“But We Survived”: The Unsettled Memory of Polish-Jewish Survivors in the Soviet Union by Lidia Zessin-Jurek

Many unhappy returns

The majority of Polish Jews who survived World War II did so in the Soviet Union, some in the gulags of Siberia, experiencing forced labor, hunger, and illnesses. When they returned to Poland at the end of the war, they often encountered hostile Christian Poles. The hostility of their former neighbors brought about  feelings of betrayal and loss, which are ubiquitously described in the accounts of returning Jewish refugees. Very few of the survivors stayed where they had previously lived. Confronted with postwar antisemitism, most of them chose to leave not only Poland, but Europe altogether, the continent that inflicted upon them wounds that could never heal.

These survivors have been easy to find. Among them are acclaimed authors, directors, economists, philosophers, linguists, scholars, estate managers, doormen, family members, and neighbors. However, few were interested in hearing about their past. Now the moment has come to hear their stories.

Rita Blattberg Blumstein, Like Leaves in the Wind (London ; Portland, OR : Vallentine Mitchell, 2003). Call number: DS135.P63 B5863 2003

Dancing on the Titanic

Rita Blattberg Blumstein compares the last weeks her family spent in Krakow before it all started – the war, the Holocaust, the Gulag – to dancing on the Titanic. Her beautiful, cozy life, sheltered by her parents’ love, was interrupted abruptly and irreparably. Yet, until her father died, Rita Blattberg Blumstein said in 2002, “I never thought of myself as a Holocaust victim.”

Jack Pomerantz, Run East (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997) DS135.P63 P664 1997

Jack Pomerantz had never been outside his little town of Radzyń when his odyssey began: “I didn’t know how to go east. I followed people. And I walked. I kept walking many days. In a kind of stupor.” His long trip led him to Tashkent (Uzbekistan), Siberia, Kazakhstan, and then back to Poland.

Joachim Schoenfeld from Lwów (Lviv) recalled how in the wake of WWII for the first time in the long history of Jewish persecution, refugees had found all the gates to the lands of the ‘free world’ closed: “The 3.5 million Polish Jews found themselves trapped. Not knowing where to go, they moved about aimlessly on the roads and highways like ants to avoid being trampled by a giant’s foot.”[i]

Life-saving deportation to Siberia

Hundreds of thousands of such lives were thus interrupted and thousands of people set on a move. Their eastward exodus began after the German attack on Poland. From the east of Poland, simultaneously occupied by the Soviet Union, the Jewish refugees were sent further to the Soviet interior and forced to hard labor, exposed to hunger and bitter cold.  Returning to Poland at the end of WWII they learned about the tragic fate of relatives they left behind under the German occupation. Torn between feelings of shock, grief, guilt, and relief, they considered their experience of minor importance and kept silent. Only recently have some of the Poland-born Jewish exiles to the USSR begun to convey the stories of their survival.

https://digital.library.cornell.edu/catalog/ss:3293915 Soviet Gulags, 1947 from https://persuasivemaps.library.cornell.edu/

Survivors

They were now both Holocaust survivors and survivors of the Stalinist terror. They were often the only members of their families to remain alive and by far the most numerous group of the few Polish Jews who survived the war. This difficult Soviet chapter of the Holocaust survival, largely overlooked, has recently been the core of research projects conducted by international scholars.[ii]  In the course of their work, they may achieve more inclusive re-definition of Jewish survival, normally associated with the horror of having gone through the death camps or with a difficult hideout among Christians.


Lidia Zessin Jures was a 2018 Research Fellow in Jewish Studies at Fordham University and the New York Public Library. She is currently in the Department of Modern Social and Cultural History at the Masaryk Institute and Archives of the Czech Academy of Science in Prague

[i] Rita Blattberg Blumstein, Like Leaves in the Wind, London: Valentine Mitchell 2003; Jack Pomerantz, Run East: Flight from the Holocaust, Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press 1997; Joachim Schoenfeld, Holocaust memoirs: Jews in the Lwów Ghetto, the Janowski Concentration Camp, and as deportees in Siberia, Hoboken, N.J : Ktav Pub. House 1985.

[ii] See the work by, inter alia, Atina Grossmann, Laura Jockusch/ Tamar Lewinsky, Katharina Friedla, John Goldlust, Markus Nesselrodt.

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