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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Triumphant on the ground for the Soviet Army, the year 1943 was gruesome for Jewish survivors in urban ghettos that still lay behind enemy lines. As the Wehrmacht retreated, the Nazi leadership hastened to hide the evidence of its extermination policies. Jews who had been confined to their ghettos, where squalor and starvation slowly diminished their numbers, were violently routed from their quarters to be shipped west, or were killed on the spot. Bullets, gas trucks, starvation, beating all proved effective. Jewish populations and cultures disappeared from a world where they had long traditions. In September 1943 the Minsk Ghetto was liquidated; in October, the Vilna Ghetto; and in November, the Riga Ghetto. Ironically, the word for mass murder- liquidation– was borrowed from the Soviets themselves.

Although singled out by the Nazis for systematic elimination, Jews were not alone in being victimized as a people. When Soviet troops entered Poland in 1944 and began liberating the vast concentration camps there, they found that millions of Jews had perished, as well as Slavs and Gypsies, all in the name of Nazi racial policies. Poles, because they had first fallen to the German armies and had a long history of enmity with Germans, and Russians, infected as they were with the Jewish-Bolshevik disease, suffered horribly under German rule. Reduced to a subhuman existence by cold and starvation, as many as three million Russian prisoners-of-war died in concentration camps, most after Stalingrad. Some were exported to Germany as workers (Ostarbeiter), where they suffered slightly less horrible fates.

The legacy of the holocaust has divided more than united its victims. Overwhelming anger and grief have moved all the victim nations to preserve the memory of the own dead, yet less so to remember the dead of other nations. “Concentration Camp for Soviet People outside Tallinn,” the title given to horrifying raw footage shot at the camp at Klooga, did not even mention the fact that the victims were Jews, this already in 1944. Jews resented that Soviet authorities did not acknowledge the Jewish focus of racial policies. Many were moved by suspicions that concentration camps were located in Slavic lands in order to capitalize on local anti-Semitism, a belief bolstered by the presence of some Slavs among camp staff, and by official anti-Semitism of the post-war years. Russians and other Slavs pointed to the fact that camps were built on occupied territories which happened to be Slavic, that Slavic populations were exterminated too; and in the spirit of Soviet internationalism, they spoke of the Soviet people having been subjected to extermination. When in September 1961 Russian poet Evgenii Evtushenko wrote a scathing poem at the unmarked site of Babii Yar, outside Kiev, on the twentieth anniversary of the massacre of 70,000 Jews, Nikita Khrushchev’s crude attack on the poem reflected this longstanding resentment against Jewish claims to unique suffering.

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