Becoming Soviet Jews

Becoming Soviet Jews


– So, our speaker today
is Elissa Bemporad. She is a professor of
Russian and Eastern European Jewish history in the
department of history. She is the Jerry & William Unger Professor also in East European Jewish
history and the Holocaust. She has received many, many honors, but in addition to those, she received her undergraduate degree in Slavic studies from Bologna University, her MA in modern Jewish
studies at the graduate school of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and her PhD from the department of history at Stanford University. In addition to teaching, she does currently at Queens College, she has also taught at Stanford, Hunter College, and at the New School. The title of her talk today is based on the title of a book she
published in 2013, which is Becoming Soviet Jews: The
Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk. Excuse me, one second. It’s a very interesting period that this talk is gonna look at which is really the interwar period. After the first World War,
before the Second World War. You know, Minsk in the Pale of Settlement, but also being blown around
by borders and time shifting, being parts of different
areas, different countries. This period of the late
teens, 20’s, and 30’s is really a time of radical
change and transformation for Jews all across Europe but especially in this part of the world where the coming of the Soviet Union seems to promise a chance for more liberty and freedom for the Jews, because the communists
don’t discriminate so much based on religion, was the hope. And it comes also with a lot of risks. So, although this talk won’t really get to the period that we oft tend
to focus on at our events, this is happening before the Holocaust, and for those of you who
don’t know the history of Minsk during the Holocaust, I don’t want to start with that. But we can talk about that during the question and answer period. It can be a great challenge for us as scholars and people
interested in the period of the Holocaust to
forget about the Holocaust for a moment to think
about the life of Jews before that time period. And a life in which they’re not, it’s not five years before the Holocaust, it’s a life that has no
imagination of the Holocaust. And the challenges that confront them aren’t in light of what’s to come, but in light of what’s come before. And as people try to find
a new place for themselves, a new role for themselves, their families, their community in an
emerging new society, how do they go about finding the balance between continuity and change between their identity and what
could be a greater promise, and how open the society is to these aspirations of the Jewish community is something we’re gonna
hear in today’s talk. So, please join me in welcoming our speaker today, Elissa Bemporad. (audience applauds) – Thank you so much for
this generous introduction. Thank you so much for coming. It is really a pleasure to be here, although I teach nearby, Queens College. This is the first time, and I’m almost embarrassed to say, that
I set foot on this campus. Something that I would
like actually to change, and you know, I’m exploring
different possibilities also of, you know, cooperating
with other professors who teach here on campus. I want to start actually by saying that especially when you think about Eastern European Jewish history, you tend to focus on the destruction. You tend to focus on the
end, because in many ways, especially Eastern
European Jewish history, ended in a way with the Holocaust, right? This doesn’t apply to
other areas in Europe, that were not affected
as much as, you know, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and so on. So what I would like us to think about when there’s someone who’s very well known, a very well
known person in history, we don’t only focus on the
death of this person, right? We try to understand
the life of this person, the birth, the youth,
teenage years, you know, what happened over the
course of their lives. And I think that, you
know, we should take into consideration the life of this person, but also the life of
a city in its entirety and not only focus on the end. So what I tried to do in my work here, I tried to do three things. The first thing, I tried
to write the biography of an East European Jewish
city under the Soviets, right, before World War II. Second, I tried to tell the
story of Jewish continuities in the midst of a very,
very radical society. The Bolshevik, you know,
following the Bolshevik revolution that brought with it rupture. I want to focus on the continuities. And third, I tried to
dispel some well-established myths about the pattern of acculturation and accommodation into the Soviet system experienced by most Jews
in the interwar period. What do I mean by that? The assumption that most Jews, you know, assimilated, radically assimilated and embraced communism
with all their might, heart, and energy, right, and passion. So let me start by giving
you a sense of the biography, right, because what I really set out doing in the beginning is, write the biography of an
East European Jewish city before it was destroyed,
under the Soviets, however, something that hadn’t really been done in the English language at least. So the sense of the biography, I want to give you a
sense of what this city was like as far as demographics, but also socially, culturally, and I want to start with the first quote. Where do I, I hit here, right? Yes, okay. So I’m going to start
with the first quote. I’m not going to read the whole quote, I hope that you can see. Maybe you can’t see that well, but I’ll start reading it. This is by Pavich Shpilevskii, he was a Russian publicist, rather conservative Russian, not liberal, and this is how he described Minsk. “Minsk is one of the biggest, “most beautiful cities of Western Russia. “It is bigger and more stylish
than Mohilev and Vitebsk. “Most buildings are made of
brick and have tiled roofs, “and most streets are paved and tidy.” Then I’m moving on. “Here, city residents have access “to imported goods from
Vilna, Odessa, Moscow, “Warsaw, together with the local goods “produced in the Minsk
clothing and shoe workshops “praised throughout Belorussia “and exported to Kiev during the winter. “Book dealers from Moscow come
to this section of the city. “The city’s leisure
institutions are clustered “in the High Market. “There’s a casino, theaters,
acrobatic performances, “the inns, coffee houses,
and the most popular “restaurant of all, Fogel and Tsybulskii.” Which he doesn’t say, but of course, were owned by Jews. So, Shpilevskii also acknowledged not here, elsewhere, in his accounts and he acknowledges with a hint of regret the Jewishness of Minsk,
the Jewishness of the city. Let me remind you, by the
end of the 19th century, 52% of the population was Jewish. So the majority of the
inhabitants were Jewish. More than Russians,
Poles, and Belorussians. So he acknowledges this with a degree of anti-Jewish prejudice,
and we shouldn’t be that surprised by it because that, 19th century Russian
conservatives, you know, were not too crazy about Jews so to speak. And he dwelled on the
Lower Market, also known as the old city, Staryy Gorod, and this was the city’s
main Jewish quarter with the Jewish square, small businesses, and on the Sabbath, the distinctive odors of the holiday meal. He also focused on the High Market, with the Jewish restaurant
that I mentioned earlier, that was also overwhelmingly Jewish. The residence of wealthy Jewish merchants who traded in clothing and silk and the site of the
first Jewish state school established in the city that was situated next to the cathedral. The school was inaugurated in 1845 thanks to the initiative of several prominent wealthy Jewish merchants but also with the support of
the Russian civil authorities. And despite the opposition of the local Orthodox establishment, which in 1841 forced out of the city, with curses and snowballs, the Jewish Enlightener Max Lilienthal for trying to establish
a Jewish state school, ultimately the Jewish
Enlightenment did succeed, and the dream of having secular education was eventually realized. Am I not standing in the right position? – [Dan] No, it’s just a little louder. – I know that it’s being taped so I’m trying to stay still, although my tendency
would be to move around. – It’s just the volume, sorry. – That’s okay. So, the demographic nature
of Minsk contributed to its perception as a Jewish city. Although, this publicist,
Shpilevskii does not explicitly refer to
Minsk as a Jewish city, the reader of the essay is
left with the impression of a city that is
inhabited primarily by Jews with their merchandise,
their Sabbath, their streets, their institutions, and it seems almost as if they dominate the landscape. Now this second quote
that I want to bring, again just to give you a
sense of what the city was before the Bolsheviks come to power, is by a very well known Talmud scholar. Maybe some of you have heard his name. Saul Liberman who was born in 1898 in the city of Pinsk, with a “P,” and who moved to Minsk in 1915. He immediately noticed
that, and I’m reading here the quote that you can read also. “It made the impression of a large city “where everyone was Jewish. “I had not yet seen such a Jewish city.” He recalled the hot
summer days strolling with his elderly uncle, a rabbi
from a nearby shtetl, in Minsk’s old city on a narrow street known in Yiddish as Tsvishn
di Kromin, amongst the stores, and because of the heat and
the small number of customers, the shopkeepers were sitting
outside their stores chatting. As his uncle approached the shops, one by one, the shopkeepers stood up and out of respect for the rabbi formed around him a long line as if they were soldiers, he says. “I had never seen anything
like that anywhere else. “This was a rabbi they did not know, “but recognizing him as such
because of his garments, “his appearance, they remained standing “until he crossed the street.” Again, this is a city,
it’s not a shtetl, right. The third reference, the
third and final reference that gives you again a sense
of the nature of this city is by Daniel Charny, who
is the youngest brother of a very well known
Yiddish literary critic by the name of Shmuel Niger, and he refers to Minsk and
it’s relation to Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania. And this, you know,
the phrase that he uses captures the close but at the same time the hierarchical relationship existing between these two Jewish cities. And he refers to this
relationship in his memoirs by using the very popular
Yiddish expression, a shtub mit a kamer. Which really means, a
house with a chamber. The house of course being Vilna, and the chamber being Minsk. And the phrase denoted again
the supremacy, in a way, of Vilna over Minsk, but
also the interdependence and familiarity between these
two historic Jewish centers. So what do we have based
on these three quotes that I brought here? We have a very Jewish city,
a historic Jewish center, located in the heart of
the Pale of Settlement. Right here, this is Minsk. A city of course densely
populated by Jews, a city that like Vilna
developed in the so called Litvish tradition, Litvish, Lithuanian tradition, favoring a more kind of analytical and
rationalist approach to Jewish lore over the
mystical one endorsed by the Hasidic rabbis. We don’t really have strong
Hasidic movement in Minsk just like we don’t have it in Vilna. Hasidism is generally more rooted in the southern provinces
of the Russian Empire or, you know, Poland, Ukraine. Here, you know, you really
have a strong center of Misnagdic Judaism, kind
of Orthodox Judaism that opposed Hasidism. A very well known rabbi
who was also known as the great scholar, let
me just take a step back, the great scholar of
Minsk, der Minsker Godl. But just to give you a sense,
there were before 1917, eighty-three synagogues in Minsk and only three of them were Hasidic so you do have Hasidim,
but it’s only three so it’s the minority. Minsk developed, as I
said, in the same kind of cultural and political tradition as Vilna. Not only in its approach
to religious scholarship but also in its approach to
the Enlightenment, right. It became a center for Jewish Haskalah. But also, as far as politics go, so Minsk is the largest
center of the Bund, of the Jewish Socialist
Party in the Russian Empire after Vilna. Vilna and Minsk are the
two largest centers. Now in Minsk, you also have a very strong leftist Zionist movement that emerges. You also have the
general Zionist in Minsk, but what stands out is the
Bund and the Poale Zion, leftist Zionist. So all this brings, you
know, the crucial question that fascinated me and intrigued me when I first embarked on
my long research journey and moved to three different continents. Starting out at YIVO,
of course, in New York, then going to Jerusalem, then to Moscow and finally to Minsk, where
I spent almost one year. Where I’ve, you know, I
experienced one of the most I would say exciting
journeys of my career, archival journeys of my career. And the question is, what happened to such a Jewish city
and to its inhabitants as it and they encountered
the Bolshevik experiment? How did the Bolshevik
experiment, which created a one party system based on terror, an official atheistic communist culture, a system that destroyed the buffer zone existing between private and public life, how did this affect the
city and its inhabitants, specifically Jewish? So what I discovered is
that the encounter between pre-revolutionary Jewish
life, identity, institutions, and the new communist
agencies and organizations that the Bolshevik set up in the city was much more dynamic than
what I had anticipated. The Sovietization process
and the process of Jewish accommodation
was much more intricate, was much more inconsistent
and not as linear, not as uniform as historians, who of course did not have
access to the archives, because let’s remember that the archives, you know, having access to
the archives is fairly recent. So, you know, the presentation… Welcome, welcome. You know, it’s presented as a
much more uniform experience. And really what I discovered is that that Sovietization process
in such a Jewish city depended on a variety
of factors ranging from social settings in which
the individual operated and interacted with others, it depended on different
views held by that individual and the options that
Soviet society offered to that individual. For some, there of course was enthusiasm for communist ideology, ambition to succeed, quest for employment, anxiety to fit in, necessity to survive, fear of marginalization and punishment, as well as pressures from family, friends, and fellow city residents. But the ways in which all Jews experienced their path to Sovietization in Minsk was shaped by the character
of the city itself. Minsk was a historic Jewish center long before the establishment
of the Soviet Union, really since the 16th century. It was located in the Pale of Settlement, densely populated by Jews, and let us remember that the majority of Soviet Jews remained in the former Pale of Settlement even after 1917. So the Sovietization
process in a place like this influenced the complicated process of give and take between
Jewish particularity and Soviet universal ideals. In a place like this, in
historic Jewish centers in the Pale of Settlement, the transformation of
the core of Jewish life occurred at a slower pace than it did in the Russian interior. If you compare to the Russian metropolises of Moscow and Leningrad,
where assimilation was much more black and white than it was in the former Pale of Settlement because it’s so Jewish. Geography, in other words, curved the intended radical consequences of the Bolshevik experiment. Complete assimilation
of the Jewish minority within the Soviet families of peoples impinged on the intensity with which the communist project took
hold of the Jewish street. And of course Minsk is unique
as all places are unique, every single town, every single city regardless of its, you
know, size, is unique, has exceptional idiosyncratic
kind of elements to it. But what makes Minsk unique is really it’s the only case of such a Jewish center that becomes the capitol city of Belorussia, of a
Soviet Republic, right. Kiev was never historically
a Jewish center, right. Kharkov also wasn’t. So this is really the only
case in which you have such a Jewish city that also becomes the capitol of a Soviet Republic. But at the same time, Minsk is also very ordinary
as far as Jewish cities in the former Pale of
Settlement are concerned. What do I mean? I am using Minsk as a case
study to really understand the general aspects, features of the acculturation process
of Jews in the Soviet Union. Historiography is focused only on Moscow and Leningrad where, indeed, thousands and thousands of young Jews moved to. But they moved there
without their families, so there is this loss
of kind of continuity as far as networks of
families and friendships. But most Jews do remain in
the Pale of Settlement, right, in the former Pale of Settlement. And this is where I think
we really need to look in order to understand Soviet Jewish life before it is brought to an end, because when the Soviets come in, this is what they destroy. They don’t reach the Jews who are living in Moscow and Leningrad. This is also why so much
of the historiography and the assumptions of
radical assimilation, right, that we superimpose onto
Soviet Jewry as a whole really stem from the
fact that the only Jews who were really alive after
the Germans are defeated are the Jews who were indeed
radically assimilated, are living in those cities. We lose the Jews who are living in the former Pale of Settlement. So most Jews, I would
say, attempted to walk in this area, attempted
to walk the fine line between accepted Soviet behavior and expressions of Jewish identity. And I want to dwell on
a few different forms of expressions of Jewish identity and the first one of course is, in a way, also the easiest one,
is the Yiddish language. Yiddish culture, right? During the interwar period, Minsk grew to be one of the capitols of the Yiddish language and culture in the Soviet Union
with the official status of a state language, I
haven’t changed the… Well I can do it now. Here. With the official status
of a state language, just like Polish,
Belorussian, and Russian, Yiddish became part of the spheres of bureaucracy, education,
and grew in the field of culture and every day
life on the Jewish street. The official status of
the language entailed government support for institutions, agencies operating in Yiddish, as well as the employment of Yiddish-speaking clerks brought the Jewish language
to the forefront of the public life of the
city with a new intensity that was missing in
pre-revolutionary years. I’m just gonna show you some
images of the public space, I guess, Yiddish in the public space. Which is something very
new, this is the building of the Central Train Station of Minsk. The name of the city appears
not only in Belorussian, Russian, and Polish, but also in Yiddish. Passengers who travel
to the city and saw the Hebrew letters on the
building were reminded of the official status of the language and the Jewishness of Minsk as well. Upon arriving in the city in 1929, the Warsaw-based Yiddish writer Yudyud Singer, the less famous brother of Bashevis Singer, right,
Nobel Prize winner, noted with surprise that,
I think I have the quote, yes, here it is. “These four languages,
Belorussian, Russian, “Polish, and Yiddish meet
me at the train station. “They look down at me from the gray wall. “I come across them at every step “in every commissariat office, “everywhere there are signs
in the four languages.” The fact that Yiddish
appeared in public spaces, on the streets of the
city, continued the writer, “is now something normal. “The only one who marvels
at this is probably me.” He’s coming from Poland, where, you know, this was not possible. Passing through the Soviet Union in 1931, a Polish-Jewish journalist
confirms Singer’s impressions as he noted the difference between Minsk with the big Hebrew letters
visible from the train, as he says, as it approached the station and the city of Odessa,
which was in Ukraine, still is in Ukraine, at
least for the time being. (laughs) And he said, in Odessa, Odessa had become entirely Ukrainianized. The captions on the sign boards of stores and institutions are in Ukrainian and only sometimes in
Russian, noted the journalist concluding that very rarely will you see a sign in Yiddish. Maybe we can get back to this comparison between Ukraine and Belorussia later. In Minsk, on the other hand, a number of important institutions such as Belorussian State University,
which was the main university in Belorussia and
of course also in the city, displayed the official
name on the building only in Belorussian and in Yiddish. Not in Russian, and not in Polish. The language was heard on
the Belorussian state radio and was seen in the movie
theaters of the city in the inter-titles to the films. I think I have more images. Yeah, this is a very interesting image. This is, again you see
the four languages, right. Yiddish here, this is Polish, this is Belorussian, and this is Russian. And this is actually, I found this in a kind of pro-Czarist publication, so it’s very anti-Soviet, right, of Russian emigres in France, right to their old publication and it makes fun of this, you know, it says here, the Babylonian mixture of languages. It makes fun of it, and
it makes fun of the fact that Russian is only one of them. But I’m interested in
just showing you, again how Yiddish became part of,
in a way, every day life. So the Yiddish experiment
was a quintessential product of the Bolshevik experiment, of course, and grew out of the Soviet
nation state building project. But the support for Yiddish also relied on solid preexisting foundations, and here, again, I’m emphasizing the continuity that I’m interested in, was not entirely enforced top to bottom. The high proportion of
Yiddish-speaking Jews, the deeply rooted Bundist
tradition of the region, the relatively small size and provincial character of Minsk, the lack of support for
the Belorussian language, and the idiosyncratic character
of Belorussian nationalism were all factors that
contributed to the relative success of the Yiddish
experiment in Minsk. Just one last example, do people
know Yiddish in this room? Some knowledge? Okay, so let me just give you the example. In all probability, let
me see what I have here. Oh, here before I give you the example I just wanted to show
you a few more images. This is the Belorussian
Jewish State Theater which, by the way, used to be a synagogue. It was taken over as, you
know, that was standard procedure in the Soviet
context, taking over, you know, not only synagogues, Judaism is not singled out
in the interwar period, but it is taken over. This was a Zionist shul,
the wealthy shul in a way. So it is the first one to be
taken over by the Bolsheviks. It is turned first into a worker’s club and then into the Jewish State Theater. Really means Yiddish State Theater. And here you have the interior, you know, the play is (speaking Yiddish), and this is from 1938, 1938. This is also Yiddish on the street, this is ten years since the revolution. Young students who are celebrating. This is a class of mechanics. For those of you who can read Yiddish, you can see there on
the far right hand side where it says mechanic, mechanisher. And this is a Jewish quarter, okay, I can I’ll leave it here. This is the main Jewish quarter. This is the dome of the kalt shul, the most important kind of
synagogue that was in Minsk. Known as the kalt shul,
the cold synagogue, because it was very
hard to kind of warm up during the winter so
everybody referred to, and that’s typical in Eastern Europe, every single Eastern European Jewish city has a kalt shul. Anyway, I just want to give you one last example, you know, that
relates to the Yiddish, that in all probability, Minsk also became the only capitol city in Europe where as late as 1937, one could see a truck passing through the city streets distributing bread to local cooperatives with the writing bread
on it in Yiddish, right. But actually, as someone
noticed at the time, lamenting the level of
ignorance and provincialism of the text on the bread truck, the writing did not appear in standardized literary Yiddish, but it appeared in Litvish Yiddish, or the dialect spoke in Minsk, also in Vilna and it’s environts. So, instead of the reading broyt, right, for those of you who know Yiddish, which is standard Yiddish, the text on the truck read breyt. And breyt in Litvish dialect means bread, but in standardized Yiddish
it means wide, right. This is just a small example, again, to give you a sense of the
Yiddish in every day life. Okay. The second case that I
want to kind of dwell on as far as Jewish identity
and Jewish particularism in the context of the Soviet experiment relates to religious life and I could, you know, talk a lot about religious life. I have a whole chapter on religious life in the interwar period. But I want to dwell on the
question of circumcision. These are just images of the city. Okay, here, kosher meat. But I want to dwell on the
question of circumcision and the assumption is that
Soviet Jews, circumcision, come on, Soviet Jews did not
practice circumcision, right? That’s the assumption. Actually, among the most fascinating archival documents that I found are some accounts of circumcision. And now, you know, I can also address the questions after the talk. In general I would want to
say that religious practices and customs deeply
embedded in the daily life of the city very often
defied the Soviets’ agenda of making this kind of
tabula rasa, of destroying everything that had to do with religion. This attempt to erase
century long traditions. Providing a religious education
to one’s child, right? The largest underground
yeshiva in the Soviet Union was in the city of Minsk, the largest one. Attending synagogue,
purchasing kosher meat, and here you have an image of kosher meat being sold on the streets of Minsk, this is from the 1920’s, or circumcising one’s newborn son not only depended on the intensity of anti-religious persecution
and discrimination, it also varied according
to the individual’s perseverance and ability to camouflage his or her compliance
with religious tenents as well as on the social networks in which he or she operated. Okay, so I’m sitting in the
archives in the city of Minsk and I found out about the following cases. This one Jewish father
who’s a construction worker, this is 1928, he’s employed
in a Minsk state factory and he addressed the
letter of complaint to the Communist Party because a local
Soviet Jewish kindergarten refused to accept his son. This is an official institution, a Soviet Yiddish kindergarten, right, and the reason he stated was that his son who was probably born in 1922
had not been circumcised. So at first, I thought this is impossible. We are in a Soviet capitol,
there is no circumcision. And the possibility of such
a case seemed highly remote. As a Soviet institution,
the kindergarten was at least in theory committed to conveying to the younger generation and the parents the ideals of Communism,
which included among its core foundations a very
atheistic approach to the world and a passionate denigration
of religious beliefs. However, viewing the workers
letter within the context of how wide-spread the
observance of this practice was allows us to reconsider the
nature of the case itself and complicates our understanding of Jewish integration in Soviet society. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, circumcising one’s son was the norm among Soviet Jews, who are living in the former Pale of Settlement, I would add, not the exception. This norm could have led some
Jews to view with disfavor children who had not been circumcised and could even have been
shared by the personnel of the Soviet Yiddish
kindergarten who said no, forget it, he’s not circumcised,
I’m not accepting him. After all, this was
probably the first time that a Jewish child was not circumcised, who is not circumcised and who applied to this kindergarten in 1922. So again, circumcision was
the norm among Soviet Jews and I just gave you some quotes here that I assume you read, or you
want me to read them out loud? You read them? And the thing is that if
a significant proportion of Jewish members of the Communist Party performed the ritual, then we must assume that circumcision was even more common among those Jews who were not members of the Communist Party, right? The commitment to practice circumcision on the part of Jewish
communists should not be seen, by the ways, as an indication
of religious behavior. I would like to emphasize that. Circumcising one’s newborn
was rather perceived at least by many, but I would argue by most Jewish communists who
had it privately performed as the expression of ethnic identification and was the outgrowth of a specific Jewish mentality, mentalité which even communists found
difficult to renounce. Just think about, you
know, again, Eastern Europe in order to say to circumcise someone you use the Yiddish expression which is, Yiddish, makhn das kind, right. You make the child Jewish. So it’s not really about the bris, it’s not about the
milah, it’s really this, and even Jewish communists
who believed in communism, but they could not renounce that. And, you know, I’m sure
there will be questions but just to give you a sense, it was an investigative commission that was organized, and every single party cell, every single
kind of institution, organization, had a party cell, Communist Party cell, and whenever, you know,
there was knowledge of the fact that the wife
of a Communist Party member was going to have a child, then this investigative
commission would go to the home of the Party member and
make sure that the child had not been circumcised. Circumcision was never outlawed, but there was a lot of pressure put especially on the members
of the Communist Party because it was presented
as something very barbarian that especially the
vanguard of Soviet society, IE Communist Party members,
should not engage in. Of course, okay, I’ll leave it at that. I’m sure there will be questions. But if you were a member
of the Communist Party and they caught you, this is why there are archival documents, then
you could be kicked out of the Party, okay, if you had had your son circumcised. Okay, this is very interesting. This is from the Soviet
Yiddish Press from 1936, and it’s a letter that
a Jewish worker sent in, you know, in the press. It’s like the foreword, and it says, “I advise all the mohelim,” This is 1936, “all the mohelim of Minsk
not to circumcise my son. “If my son will be circumcised,
I will hold responsible “each and every mohel in Minsk.” Which really means that his son had already been circumcised,
but he’s trying to cover his bases, right,
because he doesn’t want to be kicked out of the Party because he doesn’t want
to lose the privileges because being a member… Besides the belief, he might
really believe in communism. Okay, the last point that I want to make about Jewish identity and particularity has to do, actually this was for me the most interesting chapter in the book, which is the last chapter. It’s about Soviet patriotism and Jewish identity in the late 1930’s and really explores Jewish every day life, ordinary life and
manifestations of identity in the late 1930’s at the height of Stalin’s Great Terror. The existence in Minsk of
compact Jewish neighborhoods combined with this kind of ongoing influx of shtetl residence who
move from the shtetlekh to the capitol city, IE Minsk, and the role of Yiddish
in the public sphere contributed to the preservation of an intensive Jewish ethnic identity. Despite the violence and the thoroughness with which the purges impinged on the Jewish street, they did not mark, they did not represent
the end of Jewish life. The Terror’s vigor,
enhanced by the geopolitical character of the city, and the Belorussian Soviet Socialist
Republic in general, wiped out the bulk of
the Jewish cultural elite and institutions in Minsk perhaps more than anywhere
else in the Soviet Union because Minsk was so close to Poland and Poland, you know, Stalin singles out Poland as fascist Poland, right. But the Terror mostly affected the Party, professional, and intellectual leadership. What is interesting is, however, is that that knowledge
of what was happening to Jews in nearby Poland, also referred to as fascist Poland, and Nazi Germany in the late 1930’s combined with the awareness of the absence of official antisemitism
in the Soviet Union sustained Jewish self-confidence and build up the self perception that Soviet Jews, in a way, embodied the true vanguard of world Jewry. There was that belief in 1936, 37, 38. Of course it will end soon. But let’s not look at the end, right? That’s the main challenge, is to move away from the end and try to capture what was, you know, experienced at the time. As never before, this
seemingly opposite factors of Soviet patriotism and
commitment to Jewishness converged rather
harmoniously, I would say, and continuities of
solidarity with other Jewries also resurfaced during the late 1930’s. The sense of Jewish commonality, of fellow feeling that had distinguished pre-revolutionary life emerged once again in the late 1930’s. As Jews looked towards the
West with growing concern, they experienced the
forgotten sense of belonging to world Jewry as a whole. In other words, if during the
1920’s and 30’s Soviet Jews had been forced to sever
all ties with other Jewries around the world
because these Jewries were bourgeois, they were
Zionist, they were religious, now for the first time in a long time they could reconnect emotionally. They’re allowed to reconnect
emotionally with them and even experience a
renewal of Jewish identity. This is captured, for
example, in this quote that I want to read to you. This is from 1938. “That glorious Jewry, which
produced the famous names “of Moses Mendelsohn, Henrich Heine, “Karl Marx, Albert
Einstein, has been destroyed “by the fascist cannibals
who exiled their children, “requisitioned their property, “and kicked out the best
thinkers burning their work.” So again, they’re allowed to say that they’re part of
world Jewry and feel… – [Man] Who are they referring to here? – Hm? – Who are they referring to? – They’re referring to German Jews. It’s clear, German Jews. So we feel empathy, but
they were not allowed, you would not have been allowed
to say this in the 1920’s. To say, I feel any kind of
empathy for German Jews. So, similar expressions
of Jewish national pride and solidarity kind of
complicate our understanding of Jewish life in the late 1930’s and counter the assumption
that Stalin’s Great Terror, the purging of Jewish intellectuals and the closing down
of Jewish institutions, entailed the complete removal and the end of expressions of Jewish
identity in the Soviet context. So, my conclusions. There are, you know, a few
minutes of conclusions. So, I think that what I learned as I was conducting
research in the archives and as I was writing this book, is really what we lost with the Holocaust. We lost cities like Minsk, where 40% of the population was Jewish, and where Jews had a very
intense social and cultural life. They did have it. It wasn’t perfect,
because they were living in the context of a totalitarian system, but they had an intense
social and cultural life. Unlike Jewish histories
elsewhere in Europe, the Soviet Jewish story
as a product of the voices and experiences of densely
populated cities and towns of the former Pale of Settlement underwent a distinctive
form of destruction, I would argue, loss and oblivion during and after World War II. The first and most brutal one, of course, as far as destruction
goes, was carried out by the Germans and their
local collaborators who almost completely
annihilated Minsk Jewry. The physical destruction of
the majority of Minsk Jews, almost 80,000 who were killed between 1941 and 1943,
within the boundaries of the city itself. Most on the very site, at the very site of the Minsk Ghetto, the
largest Jewish Ghetto in occupied Soviet Union. Of course, this produced
an irreparable loss. The onslaught on the
city and the destruction of its streets, houses, Jewish quarters, institutions, wiped
out by the German bombs launched during the offensive
of the summer of 1941. Further, and then, you know,
in 1944, 1945, you know, as the Germans are being
pushed out by the Red Army this further obliterated the memory of this community, because
nothing is left, right. Almost all buildings in the center, even the images that I just showed you, nothing is left of those sites, right. Just to go back to Nemiga, here. This, the Jewish quarter. Almost all buildings in
the center of the city had been demolished as well
as the railway station. Hundreds of industrial enterprises, most schools, institutes
of higher education, including Belorussian State University, 80% of the housing. So if we compare it to, for example, cities like Vilna, or
even a city like Grodno where the physical
annihilation of the Jews was at least mediated by the preservation of most of their historic
urban spaces, right. And this does something to memory. Minsk was razed to the ground. When Hersh Smolar returned
to Minsk after the war, he walked through the city in ruins, through its streets, and he was searching for the buildings he
had once known so well in vain. And I would say that sixty years later during the many months I spent in Minsk to conduct the bulk of the research on which this book is based, I also walked through
the streets of the city in search of the places I had seen in prewar photos, you saw some here, read about in archival
documents, press reports, oral history accounts,
but most of the places described in this book remained
only in my imagination. With the post World War II reversal of the Bolshevik emancipation project Soviet universalism and
brotherhood of peoples rejected the Jews. As you know, after the war, the Soviets reject the Jews, right. The new Cold War geopolitical order in combination with the establishment of the state of Israel
led them to be considered the most unreliable and
foreign ethnic group in the Soviet Union whose patriotism could only be distrusted. Expressions of state antisemitism ranged from anti Jewish
quotas at universities, so we’re going back to Czarist period, government posts, accusations
of cosmopolitanism, arrests of students
for allegedly belonging to Zionist cells. Following the 1953 unmasking of the so-called Doctor’s Plot, or the alleged conspiracy
of Jewish medical assassins of Soviet leaders in Moscow, Jewish doctors were
arrested in Minsk as well. In 1951, 1951, the executive committee of the Minsk city council closed down the Jewish cemetery, the last
Jewish cemetery in Minsk, and refused to allow any
further burials there on the grounds of a lack of space. A group of Jews petitioned
the Minsk city council, asking it to fence off the
territory of the cemetery in order to prevent pigs, goats, and cows from grazing there. Despite the petitioners’ claim the great revolutionary Jews who gave their life to the revolution
were buried there, the appeal fell on deaf ears. In the mid 1970’s, local authorities bulldozed an older Jewish cemetery, there was more than one
Jewish cemetery of course in a city like Minsk, the ancient historic one, to make way for a dance floor and a soccer field. Only one synagogue functioned in Minsk from 1946 to the mid 1960’s and this last synagogue
in the Belorussian capitol was closed down in 1964. So you get a sense of
the atmosphere of anxiety that persisted among Jews
in post-Stalin years. Postwar accounts of the city’s history generally suppressed its Jewish character. Besides, you know, a few
mentions here and there, the Jews were one of the
groups that inhabited the city, the Minsk main entry to the
great Soviet encyclopedia of 1954 made no reference
to its past Jewishness, to the fact that it was once called the Jerusalem of Belorussia,
Irushilim de Risin, made no reference to its past Jewishness, to the fact that Yiddish had been an official state language before the war, or to the fact that city’s Jews had been exterminated by the Germans
and their collaborators. I even looked at tourist guide books of the Belorussian capitol and these also neglected to make the slightest allusion to the Jews of Minsk. The long and detailed historical overview included in a 1971 Minsk travel guide did not incorporate any reference to its past Jewish demographics. While it referred to
the names of prominent Belorussian and Russian writers from the 20’s and 30’s,
it failed to mention Jewish writers like,
I don’t know if you’ve heard of these two Jewish writers, Moyshe Kulbak, despite their posthumous rehabilitation
in the late 1950’s. So those Russian and Belorussian writers who were rehabilitated are included but the Jewish ones are not included. The historical overview
did not mention any of the Jewish cultural
and academic institutions that had once existed in the city and did not care to remind tourists of the role that Yiddish had once played in the life of many of its residents. Throughout the entire guide, the only allusion to the Jews of Minsk was at the time of their destruction, when the authors admitted that 100,000 perished in the Ghetto. Here I just want to show you two images of Minsk Jews who are
being led to the Ghetto that I left out of the book on purpose because I tried, really, to step away from, you know, destruction. But these are kind of powerful images, and you see, of course, mostly children and women because the men were fighting with the Red Army, right. I see my research and
the book that I wrote also, also, as an attempt to memorialize the community of Soviet
Jews that existed in Minsk before World War II. Their lifestyle, their
culture, their identity, as well as the geography of the city in which they lived. A community that was first brutally erased from history, and then knowingly removed from public memory. Thank you. (applause) There are questions, yes. – [Man] In this picture, who is herding them,
the German, I take it? Into the Ghetto. – In this case, yes, it is the Germans. It is the Germans, but in other images in other photos that I have seen, and these, by the way, I
found in the YIVO archives. It’s a very good collection of photographs that were taken by German soldiers, Wehrmacht soldiers, so
it’s not Einsatzgruppen, it’s not SS, it’s
soldiers, and you can see from other photographs
that it’s mostly Germans. In the case, if you’re
addressing the question of collaboration, I’m
sure that this audience is aware of, there was,
everything is relative, but there was less collaboration from the Belorussians than there was
from the Ukrainians, right. And this has to do with, you know, national identity and the claims that many Ukrainians made for
an independent Ukraine. They did not want to be
part of the Soviet Union, as opposed to the Belorussians, who, you know. – [Man] Something strikes
me, look at the ladies, to the left, they’re smiling. Often in pictures before that, in Poland, they were also smiling. – Mhm. You know, that I can’t… Yeah, here they’re smiling. I have seen this, you know, the killings have not begun yet. Meaning that, you know, once they get, what happens is that the
Germans bomb the city, many Jews and non-Jews
flee, tried to flee, and some managed to flee, but the Germans don’t start right away with the Einsatzgruppen
to engage in the killing. They set up the Ghetto right away. So the Jews are being
herded into the Ghetto, and there still is, if you think about the notion of some grandfathers, right of the elderly in the city, the notion that the Germans, you know, maybe they will not mistreat, us right. Okay, the men, yes, they
might be singled out, but the children and the
women might not be mistreated. There still is that, you know, that assumption that they would realize very quickly, you know,
it wasn’t the case. Yes? – [Woman] At the very beginning, you spoke about the center of Minsk and right next to the
church was a Yiddish school. On the schooling, I think
it’s not a religious school? – No, no. – Yeshiva, what was it? – So it’s not a Yiddish school,
it’s not a Yiddish school, the school that I
mentioned is the very first Jewish school sponsored
by the Russian government. In the 1840’s and 1850’s,
the Russian government kind of embraced or accepted the ideas of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, whereby hoped that this would help with the acculturation of
Jews, with the integration of Jews, and perhaps even assimilation. But the main thing is that Jews should learn Russian, and they should kind of feel connected to Russia. And this is part of the Russian Empire. So you have more than a a
hundred and fifty schools that are open throughout
the Russian Empire, mostly in the cities, larger cities, or middle sized cities,
from the late 1840’s until the, you know, 1860’s, 1870’s. What was interesting here, first of all I wanted to emphasize the fact that Minsk is a center of the Jewish
Enlightenment, right. And again, this is also part of this kind of Lithuanian, you know, as far as geo cultural identity, it’s very similar to what happens in Vilna. So you have many Jews
who do learn Russian, who do send their children
to Russian schools, but why I mentioned it was this very interesting account,
there’s Max Lilienthal who’s actually this German Jew who was called into Russia to help kind of put up these schools. And he goes to Minsk, he has the support of civil authorities, you
know, the Russian authorities, and he has the support
of some wealthier Jews, well-to-do Jews, Jewish merchants who do want Jews to speak Russian as opposed to Yiddish. And so he walks in, he comes to the city, and Orthodox Jews who don’t want these schools
literally kick him out. Shouting at him, yelling,
they chase him out of the city, and it was snowing, so, you know, there’s these
accounts of snowballs. So there’s a lot of tension,
actually, everywhere, for most Eastern European Jewish cities when, you know, there is this attempt to establish these schools that are ultimately established, but in the beginning, you know, they feel, you know, this is a threat to the cheder, this is
a threat to the yeshiva. We don’t want these schools. – [Woman] Isn’t that like, I must interject, my mother’s description of the elegance of Minsk
still rings in my head. The style, the way of
life, that the visiting of places like Minsk and Odessa… – When was she in Minsk? She was born in Minsk? – No, no, no, visiting
Minsk was a great occasion and the style there, my
mother came from Brest-Litosvk which was near to the– And her description, and my father says, well they both came from Russia, was just an elegant and
beautiful shining city. – Yes, yes it was, I mean there were parts of that were very much so, yes. Like, I mean, the very first kind of excerpt that I provided kind of gives you a sense of that, although he
doesn’t like the Jews too much. Yeah. – [Man] Has any attempt been made in post-Soviet Russia to
rehabilitate Jewish culture? – Has any–I didn’t– – Has any attempt been
made in post-Soviet Russia to rehabilitate Jewish culture? – To rehabilitate Jewish
culture, in Belorussia? – In Minsk. – [Woman] In Minsk, post-Soviet. – Not culture, I mean, what you have, you have about 10,000 Jews living in Minsk, most of them
don’t have roots in Minsk. See I was hoping, again, as a historian, I am always interested in continuities. I was so disappointed, but
of course I understand why, when I was in Minsk I
couldn’t find almost anybody who had roots in Minsk. These were all Jews who
came from other places as it happened, right after the Holocaust. You know, it was a lot
of movement as far as you know, demographics… So you do have, I mean there
is Chabad in Minsk today, there is a reform Jewish
community, there is a community center that is beautiful, and there are a lot of programs. Of course the definition of who is Jewish is very kind of flexible, meaning that, you know, you could have
one Jewish grandfather and still, you know, be very active in this Jewish community. But as far as culture goes, you know, and Minsk is, Belarus today, it’s the last, I mean, Putin is really kind of going back, but it is a very authoritarian system. It’s like going to
Russia at the time of… – [Man] You know, all the
former Soviet Republic, Belarus is the most in line with Putin. – Of course, of course. Yes. – [Man] My father’s mother
was brought up in Minsk. The family, the story
goes, owned the biggest coffin factory in either
Minsk, or Belarus, and I don’t know. They made a lot of money, the story goes, and he was able to send his sons, my three great uncles, to medical school in both Paris and Berlin so they would be fluent
in those languages. And the story goes that when
the Bolsheviks took over, his coffin factory was one
of the first to be seized. – Of course. – He and his wife were killed. But by that time, they
had sent their children to the United States and the brothers all ended up being physicians in Boston. And my grandmother came to New York. But, the name was Merlis, M-E-R-L-I-S. – Merlis, mor-a-lis, M-U– – M-E, we spelt it M-E-R-L-I-S. Now that doesn’t mean
this was the actual– – Right. – But, I was just wondering
if you had come across anything of this. – I mean, there is, of
course you are referring here to the years of war, communism– – Yes, I believe this was 1918. – Right, well if you
either left before 1921 or you would stay there,
and I’m not surprised. I haven’t come across,
I came across, you know, a few very, very wealthy Jewish families that were singled out by the Bolsheviks. As soon as they come to power,
they take over the property. And so, you know, and in some instances they do kill, you know, in the
context of war and communism there was a lot of violence. But I haven’t, no, I haven’t
come across anything. – Alright, thank you. – Yes. – [Man] It occurred to me that, talking about the continuity
of Jewish culture and such under the Bolsheviks, but didn’t the Jews of Minsk
have plenty of practice having been under the
czars for so many decades or centuries or whatever and, you know, it’s like, well, one totalitarian regime, here’s the next one, and okay, we’ll figure out, you know, we’ve been there, we know how to do this, and we’ll just adapt. – Mhm. That’s an interesting point. I mean, you know, the czar system was a very authoritarian system and Jews were indeed singled out, especially after 1881,
after the assassination of Alexander the Second. But I wouldn’t refer to it as a totalitarian system in any way. You know, Jews were not allowed to be employed in government offices, state offices, you know,
official positions in any way, but they had, you know, there was this arrange of Jewish movements
and parties and clubs. And, you know, Zionism is legal. The Bund is not legal, you know, no socialist movement is legal, so perhaps your point
applies more to those Jews, those young Jews, who, you know, had had some kind of experience as far as smuggling literature and even, you know, weapons to some degree, and more connected to socialist movements. Not so much communist movements
but socialist movements. But, you know, Jews had their own schools. For example, the Poles
did not have schools. You know, you have a
large number of Poles, you know, ethnic Poles who
live in the Czarist empire and they’re never allowed
to have their own schools. Jews do have their own schools. Of course, after the revolution Jews will have their own schools in the Yiddish language only right, because Yiddish has been selected as a language of instruction
as of 1921, not Hebrew. And of course, and Poles
will have their schools in Polish in the Soviet period. Of course, you know,
Stalin put it very clearly. As far as these schools and
the culture are concerned, it is national inform
and socialistic content. Bringing in the content is really Marxist and the form is the language. I am only allowing you
to use your language, but I would distinguish, I know that some many
historians want to see the continuity between Czarist Russia and communist leaders, and we could even argue that communism
took such a violent turn perhaps in Russia because of
the Czarist heritage in a way. But I would not say that
the Czarist system was a totalitarian system. Yeah. – [Woman] If the population was 325,000 in Minsk, and
the population in Vilna was only 204,000, how is it that the Jews of Vilna has dominance or priority in cultural respect? – Okay, that’s a very good question. Why do we remember Vilna, if we look at any encyclopedia on Eastern European Jews, it’s always Vilna. You know, Irushilim de Lite, right? The Jerusalem of Lithuania. And de facto, Minsk was also part of Lite. It’s also part of Lithuania, right. As far as Jewish territories, let me just go back to the
Pale of Settlement here, you know, Minsk does
follow to some degree. This is Lithuania,
Bialystok is also considered part of Lite, meaning this is the Jewish, the territory that as
far as Jews are concerned develops in a certain way, favoring the Enlightenment, favoring socialism, favoring Misnagdim, Orthodox Judaism as opposed to Hasidism. The reason why, there are many of reasons, one of the reasons that we could kind of pinpoint is that the most famous rabbinic figures, the most
famous is David Cohen, right, but Gaon Vilna who is the rabbinic figure in Eastern Europe in general, right, and he is from Vilna,
he was in Vilna, right. I mean, in Minsk you have
someone who is similar, someone who was extraordinary,
someone who wrote a lot. Perelman, Yushua Perelman, also known as the great scholar of Minsk, the Minsker Godl. There is also socioeconomics, Vilna was in a way, Vilna and, you know, the towns and cities, but, not cities, the towns and shtetlekh that surrounded Vilna were somewhat more economically developed, wealthier, it’s not great wealth, but there is that socioeconomic moment compared to Minsk, that was always kind of,
Belorussia surrounded really by many, many Belorussian peasants. There’s less peasantry in Vilna as far as the Polish residents of Vilna. So the socioeconomic moment
is also very important, helps us explain why there
might be this difference. How many questions can we still take? – [Dan] I think we have
time for two more questions. – Two more, okay. Yes, and then… – [Woman] Is there any record
as to how many Jews survived, and was there any attempt at
integration during that period? – Mhm, mhm, okay, that’s a good question. Minsk has the highest survival
rate as far as Ghettos, this is the largest
Ghetto in Soviet territory and almost 10,000 Jews fled the Ghetto which is extraordinary. I’m not gonna get into the
details of why it was possible. There’s a forest nearby,
close contact with the Belorussians, closer than
Jews had with Ukrainians who were with Lithuanians and Latvians. Belorussians are less, these are also generalizations, but we don’t have time, less antisemitism so there’s more contact. And of these 10,000, 5,000 survive. 5,000 seems nothing, but it is still a rather impressive number. Some of the Jews who
survived the Ghetto did not in the beginning, not in
the 50’s, not in the 60’s, under Stalin you’re
not gonna try to leave. Those who had Polish citizenship before the war are entitled to leave for a certain amount of months because part of Belorussia was occupied, western Belorussia was occupied
by the Soviets in 1939. But most Jews do not try to leave. Those who survived in the 50’s, 60’s, in 71, 70, 71, you do have some petitions. There’s a very famous war veteran, his name is now escaping my mind, who was actually in a wheelchair because of the wounds he
suffered during the war and he became very, very active in the refusenik movement. Allow us to move leave, let my people go. But he never made it to Israel. Yes, last question. The gentleman in green. – [Man] Regarding your research in Minsk, and to the razing of
the city during the war, was it almost like a detective story? Where did you find your resources to develop the material? – Okay. No, I mean, the archives,
a lot, a lot of material was destroyed because, you know, Operation Barbarossa hits the Soviet, Stalin, regardless of the information that was available by surprise and so they’re very slow at moving not only people but
also archival material. Of course, they move the
Communist Party archives. That’s priority, but the rest
of the materials come later. But, overall, I would say that a 70% of the materials were preserved which is pretty impressive, and so I had no problem whatsoever. The problem is, when you go
to the archives in Belarus, if you want to work on the Holocaust. Because the Holocaust, because of who Lukashenko is, there still is this
approach to the Holocaust that the Holocaust is a Soviet tragedy, it’s not a Jewish tragedy. So there is the downplaying
the Jewishness of the tragedy. So it’s a problem if
you want to do research. I see pastries out there. If you want to do research
on the partisan movement, for example, that is a good one. – [Man] (unclear) – Yes, (unclear) Very few Jews from Belarus
went to (unclear), why? – (unclear) – Because this area has a
strong Bundist tradition. And the Bund argues that we stay here, we don’t leave. More Jews from Ukraine went to (unclear), because in Ukraine you
have stronger Zionism and according to Zionism you leave. – [Dan] I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, we have to cut off the questions there. We do have a reception,
we might be able to have some more questions. (applause) – Thank you all for coming. – [Elissa] Thank you!

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