Lev Fein, a Jewish soldier in the Red Army, returned home to Minsk in 1945 to find a letter about his family being wiped out by the Nazis and the dire consequences of the occupation for Belarus Jews.
“Father and Uncle Fein died on the third day of being in the ghetto, the 3rd of August. Mother, Manya and Bellochka, and Aunt Fein and her daughter died on the 20th of November 1941, in the second mass pogrom. By the beginning of 1942, I was the only one left,” reads part of the letter, written by a friend’s wife who miraculously had escaped.
The letter to Fein, now 95 and living in the United States, is part of an exhibit of soldiers’ letters and excerpts from their World War II diaries that opened this week at Moscow’s Central Museum of the Great Patriotic War.
Titled “Writings and Reflections of Jewish Soldiers in the Red Army,” the monthlong exhibition is part of a documentary project whose authors have gathered accounts from nearly 900 veterans living in 10 countries, many in the United States. The exhibition also contains photos and video.
“This war in Soviet history has for a long time been a war of gods and heroes. Its main characters were generals and political leaders,” said Oleg Budnitsky, director of the International Research Center for Russian and East European Jewry, at the opening ceremony of the exhibition. “Now it’s time to give voice to its ordinary participants. More than 30 million people were soldiers of the Red Army during World War II; 450,000 of them were Jews.”
Demographers estimate that nearly 150,000 Red Army Jewish soldiers were killed during World War II. There were also more than 2 million Jewish civilian victims—more than 10 percent of the Soviet war loss, although Jews constituted just 2 percent of the population.
The project is being carried out by the Blavatnik Archive Foundation, a nonprofit group created by Leonard Blavatnik, an American billionaire of Soviet origin. He came to Moscow to participate in the opening ceremony.
“I wanted to somehow document the role of Jews in the history of war, not only as victims, but also as heroes,” he told JTA. “It’s important to gather these witnesses now because these people are dying.
“This exhibition presents a small part of our archive. We want to share the information we collect with the Center for Jewish History in the U.S., and with many more organizations like universities, schools and libraries.”
Most of the 900 interviews were carried out over five years by a father-daughter duo of expatriate Soviets, project coordinator Julie Chervinsky and interview director Leonid Reines. They are not yet finished with their work.
“The majority of people we interviewed had never been interviewed before,” Reines said. “They would recite poems and cry, and pause, and say ‘Sorry dear, it was so long ago, I don’t remember …’ And then they would tell me, ‘Say thank you to the people who sent you for the fact that they remember.’ ”
Among those on hand for the opening ceremony was Boris Stambler, who was sent to the Bryansk front in 1941 when he was 16. He and his father both fought in the war and returned.
“When I was interviewed for this exhibition, they asked me whether there was anti-Semitism during the war,” recalls Stambler, who lives in Moscow. “I answered that there were about 30 nationalities in our company. We often ate from the same kettle, and our blood was of the same color.”
Chervinsky says that about 99 percent of the veterans said they did not feel anti-Semitism at the time, but often add that they felt they had to be braver and stronger than the others “not to let the others say that Jews were cowards.”