Was Soviet Jewish Identity Strengthened by Russian Anti-Semitism During the Second World War?

ZeltserProfessor Arkadi Zelster teaches the “Holocaust in the former USSR”- here’s a link to the syllabus. 

In a recent article in the academic journal “Eastern European Jewish Affairs”, Professor Arkadi Zeltser of the University of Haifa examines suspicion of Jews by non-Jewish Soviets during the latter phase of the Second World War, in the years 1941-45. In this time period, many non-Jews asked the question “Where are the Jews at the Front?”, with particular unintended consequences for Soviet Jewish identity.

As Professor Zeltser summarizes, there were a variety of reasons for a rise in anti-semitic expression from 1941. The rapid German advance was a shock to the Russians, who had been promised a swift victory. A desire to encourage dedication to the war effort led to a newly positive promotion of love for the ‘homeland’. Lack of reliable information brought instability which was fanned into panic by the scarcity of food and influx of Jews evacuated from the areas of the front lines. In a natural human response, ordinary Russians looked for someone to blame, and found traditional scapegoats in the Jews.

Alongside this, a breakdown in the Stalinist control of propaganda brought a rise in Slavic glorification. Russian peoples were seen as warlike and brave, while other ethnicities were presented as inferior and ‘merchantlike’. In this climate, old Russian ethnic anti-semitic tendencies resurfaced, bringing with them traditional views of the Jews as cowardly, unreliable and unpatriotic. As Professor Zeltser notes, these tropes were old, but to Soviet Jews they seemed like a new and inexplicable wave of persecution.

The most commonly repeated accusation against the Jews was that they were cowards, evading having to fight while the brave Russians risked their lives. Jews were portrayed as being unpatriotic and incapable of feeling true love for the ‘homeland’. The question that Professor Zeltser refers to in his title was asked again and again both on the front and in the rear, “Where are the Jews on the front line?”

Professor Zeltser writes that Jewish soldiers fighting on the front lines did not report many incidences of anti-semitism. He gives various reasons why anti-semitism may not have impinged strongly upon Jewish soldiers, but emphasizes that Jewish soldiers were nonetheless hurt by accusations of cowardice and lack of patriotism. To a greater extent, Jewish soldiers were pained by reports from non-combatant relatives of experiencing anti-semitic speech and acts, as they viewed themselves as protecting their family and friends by serving in the army.

As Professor Zeltser outlines, Jewish Soviets in the years 1941-45 largely saw themselves as fellow Soviets, on an equal footing with all the rest of their brother communists. They believed that in the USSR, all people were equal regardless of ethnicity or religious origin, and were particularly upset by the resurgence of anti-semitism which excluded them from the Soviet common weal. Soviet authorities mostly did little to crack down on anti-semitism during this time, largely out of simple uncertainty as to how to proceed, but their inaction was taken as a further slap in the face by Jewish Soviets.

Professor Zeltser notes that the instability of war, lack of reliable information and fear of defeat combined with the general rise of Russification and Slavic glorification to revive old anti-semitic tropes of Jewish cowardice and lack of patriotism. In response, Jews felt that it was a Russian mindset which despised them while the Soviet worldview still represented equality of all peoples. Perhaps ironically, as Professor Zeltser concludes, the return of Russian anti-semitism in Soviet clothing stirred the hitherto neglected sense of Jewish feeling among Jews who were proud Soviets. It may well have been a factor in reinforcing Soviet Jewish identity within both Jewish civilians and Jewish officers and soldiers in the Red Army.

Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program?  You can find the application and more information at our website


Attacks on Holocaust survivors and pogroms in post-war Poland – a lecture by Dr. Edyta Gawron of Jagiellonian University

Dr. Edyta Gawron from Jagiellonian University in Krakow is visiting the Weiss-Livnat International MA in Holocaust Studies this week, offering one-on-one time with students who are particularly interested in her research, as well as giving two lectures to our students. She is an assistant professor at the Department of Jewish Studies as well as the Head of the new Centre for the Study of the History and Culture of Krakow Jews.


Dr. Edyta Gawron

In her first lecture, Dr. Gawron discussed the difficulties Jews faced in reacclimating in post-war Poland.  Her second lecture was given during Dr. Lea David’s class, “Human Rights, Holocaust, Genocide: The Politics of Remembrance.” In this lecture she shared insights regarding post-war Poland. The thought in Poland remained, even after the war, that Jews had caused WWII, or at the very least the invasion of Poland. Nazi anti-Semitism was well known, and because Jews were being attacked in Germany, specifically after Kristallnacht, Poles feared the Nazis would invade to strike against the Polish Jews. Another rumor prevalent in post-war Poland was that the Jews brought the USSR to Poland because they were associated with Bolshevism, just as the Nazis linked Jews and Bolsheviks. These were not the only reasons for anti-Semitism in Poland, however they exemplify the idiocy of anti-Semitism that was rampant in Poland.

In 1945, immediately after the war, there were some pogroms in Poland where Jews were physically attacked and beaten, as well as emotionally attacked through social exile. Jews were essentially pushed out of the towns they used to call home.

Dr. Gawron shared an instance of a pogrom that took place in Krakow, approximately 70 km from Auschwitz, on Saturday morning April 11, 1945. A group of Holocaust survivors went to pray in the synagogue near an open air market  when a group of boys began throwing rocks at the synagogue. One of the boys entered the synagogue and ran out screaming “Jews are trying to kill me! I saw Christian blood in the synagogue!” In the post war situation, the crowd reacted without thinking, and the rumor was spread throughout the city that Jews were killing Christian children. The pogrom lasted for several hours, dozens were seriously injured and a Holocaust survivor named Roza Berger was shot in her apartment a short distance from the market. After the pogrom, the accusing boy admitted that he had been bribed to slander the Jews and lie to everyone that the Jews were killing Christian children for sacrifices or blood libel. This was a common fabrication to stir anti-Semitism.

The Kielce pogrom on July 4, 1946, was even more violent. 42 Jews were killed. An eighteen year-old-boy was missing for the weekend; he didn’t want to tell his parents the real reason he was missing (he had snuck out with friends), so he made up a story. However,the authorities directed the conversation and asked him if he had been kidnapped and he answered affirmatively. Then they asked him if he was kidnapped by strangers, to which he answered yes. Finally, they asked if his kidnappers were Jews, which he affirmed, adding that they lived in a building where many of the returning Jews lived. They ask him if they had also kidnapped other Christians and he again confirmed that they had. The resulting pogrom lead to the killing of 42 Jews, starting with those who lived in the specific building the authorities had pointed out. Then the whole town was involved, all hunting out the Jews who were running from the pogrom. After this event, all of the surviving Jews in Kielce banded together and left Poland.

Altogether, 1,500 Jews were killed in post-war Poland. Although Dr. Gawron mentioned that it’s not fair to say that all of the murders were inspired by anti-Semitism, there was a lot of violence in post-war Poland. Many people were were attacked and murdered on the road because it looked like might have food or valuables. Within one year, 100,000 Polish Jews left Poland to establish lives elsewhere. Perhaps the Poles acted out of fear, specifically fear of confrontation? Maybe non-Jewish Poles were scared to confront Jews with their inability to act during the Holocaust. After the war, people became desensitized, and post-war Poland was rife with crime. One theory is a psychological phenomenon that victims (Poles) will victimize others (Jews) for a sense of control. This resulted in tension between the two groups.

Unfortunately, immediately after the war there was no public education in Poland about what they Jews had gone through, nothing about gas chambers in the papers. In the general public,  the realities of the Holocaust were unknown. Maybe better Holocaust education would have helped? Polish-Jewish life after the Holocaust was difficult, even impossible.

We would like to thank Dr. Edyta Gawron for coming and presenting to our students, and for the research advice and expertise she offered.


In order from left to right: Anat Bratman-Elhalel (Director of Archives at the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum), Lindsay Shapiro (Cohort IV), and Dr. Edyta Gawron.

In order from left to right: Anat Bratman-Elhalel (Director of Archives at the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum), Lindsay Shapiro (Cohort IV), and Dr. Edyta Gawron.

Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program?  You can find the application and more information at our website

Yad Vashem Seminar 2017 | Iael Nidam-Orvieto

Iael Nidam-Orvieto gave a lecture titled: “Fascist Italy and the Jews of Italy,” during the recent Yad Vashem seminar. She broke the period of Italian fascism into three segments: 1922-1935 is the “Honeymoon Period,” (describing the relationship between Jews and Mussolini), the Second phase is 1935-1938, (or “Preparation for persecution,” which is classified with quantifiable increase in Italian anti-Semitic actions), and the last portion from 1938-1945 ( which is identified with legislation against the Jews, and mass murder).


Iael Nidam-Orvieto

Mussolini himself was extremely anti-Semitic. Unlike Nazi anti-Semitism, Mussolini’s anti-Semitism was not purely racist, in other words converted Jews were not offensive to him. He was a modern anti-Semite, in that he believed in International Judaism, and that all Jews are manipulative and rich, which will eventually ruin Italian economy. Mussolini was unique in the fact that he brought socialism to fascism, so Italian fascism wasn’t necessarily true fascism but Mussolini-ism. The Italian people loved Mussolini, including the Jewish population. They saw him as a “caring father of the Italians.” Meanwhile, he was publishing anti-Semitic articles in the newspaper anonymously.

Most Italian Jews could trace their family lines in Italy back to the age of the Second Temple. They were characterized as exceptionally Italian, and loyal to the government. They were considered an integral part of society by the general population. Mussolini was smart enough not to show his anti-Semitism publicly from 1922-1935. During this time there was no governmental sign of anti-Semitism. Additionally, the catholic church was against racist anti-Semitism, and could not approve of Nazi Germany. Mussolini decided not go against the church, because it would have likely destabilized the government.

Meanwhile, Mussolini was distancing himself from Hitler, in order to create an identity for Fascist Italy. After the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, Mussolini specifically sought distinction from Hitler. In 1929, Mussolini successful pulled Italy out of the Great Depression, and for this Hitler looked to him as a role model. Because of this respect Hitler never raised the Jewish Question in Italy until 1943.

The Second Period, 1935-1938 was noted for increasing preparation for persecution of Jews. The Ethiopian War of 1935 increased racism in Italy. Questions were raised about the equality of the children born to Ethiopian women and Italian men, which also led to questions about Jewish equality. The Italians conquered Ethiopia through extremely violent measures, including gassing civilians in populated areas. The global community responded to the Ethiopian war with embargos. In order to end the embargos Mussolini contact two Italian-Jewish leaders, and asked them to plead with Jewish leaders in Great Britain to end the embargos. Of course, this didn’t work. They met with regional leaders, who had no say in British politics, but this was an example of Mussolini’s belief in International Judaism. Or it was Mussolini’s way of blaming the Jews for not ending the embargoes, because he knew their peace mission would fail. This event lead to significant anti-Semitism in Italy through widespread propaganda.

The period 1935-1938, also witnesses friendly relations with Hitler and Nazi Germany. Because Mussolini’s anti-Semitism was not pronounced in the first period Italians thought that they anti-Jewish legislation was coming from Nazi Germany. Mussolini made propaganda to negate this popular opinion, but it was ineffective. This idea was so widely believed that Jews in Italy thought themselves that the anti-Semitic laws were ordered from their new Nazi ally.

From 1938-1943 Italian Jewish experienced further persecution. In 1940, Mussolini gave an order for all Jews to leave Italy within five years. However, when the Nazis re-established Mussolini as ruler of Italy after the revolt in 1942, he had less power and was more of puppet. In 1943, Nazis started deporting Italian Jews. Italy is the only country that started deportations after part of the country had been liberated by the Allies.  The north of the country had a better idea of what was coming because they had better communication with people in Germany, but Jews in the south and Rome didn’t know what to expect. Twenty percent of the Italian Jews were deported within a year and a half, and many Italians willingly participated in round-ups.

Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program?  You can find the application and more information at our website