M. Nesselrodt: Dem Holocaust entkommen

Dem Holocaust entkommen. Polnische Juden in der Sowjetunion, 1939–1946

Nesselrodt, Markus
Europäisch-jüdische Studien – Beiträge 44
Anzahl Seiten
X, 390 S.
89,95 €
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Katarzyna Person, Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw

The last decade has witnessed a significant effort to (using Atina Grossmann’s term) „remap and reconfigure” the history of the Holocaust and its aftermath.1 As a result, one of the most important current research topics has become what is commonly referred to as the „peripheries of the Holocaust.” These can be understood as spatial peripheries: life and death far away from the major ghettos and killing centres or at hands of local collaborators; temporal peripheries: events happening just before or after the killing began; and social peripheries: the experiences of previously under-researched groups, often those who until recently were at the bottom of the “hierarchy of suffering.”

In his book Dem Holocaust entkommen. Polnische Juden in der Sowjetunion, 1939-1946, (Escaping the Holocaust. Polish Jews in the Soviet Union, 1939-1946), Markus Nesselrodt explores all of these areas, focusing his narrative on an experience that until recently was rarely seen as part of the Holocaust, even though it affected the majority of Polish Jewish survivors. The issue is the survival of 230,000 Jews, citizens of the Polish Second Republic, who were deported to the interior of the Soviet Union and Central Asia. In his work, Nesselrodt significantly contributes to the existing body of research on the place of survival in the Soviet Union in Jewish cultural memory and collective history2, but also opens wider questions, in particular concerning the total and transnational quality of the Holocaust.

The book opens with an overview of still significantly under-researched issue of around 1.5 million Polish Jews, both Jewish inhabitants of Eastern Poland and those who fled after the Germans crossed into western Poland, gathered within the post- September 1939 Soviet borders. Nesselrodt looks at their relations with non-Jewish Poles and Ukrainians as well as their adaptation to the new Soviet rule. He then moves to the key topic of the book and discusses waves of deportations to Soviet labour camps and “special settlements” controlled by the NKVD, located in the Soviet hinterland: the deportation of Jewish refugees as “suspect foreigners” in June 1940 and subsequent deportations of “enemies of the people”, followed by the mass evacuation following the outbreak of the Soviet-German war. After the Soviet “amnesty” of formerly Polish citizens of August 1941, many of those released from labour camps or prison colonies moved to the Central Asian republics and Nesselrodt provides an important insight into their everyday life there. This is followed by a discussion of relations between Jews and non-Jewish Polish refugees, with particular focus on Jewish soldiers in the Anders Army (the “Polish army-in-exile”). From there, Nesselrodt moves on to another aspect of Polish-Jewish relations, the fascinating topic of Jewish members of the Union of Polish Patriots – a political structure funded by Polish communists and controlled by Stalin, which was to become a backbone of the communist government in post-war Poland – as well as Jewish soldiers in the second Polish army under General Zygmunt Berling. Nesselrodt finishes his book by looking at the survivors’ long way home, the struggle to settle back in Poland and the DP camps and the place of their experiences in the narrative of the Holocaust. This leads to important questions about the recognition of “flight” survivors as survivors of the Holocaust and their experience, both wartime and post-war as part of the Jewish experience of the Holocaust.

In an early part of his book (p. 89), Nesselrodt quotes Gershon Adiv, a Polish Jew from Palestine, who during his temporary stay in Vilna on October 14, 1939, wrote: "Thousands wait there [at the train station] day and night. Time is short – in a day or two the borders will be sealed. Everyone views it as a matter of life or death […] The exodus affects those who neither desire nor are able to travel; it also contributes to a sense of panic that disturbs those remaining in the city. New rumours continually circulate – so and so has left; oh he left ages ago; X is intending to leave while Y is vacillating; yet another individual who has decided to leave has now changed his mind. Tension and nervousness prevail. […] I have never before witnessed such a migration. Some bid farewell to parents, husbands, to wives, families scatter."

This quote encapsulates what is the overarching theme of Nesselrodt’s book: personal experiences of those caught up in a complex network of geographical trajectories. The movement he describes is directly and physically forced as a result of compulsory deportations or sometimes less directly by personal circumstances. The majority of those described by Nesselrodt arrive at alien, far-flung localities with no knowledge of local language, few remaining possessions, with nowhere to go and no certainty of where they would be getting their next meal from. While these people are often seen as the ultimate victims of the chaos of war, their lives having been shaped by external circumstances and twists of fate, it is to Nesselrodt’s great credit that in his narrative they still retain their agency. Individuals and individual families, while powerless at that particular point in time, are also people who are willing to struggle in various locations, over and over again, to try to re-build their lives. Their stories are not only of displacement, fear and loss, but also of all the emotions endured in everyday life. Importantly, these individual stories are firmly placed within a broader political and sociological narrative, providing full context in which they took place. A particular focus is placed on the social, political, and economic links between Jewish refugees and their surroundings, with emphasis on the everyday encounters between non-Jewish Poles, Polish Jews, and Soviet citizens, their shared circumstances, as well as old and new sources of conflict.

The fact that the book manages to do justice to political and social differentiation both within the Jewish population and those who surrounded them is mainly achieved through relying on an impressive collection of primary sources. These are memoirs, interviews, oral histories and, crucially, a large collection of Polish and Yiddish-language poems, newspaper articles, and witness testimonies that were written during or right after the war. At that point those events were still fresh in the memory of those who recalled them, not yet affected by the growing discussion over their status as Holocaust survivors.

1 Atina Grossmann, Jewish Refugees in Soviet Central Asia, Iran, and India. Lost Memories of Displacement, Trauma and Rescue, in: M. Edele / S. Fitzpatrick / A. Grossmann (eds.), Shelter from the Holocaust. Rethinking Jewish Survival in the Soviet Union, Detroit 2017, p. 209.
2 See among others: Edele et al. (eds.) Shelter from the Holocaust; Holocaust and Genocide Studies 26/1 (2012), special issue on Jews in the wartime Soviet Union; Rebecca Manley, To the Tashkent Station. Evacuation and Survival in the Soviet Union at War, Ithaca, NY 2009.

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