On #FirstSurvivor and the Russian-Jewish Holocaust experience
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day—sharing some thoughts on the Russian-Jewish Holocaust experience. There’s a thread making its way around Twitter about #FirstSurvivors, asking people about the first survivor they ever met. This was my response, which I’m posting here too, with some tweaks, before it disappears into the abyss of updates.
Like many #SovietJews there's no #FirstSurvivor in our fam, bc #Holocaust unfolded mostly via mass shootings, aka 'Holocaust by bullets'. Most #RussianJews who survived war were in RedArmy or evacuated to various 'stans. But that's diff commemorative day. #HolocaustMemorialDay
— Lea Zeltserman (@zeltserman) January 25, 2019
Like many Russian-Jews, there is no “First Survivor” in my family, because the Holocaust on Soviet territories unfolded mostly via mass shootings—aka “Holocaust by bullets.”* Most Russian-Jews who survived the war were in the Red Army or evacuated to various ’stans. (But that’s another commemorative day.) I’ve always felt disconnected from survivor stories because it didn’t feel like mine, didn’t fit with what I heard at home (like ALL of Russian-Jewish history in the Soviet era). I couldn’t understand why what I learned at school about the Holocaust—and later, when I participated in the March of the Living in high school—didn’t apply to my family.
I know now it did apply but it was a story that simply hadn’t been included in mainstream Jewish education across North America. In fact, some 2.5 million Jews were killed on Soviet territories, largely by the Einsatzgruppen—specialized SS killing squads that accompanied the German army as it advanced through eastern Europe. But until after the Soviet collapse, a lot of this information wasn’t widely available in the USSR or in the west.
We had almost no survivors. But every former shtetl, especially in Ukraine, is now ringed by mass graves. Some are marked and remembered. Many probably are not. (There is, of course, most famously, Babi Yar, that largest single massacre of the Holocaust, on the outskirts of Kiev. It was memorialized by Soviet dissident poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko in 1961—the first time the specifically Jewish atrocities of the Holocaust were openly talked about in the USSR. Here’s a translation of the poem, called, simply Babi Yar.)
The photos in this post are what we found on our 2013 visit to Ukraine, in the village of Romanow, where my paternal grandfather, with whom I share a last name and my brother shares a first name, grew up. Two mass gravesites, in one or both of which are remains of his father (my great-grandfather) and other relatives. The photo at the top of this post in particular haunts me—the walk that would have been their last. A couple weeks ago I wrote a post about the family I never really got to know because of our immigration—an odd echo here of people whose names I barely know, and who I could never have possibly known even had we stayed; they were long dead by the time I was born.
Below are the two mass gravesites in Romanow, Ukraine. There are just a few Jews left in the town, who are devoted to maintaining the history and stories of its residents. When we arrived unannounced one June day, they dropped everything to show us these sites. It’s rare to even have this level of memorialization.
Looking at these photos now, I remember how I couldn’t stop thinking about the way it formed a lumpy hill over top, how it’s so different from flat graves at cemetery. The physical work involved in hiding it, and then later, in memorializing it.
Finally, the view as you walk away. Like the walk there, I was struck by how pedestrian it was. So unobtrusive—it just blends right in. It’s a bit of a walk outside of the town itself, through unmarked fields. You have to know the place to get there.
If you want to know more about the Holocaust on Soviet territories and the Einsatzgruppen, there’s information from the US Holocaust Museum in Washington and from Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, which are also included above.
*Worth noting that this isn’t 100% accurate for all Soviet-Jews, as some areas were swept into the USSR during/post-WWII. Thus, in places like Lithuania, there were survivors of the Vilna ghetto. Likewise in Lvov/Lviv, which had Poland’s third-largest concentration of Jews before the war—it was swept into the USSR and is now part of Ukraine.