Finding a Place for Soviet Victims in the Collective Holocaust Memory

Written by Malka Goldberg on . Posted in Features

The word “Holocaust” evokes imagery of packed cattle cars, gas chambers, and emaciated people who were literally worked to death. But this collective memory excludes the approximately 2.8 million victims who were murdered in the Nazi-occupied Soviet Union.

On Wednesday, Sept. 27, about 100 people filled the chapel at Ohev Shalom – The National Synagogue for “The Forgotten Holocaust – the Shoah in the Nazi-occupied Soviet Union.” The event, sponsored by the Foundation for Jewish Studies and Ohev Shalom, featured a lecture and slideshow from Izabella Tabarovsky, senior program associate at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute.

The lecture was scheduled for two days before Yom Kippur in commemoration of the 76th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre, which occurred in a ravine northwest of Kiev (in modern-day Ukraine), on the eve of Yom Kippur in 1941. Kiev was the first major Soviet city occupied by the Nazis, and the Soviets had sworn they would never surrender Kiev, so its occupation took on special significance.

“The Holocaust in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) is a bit of a stepchild to the larger story that has taken root,” Tabarovsky told the audience. She explained that the collective memory of the Holocaust focuses on the well-known places and images, which survivors shared. Since only an estimated 4 percent of Jews who remained in the Nazi-occupied USSR survived the war, there are very few survivor stories and images documenting the atrocities that occurred in the former Soviet Union.

To counter this, throughout her lecture Tabarovsky showed photos of life in the pre-war Soviet Union, Soviet murder sites in forests and ravines, and artwork depicting the atrocities of the Holocaust in the former Soviet Union. These visuals provided context to her lecture and contrast to the established Holocaust imagery.

“The program was superb. I learned a lot and really liked the photos of people [in the slideshow],” said Paul Wright of Rockville, Maryland.

For Tabarovsky, this work is personal. As a child growing up in Russia, she did not hear anything about the Soviet victims of the Holocaust, nor the many atrocities that took place in the Soviet Union. It was not until last year, when she traveled to Kiev for the 75th anniversary of Babi Yar, that Tabarovsky learned the full extent of the Holocaust in the former Soviet Union. “Why didn’t I know about this?” she reflected. “Why didn’t I hear about it in my native language when I was growing up?”

Consider this: At peak operation, up to 6,000 people were gassed per day at Auschwitz. Meanwhile, in the 48 hours from Sept. 29-30, 1941, Nazi forces and local Ukrainian collaborators murdered 33,771 people at Babi Yar. This scale was not unique; later in 1941, approximately 25,000 Jews were murdered in the Rumbula Forest, outside of Riga, Latvia, over a few days. Yet the concentration camps dominate the Holocaust narrative, even in the former Soviet Union, while some of the Soviet murder sites remain unknown and unmarked.

The Nazis extensively documented the initial massacre at Babi Yar, possibly because of Kiev’s significance, but they did not do so for subsequent killings at Babi Yar, nor for the mass murders at most of the approximately 2,000 Holocaust sites in the former Soviet Union. This lack of initial records laid the groundwork for the omission of the massacres in Soviet territories from the Holocaust narrative. Following the war, the Soviet government contributed to this exclusion of Jews from the collective Holocaust memory by forbidding specific references to Jewish victims, referring only to “peaceful Soviet citizens.”

Tabarovsky described this as the “triple death” inflicted on Soviet Jews: physical death, suppression of the Jewish religion, and erasure of their lives and murders from collective memory. Her work aims to counter this third component of the atrocity by preserving and propagating the stories of Soviet Holocaust victims. “I feel I need to speak for those people, because someone has to,” Tabarovsky said.

“I found Izabella’s personal connection most interesting and enjoyed her personal enthusiasm,” said Fran Amir of Olney, Maryland.

One of the handful of young adults in attendance, Eva Wildavsky from Chevy Chase, Maryland, enjoyed the event and found it educational. The lecture resonated with her, because “some of my family was killed [in the former Soviet Union], but I don’t know much more than that.”

Both Tabarovsky and Rabbi Gordon Fuller, executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Studies, acknowledged that the relatively older average age of event attendees was emblematic of the challenge the Jewish community faces in preserving collective memory of the Holocaust as the survivors pass away, and it is a challenge to the Foundation’s mission in general.

“The [Foundation] board also skews older,” Rabbi Fuller said. “We need to find a way to reach the young adult population.”

By Malka Goldberg

 Malka Goldberg is the Community News editor for Kol HaBirah.