Caught between Stalin and Hitler: On not bridging gaps between old and new

Russian Jews Holocaust fund fraud

The poison inside the people who allegedly defrauded the Holocaust fund would be inside you, too, if you had lived as Jews in the Soviet Union. Whatever their sins, these people are heroes, too, for having survived it. The struggle to defeat its legacy requires a daily application of conscience and will, even for members of my generation… For some, in real life, it’s simply too late.

Surprise, surprise, the article that quote comes from—“Old Ways” by Boris Fishman on the Tablet site—has ruffled a few feathers in the comments section. Fishman argues that given what Soviet Jews of a certain generation lived through – often, caught between Stalin and Hitler – it’s no surprise that some of them feel entitled to their due. And since the only dues to be had are reparation payments from Germany, then reparation payments it will have to be. I would add that no small number of Soviet Jews were indeed killed by the Nazis, so I assume Fishman is referring mostly to those Jews living in areas not occupied by the Nazis, who ended up either fleeing into the Asian parts of the USSR, like my grandmother did, or fighting the Red Army, as both my grandfathers did.

This is a group that generally has suffered horrifically, and has received no recognition of either their suffering and losses as Jews and Soviets in the war and under Stalin, nor as veterans and one-time Allies in that same war. I don’t know how many Soviet Jews have falsified survivor stories—I am worlds away from Brighton Beach; I don’t know these people.

Tweet from @vboykis on what human life is worthBut I do know where they came from. And I wish Fishman had done a better job of drumming up sympathy for them. They did live horrible lives, and the Soviet system does terrible things to people that an average North American cannot understand. And given the immigration rates to the US and Canada, I suspect there thousands of people living here whose lives and personalities have been warped by the necessities of surviving whatever dictatorship, war, or other horrors that we’ll never know.

Still, the comments are almost uniformly negative and disgusted with Fishman. So, the question actually is whether it is Fishman’s failure to evoke their sympathies that’s at fault here? Or is that we simply can’t see past our cocooned North American lives to understand “the deception that they [had to live by]?”

Nothing is more uplifting than the American gospel of self-reinvention, but America forgets that human nature sometimes has a limit. That is part of America’s vital, ferocious, oblivious beauty. But it’s too late for those who traded their complimentary American synagogue memberships for cash; for those who sign for imaginary pills and massages to split profits with doctors who file for Medicare reimbursement; for those for whom it’s still 1977 in Minsk.

Or it may be the twinning of Stalin and Hitler that touches a nerve? It’s as if, by feeling any sympathy at all, and trying to understand what drives a person to falsify a Holocaust story—a very specific type of person, from a specific time and place—you automatically negate any sympathy for Holocaust survivors or understand why the behaviour of these Soviet Jews is so wrong. I’d like to think we can understand both groups and have some understanding for both, even while realizing the moral problems raised. (Too idealistic of me? Too much faith in humanity?)

Fishman doesn’t seem to be giving them a free pass on their behaviour—just trying to explain it through their eyes. At the heart, what people can never understand is this:

That is the wonder of this country, for all its flaws: There’s enough to go around. Connections, pedigree, and money all help, but so many ordinary people can achieve what they’d like simply by working fairly and honestly. You can afford to be decent here.*

I wrote about the book Purge, by Sofi Oksanen, a while ago, which makes that same point—the ways human nature was twisted and turned and became so ugly under the Soviet system. It’s easy to say that a true moral person would never do this, that or the other thing, no matter the circumstances. We’d all like to believe the best about ourselves. But none of us really know what we would do to survive or how it would change us.

Nor do we like to admit that the people we should most admire and respect for what they’ve survived, don’t always adhere to the high moral standards we’d like them to. We want clear lines between them and those who wrong them. It’s not something we like to talk about or hear about, whether that’s in relation to Holocaust survivors or Soviet Jews. Only one comment seems to understand where Fishman is coming from:

The one point in this article that did ring true for me was the the idea that honor and good behavior has no meaning to someone who has been reduced to living on a base animal instinct. Being raised by an Auschwitz survivor, one sees many behaviours that are more like animal cunning, but in normal society rather than a death camp, are read as conniving. These can amount to trivialities, like returning items to stores and lying about the reasons, but they are still dishonest, and, if not illegal, certainly beyond our religious laws. The instincts created in a death camp do not disappear when the leaving the gate. … Holocaust survivors are widely regarded as heroes, and well they should be. But, they are scarred and flawed heroes.

So I understand what Fishman is talking about, but then, I’m reading between the lines for all the things he doesn’t say. Other readers obviously don’t have the benefit of that knowledge, that much is clear from the comments. It’s a shame, because the issue he raises is real. And the gulf between generations and worlds is equally real. It will only ever disappear as generations merge, change, and die out.

That gulf also brought to mind this link, which popped up in my Twitter feed:

 

Tweet from @scrawledinwax on Russian brides

It is awful. But it also profoundly heartbreaking in its reminder of what people will do to get here. No matter how broken we think this continent may be (and whether you’re Canadian or American, you have a long list of complaints, I’m sure), people are still doing anything and everything they can to get here.

* Somewhat tangential digression — Yes, you can afford to be decent here. Though I’m not sure we don’t use up that decency on airing an endless litany of grievances, like this site I came across last night, which I of course then devoted a good hour to looking through and laughing over, compiling examples of annoying subway behaviour. Truly horrible behaviour like bringing a plant onto public transit [UPDATED – Link no longer available].

© 2017 Lea Zeltserman