The Holocaust: What was the postwar context?

About the division into "good" and "bad" Jews: those who survived concentration camps and ghettos, and those who were evacuated. How does this relate to Ukraine today?

A conversation with Anatoly Podolsky, the head of the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies, Candidate of Historical Sciences, and a leading research fellow at the Institute of Political and Ethnic Studies, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.

Was there a division into "good" and "bad" Jews, and when did it start?

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: I read an article by the Ukrainian writer Kateryna Babkina, who was curious to know whether Jews during the Holocaust and the Second World War were divided into "good" and "bad," i.e., those who suffered more and those who suffered less. Her discussion took place in the context of contemporary comparisons between Ukrainians who have left the country and those who have stayed. In their comments, readers talked about their relatives who made this distinction. So, did such a division exist, and when did it start?

Anatoly Podolsky: Historians are discussing and comparing the crimes of Putin's Russia with the crimes of Nazi Germany. We are fated to make comparisons between Moscow's current war against Ukraine with the Second World War. Ukrainian and Western intellectuals are comparing the regime, dictatorship, ideology, and practices of National Socialism with communism and contemporary Russia. In this regard, the Holocaust is also a subject of discussion.

We are talking about the fate of the Jews during the Second World War and of Ukrainians today. In an article written in March 2022, the well-known historian Larysa Yakubova likened the Ukrainian political nation and citizens of Ukraine of various ethnic origins during the RF's [i.e. Russian Federation’s — Ed.] full-scale invasion to ethnic Jews during the Second World War.

Today, such crimes against the civilian population and the enemy's hatred of Ukrainian statehood and citizens are compared with the hatred based on the racial policy toward the Jews during the period of National Socialism. It is important to make a responsible comparison of the entire spectrum, discussing the typology and specific features. This must be done carefully and professionally by specialists.

During the Second World War, humanity accepted the absurd notion that a person was fated to die only because of the fact of his or her birth

Anatoly Podolsky: The question of Jews who suffered less or suffered more exists. From the point of view of the Nazis and the Third Reich, all Jews were doomed to be killed merely because of their birth. The Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer writes that during the Second World War, humanity accepted the absurd notion that a person was fated to die only because of the fact of his or her birth. I am talking about antisemitism, the cornerstone of Nazi ideology during the Second World War. All Jews were doomed: non-religious ones, communists, Social Democrats, and Christians.

Meanwhile, there were conflicts within the Jewish community during and after the war. And here we are comparing that situation with the one that we have right now. During the war, many Jews hoped that the enemy would have mercy on them. They went into the Judenrat [a Jewish administrative body created in 1939 in every Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland and, later, on the territory of the USSR — Ed.], into the Jewish police; they served in ghettos and sent Jews to the gas chambers on the Nazis' orders.

Killing victims with the hands of other victims

Anatoly Podolsky: Killing victims with the hands of other victims was an inhumane policy of National Socialism. The Jewish personnel of the Judenrats and the police had no power. They only carried out orders. They were the last to be killed. But they imagined that, in carrying out the orders of the occupiers, they could bargain for their lives. But it was nothing like that.

A particularly clear-cut example is the Polish city of Łódź, where Jews constituted seventy percent of the population. It may be compared to the ghettos in Warsaw, Lviv, and Lutsk. Chaim Rumkowski was [the head of the Jewish Council of Elders in Łódź]. In Lviv, for example, the Nazis shot the personnel of the Judenrats every quarter. No one there lasted even half a year there. The heads of Judenrats were lawyers, doctors, rabbis, and people whom the Jewish community had known and respected before the war. Rumkowski hung on in Łódź for a long time. We know about his awful speech when the time came to ship out the next group of children from Łódź to Auschwitz. Rumkowski assembled the community on the square and proposed that the Nazis' latest order be carried out, saying that "we will save our lives, and after the war, we will make new children." This ran counter to human and Jewish tradition. It was a horror. The Israeli historian Israel Gutman has written about this.

Rumkowski and his family were the last to be killed by the Nazis. He was driven to the place of execution in a luxurious car. The people he sent [to the camps] were transported on cattle trains, but he was brought to the place of death in a nice car. That was the difference. In other words, from the occupier's standpoint, this was one aspect.

Another aspect, for example, was how Jews in America reacted to Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Babyn Yar. They didn't. They drank coffee and went on walks. They were more interested in their daily lives. There is some Jewish-American literature that writes about this honestly and powerfully. We read Bernard Malamud or Saul Bellow. Malamud has a short story called "The Literary Life of Laban Goldman." He wrote it in January–February 1942, when the Final Solution to kill the Jews was approved in Berlin, when transports from Warsaw and Cracow were arriving in Treblinka and Auschwitz, respectively, and transports from Lviv were going to Majdanek and Belzec. Malamud's and Bellow's stories were written in 1942, the year that, for the Jews of Ukraine, marked the end of their lives. These authors describe the life of some Jewish couples, such as an old Jewish man falling in love with a young woman and worrying about whether to leave one woman or the young one. He is thinking about how to be with these two women, which café to visit, and what kind of coffee to drink. In one passage, the main character says, listen, how much can we talk about the war? Let’s instead talk about our life. The protagonist prepares to divorce his wife, and his only concern is what he should do and how to divide up the property. These short stories were written in the winter-spring of 1942. And these are Jews.

That same year, in 1942, Soviet Jewish actors arrived in America and went to meet Einstein. And Einstein yelled to the whole world and started collecting money. In a real way, this money was later used to kill the Nazis because the Stalinist USSR used it to purchase weapons.

The postwar context becomes tragic 

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: You have raised a very interesting point about those Americans of Jewish background who wrote stories during that terrible period. Are they part of the literary canon studied in Israel, for example? And how does that country understand all this now? How do people in Israel today relate their writings to their understanding of what was happening in Europe?

Anatoly Podolsky: What is the Jewish heritage from the standpoint of literature, art, and culture? In which language does it exist? In which country does one seek it? I will say in all languages and in all countries. The postwar context becomes tragic. Conflicts emerge in Jewish families. Where were you? I survived the ghetto, but you were evacuated. You don't know anything. And there are Jews who were soldiers in the Red Army. There are Jews who survived, while some of their relatives were killed in execution pits. Meanwhile, their peers had a deferment from mobilization, were evacuated, or experienced Nazism. These conflicts are described in literature. For example, David Roskies, a literary scholar from a family of Vilnius Jews, was born after the war. He writes that his family was saved and lived in Toronto. He recalls that there was no Toronto in their apartment; it was Vilnius. From morning until night, his parents talked only about those who had perished. They had survivors' guilt for having escaped from Vilnius.

Józef Juzowski , a Polish-Jewish writer, survived the Warsaw Ghetto. He wrote that when the monument to the Warsaw Uprising was installed in Warsaw, he visited it every night, begging forgiveness for the fact that he was alive while all his classmates and childhood friends had been killed.

We have to reach a different level and stop engaging in competitive victimhood

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: A possible conclusion from all this is that we should not resort to this model, although it is emerging in society, one way or another. I would like to talk about the transformations that also exist. They are very noticeable in the American film You People, a story of two families in the US: one Jewish and the other Muslim. The children want to get married, but their families compete about which of them has suffered more. Is this our next step, too?

Anatoly Podolsky: Unfortunately, competitive victimhood was very much present in the early 2000s in Ukraine. During Yushchenko's term in office, the memory of Holodomor victims started being restored. It was a time when witnesses of this genocide were still alive. In serious publications, I often see comparisons drawn between the number of people killed during the Holodomor and during the Holocaust. But Ukrainian society is somehow overcoming this. It understands that both are tragedies and that the point is not the numbers. The thing is that people's lives were taken away mercilessly. We have to reach a different level and stop engaging in competitive victimhood.

If we are talking about Jewish generations and what awaits us, I have to say that Holocaust survivors had issues with each other. These issues were less significant during the war; they became more important after the war. During the period of Soviet totalitarianism and communist rule and before the collapse of the USSR, Soviet Jews, including Ukrainian Jews, were called the "Jews of silence." Families were afraid to transmit Jewish traditions. I am from such a family. I have family recollections and an understanding of the situation as a historian. The generation born during the Bolshevik revolution, i.e., people who were twenty or twenty-five years old when Hitler came to power, was decimated. Pavlo Zahrebelny wrote that most people killed during the Second World War were twenty years old and up. And what are we seeing right now at Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv or at cemeteries in Kyiv or Zaporizhia? The people who are dying in Ukraine today were born after independence. They have no nostalgia for Soviet times; they simply did not know this period. As Yuri Andrukhovych has written, or Sofia Andrukhovych, we must stop using the term "post-Soviet space" in relation to Ukraine.

The people defending us today are defending Ukraine, their native land, an Eastern European country — not a post-Soviet space. On the eve of the full-scale invasion, Andrukhovych even suggested introducing criminal liability for using the term "post-Soviet space." I agree; this is important.

What happened to the generations that survived the Holocaust? They had issues with each other. And some of the same things are happening to us, and there will be more, as proven by the experience of other wars. People will behave this way; they are already acting this way. Today neighbors are saying, look, they left, but we are here.

Soviet communism became as terrible a phenomenon as German Nazism

Anatoly Podolsky: Soviet communism became as terrible a phenomenon as German Nazism. During the Soviet period, many Jewish families stopped transmitting their traditions. Where my generation is concerned, we didn't even know who we were. Adults switched to Yiddish so that children would not understand anything. My grandfather attended synagogue, but my mother was afraid to tell me where he went because there were informers everywhere. The Jewish community lived in fear during the entire postwar period. And that's why children in many families didn't even know their parents had survived the ghettos and camps. People who are between fifty and seventy years old today cannot recount anything of their families' stories because they were not told anything.

On this question, the European and Ukrainian contexts differ. Many families have nothing to compete with because they do not have any information or any subjects that can lead to disputes. But there is another situation. Those who know speak with pain and emotion but without accusations. We must understand the experience of the Ostarbeiter, the prisoner of war, the Roma, and the Jews. These experiences were excised from the memory of the postwar Soviet person. We in Ukraine have been restoring our past since 1991. It turns out that the ability to remember the victims of the Second World War is today's weapon in the fight against the Russian aggressor. It is our memory that is saving us.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: The goal of this conversation is not to compare which of us is worse and who suffered more or to draw parallels between the Holocaust and current events in Ukraine. It is important for us to understand that people have already gone through the horrific experience that we are enduring right now. Perhaps this information will enable us in the future to stop or reduce the wave of postwar aggression amongst ourselves.

For the full conversation, listen to the audio file.

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization. 

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.