeon and veteran of World War I who becomes the subject of Nazi persecution. In desperation, he contemplates suicide but does not go through with the act because a Nazi official falls ill and desperately needs his services. After saving the patient, the doctor is kicked out onto the street, and his German citizenship is revoked. Not able to sustain any further humiliation, Mamlok attempts suicide. (24) The film enjoyed a limited release in the Soviet Union in September 1938 but was pulled from theaters a year later, after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentropp Pact. A color version of the film was produced in East Germany in 1961 by Konrad Wolf, the playwright's son. In the Soviet Union, both versions were shown on television in 1988, for the first time in 50 years. Ever since, the film has appeared often on Russian television channels in both Russia and main countries of the Russian-speaking diaspora--Israel, Germany, the United States, Canada, and elsewhere. (25)

In his analysis of the significance of the film, Jeremy Hicks writes, "The frequency with which the film is mentioned in the Holocaust survivor testimonies collected by [the] Steven Spielberg Shoah Foundation suggests that it may have helped Soviet Jews to survive by impressing on them the murderous nature of Nazi antisemitism." (26) Previously, I agreed with this statement and even once presented a conference paper featuring my own findings that more than 80 percent of my respondents mentioned seeing this film and remembering its plot. (27) But as I was creating a spreadsheet of age groups and how well they remembered the film, an interesting correlation appeared. Younger respondents, those born between 1928 and 1932, were more likely to connect seeing the film with an understanding of the danger that their family felt prior to the war than their older counterparts. A typical example is the testimony by Galina K. (born 1930, in Kyiv):

[A.S]: Were you aware of how Germans treated Jews before the war?

[G.K.]: We knew all about it. Those ones, from Poland, they ran away from there, they talked about it. I was in the Pioneer Camp. They said Jews had been killed. Then right before the war, we saw the film Professor Mamlok. They showed how they [Nazis] put a star on him, despite the fact that he was a famous professor. Still, he was not killed, but he was insulted. We knew that Jews had been killed. (28)

Typically for many respondents, Galina mentions the informal, unvalidated, and often mistrusted information that came from Polish-Jewish refugees, as well as seeing the film. She remembers key features of the film well. But she also betrays an uncertainty about what she learned from the film in semicontradictory statements at the end of the segment. First, she notes that "he was not killed, but he was insulted," yet then she says, "We knew Jews had been killed." As tempting as it may be to dismiss this discrepancy as a sign of a respondent's confusion or stutter, the coherency and the flow of the rest of the testimony suggests otherwise. I believe that the slip comes from the fact that the Polish refugees were indeed speaking about deaths and murders, and the respondent initially associates those stories with the message of the film as well as her present knowledge of what happened to Jews during the war. In her recollection of the events of 1938-40, she connects seeing the film with the rumors discussed by her parents, but she cannot know whether her parents made the decision to leave based on seeing this film or on other information. Also, she has most likely seen this film again recently and was reminded of its content and message, which explains the detailed description in the testimony.

When older respondents (born before 1926) describe seeing the film, they are much less likely to associate it with the danger to themselves. In their description of the film, the absolute majority of these respondents articulate their impression that its plot, although frightening and explicit--and thus memorable--about Germany's mistreatment of Jews, did not describe events that could possibly be relevant to their own experiences. Frida S. (born in 1907) recalls:
   I remember seeing Professor Mamlok as if it was yesterday. We went
   to see it in the Khreshchatyk Theater. My husband and I could not
   find a babysitter, and we took our child with us. Later, he was
   terrified, as these horrible events of how Jews were being killed
   were shown in the film. My child had nightmares. He was then five
   or six years old. Now we understand that this film was the first
   sign. But then we did not think that it was relevant to us. I had
   no associations with any possible danger. All propaganda, all
   agitation, all of the press, and all of the media only said that
   even if war broke out, it would never happen in our country. I
   worked in a school and saw a map in the teachers room. During
   recess, the geography teacher would approach the map, and say:
   "Look, German troops are already here: Poland, France, Norway....
   Look how fast they move, this is scary." But even he did not think
   that they would ever get to us. (29)

Thirty-one years old in 1938, the respondent reveals important details about learning facts about the German treatment of Jews. She remembers it in the context of the lack of available child care, her child's nightmares, and conversations at her workplace. Unlike younger respondents, who tend to generalize their knowledge without providing any details of the circumstance in which they acquired it, Frida S. offers valuable context, a web of informational threads that constituted her understanding of the political situation, and, most important, the relevance of this information to her personally. As shown in this quotation, the connection between the information from the film and the actual decision to flee at the onset of the war did not seem apparent to this respondent. At the same time, one part of the official message--the fact that "the war will take place on foreign soil"--came across clearly and was internalized by the respondent and her colleague.

To sum up, older respondents who actually made decisions about whether to leave or stay do not regard the film as a decisive factor, while younger ones, who did not have to make such determinations because they were still children, often name the film as decisive. Perhaps as children they were unable to understand the prophetic message, but in the present it became apparent to them; thus they articulate this connection during the interview. Such a process is significant to oral historians, who take an interest in the associative mechanics of recollections, but it is of less significance or use to those historians seeking to determine whether or not seeing the film indeed influenced the decision making of Soviet Jews.

The War Will Take Place on Foreign Soil

As the testimony of Frida S. demonstrates, many respondents suggested that of all the messages mediated through the Soviet press, radio, and film, it was the one asserting that the war would never take place on Soviet soil that found a popular response. Basia Ch. (born 1926, Kyiv) recalls:
   Once a week, our school had a lecture about international politics.
   We knew everything ... People believed that our country was so
   strong that it would not allow any incidents ... We were not afraid
   of war. First, we knew about the peace treaty with Germany.... And
   we thought that even if Germany attacked, our army would not let
   them onto our territory. Everyone was confident of this, adults and
   children. Well, maybe adults thought differently, but children were
   sure ... And when we were leaving, my father said: "Do not take
   anything along; we will be back in a month." (30)

Despite her relatively young age at the time of the war's onset, the informant reproduces the rhetoric of the contemporary Soviet press quite accurately and suggests that this was an authoritative source of information for her and some of her acquaintances. Moreover, she also quotes her father, a member of the older generation, who similarly thought that the war, if it reached the Soviet Union, would be brief and relatively painless. It is hard to say whether the respondent remembers her immediate reactions to the conversation and whether she reproduces the thoughts of her father accurately. But, significantly, the presumption that there would be no war on Soviet soil appears in the majority of testimony concerning the threat that respondents saw in the German army at the time.

Moreover, as many respondents testify, local officials never grew tired of emphasizing that the hypothetical war would not affect the daily lives of most citizens. Iosif (born 1926) recalls:
   It was never even mentioned as a possibility that the war would
   take place on our soil. Those who suggested that a foreign army
   could come and invade were seen as traitors and were immediately
   silenced. What I remember was constant talk that "the war will take
   place on foreign soil," and that "no enemy will enter our land."
   When war broke out, my grandfather went to his rabbi, who said to
   stay put, as Germans had been nice to Jews during the first war. My
   father did not take the rabbi seriously, but he believed Soviet
   officials. As a result we all stayed, and almost perished a few
   months later. (31)

This testimony suggests that many small-town residents found confirmation of their fears (or lack of them) from a variety of sources, including ones they believed to be trustworthy. Many say that their grandparents and parents did not trust the Soviet media's reports of German atrocities because of their own positive experiences with the German army during World War I, and they preferred to stay put even if they had the opportunity to evacuate. Iosif provided his answer to me after I kept probing him about why the threat of war was not taken seriously. After thinking about my question, the respondent seemed puzzled himself. It was only after the initial pause that he provided his answer. It showed me that his answer was not rehearsed or practiced many times, but rather it was a genuine reaction, and was somewhat surprising even to him. His testimony, like that of hundreds of other respondents, strongly suggests the belief of people in 1941 that in the case of war with Germany the Soviet army would be fighting on foreign territory.

Perceptions of Danger among the Older Generation

Many respondents quoted here, and almost all the others, told me about older family members who had encountered "good Germans" during World War I and thus were not frightened by the prospect of invasion. We have already seen the excerpts from Iosif and Naum A.'s interviews. Another typical quote comes from Liza L. (born 1923, Kharkiv): "My grandfather did not want to leave. He had all of his possessions there, and he did not think that that the Germans represented a danger to him. Even before the war, when a young woman from Poland came to the synagogue and told us that Germans persecute and kill Jews, no one believed her. My father survived World War I, and he remembered Germans then. He said they were civilized people, and [stories of German atrocities] could not be true." (32)

In analyzing this testimony, it seems less clear whether the respondent's grandfather refused to evacuate out of true conviction or instead used this assertion as an excuse because he feared that joining the younger members of their families in their flight would jeopardize their chances for survival and successful escape. The latter interpretation is supported by the historian Elizabeth Strauss in her study of elderly Jews in the Lodz ghetto. She proposes that postwar sources, such as memoirs and testimonies, are "more likely to highlight family cohesion in a way that memorializes elderly parents and grandparents," as opposed to sources generated during the crisis, which are "much more forthcoming about familial tensions that, in some cases, resulted in a complete rupture of relationships among family members." (33) I find this observation to be accurate in relation to how my respondents describe their grandparents in general, as well as intergenerational dynamics in families. While some conflicts make it into testimonies, the period of World War II is remarkably conflict-free. Grandparents, especially those that died because they did not evacuate, are presented as calm, fully-in-control decision makers with strong opinions who chose to distrust the Soviet media and instead to rely on their own positive experience with the German army during World War I.

Thus as was the case with Jews' reception of Professor Mamlok, I believe that the interviews do not provide an informative window into how the experience during World War I actually influenced the choices of Soviet Jews in 1941. Instead, the testimonies teach us about how the memories of grandparents are preserved and transmitted, both privately and publicly.

Rumors and Decisions to Leave

Almost all quoted respondents have mentioned that they heard rumors about Nazi treatment of Jews beyond the USSR. Some discussed Polish-Jewish refugees as sources of these rumors, others remembered secondary information without a known source. It is customary, in studies of preindustrial or totalitarian societies--the Soviet Union in the early 1930s arguably qualifies as both--to pay particular attention to rumors as important indicators of society's anxieties. For example, Lynne Viola suggests that the act of spreading rumors functioned as a form of everyday resistance among Russian peasants, who in promulgating these rumors referred to the Soviet regime as the "Antichrist." (34)

In the testimonies studied here, respondents usually relate that rumors--even those that later turned out to be true, such as reports of murderous German treatment of Jews--were dismissed at the time as inaccurate or false. Even when respondents and their family members heard about German brutality against Jews directly from eyewitnesses, they often continued to embrace the assumption that the war would not occur in their own places of residence. Moreover, for various reasons--for example, distrust of strangers and suspicion of their personal motives, and general optimism--many respondents tended not to believe the rumors and eyewitness accounts of the refugees. Here is a typical justification of such an attitude: "We heard rumors that Jews in Poland were being taken somewhere, and that they were being shot. We thought, maybe some of them ... Here [in the Soviet Union], enemies of the people were shot. But we thought it would be impossible to shoot everyone." (35)

It is quite remarkable that the respondent equates the Soviet arrests of the late 1930s--the Great Terror--with the German persecution of Jews. Perhaps such a comparison was not apparent in the 1930s, and the respondent is expressing her later understanding: the failure to imagine the scope of the genocide. Optimism about the future war was often reinforced by the rumors containing positive information about the German army. One respondent explains:
   Rumors circulated that when the Germans come, they destroy the
   collective farms. They give everyone land. They help with new jobs.
   They arrest Communists and Jews. My father said that antisemites
   came up with this [i.e., the last point about arresting Jews]. He
   knew Germans when they came during World War I. He remembered them
   as cultured, polite people; some of them had even been Jews. "No,"
   he said. "The neighbors do not like Jews; that is why they come up
   with these rumors." However, he did believe all the positive
   information. Because of this, we did not hurry to evacuate, and
   when we wanted to, it was too late. (36)

This testimony nicely illustrates the selectivity of what Jews at the start of the war chose to believe. Only a few respondents were able to articulate ambivalence about the German invasion so clearly, yet the sentiments expressed here were quite common. Although many Soviet Jews heard stories of German atrocities from Polish Jews, many believed that they were exaggerations designed to provoke sympathy.

The general dissatisfaction with Soviet economic policies provided fertile ground for the circulation and absorption of such rumors, which in turn decreased fears about a possible German invasion. Moreover, as Altshuler notes, many Jews, especially those who suffered from Soviet economic policies, thought that a change of regime would be beneficial. (37) Although few of the respondents expressed such sentiments in relation to the Jewish community itself, a sizable number sympathized with non-Jews--especially Ukrainians and Belorussians--who had been looking forward to a change of regime. For example, Efim G. (born 1918, Parichi, Belorussia) explains: "Had I not been Jewish, I would have awaited the German army as well. The Soviet Union destroyed the lives of peasants, and [the Belorussian peasants] hoped that Germans would give them their soil back." (38)

Efim's testimony is not typical in its openness about the economic policies of the Soviet government, yet it reveals that while the Jewish population might have shared the concerns of their neighbors about the Soviet regime, many Jews understood that they would be treated differently from the non-Jewish population when the war began. Such sentiments were quite common among respondents, especially those who suffered from Soviet economic, social, and cultural policies (former business owners, religious activists, or lishentsy--those deprived of civil rights). (39)

Friends or Enemies?

Respondents' discussion of ethnic relations before the war reveals even more complexity (if not confusion) than does discussion of available information about Nazi treatment of Jews. In speaking about the factors that mattered for Jews' decision to leave or remain, respondents most often cited assessments of how locals would treat the Jewish population in the absence of Soviet rule. Many respondents agreed that, at the time, the fear of an outbreak of anti-Jewish pogroms perpetrated by their own neighbors and colleagues significantly surpassed the sense of threat associated with the German army. The majority worried that only Soviet laws against antisemitism tied the hands of potential rioters, and that the collapse of Soviet rule would inevitably produce disastrous consequences for the Jews. In the description of the dilemmas faced by her family at the outset of the war, Liza L. (born 1923 in Kharkiv and quoted earlier) elaborates on the combination of factors that influenced their final decision to depart and specifically emphasizes the fear of neighbors:
   We left because we were afraid of the locals. My mother survived
   pogroms, and she remembered different armies: Whites, Greens, Reds.
   She saw women being raped all the time. She said, "I have two
   girls, who are 16 and 17, and we have to leave." ... When we came
   to the railway station, it was crowded with people. We spent all
   day there, but could not find a train, so we went back home.... But
   when we came back, our neighbors had already moved their stuff into
   our house. We had to go back to the station, as we had no place to
   sleep. The next day, we managed to get on a cargo train. (40)

The respondent repeatedly emphasizes the importance of personal experience over any other source of information. She portrays the decision to leave as being based on recollections of the respondent's mother, who had witnessed the atrocities of Russian and Ukrainian non-Soviet armies in the Civil War. This fear of the USSR's indigenous inhabitants--rather than fear of the Germans or trust in Soviet media or Polish-Jewish rumors--turned out to be the most significant factor in the decision of Liza's family to leave.

This fear of neighbors on the eve of the war contradicts numerous Soviet sources that emphasized internationalism and the unprecedented "friendship of people of different nationalities" that was supposedly achieved in the interwar period. Notably, even respondents themselves tended to agree with and even reinforce these claims about internationalism. For example, Liza stressed that "there had been no antisemitism before the [Great Patriotic] War." Yet at the same time the majority still assert, sometimes in the same sentence, that at the outset of the war they were more afraid of the locals than they were of the Germans. Fear of neighbors, especially in Ukraine, was a prevalent motif in the vast majority of testimonies from both men and women, although the latter tend to articulate additional fears about rape and humiliation. I think that the discrepancy in respondents' testimonies about the absence of antisemitism before the war as compared to what they describe after the war can be explained by the fact that when they say "antisemitism," they usually mean official antisemitism, and not antisemitic attitudes of neighbors in their daily lives. On the eve of the war, people were expecting a weakening of the power of the Soviet regime, and Jewish respondents therefore feared that popular antisemitism (which had never been completely eliminated) could quickly become a real danger. Most Jewish respondents sincerely believed that if the Soviet government remained in power, it would protect them against violence and other expressions of ethnic hatred.

Liza's story, like that of many other respondents, meanwhile contrasts with the voluminous testimony of people who were convinced by non-Jewish neighbors and friends to remain in their houses. Fira B. from Berdichev, for example, recalls that her high-school boyfriend's Ukrainian family suggested hiding her in their cellar until things "calmed down" after the Germans came and established their rule. The only reason Fira did not follow up on this offer was that she "did not really like this boy so much and wanted to be with her own family." (41) Many respondents explained that they had such good relations with their neighbors that those neighbors did not want to lose them. Golda R. (born 1921) echoes these sentiments: "In school, my best friend's name was Natasha. Her father was the deputy director of a factory. When the war began, and conversations started about leaving, her mother came to my mother, and said: 'We have a nice big cellar; we will hide you there until things settle down.' My mother was worried, though, and made sure that we left. She gave her golden ring to a man with a horse and cart, who took us to the railway station in Shepetovka." (42) The respondent touches upon the subject of material possessions and personal wealth as a factor in one's ability to leave. While owning property sometimes held people back, as described above, such possessions often enabled escape. Just like Golda's mother, many respondents' parents sold gold coins, silver forks, and cows and goats, in order to get themselves to a railway station.

Golda's testimony brings up another popular yet puzzling subject: neighbors offering help in any future riots against Jews. It always puzzled me how such neighbors--mere civilians--felt confident that they could offer protection from heavily armed German soldiers. The answer to this question is that neighbors and friends were apparently offering protection not from German troops but rather from hostile local residents. Perhaps this is why many members of older generations, who had better relations with the surrounding population and were better off financially, chose to stay: they hoped to be able to survive by bribing the enemy they knew as opposed to the German troops.

What I find especially significant about these testimonies is that respondents believed that the peaceful coexistence among various ethnic groups in the Soviet Union depended on the presence of punitive systems upheld by the state. Many spoke directly or indicated indirectly that Soviet "friendship of peoples" had been an effective slogan and reflected official priorities but did not describe the reality of relations among ethnic groups in the USSR. The frequency with which respondents expressed this sentiment suggests that this particular belief did actually inform the fateful decision making in 1941.

The Beginning of the War

On 22 June 1941, the Soviet Union was thrust into chaos. Without any information, official or otherwise, the country's western border regions suddenly heard the sound of military airplanes and bombs, and all prewar beliefs, convictions, rumors, and information became irrelevant. In the absence of strong, immediate central leadership, local officials assumed unprecedented power. Most respondents who held government jobs and positions (or whose family members did) decided to use this power to flee eastward, even as some of them felt they should try to prevent others from doing so as well.

Some officials first took care of their own families. The first days of war confirmed their suspicions that Soviet propaganda had not been truthful about the war not taking place on Soviet soil. Many had to make spontaneous decisions and take actions to try to save their families. Azaliia L. remembers:
   My father was not Jewish. He was Ukrainian. My mother was a Jew. We
   lived in the little town of Shustko, in the Sumy region. My father
   worked for the NKVD [People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs].
   When the war began, he was not allowed to leave but asked for
   special permission to take me, my brother, and my mother to the
   railway station in Solntsevo. It was many kilometers away, and the
   journey was by foot. We had nothing to eat. We were very young
   children; we cried and did not want to walk. Sometimes, the bombs
   fell, and we had to hide. But the bombs were not our biggest worry.
   We were afraid of people. Once, we met an old man. He was dressed
   like a proper Ukrainian peasant, with a white shirt untucked and a
   long white beard. He carried a sharp sickle. He stopped, looked at
   us, especially at my mother (she had dark curly hair), and asked
   us: "Who are you?" My father immediately understood what he meant.
   He said: "My wife is Greek." My father understood that one swing of
   the sickle could remove a person's head in seconds. "Fine," said
   the old man. "I am looking for Yids, to kill them." It was during
   the first days of war, long before the German army came.

   After walking for a long time, my father got tired. He only had one
   lung, and his leg was injured. He was hungry. He sat down and said:
   "I am not going anywhere." My mother tells him: "Vania, if you
   don't go, we will all be killed." He said: "I will not be killed.
   They have no reason to kill me. I am not a Jew." My mother said
   then: "What about the kids?" He did not want to listen. Then she
   called me and my brother, and said: "Kneel in front of your father;
   ask him to come with us." My brother and I knelt and begged and
   cried. He did not look at us, but he got up, and we continued the
   journey. Nothing like that happened again. (43)

Both of Azaliia's parents understood that a Jew could not survive in the first days of war without the protection of a non-Jew and without lying, deceiving, and simple luck. They certainly did not receive this information from official sources such as the Soviet press or government warnings. As an NKVD officer, Azaliia's father had access to the latest official news, but that did not contain any specific warning regarding Jews. Rather, the awareness came from the general atmosphere of the time, rumors, and everyday conversations. Those who realized that the danger from some non-Jews was real, and who were lucky enough to be able to act on that knowledge, like Azaliia's parents, could manage to save themselves and their families, regardless of the silence of the official party and government media.

Azaliia's father, despite his position, did not have specific military orders, and therefore he could take care of his family without disobeying rules. On the contrary, most respondents who had been in positions of authority remembered that soon after the war began, they received orders declaring priority for the evacuation of livestock and strategically important industries, whereas there existed no specific directives with respect to civilians. Esfir A. (born Orsha, Belorussia, in 1908) was married to an official responsible for the evacuation of industrial objects from the recently acquired city of Vilnius. She explained that even she, the wife of a high-ranking Communist, did not have the ability to leave easily because of state priorities:
   My husband was an appointed state official in Vilnius in 1941. When
   we saw the first bombs, I went home and packed some of the most
   important photographs and all our documents. Then it became clear
   that my husband would not be able to join his regiment, so he
   received an order to evacuate what was necessary for the army,
   namely food. He received a car, and he was told to bring dried
   bread, butter, and herring to military posts ... He also had to
   prepare food and send it to Russia. The troops that were located
   there did not have any weapons, so they were waiting for pistols.
   Meanwhile, they had to be fed, so he brought bread to them.

   We were in Vilnius, and we learned what the Germans did to the Jews
   from the Polish refugees, so we all wanted to leave. There were
   many family members of military personnel, women, and children, and
   we all
   wanted to leave. But our husbands had state orders, and could
   not give us trucks. We all stood on the roadsides, with little
   children, and tried to hitchhike. When we saw a bomb, we would run
   into a building.

   Suddenly, I saw an officer with a truck. But he was filling his
   truck with his furniture, clothes, and then his wife came in and
   sat in the truck. I realized that he received the truck to evacuate
   all of us, but he took his family and his furniture ... I
   approached him, and said: "We can't leave, we are hitchhiking but
   nobody takes us." That man ignored me.

   Then I saw my husband, who came back with the herring. He came down
   from the truck, and said, "Here, women, have some herring and
   bread!" I told him, "We do not need herring. We need to get out of
   here. You have to save us." He said, "There is nothing I can do."
   Then I cried and said, "You brought me here, and you have to be a
   human being, and save us all! Throw the herring out from the truck,
   and put us on it. The soldiers will not die without herring; they
   already ate!"

   My husband had two soldiers, who helped him. He ordered [them]:
   "Take all the food down!" They threw the boxes on the ground. But
   the truck was small, so he said: "I will only take women with
   children and pregnant women. Others should go by foot." We were
   only allowed to take our documents, nothing else. I helped the
   women to get on that truck. We loaded everyone. I was the last one.
   I was then seven months pregnant, so there was no place for me in
   this truck. The soldier said, "Fira, there is no place for your
   belly here. Go sit on your husband's lap." I came to the front
   cabin, and told my husband, who was sitting next to the driver. I
   said, "There is no space left for me. I can only go if I push out
   the baby." So I sat on his lap.... With great adventures, I
   gradually made my way to Tula. (44)

The chaotic and disorganized evacuation mechanisms are vividly described here by the respondent. Individual fate largely depended on "luck," in the form of the good will of individuals in charge, such as Esfir's husband. He, like many other government officials at that time, was given unprecedented power, albeit for a short period, to organize the evacuation of Soviet equipment, which in effect also gave him the power to save civilians.

The respondent takes for granted that she understood the dangers of the impending German occupation to Jews, and the only thing that had the potential to stop her from fleeing was the absence of transportation. Also, the narrative tells us about the primary importance of personal factors, ranging from the disposition of individuals in power to the degree of one's own initiative. The details that the respondent provides are valuable in illustrating the impossible dilemmas faced by officials in making the decisions. Like

dozens of other testimonies, this one speaks to the tremendous role that officials played in the process of escape and evacuation.

Afraid of disobeying clear orders, yet also lacking distinct instructions on many issues, individuals in power were forced to make life-altering decisions for themselves and hundreds of other people. Some were the first ones to find safety for themselves and their families. Numerous Holocaust survivors reported that members of city councils and party leaders fled early, leaving localities without any source of official information or instructions. Often, those who tried to escape without the help of the authorities were forced to go back. But even those officials who stayed were often not sure what they should do. Without clear directives, they often advised or in some cases even ordered civilians to stay put:
   Once we heard about the war, I wanted to flee. I heard that some
   factories and their workers were being relocated, and I wanted to
   go with them. My son was only two years old at the time. I came to
   the party leader and explained that. He said: "If you leave, we
   will consider you a deserter. How can you believe that the Germans
   will make it this far? Go to work, and be a good Soviet citizen."
   The next day, he fled. I, on the other hand, could not squeeze onto
   the train. I tried four times. My husband was in the army. In the
   end, I stayed, and ended up in a ghetto in Kopai. It is a miracle
   that my son and I survived. (45)

Cases like the one described here are not rare in respondents' testimonies. Officials often based their judgments on orders from the prewar period or imposed those orders on others without necessarily following them personally--as was the case here. Approximately 30 percent of the respondents who did not evacuate said that local officials prevented them from doing so by not issuing them tickets or simply suggesting that leaving would lead to arrest.

In some cases, officials actually bent the rules regarding their orders to "discourage escape" and "prevent panic" and helped respondents get on trains, or at least did not stop them from finding their own means of transportation: "The head of the party committee at our factory approached me and said, 'Do not tell anyone, but I heard that your people should go first. Why don't you pack your things, and get to the train station at 6 am.' He gave me evacuation cards. My wife, kids, her parents, and my sister got into a cattle car and eventually reached Stalingrad." (46) As can be seen from this testimony, the official, who exercised his own judgment and compassion, based his decision on rumors, as we know that no official instructions about the dangers to the Jewish population existed in 1941. In this particular case, even for some officials--to say nothing of ordinary civilians--personal experience and rumors were sometimes more important than official sources of information.

Unlike average residents, officials had access to means of transportation and were therefore able to facilitate evacuation. According to an overwhelming number of respondents, the power of officials was crucial to ensuring their salvation. The role of rumors and personal experiences--even for officials themselves--also grew significantly compared to the prewar period. The chaos of the first days of the war cannot completely explain the power of such officials and their judgment, as clear instructions did exist in regards to the industrial evacuations. Rather, the situation is explained by the fact that the Soviet government prioritized the evacuation of industry as opposed to the civilian population.


This essay considers the potential contributions of personal accounts toward a better understanding of decision making in 1941 and analyzes the stories involved to understand how respondents choose to present their past and how these stories illustrate the formation of their identity.

Drabek's theory of the decision process leading to evacuation helps us evaluate the historical value of testimonies. As mentioned in the introduction, the first stage of assessing the danger includes cross-examining the information from government officials, the mass media, and word of mouth. (47) The material presented in this article suggests that in the USSR in 1941, people ranked the nature of ethnic relations among neighbors as the most important factor, followed by government information and rumors from refugees. The present study shows that in the USSR the official media presented contradictory and thus seemingly less trustworthy information. Accounts received from Polish-Jewish refugees were portrayed as not reliable. Finally, concerns about looting or losing property occupied a prominent place in the assessments of the respondents considered here.

The analysis of these fears and concerns adds to our understanding of how Soviet society functioned in the 1930s. While government officials, both centrally and locally, enjoyed quite significant executive power, they did not actually enjoy a sense of real authority or trust among the population. The mistrust went beyond personal interactions with local party leaders or chairs of councils, and extended to centrally published newspapers. The respondents confirmed, almost unanimously, that their own empirical experiences mattered significantly more than what newspapers stated. The same is true for rumors and eyewitness accounts provided by Polish-Jewish refugees. (48) In this regard, the attitude of the informants in this essay does not quite correspond to what we otherwise know about prewar Soviet society and about the flourishing character of rumors, their impact on daily decisions, and the inclination of authorities who take them seriously. (49) I believe that this discrepancy is explained by the apparent irrelevancy of information about how Germans would treat Jews in the USSR to respondents and their families, who worried significantly more about the potential actions of neighbors. Even if they thought that the rumors were accurate, they did not think they were relevant in decision making about leaving their places of residence.

The second stage of decision making involves an assessment of the availability of transportation. Respondents confirm that in cases when they had not been evacuated directly by government institutions, the availability of a horse able to pull a wagon, a bicycle, means to hire a wagon, or at the very least healthy legs were crucial. Again, decisions concerning who stayed and who went were often essentially decisions on who was able to walk and who had no real choice but to stay.

Even though physical ability was probably the most significant factor in being able to evacuate oneself, respondents usually spoke about decisions to leave older family members behind with reference to their relationships with neighbors. They remember conversations expressing hopes that no matter how hostile or greedy, neighbors would not harass older people, meaning that older family members would therefore not be in danger were the younger ones to leave. It was clear to all that a spontaneous journey (as opposed to an organized evacuation) would be a difficult enterprise, and that the presence of the elderly and disabled might slow the younger family members down. However, interviews are not useful in establishing what the older family members actually wanted to do and how they estimated the danger. The recurrent story of grandparents putting their faith in their positive experience with the German army during World War I seems to circulate in families as a sad yet comforting explanation of why the elders were left behind. But this story does not fit with the rest of the narrative that emphasizes the fear of ethnic violence perpetrated by nearby inhabitants--an emphasis prominent in all interviews as a major factor in everyday life in 1941. Logically, grandparents who had witnessed pogroms in 1917-19 could have become vocal advocates of leaving in these narratives. Instead, they spoke about the "good Germans" while believing that the war would take place on foreign soil. This discrepancy alerts us, once more, that the interviews cannot be used as a reliable historical source for better understanding of the treatment of the elderly in 1941. To put it bluntly, in this case history and memory are telling radically different stories.

During the first days of the war, government officials become key figures, responsible for both the survival of the respondents and the death of their grandparents. They too did not know whether to fear the invasion of the German army, and they risked disobeying orders from above while managing to keep the situation under their control. Officials faced additional challenges. Giving in to fears of interethnic violence would constitute an expression of doubt about party ideology proclaiming the peaceful coexistence of all Soviet nationalities; it would thus be a crime. What the respondents perceived as personal decisions of officials to help or not help them escape were probably decisions based on balancing following orders from Moscow and coming up with creative interpretations of these orders if the situation seemed particularly dangerous. The interviews help to understand the micro-perspectives on the perceptions of Soviet local authorities, the information missing from all government-produced sources.

The portrayal of the perception of ethnic relations in 1941 requires further exploration. The respondents insist that the fear of violence against them as Jews motivated their behavior in 1941. If this was indeed the case, then what does it mean for their own ethnic identity? In the 1930s and 1940s, Soviet Jews represented arguably the "most Soviet" segment of the general population. (50) They attended Soviet schools, participated in Soviet youth movements, and dreamed of a future associated with the Soviet regime. Their ethnic identity seemed to them the least important factor in their personalities. But when the war began, they testify to the growing impact of their nationality on their decision making. Naum's story about the official who warned his parents; Azaliia's story about her journey through woods and meeting a peasant intent on murdering Jews; Esfir's plea to her husband (an official in charge) to allow civilian women to ride on military trucks; Fira's recollection of a friend offering protection; and Lisa's discussion of the decision making in her family--all these speak to this growing importance of nationality for Jews. In the first days of the war, respondents learned that their ethnicity was the most significant determining factor in their fate.

An important goal of this study is to contribute to the conversation about the use of oral history testimonies recorded in the 2000s for analyzing decision-making choices in 1941. This article has shown that oral history interviews can be both extremely useful and misleading at the same time. They do not clarify but confuse the listener with respect to family choices in regard to the older generation at the beginning of the war. But it is also evident that they do help in identifying the process of decision making in 1941 as a key moment when Jewishness became relevant again to Soviet Jews. Essentially, they document the transformation of Jewishness into a fully negative identity for outsiders in the early 1940s;-Indeed, they help explain how the word "especially" in regard to Jews, quoted at the beginning of the article, changes its meaning from vague and unclear to pointing to extreme danger, all within the course of a few weeks in 1941. No other source can establish perceptions from decades ago with the same precision. One can only imagine what further analysis of the testimonies will uncover about the wartime survival of the largest community of European Jews.

Dept, of German and Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies

University of Toronto

Jackman Humanities Building, Room 230F

170 St. George St.

Toronto, Ontario M5R 2M8, Canada

(1) Thomas Drabek, "Social Processes in Disaster: Family Evacuation," Social Problems 16, 3 (1969): 336-49.

(2) Mordechai Altshuler, "Escape and Evacuation of Soviet Jews at the Time of the Nazi Invasion: Policies and Realities," in The Holocaust in the Soviet Union and the Sources on the Destruction of the Jews in the Nazi-Occupied Territories of the USSR, 1941-1945, ed. Lucjan Dobroszycki and Jeffrey S. Gurock (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1993), 77-104.

(3) Yitzhak Arad, The Holocaust in the Soviet Union (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), 77, 82-86.

(4) Albert Kaganovich, "Jewish Refugees and Soviet Authorities during World War II," Yad Vashem Studies 38 (2010): 85-121, esp. 86.

(5) For Polish-Jewish refugees, see Yosef Litvak, Jewish Refugees from Poland in the Soviet Union, 1939-1946 (Jerusalem: ha-Universitah ha-Ivrit bi-Yerushalayim, ha-Makhon le-Yahadut zemanenu, 1988); Ben-Cion Pinchuk, Soviet Jews in the Face of the Holocaust: A Study in the Problem of Deportation and Evacuation (Tel Aviv: Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center, 1979), 86-92; and Shlomo Kless, "Zionist Activities of Jewish Refugees in the USSR in 1941-1945 and the Relations of the Yishuv in the Land of Israel with Them" (Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1985). All three sources are in Hebrew.

(6) There are many memoirs and recently published sources. Some of the best examples include Jack Pomerantz and Lyric Wallwork Winik, Run East: Flight from the Holocaust (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997); Hanna Davidson Pankowsky, East of the Storm: Outrunning the Holocaust in Russia (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1999); Fani Brener, Di ershte helfi lebn: Araynfir-vort--Dr. Y. H. Biletski (Yisroel: Farlag Y. L. Perets, 1989); Abraham Meierkevitch, In di khvolyes funyene zibnyor: A palitin Ratn Farband (Yisroel: A. Meierkevitch, 1998).

(7) Rebecca Manley, To the Tashkent Station: Evacuation and Survival in the Soviet Union at War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009). Natalie Belsky is working on a dissertation at the University of Chicago on antisemitism in the Soviet rear during World War II.

(8) Manley, To the Tashkent Station; and Ben-Cion Pinchuk, "Was There a Soviet Policy for Evacuating the Jews? The Case of the Annexed Territories," Slavic Review 39, 1 (1980): 44-55.

(9) Kiril Feferman, "A Soviet Humanitarian Action? Centre, Periphery, and the Evacuation of Refugees to the North Caucasus, 1941-1942," Europe-Asia Studies 61, 5 (1999): 813-31,819.

(10) Sanford Lieberman, "The Evacuation of Industry in the Soviet Union during World War II," Soviet Studies 35, 1 (1983): 90-91.

(11) Altshuler, "Escape and Evacuation."

(12) Ibid., 91-99.

(13) Ibid., 91.

(14) Irina Paperno, Stories of the Soviet Experience: Memoirs, Diaries, Dreams (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009), xiii. The only other monograph that has used a similar approach is L. L. Fialkova and Maria N. Yelenevskaya, Ex-Soviets in Israel: From Personal Narratives to a Group Portrait (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007), which focuses on Israel and does not deal exclusively with the older generation.

(15) One such important study is Lisa A. Kirschenbaum, The Legacy of the Siege of Leningrad, 1941-1995: Myth, Memories, and Monuments (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). See also Daniel Bertaux, Paul Richard Thompson, and Anna Rotkirch, eds., On Living through Soviet Russia (New York: Routledge, 2004).

(16) V. Ia. Propp and A. N. Afanas'ev. Morfologiia skazki (St. Petersburg: Nauka, 1995), in English translation as V. Ia. Propp, Morphology of the Folktale (Bloomington: Indiana University, Research Center, 1958).

(17) Much has been written about the use of narrative in the construction of identity. For a summary of approaches, see Jaber F. Gubrium and James A Holstein, Analyzing Narrative Reality (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2009).

(18) See Colette Daiute and Cynthia Lightfoot, Narrative Analysis: Studying the Development of Individuals in Society (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2004); and, esp., Anna De Fina and Alexandra Georgakopoulou, Analyzing Narrative: Discourse and Sociolinguistic Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

(19) Yitzhak Arad, "The Holocaust as Reflected in Soviet Russian-Language Newspapers in the Years 1941-1945," in Why Didn't the Press Shout? American and International Journalism during the Holocaust, ed. Robert M. Shapiro (Hoboken, NJ: Yeshiva University Press in association with KTAV Publishing House, 2003), 199-220; Dov-Ber Kerler, "The Soviet Yiddish Press: Eynikayt during the War, 1942-1945," in Why Didn't The Press Shout, 221-50.

(20) Anna Shternshis, Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006).

(21) For a theoretical discussion on issues of accuracy and embarrassment in oral history, see William Cuder III, "Accuracy in Oral History Interviewing," in Oral History: An Interdisciplinary Anthology, ed. David King Dunaway and Willa K. Baum (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 1996), 99-106.

(22) For more, see Jeffrey Brooks, Thank You, Comrade Stalin! Soviet Public Culture from Revolution to Cold War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000); Sarah Davies, Popular Opinion in Stalins Russia: Terror, Propaganda, and Dissent, 1934-1941 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Jochen Hellbeck, Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary under Stalin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006); Timothy Johnston, Being Soviet: Identity, Rumour, and Everyday Life under Stalin, 1939--1953 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

(23) Butler coined this term in 1963 to refer to the process of recalling previous events to make sense of one's past later in life. People may recall unresolved conflicts that happened many years before. By reexamining what has happened, they may be able to come to terms with their conflicts. Through these efforts, such reminiscence can give new significance and meaning to life and prepare the person for death by lessening anger, fear, and anxiety. On these issues, see R. N. Butler, "The Life Review: An Interpretation of Reminiscence in the Aged," Psychiatry 26, 1 (1963): 65-76.

(24) For more on this film's plot and analysis of its reception, see Olga Gershenson, The Phantom Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and Jewish Catastrophe (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013), 14-19.

(25) For the full official version, released by Goskino, see, retrieved on 4 December 2013.

(26) Jeremy Hicks, First Films of the Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and the Genocide of the Jews, 1938-46 (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 2012), 29.

(27) Anna Shternshis, "Evacuation and Escape of Jewish Civilians to the Soviet Rear during World War II," paper presented at the juried conference "Soviet Jewish Soldiers, Jewish Resistance, and Jews in the USSR during the Holocaust," United States Holocaust Museum and New York University, November 2008.

(28) Interview with Galina K., Toronto, 2008.

(29) Interview with Frida S., Kyiv, 2002 (Kyiv interviews).

(30) Interview with Basya Ch., Kyiv, 2001 (Kyiv interviews).

(31) Interview with Iosif A., Toronto, 2008.

(32) Interview with Liza L., New York, 1999.

(33) Elizabeth Strauss, "'Cast Me Not Off in My Time of Old Age...': The Aged and Aging in the Lodz Ghetto, 1939-1944" (Ph.D. diss., University of Notre Dame, 2012). See also Na'ama Shik, "Infinite Loneliness: Some Aspects of the Lives of Jewish Women in the Auschwitz Camps According to Testimonies and Autobiographies Written between 1945 and 1948," in Lessons and Legacies VIII: From Generation to Generation, ed. Doris L. Bergen (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2008), 125-56.

(34) Lynne Viola, Peasant Rebels under Stalin: Collectivization and the Culture of Peasant Resistance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

(35) Interview with Nataliya Ch., Kyiv, 1997 (Kyiv interviews).

(36) Interview with Faina G., Toronto, 2007.

(37) Altshuler, "Escape and Evacuation," 90.

(38) Interview with Efim G., 1999, New York.

(39) At least 70 percent of the respondents reported that their parents had been arrested during the 1920s or 1930s.

(40) Interview with Liza L., August 1999, New York.

(41) Interview with Fira B., Berlin, 2001.

(42) Interview with Golda R., Toronto, 2007.

(43) Interview with Azaliia L., Toronto, 2007.

(44) Interview with Esfir A., Potsdam, June 2001.

(45) Interview with Etya G., New York, 1998.

(46) Interview with Naum L., Toronto, 2007.

(47) Drabek, "Social Processes in Disaster," 336-39.

(48) Such findings generally confirm the theory by the historian Arkady Levin that the decision to evacuate (or to flee) was based not simply on the availability of information but rather on whether the recipients believed the source. See Arkady Levin, "The Soviet Jews' Survival during Nazi Genocide in 1941-45," in Jewish Studies in a New Europe, ed. Ulf Haxen, Hanne Trautner Krottman, and Karen Lisa Goldschmidt Salamon (Copenhagen: C. A. Reitzel A/S International Publishers, 1998), 480-81.

(49) See, esp., Johnston, Being Soviet; and Wendy Goldman, Inventing the Enemy: Denunciation and Terror in Stalins Russia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

(50) Yuri Slezkine, The Jewish Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).

Research for this article was conducted with the support of the Rabbi Israel Miller Fund for Shoah Education, Research, and Documentation of the Material Claims Conference against Germany (grant S028), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Connaught New Staff Matching Grant at the University of Toronto.
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Author:Shternshis, Anna
Date:Jun 22, 2014
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