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Gitelman Breaks Eastern European Taboos on Holocaust

Gitelman spoke about the ways in which the sinister aspects of the Holocaust made their way into the USSR.Last week, a visiting professor, whose interests include politics and ethnicity in former Communist countries, came to campus to speak about the Holocaust in the Soviet Union.

On a dreary Feb. 3 evening, students, professors, and local residents gathered in the Blackistone Room of Anne Arundel Hall to hear University of Michigan’s Professor of Political Science Zvi Gitelman. St. Mary’s Professor of Religious Studies, Professor Katharina Von Kellenbach introduced Gitelman as her esteemed colleague whom she first met in 2006 while completing a fellowship at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

“The planned systemized murder of 6 million Jews is known as the Holocaust. This word does not exist in the Soviet Union,” said Gitelman.

Until 1991, no studies had been published on Jews in the Soviet Union– an incredulous fact to sophomore Lauren Bennett. She said, “I found it shocking that the USSR had not published any information about the destruction of the Jews until after the end of the U.S.S.R.” Gitelman unpacked the rationale behind this with an anecdote dating back to 1966, when he attended the 13th symphony in Leningrad, Russia.

The composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, chose to include the famous “Babi-Yar” poem which points blame at the Soviet government for ignoring the Nazis when they massacred over 100,000 Jews and left them in what is now recognized as a mass gravesite in Kiev, Ukraine. Gitelman was curious about the concert hall’s overcrowding and was told that ‘today is a Jewish holiday.’ He learned that the symphony was a tribute to three Russians who had the courage to raise issue of the Holocaust in public in such a demonstrative way.

Gitelman further expounded on the idea of the Holocaust as taboo in Eastern Europe, explaining that the war on the west front and war on the east front were viewed differently. Senior Alex Borman expressed his admiration for Gitelman’s decision to shed light on the subject, saying “the view from the Eastern Front [is] a topic that we only hear about rarely.” Yet the Soviet Union lost a substantial portion of its population during the war, roughly 12 percent. By war’s end, Soviet forces lost 9 million soldiers and another 19 million civilians.
Professor Walter Hill from St. Mary’s Political Science Department shared his opinion on the subject, saying “[Gitelman] reminded us of the scale of the event, and I am always shocked and saddened by the size of killings.”

At the time, the Soviet Union was composed of 120 to 130 different nationalities; Gitelman asked the audience why the focus centered on an unpopular one. The answer, according to Gitelman, resided in Joseph Stalin and his philosophy. Due to his large distrust of the Jewish people, Stalin was extremely adamant about not “giving the war to the Jews nor making it a Jewish issue.” Instead, he wanted to “give” the war to the Russians since they (in Stalin’s opinion) were the heroic ones. In addition, many Soviets were aware that focusing on the Holocaust would raise Jewish consciousness. Gitelman pointed out, “there was nothing to be gained and a great deal to be risked by dwelling on the Jewish holocaust.”

Despite the odds stacked against them, Jewish soldiers gladly and enthusiastically fought alongside their comrades. However, by 1942, Jews in the U.S.S.R. started to see a change. “It was okay to tell the public that Jews were being singled out,” said Gitelman. Then reports began excluding Jewish casualties altogether and comrade-hostility rose. Jews in the U.S.S.R. started to realize that the Holocaust was not just affecting the west; it had invaded Eastern Europe as well.

Wanting to illustrate the Holocaust’s impact on Jews today, Gitelman summarized for his audience a series of interviews he conducted with Jewish World War II veterans. To them, the Holocaust was a tragedy but not the focus. ‘Instead, [the focus must be] the bravery. This role has not been appreciated in the west or Israel,” said Gitelman. “Therefore, [Russian Jews] are attempting to write this chapter into history themselves. It is a point of personal pride.”

Controversy still exists today when it comes to distinguishing national loyalties. For example, Gitelman explained how Lithuanians, Estonians, and Ukrainians served as Nazi camp guards but only with the intention of stripping the Soviet government of its power. Nevertheless, the Soviets lost faith in their fellow people as a result of various groups becoming confused over loyalties and identity due to the U.S.S.R.’s demographic growth during wartime. This lends support to many Eastern European’s refusal to speak about the Holocaust; former members of the U.S.S.R. are concerned with having their reputations tarnished, proving that the Jews’ mission to ‘rewrite the national narrative’ is truly ambitious. Gitelman said, “[Jews view the Holocaust as] a story of untold bravery. There is a desire to uncover what is hidden.”

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