Who were the "repeaters" and why were Jews among them?
The historian Tetiana Pastushenko talks about the Jewish community after the Holocaust, the return of Soviet power, and postwar Stalinist repressions.
The pogrom that took place in Kyiv in September 1945 was an episode connected with the return of Soviet power to the Ukrainian lands. This event was the jumping-off point of our conversation with Tetiana Pastushenko about the postwar fate of Jews in the USSR and about the repressions, whose victims were often those who had taken part in the formation of the Soviet state.
Tetiana Pastushenko: There was a considerable number of conflicts stemming from the redistribution of property rights to housing in large industrial cities after the war. Specifically, this situation was quite multilayered. A Jew named [Iosif] Rozenshtein, who worked as a watchman at the Karl Marx Factory, was walking down the street. He was harassed by two soldiers, who called him a “Jewish whore” or something along those lines. Why did they do this? Because these two had come to Kyiv on leave, in order to rescue the mother of one of them. She was being evicted from her apartment, meaning, that during the Nazi occupation their building was destroyed, and the mother moved into an empty apartment. And after the war the previous owners returned; they were Jews who had left. They evicted the soldier’s mother from this apartment, they wanted the apartment back.
Andriy Kobalia: In other words, the legal owners returned?
Tetiana Pastushenko: This was an apartment in a state-owned residential building, but they had lived there, yes. They had returned. And this soldier had come especially on leave to rescue his mother because it was already autumn. She didn’t have anywhere to live. He went to various offices, trying to obtain some other housing because her previous building was ruined. And here he was, coming from the latest official with his friend when all of a sudden this Jew appears before them. A random encounter with two Ukrainian soldiers from the Red Army. They began to insult this person, who was an absolute stranger to them. For [Rozenshtein], this was the last straw in his efforts to settle his affairs in Kyiv and to restore his housing. He ran for his service revolver, knowing where the Red Army soldiers lived; he came and shot one of them.
On the day of the young Red Army soldier’s funeral, there was a whole procession of relatives and friends. Later, they were joined by a crowd of other people, who began shouting antisemitic slogans and smashing windows. During the subsequent investigation, it was established that these unknown individuals — who were not residents of Kyiv but happened to spot the funeral, joined the group, and “expressed their negative attitude” — were the ones who smashed windows, yelled, and caused a disturbance. This act of dissatisfaction was widely publicized. It is clear that this happened because of the unsettled postwar situation, poverty, and hunger. The war had ended, but there was no end to tragedy; it was September 1945. In short order, in October, a military tribunal sentenced Rozenshtein to be shot.
Andriy Kobalia: You mentioned one episode. I understand that the return of Soviet power and the end of the war meant different things to different population categories. In a recent program broadcast on Encounters, the historian Seth Bernstein described how Jews tried to reach the British or American zones of occupation, to leave. But if we are talking about the experience of Jews in Ukraine after the war, these years are associated with a new wave of Stalinist repressions, including repressions against Jews. There was the Doctors’ Plot and a number of others that were discussed a lot earlier. But I would like to mention the “repeaters.” Who were they? And why did Jews comprise nearly eighty percent of the people who were repressed during the first wave?
Tetiana Pastushenko: Let’s break down the question into several sub-questions. First of all, the Jews who remained in territories controlled by the Nazis and their allies were killed en masse simply because they were Jews. Clearly, the return of Soviet power and liberation from Nazism spelled salvation for them. Another issue is that it was difficult to obtain proper satisfaction and some compensation for the losses that they had suffered because those who had survived had lost not only their relatives and loved ones but also all the property that they had owned before the occupation. They needed basic material assistance. And when the war was going on, Soviet justice conducted active investigations, collected a lot of information about Nazi crimes, and fostered the notion that the Jews had particularly suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
But the war ended. The Nuremberg Trials took place, and the USSR achieved all its international claims, and nearly all of Eastern Europe ended up under Moscow’s control. At the same time, the State of Israel began to be formed with the active support of the U.S. The policy of promoting Jews, for example, their Anti-Fascist Committee and the publication of Yiddish-language newspapers and the Black Book, became “superfluous.” This policy did not accord with the policy of the “single Soviet people.” Now there are no people who suffered more or less. The main victor-nation is the Russian people and, generally, the Slavs; it is they who suffered the most. This process did not start on a particular day, but over time these claims [of specific Jewish victimhood during the war — Ed.] began to be extinguished both in the public space of the USSR and through repressive measures.
Andriy Kobalia: In other words, to put it somewhat cynically, if the Jews in the 1920s were a nation that the USSR treated in a special way, they finally obtained the same rights as everyone else, which they did not have under Russian imperial rule.
Tetiana Pastushenko: Yes. During the imperial period, they had the Pale of Settlement and restricted rights. The Soviet government granted them full rights and opportunities to make a career and be part of the Soviet power elite. But now a roll-back began. Jews began to be pushed out of the organs of power, and repressions were initiated against the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, with the arrests and executions of its 152 members, just like in the context of other repressive measures. For example, for cooperation with collaborators and Nazis.
There was also a review of convictions from the late 1930s. Everyone knows about the year 1937, but what happened to those people who were not shot? As a rule, they served ten years, and their term of imprisonment ended. The question was that these were people who were supposed to return to Soviet society. At this time, in 1948, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet hands down a resolution about the re-investigation, arrest, and exile of these former Soviet criminals. There is a very large and long list.
Andriy Kobalia: You mean these are the so-called “repeaters”?
Tetiana Pastushenko: Yes, because these were people who were rearrested and convicted, not for new crimes but for those for which they had been imprisoned in 1937–1938.
Andriy Kobalia: Even if we consider the Soviet Union as a state that did not adhere much to the rule of law, to put it mildly, nevertheless there exists a principle whereby a person cannot be tried twice for the same crime. Let’s imagine that in 1937 a person of Jewish background was imprisoned for ten years for some kind of “plot.” This time passes. The year 1948 is around the corner. How were these new cases determined? After all, that person had served his/her sentence. How can a new case be instituted for an old crime, if the person is already clean before the law?
Tetiana Pastushenko: Often, they were imprisoned for links with [Leon] Trotsky and Trotskyites. The procedure for repeated prosecution was clearly explained in the ukase that was handed down by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet in 1948. It clearly argued that after the completion of a sentence, all spies, saboteurs, terrorists, and Trotskyites, among which Jews figured, right Mensheviks, SRs, anarchists, and nationalists, among which figured people who had taken part in Zionist organizations or even in Jewish sports associations
Andriy Kobalia: And Ukrainians could end up in the category of “nationalists.”
Tetiana Pastushenko: Of course. A large group of Ukrainians was affected by these repressions. The list also includes White émigrés and members of other anti-Soviet organizations and groups. In other words, the determination was very broad. They were convicted for hostile links and anti-Soviet activities, meaning, that they remained with their anti-Soviet links. They were supposed to be re-investigated and found guilty once again. This was done in accordance with the arrest lists. My colleague, Tamara Vronska, who has completed her work and is awaiting the publication of her book about the “repeaters,” says that in these first cases, Jews comprised eighty percent of Trotskyites at the top of the lists who were slated for rearrests.
Andriy Kobalia: Do any specific biographies exist? Because at the present time we know only that some tens of thousands of people were convicted during the Great Terror. Ten years had passed, and the Soviet government did not want these people to be reintegrated but planned to send them somewhere for the rest of their lives. Are there any famous people among them?
Tetiana Pastushenko: For example, Yevsei Shirvindt, a native of Kyiv, who was a Soviet state figure and First Deputy of the Main Directorate of Penitentiaries; he was the uncle of a famous Russian actor.
Andriy Kobalia: You’re saying that he himself was a participant in the punitive system and then ended up being repressed.
Tetiana Pastushenko: He was arrested and convicted. Later he was exiled a second time. Some other “repeaters” are [renowned lawyer] Viktor Savovych Kramar, the father of [actor] Savelii Kramar, and the Kharkiv native David Matz, a former member of the Bund who was sentenced again. And Lev Nikolaevich Gumilev, the son of the Russian poets Nikolai Gumilev and Anna Akhmatatova. The father of the famous actor Sergey Zhzhenov. Even the first time, all these people were arrested for being active figures in the Soviet system or in national civic organizations in the period from 1917 to 1921. In other words, they were punished for activities in which they had taken part prior to the establishment of Soviet power. And they were rearrested in 1948.
Andriy Kobalia: During both, the period of the Great Terror and the new wave of arrests, the head of the USSR was Joseph Stalin. In 1953 he dies. In school, we are told that this stage in the history of the USSR is called the “Thaw,” when a certain measure of liberalization and the rehabilitation of people who were repressed in the 1930s and 1940s takes place in the country. Did this happen to the “repeaters”? Do we have statistics that state, for example, that in 1951 there was a certain number of “repeaters” in the camps, but by the 1960s most of these people had been released and reintegrated into Soviet society?
Tetiana Pastushenko: The “repeaters” were not the first to be released after Stalin’s death. More often it was people with a criminal past, with shorter terms of exile. A number of uprisings in the Gulag were connected to Stalin’s death. Some people began to be released, but for those who had been sentenced to 20–25 years, there were no prospects of returning home. The “repeaters” had to traverse quite a lengthy path in order to be released, first and foremost, and then rehabilitated. Often they were rehabilitated for the first sentence. And they could not obtain a certificate of rehabilitation for the second one because of the very existence of a criminal case in which the individual was convicted for the same crime twice.
Andriy Kobalia: The last decades in the life of this person were destroyed because of a few pieces of paper.
Tetiana Pastushenko: You also have to consider that not everyone survived. They had spent ten years in the camps. Imagine what their health was like, especially if they were not young when they were arrested. The lives of those who ended up in the Gulag were broken. They were in camps or simply in exile.
The history of Soviet camps is very undervalued in the sense that for the majority of the population the Gulag is the year 1937, but it is not at all linked to the history of the Second World War. In fact, after the war ended, the number of prisoners in the camps increased to more than two million over those imprisoned in 1937. Entire nations were repressed: the Crimean Tatars, the Chechens, and others. There were ongoing discussions to deport the Ukrainians, especially western Ukrainians, although they did not manage to do this. But the people who survived the Holocaust and had remained in the USSR often could not return to their normal lives after the war ended because they could be persecuted for links to the Nazis. There were different kinds of situations, where people collaborated and concealed their ethnic origins in order to survive.
They could also be subjected to Soviet repressions. These could be the Doctors’ Plot and the “repeaters,” or they could simply be relatives of repressed people, and the like. It was very complicated. The Soviet policy of repression was not applied just in the 1930s or 1940s or after the war. Its duration was very long.
This program is made possible by the Canadian charitable non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.
Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.
Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.
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