Working Paper 125/2013
The Crystallization of National Identity in Times of War:
The Experience of a Soviet Jewish Soldier
E l l a J a n a t o v s k y
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European Forum at the Hebrew
University, Jerusalem 91905, Israel
|“True Soviet Men”||5|
Vladimir Natanovich Gelfand was born on March 1, 1923, in Novoarkhangelsk, a
village in the eastern part of Ukraine. Both of his parents were Jewish. His mother,
Nadezhda Vladimirovna Gorodinskya, was a veteran of the civil war and a party
member; his father, Natan Solomonovich Gelfand, was an appreciated worker, udarnik,
in the metallurgy factory of Dniprodzerzhynsk, Ukraine. Before joining the army
Gelfand had finished his education at the Workers Faculty, rabfak, of Dnipropetrovsk,
where he was active on the school newspaper, engaged in various political activities,
and joined the Komsomol. When World War II broke out, he was involved in the project
of collecting crops for the war effort, subsequently becoming the best worker in his
unit. He was nineteen years old when he joined the fighting Red Army on May 6, 1942.
Gelfand’s diary will be central to this paper. Through it I will examine the
assumption that a reemergence of Jewish identity occurred as a result of the Soviet
advance westward and the encounter of Jewish Red Army soldiers with the Holocaust.
Modern studies have addressed the subject of national identity among Soviet Jews in a
wide range of contexts, including official Soviet policy and popular culture. Similarly,
scholars have also looked at the daily lives of Soviet soldiers, their experiences and
reactions to the horrors of war. However, the correlation between national identity
formation and daily experiences is virtually absent from the historical research. Not a
single monograph has been written on the topic of the Jewishness of the Soviet Jews in
the Red Army, or dealt with its dynamics and transformation in the context of their
encounter with the Holocaust. My paper attempts to bridge the gap.
The first section will address the meaning of being Soviet, that is, the conceptions
that Soviet subjects lived by. The second section will deal with the meaning of being
Jewish, particularly the governmental policies applied to the Jewish population before
the war and the effect they had on Jewish affiliation. It is important to note that this
paper will only focus on the Ashkenazi Jewish population, which formerly was
concentrated in the Pale of Settlement. Additionally, Gelfand represents the generation of 1917,
those often referred to as “true Soviet men.” The third section will explore the
dynamics of Soviet Jewish identity in its World War II historical context.
would like to thank the European Forum at the Hebrew University and
the Mayrock Center for Russian,
and East-European Research for the generous grant which allowed me to conduct my research. I am grateful to Dr.
Michael Beizer for his guidance and comments. A debt of gratitude is also owed to my supervisor Prof. Yfaat Weiss.
“True Soviet Men”
“Many people told him it was impossible, but he never forgot what
was most important—that he was a Soviet man! A real man! And you
must never forget this, never, wherever you are!” Victor Pelevin, Omon Ra
Soviet subjectivity has been the focus of many recent studies in the field of Soviet
history, which formerly devoted its efforts to the research of policymaking and
international politics. Therefore, when addressing the questions of motivation and the
reemergence of Jewish identity in times of war, a topic that belongs to the more private
sphere, interpretations must be based on these recent findings. What was the meaning
of being Soviet? Which ideologies and assumptions guided the young soldier, Gelfand,
as he advanced westward with his unit? In this section I will deal with these questions
in the context of recent Soviet subjectivity studies.
Keith Michael Baker, in an article on the presumed Foucauldian account of the
French Revolution, maintains that politicization of the subject and the moralization of
politics accompany the revolutionary dynamics and its power discourse. During the
revolutionary period, those who hold power learn to view each individual as a political
subject, every action as ideological and a realization of political will.2 In other words,
everything from established politics to the individual’s private thoughts is
contextualized in political terms. Consequently, the moralization of the subject follows
his politicization. All that is politically valid is regarded as moral; all that is not
politically expedient is considered crooked and immoral.3 In this respect, the past, i.e.,
the ancien régime, was viewed as corrupt and immoral, whereas the new one was seen
as the true regime with its true politics.4
The abovementioned revolutionary characteristics were not only evident in
governmental and political policies but also played a prominent role in the formation
of the Soviet subject. Through the assimilation of these features, the Soviet individual became
politicized, historicized, and moralized, sometimes to the extent of using the
same discourse as justification for acts declared illegal by the regime itself.
Jochen Hellbeck argues that historical consciousness was one of the main
characteristics of the Soviet subject during the 1930s. It was the perception of living in
an influential time, an epic epoch, a revolutionary period which represented a break
from the past and an advance toward a bright socialist future. 5
The will of almost every Soviet citizen to participate in constructing that future and breaking free
from the tsarist regime is evident in the testimonies from the time. To be a bystander, a mere eyewitness
to the changes taking place in society, was to abandon one’s duty and purpose as a
person.6 Instead one actively tried to write oneself into history, as is evident from the
diary of Nikolai Ustrialov, a law professor from Moscow: “It is difficult to feel like a
‘superfluous person’ these days, when, it would seem, everyone finds themselves with
so much to do. I want to be up to my neck with activity – if only not to be superfluous
in our time, at this historic hour – when the fate of our great country, our great
revolution, is being decided.”7 To Ustrialov, being superfluous meant being absent
from the building of the future. He wanted to be an agent of the historical mission, a
carrier of his time and considered it his moral duty.
When the Soviet subject looked for ways to participate in the building of the future
socialist society, he hoped to take part in a moralistic construction of society. It
interesting to note the Soviet conception of morality. All of life’s issues were subjected
to the needs of the party, and a private dialogue with one’s conscience was deplored of
the previous Christian perceptions. Party doctrines were the pillars of faith, and the
party’s collective judgments were the manifestation of justice.8 The Russian word for
conscience, sovest, nearly died out after 1917 and was replaced in common usage by
the word for awareness, soznatelnost, signifying the moral aspects of ideological
Bearing this in mind, one can draw conclusions as to the level of enlistment for
public causes and the relation between the private and the public spheres in the 1930s
Soviet Union. Contrary to the liberal view that the private and public spheres are
separate and usually opposed and competing, the Soviet subject aspired to make his
personal life a continuity of the public one.10 “To allow a distinction between private
life and public life,” as Nadezhda Krupskaia, Lenin’s wife, once said, “will lead sooner
or later to betrayal of Communism.”11 Hence, the lives of Soviet citizens were
politicized and the mundane was seen through the prism of social utility. “The young
person should be taught to think in terms of we,” wrote Anatoly Lunacharsky, the
commissar for education in 1918, “and all private interests should be left behind.”12 As
for the Soviet subject, he had to seek to make his inner self correspond with his outer,
collective self.13 Private lives became the battlefield of all that was political and moral.
The search for inclusion and fear of expulsion were the main concerns with regard to
2 Keith Michael Baker, “A Foucauldian French Revolution?” in Foucault and the Writing of History, ed.
J. Goldstein (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1994), pp. 188-191. 3 Ibid.
5 Jochen Hellbeck, Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary under Stalin (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 2006), pp. 55-67.
7 Ibid., pp. 64-65.
8 Orlando Figes, The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia (New York: Picador, 2007), pp. 97-99.
10 Hellbeck, pp. 86-87.
11 Figes, “Introduction.”
12 Ibid., p. 80.
13 Jochen Hellbeck, “Fashioning the Stalinist Soul: The Diary of Stephan Podlubnyi, 1931-1939,” in Stalinism: New Directions, ed. S. Fitzpatrick (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 95.
Before their rise to power, Lenin and Stalin referred to the Jews merely as a religious
sect, lacking territory but maintaining its own jargon, Yiddish. Nevertheless, the
affirmative national policy of the 1920s established a positive attitude toward nations
including ex-territorial ones, such as the Jewish nation. Furthermore, when the
Bolsheviks rose to power, they discovered strong national sentiments among the former
Russian Empire nationalities. The Jews were no different: the Zionist movement was
dominant in the Jewish street, to the extent that it received up to 4-4.5 times more votes
than the Bund Party, which joined the Mensheviks for the elections in the constituent
assembly, planned for the end of 1917.14 A mere egalitarian approach to the “Jewish
problem” was obviously not sufficient for the Jewish street.
Thus, the Bolsheviks realized that they would need to include the Jewish nation in
their affirmative policy, that is, the indigenization (Korenizatsiia) of the various
nations.15 The Act of Indigenization was promulgated after the Twelfth Congress of the
Communist Party, held on April 17-25, 1923. Its goal was the fulfillment of nationalism
within the Soviet, socialist boundaries. In other words, Jewish nationalism, as all other
nationalisms, was to be nationalist in form and socialist in content.16 The approved act
was similar to the Bundist political call for cultural autonomy.17
Consequently, three institutions came into being – governmental, party, and public,
which were responsible for the nationalist autonomy of the Jewish people in the early
Communist period. The Commissariat for Jewish National Affairs (Evkom), the Jewish
section of the Communist Party (Evsektsiya), and various Jewish public organizations
were all established to promote Communism and fight various socialist and Zionist
parties.18 This section will focus on the influence of the Evsektsiya on the Jewish public;
it was the most dominant institution of the three and the center of all legal Jewish activity
within the Soviet Union.19 Moreover, the Evsektsiya, as opposed to the Evkom,
was known for zealous persecution of the Zionist movement. 20
The Evsektsiya was composed of various members of Jewish socialist parties,
especially Bund members. Despite their initial rejection of the Bund as a reactionary
and bourgeois element, Lenin and Stalin now turned to its members for help. The Bund
members were acquainted with the Jewish street, unlike prominent Jewish Bolsheviks
such as Leon Trotsky, Grigory Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev who considered themselves
Soviet and supported full assimilation into Russian society as a means of obtaining
equal rights. That being the case, the members of the Evsektsiya were Jewish
Bolsheviks, and their task was to mediate between the Communist Party and the Jewish
public as well as to create a Jewish proletarian culture.21
Thus, throughout its years of activity the Evsektsiya persecuted the Zionist
movement and the Jewish religion. Zionist activists were oppressed and the movement
was dismantled by governmental decree; the cheders (Jewish religious schools) were
closed and the synagogues turned into clubs and warehouses. Massive propaganda
efforts were directed against the religious holidays and the Shabbat.22 Hebrew, which
was naturally associated with the Zionist movement and the Torah, was outlawed, and
Yiddish was made the official language of the Jewish nation. Indeed, a network of
Yiddish schools was established in 1918 and replaced Jewish individual educational
institutions. 23 New proletarian Yiddish literature emerged, and it replaced Hebrew
texts, be they new Zionist literature or the Torah. Many Yiddish newspapers and
journals were published and circulated in the Jewish street. The first publications were
mainly political in the strict sense of the word: translations of the socialist canon.
However, with time an independent and creative Yiddish literature arose, along with an
increase in Yiddish translations of Russian classics.24 The recently established Yiddish
theater moved from Petrograd to Moscow and quickly gained popularity, to the point
that it was allowed to perform abroad. From 1925 the theater was recognized by the
state as the official Jewish theater: the GOSET.25 Likewise, the Jewish public
encountered new Jewish proletarian culture in movies, music, and paintings fostered by
the same class rationale. 26 In the 1920s, notes Arkadi Zeltser, there was a less sharp
dichotomy between nationalism and universality, and the subject had diverse options
for the realization of his national feelings.27
The 1930s saw the rise of Russian nationalism. The affirmative policy of the 1920s
– aiming on the one hand to nurture national sentiments within the various national
groups in the Soviet Union, and on the other to discourage chauvinist Russian
nationalism – was abandoned. Soviet national policy consolidated: along with the
rebirth of Russian patriotism, small national units were canceled and ex-territorial
nations including the Jews, Germans, Poles, and Koreans were treated with ongoing
suspicion. 28 The national category was included in passports. Hence, by the end of the
decade the Soviet national category had biological and territorial attributes.29
It is a matter of dispute to what extent the expression of nationality was limited, but there is
no doubt that Russian nationality had awakened and had taken the form of all the others.
The change in policy affected Jewish cultural life. The Evsektsiya closed down as
part of a larger act of shutting down all national divisions in the Communist Party; its
leaders were killed during the Stalinist purges at the end of the decade.30 In 1932 the
teaching of Jewish history in Yiddish schools was banned and the schoolbooks became
very similar to the Russian ones. It was forbidden to teach any Jewish material be it in
its Communist content. 31 The summer of 1938 saw the end of the Jewish school system.32
Most of the Jewish journalism was eliminated by 1939.33 The Jewish theater
just barely continued its activity until 1949, the exception that proved the rule.
What became, then, of Jewish affiliation and identity? Some claim that Communist
persecution of everything traditionally Jewish along with emancipation and new social
opportunities caused quick acculturation to Russian society and alienation from Jewish
affiliation. There is no doubt that during the 1930s Jews, especially those who lived in
cities, became a core element of Soviet society. They occupied major positions in
science, medicine, law, literature, and bureaucracy. Gradually it became more and more
difficult to maintain traditional aspects of Jewish ethnicity. 34 The prominent historian
Benjamin Pinkus characterizes the 1920s as a period of acculturation to Russian society,
and the 1930s as a period of assimilation where the Jewish public grew attached to
Russian culture and language and detached from all that was Jewish. Thus, he
concludes, the Evsektsiya’s efforts to create a new Jewish proletarian identity mostly
Others disagree on the extent of assimilation to Soviet society. Anna Shternshis
argues that the new national policy of the Communists in fact succeeded to create a new
cultural identity based on class divisions. The children of 1917 were proud of their
Jewishness; to them it meant Yiddish language, theater, newspapers, and schooling.
Although they did not observe the religious tradition, they respected it.36 Arkady Zeltser
similarly maintains that the shtetl adopted an ambiguous stance: at home the population
preserved its Jewish life and tradition, while on the outside it upheld the Soviet norms.
Nevertheless, Zeltser notes that the younger generation migrated to cities; the
ambiguous stance characterized Jews who had received a religious education before the
In any case, there is no doubt that the meaning of being Jewish changed radically in
the 1920s and changed once more during the 1930s. The children of 1917 and onward
were for the most part Sovietized and cared little for their Jewish identity.
מ"ו 15 ,(1986 יהודה סלוצקי, "יהדות רוסיה בשנת המהפכה 1917,“ העבר, חוב' 1968 ,
15, עמ' 14 .32-55
.155 'עמ 16 Terry Martin, “An Affirmative Action Empire,” in A State of Nations: Empire and Nation-making in
the Age of Lenin and Stalin, ed. Ronald Grigor Suny and Terry Martin (New York: Cornell University
Press, 2001), pp. 74-75.
17 .151-154 'עמ ,פינקוס
18 .161-175 ,שם
163 ,שם 20 J.B. Schechtman, “The U.S.S.R, Zionism, and Israel”, in The Jews in Soviet Russia, ed. by L. Kochan
(Oxford paperbacks, 1978) pp. 99-124.
21 David Shneer, Yiddish and the Creation of Soviet Jewish Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University
מרדכי אלטשולר, היבסקציה בברית המועצות (1918-1930): בין לאומיות לקומוניזם, (תל אביב: המכון ליהדות זמננו, Press, 2004), pp. 11, 23-26.
22 .327-328 'עמ ,(1980 א"תשמ
23 For more on the Jewish educational systems during the 1920s and 1930s, see: Аркадий Зельцер,
Евреи северо-восточной Белоруссии между мировыми войнами, 1917-1941 / Диссертация на
степень доктора философии Иерусалим: Еврейский университет, 2003.
24 .233-234 '
25 עמ ,פינקוס
מיכאל בייזר, יהודי לנינגרד 1917-1939, תורגם על ידי ברוניה בן יעקב (ירושלים: מרכז זלמן שזר לתולדות ישראל, תשס"ה 27 Зельцер, p. 410.
28 פינקוס, עמ' 26 .233-234 ירושלים, תשנ"ו (1996), עמ' 13-62.
.126-127 'עמ ,(2005
29 Yuri Slezkin, “The Soviet Union as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethnic
Particularism,” Slavic Review 53:2 (1994): 444.
30 .166 'עמ ,פינקוס
31 .327-328 'עמ ,אלטשולר
32 Зельцер, p. 391.
33 .225 'עמ ,פינקוס 34 .123-145 'עמ ,בייזר 35 .247-248 'עמ ,פינקוס 36 Anna Shternshis, Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), pp. 43, 182-185.
37 Arkadi Zeltser, “The Belorussian Shtetl in the 1920s and 1930s,” in Revolution, Repression, and
Revival: The Soviet Jewish Experience, ed. Z. Gitelman and Y. Ro’i (Maryland: Rowman & Littelfield,
2007), pp. 91-111.
Before turning to the discussion of Vladimir Gelfand’s diary, we must consider the
question of the authenticity of this particular historical source. To what extent can the
historian trust diaries that were written under a totalitarian regime when a personal
account could easily turn self-incriminating? Can they be valued as a legitimate
historical source? What is the reliability of our particular historical source?
The 1990s marked the beginning of an influx of published private diaries and
memoirs in the former Soviet Union. Personal accounts from various age groups –
grandfathers, fathers, and sons, the living and the dead, ordinary people and public
figures, devoted Stalinists and opponents – overflowed the market. Grassroots or
“people’s” archives have opened for those who want to submit their personal texts and
have no access to publications. 38 Irina Paperno warns young historians to take account
of the fact that this material was subjected to editing and commentaries by
contemporaries. It is still the case, she notes, that the intelligentsia speaks for ordinary
people, and thus it is problematic to differentiate between the two voices and the two
spheres of time: past and present. She points out, however, that “there is also an effort
to allow ‘the people’ to speak, a sense of a mission, a paradoxical desire to create access
to the voices of the people on behalf of whom the intellectuals always spoke.”39
A recent debate has focused on the methodological question of how to read and
interpret these materials. One of the main protagonists is Jochen Hellbeck, who argues
that ideology had a strong and irrevocable hold on the Soviet subject. The subject’s
conceptualization of private and public spheres differs from the liberal one, in which
these two notions are separate and even alternative to one another. The Soviets, he
claims, made a distinction between inner self and outer self.40 One of the main
consequences of politicized lives, of a historical conception of reality and the
moralization of politics, as discussed above, was the merging of the private and public
spheres, and the absorption of the former into the latter.41 Given the lack of other public
discourses, the subject had no other option but to strive for a complete identification with
society.42 Thus, Hellbeck concludes, we should take the content of the diary as it
is. Alexander Etkind, however, denies the positive implications of this Soviet
subjectivity and argues that the Soviet institutions powerfully affected their subjects.
The influence of the Gulag system, personnel departments, and psychiatric hospitals
was just as far-reaching as that of Soviet political discourse.43 In other words, Soviet
citizens did not simply embrace this discourse but lived in constant fear.
In one fashion or another, whether a willful act or a mere means of survival, Soviet
subjects did assimilate into Communist society. Doubts and criticism would have made
their lives unbearable, and a plain belief in the Soviet regime was the way to escape
desperation and loneliness. As one “kulak” child who was exiled for long years recalled,
“Believing in the justice of Stalin made it easier for us to accept out punishments, and
it took away our fear.”44 Hence, Soviet sources can be read as evidence of this kind of
subjectivity, and in this regard are just as credible as other sources for historical
38 Irina Paperno, “Personal Accounts of the Soviet Experience,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and
Eurasian History 3:4 (2002): 578-579.
39 Ibid., p. 581.
40 Hellbeck, “Fashioning the Stalinist Soul,” pp. 95-98.
41 Hellbeck, Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary under Stalin, pp. 85-98.
43 Aleksandr Etkind, “Soviet Subjectivity: Torture for the Sake of Salvation?” Kritika: Explorations in
Russian and Eurasian History 6:1 (2005): 171-186.
44 Figes, “Introduction.”
Vladimir Gelfand’s diary was found after his death in 1983. The copy I have was given
to me by Gelfand’s son along with scans of his handwriting. The Russian version of the
text is a raw material; it has not yet been edited or commented on. For various reasons,
the diary has not yet been published in Russian. However, it has been translated and
printed in German and Swedish, and received reviews from researchers all over the
The year I will be examining in this paper is 1943. This particular year was full of
events for the young soldier Vladimir Gelfand. It began in the hospital back at the rear,
continued in his reuniting with his former military unit and taking an officers’ course,
and ended with him returning to his unit as a young officer. Of equal importance was
his joining the party on November 26. This order of events allows me to examine his
behavior in rapidly changing circumstances; the front and the rear, as a simple soldier
and an officer, thus contributing to the understanding of his character.
Having been injured in his left hand on December 28, 1942, in the battle of
Stalingrad, Vladimir Gelfand was sent to the hospital. Since the hospital was
overcrowded and his injury was relatively minor, he was taken to the home of a peasant
woman along with four other soldiers. On February 2 he wrote:
…After finishing Huckleberry Finn two days ago, I devoted my time today to
reading the history of the party and the sessions of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR
A great deal of the material was already known to me, some was new. I intend to
expand my political horizons.
The choice to read about the history of the party and sessions of the Supreme Soviet
reflects Gelfand’s willpower and determination to become part of society. After
describing, in the same entry, conditions of near starvation which included “800 grams
of bread twice a day and half a bowl of liquid called soup” along with severe pain due
to his injury and insufficient treatment – “my wound won’t heal; on the contrary it hurts
even more. My bandage hasn’t been replaced since January 28. There is no treatment.
My wart and frozen fingers hurt terribly” – he nonetheless chose to read this material,
instead of seeking food and medical assistance or writing letters to his relatives. Gelfand
preferred his political and ideological development over physical necessities, thus
15demonstrating his devotion to the political struggle and his willpower to fully become
a member of Soviet society. It was much more important for him to invest in his
political education than to attend to his immediate needs. Hence, exemplifying
Gelfand’s historical perspective, the future became his point of reference; he saw the
hardships of today as the achievements of tomorrow.
The short autobiography Gelfand wrote on November 5 reflects his need to be useful
in the building of a bright Communist future, and his great devotion to the public cause.
He chose to summarize his life from a political perspective, emphasizing his active role
in every organization he had been part of since he graduated from school: the Workers’
University (Rabfak), the Young Communist League (Komsomol), the auxiliary forces
he had joined before enlisting, and different army units. Furthermore, he mentions his
parents’ political achievements, his mother’s participation in the civil war and the party,
and his father’s status in the factory. This kind of political reading of one’s life was a
main characteristic of the Soviet subject. All daily life and life’s political aspects were
highly appreciated as proof of one’s social utility. Moreover, his family’s Communist
heritage along with his acceptance into the party gave him a legitimate and prestigious
role in Soviet society.
The need to be part of society is also evident in this entry from April 1:
…you won’t hear the residents of Zenograd referring to the fighting soldiers as the
“Russians,” as you would hear in other cities such as Kotel’nik and Mechetk;
rather, they were called “our soldiers” against the Germans. To them there was no
difference between Russians and the rest of the people, the public and the army.
It is also apparent in the children’s story Gelfand wrote in his diary after being accepted
into the party on November 27. The tale is about a battle between two symbolic animals:
the elephant representing Stalin and the wolf representing Hitler. After finding a
magical book written in an unfamiliar language, the protagonist of the tale turns to his
comrades for help with translation:
…you could find in our unit many different nationalities: Russians, Ukrainians,
Georgians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Jews, Kazakhs, Turkmen, Greeks, and even
one Turk. Yes indeed! Don’t make fun of it – imagine representatives from all the
Soviet Union’s nationalities fighting together till death on the fronts of the great
war against fascism.
16Both passage deal with the concept of “the friendship of the people.” This ethic was
propagated in the first years of the war as a means to unite various Soviet nationalities
in their fight against the German invader. Traditional Soviet slogans revolving around
socialism and the personality cult were deemphasized and replaced with a repertoire
that underlined pride, revenge, and the desire to protect family, friends, and the
motherland.45 Patriotism did not undermine the Soviet subject’s goal of becoming a full
member of society; on the contrary, it gave him another way of expressing the same
desire. Gelfand’s passages reflect his desire to be part of the full-scale war effort and to
fight the war along with other equal members of Soviet society.
The sense of unity and belonging is often apparent among soldiers and veterans. In
one of his interviews, New York Times reporter Hedrick Smith asked a prominent
scientist and a veteran, Ben Levich, what was the best period in Russian history. To his
surprise, Levich replied that it was unquestionably the war period. “Because at that time
we all felt closer to our government than at any other time in our lives. It was not their
country then, but our country. It was not they who wanted this or that to be done, but
we who wanted to do it. It was not their war, but our war. It was our country we were
defending, our war effort.” Furthermore, Levich noted that the war was the only time
when he was not afraid of the authorities. The thought of a chekist knocking on his door
in the middle of the night did not frighten him; Levich knew that the government and
he were united in the war against Germany.46
This sense of belonging and solidarity, whether real or imagined, gave Gelfand an
opportunity to fulfill his need and become useful, and by no means superfluous, to the
future of Soviet society. Soviet patriotism depended to a great extent on concepts
propagated a decade earlier by the state. “The war had meant death and destruction but
it had also demonstrated indestructible unity and invincible power,” said Levich during
his interview; 47 it was, then, a dream come true for the Soviet subject. Likewise, Yosif Kvasha from
Medzhibozh, Ukraine, testified that the war years were the purest of his
life, signifying the moralization of Soviet society and its idea of unity. 48
One should read Gelfand’s accounts of his national affiliation in light of his Soviet
conscience. As I will demonstrate, this Soviet logic guided him and very much
influenced the way he understood the Holocaust. On March 13, Gelfand arrived at the
Dvoinoi railway station near Rostov-on-Don and witnessed the effects of Nazi
occupation. He devoted a long passage in his diary to his personal observations,
mentioning not only the murder of the Jews but also the extent of local collaboration:
The local population sympathized with the Germans. And when the latter occupied
their territory, they started to hand in Jews, communists and one another to the
Passing by on the train he took from Dvoinio, he witnessed the ruins of his country:
I was terribly saddened at the sight of the ruins and filled with fury at Hitler’s
disgusting beasts. They are the ones who are responsible for the troubles and
suffering of our people.
On the home front and on the battlefield, I will fight for my homeland, for my
government, who granted me equal rights as a Jew. I will never act like those
Ukrainians who betrayed their homeland and are now on the side of our enemies,
cleaning their boots, kissing their asses, while they [the Germans] treat them like
Regardless of the fact that Gelfand knew the Germans were murdering Jews in larger
numbers than the rest of the population, he chose to demonstrate his loyalty to his
country and government, which gave him equal rights as a Jew. Hence, his Jewish
affiliation was very much dependent on his Soviet identity; he swears to fight for the
protection of his country and government, and never to betray them like those
Ukrainians. Gelfand is fervently loyal to the system. In another case, while conversing
with a hostess of the apartment he was staying at, he confessed that he would rather die
than betray his country and government, his people.49 Gelfand sees himself first and
foremost as a Soviet protecting the Soviet people and his homeland.
By the same token, when Gelfand crossed the countryside on September 7 to get to
the front, he witnessed the ruins of the Russian and Ukrainian villages and the clutter
the German army had left. In the village of Chutka he found Nazi anti-Semitic
propaganda. He chose to keep the leaflets so as to use them in the future against the
Nazis, and reflected on the nature of collaborators:
Those who believe the enemy are the nonbelievers and the traitors. I am going to
prove to the Nazi scums who the Soviet Jews are, how they love their homeland,
how they hate the fascists and are prepared to sacrifice anything for the sake of
victory. I will keep these leaflets for the sake of attaching them to my future
prisoner’s Nazi forehead.
Gelfand’s passage is remarkable because it demonstrates the degree to which the Soviet
subject had absorbed Soviet principles. Carrying Nazi propaganda was considered a
sign of treason, since it could, in the event of captivity, implicate the soldier as a
collaborator. Notwithstanding the prohibition, Gelfand showed no hesitation in taking
the leaflets; on the contrary, he was sure of his actions. This situation raises a question:
what notion allowed Gelfand, a passionate believer in the Soviet system, to act as he
did? The answer lies in the question itself. Soviet subjects were required to believe in
the system; as noted earlier, without demonstrating belief one could not be accepted
into Soviet society. Hence, Gelfand’s action can be seen as a simple demonstration of
this principle. It seems that he regarded himself as a true Soviet man, and a full member
of society, and could not imagine the possibility of being regarded as a traitor. This
naiveté, or what Orlando Figs calls “revolutionary conservatism,”50 provides an
explanation for Gelfand’s behavior. The same could explain the similar behavior of
writing a diary in wartime. Keeping diaries on the front was forbidden by the
authorities, since it was outside the framework of official censorship. 51
Yet, as we have seen, not only did Gelfand keep a detailed diary, but even wrote in
front of his comrades.
The only time Gelfand attended to his Jewish affiliation was when he felt he was
being discriminated against by his own people for being a Jew. Before his promotion
to an officer rank, he describes numerous anti-Semitic incidents both with the peasants
and in his own unit. In fact, it was only at these moments that he tried to get closer to
his fellow Jewish soldiers. Specifically at these times, Gelfand’s Jewishness took the
form of a defensive nationalism, a temporary reaction to anti-Semitism. After realizing
his commander was an anti-Semite, Gelfand sought a partner in misfortune:
There’s one Jewish soldier here. Even though there are some things I don’t really
like about him, like the way he moves his hands excessively when he talks or
touches the buttons on people’s clothes when he speaks to them, I’m close to him
and we’re buddies because he’s an outcast like me. Both of us aren’t liked around
here. And although I have the manners of a cultured person, my face looks more
Georgian or Armenian than Jewish. My surname gives away my origin.53
When he finally received his rank, Gelfand almost ceased to mention the attacks against
him and his satisfaction with his unit grew.
That change is noteworthy because one would expect the opposite. The process of
reconquering the western territories was also the process of revealing the scale of
atrocities committed against the Jews. One would expect Gelfand to take note of this,
since the annihilation of Jews was a particular crime which accounted for over ten
percent of the estimated twenty-six million Soviet civilian victims of the war (though
the Jews were only 2.5 percent of the total population at the beginning of the war).54
Nevertheless, Gelfand did not become more Jewish after his encounter with the
Holocaust but rather seemed to notice his Jewish affiliation less. Experience of battle
and the front could only sporadically help obscure national differences, and Gelfand
was assaulted from time to time for being a Jew. Gelfand’s general lack of interest in
his Jewish nationality and the Holocaust could be explained by the strong hold exerted
on the individual by Soviet concepts like internationalism, mass enlistment for socialist
causes, and the private sphere as an extension of the public sphere. It was when he was
accepted into the party and became an officer that he felt like he truly belonged in Soviet
45 David Brandenberger, “It Is Imperative to Advance Russian Nationalism as the First Priority: Debates
within the Stalinist Ideological Establishment, 1941-1945,” in A State of Nations: Empire and Nationmaking
in the Age of Lenin and Stalin, ed. Ronald Grigor Suny and Terry Martin (New York: Cornell
University Press, 2001), p. 277.
46 Hedrick Smith, The Russians (New York: Ballantine Books, 1976), pp. 302-303.
48 Zvi Y. Gitelman, “Internationalism, Patriotism, and Disillusion: Soviet Jewish Veterans Remember
World War II and the Holocaust,” Holocaust in the Soviet Union, occasional paper, U.S. Holocaust
Memorial Museum, Washington, DC, November 2005, p. 111.
49 March 23, 1943.
50 Figes, The Whisperers, p. 27.
51 Arkadi Zeltser, “How Were Jewish Letters Written by Jews during the War?,” unpublished paper
presented at the “International Workshop: The Holocaust and the War in the USSR as Reflected in
Wartime Letters and Diaries,” Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, Jerusalem, November 20, 2012, p. 1.
52 Evidence for this is found in the entry from May 20.
53 The entry from April 13.
54 Gitelman, p. 99.
This project examined the presumption of the reemergence of Jewish identity as a result
of the Soviet advance westward in World War II and the encounter of Jews with the
Holocaust. “It is no wonder that a Communist of 1933 should have come out of the
camps more Communistic than he went in, a Jew more Jewish,” wrote Hannah Arendt
in Partisan Review.55
The question posed by this paper, therefore, was a paraphrase of
Arendt’s statement. What effect did the annihilation of Jews in the territories of the
Soviet Union have on Jewish soldiers in the Red Army? Did the Jewish soldier become
more Jewish as he advanced westward and discovered the scale of the killing?
The first chapter dealt with the meaning of being Soviet. Soviet society underwent
processes of historicization, politicization, and moralization. The individual came to
understand time in deterministic terms; he wanted to participate in the construction of
the future socialist society. All that was private became political, and what used to be
“I” became “We.” The desire for inclusion in this revolutionary society and the fear of
expulsion appear to have been fundamental to the Soviet subject.
The second chapter addressed the topic of national identity among Soviet Jews
before the war. Notwithstanding Communist ideology that regarded nationalism as a
reactionary and capitalist factor, pragmatic considerations of gaining the support of
national minorities brought the regime to adopt a policy of indigenization
(korenizaziya) that was national in form and Communist in content. Coincident with
the persecution of Zionism and Judaism, the traditional forms of Jewish identity, the
1920s government promoted Jewish Yiddish proletarian culture by means of various
institutions. The 1930s saw the rise of Russian nationalism and the re-Russification of
Soviet society. Consequently, on the eve of World War II, a large segment of the Jewish
population was acculturated into Russian society, thus experiencing alienation from its
Jewishness. Soviet Jews knew that they were Jewish, but it simply did not matter much
Gelfand’s diary reveals the impact that two decades of Sovietization had on the
individual. As mentioned, he thought of himself in Soviet concepts, and portrayed his
life in terms of social utility and socialist advancement. Moreover, Gelfand failed to
take account of the pragmatism of the Soviet leadership and seemed to embrace Soviet
concepts fervidly without realizing the consequences of breaking the law. As for his
Jewish identity, it did not matter very much to him as he felt himself a full member of
society. Furthermore, as Gelfand advanced westward with his unit and discovered the
scale of Jewish tragedy, he almost stopped mentioning his Jewish identity for the sake
of accomplishing more in Soviet society: joining the party and receiving an officer rank.
It was only when he felt discriminated against by those he considered to be his own
people that he turned to his Jewish affiliation. Gelfand believed in the Soviet system
and fought for his homeland, like every other soldier.
In a wider perspective, the case of Gelfand may indicate that the crystallization of
national identity of minorities in wartime is very much contingent on the treatment they
receive within the society they live in, rather than on external influences. In other words,
internal treatment – the degree of inclusion in society and equality of opportunity – has
greater effect on the individual than external circumstances of injustice.
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