by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld
Our synagogue was founded in 1886 by a group of pious Orthodox Russian immigrants who had fled the tyrannical rule of Czar Alexander III. On the 67th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany this week, we are proud to feature a traveling exhibit that will educate our community about many of their brave relatives who stayed behind in Russia.
When people talk about the history of Russian Jewry during World War II, often there is a focus on the far too many Jews who were massacred during the Holocaust.
But Julie Chervinsky of the Blavatnik Archive, a Judaica history archive, explained that there was a gap in the stories that were being studied.
The exhibit titled, Lives of the Great Patriotic War: The Untold Stories of Soviet Jewish Soldiers in the Red Army During World War II, features the stories of those Jews who served in the Soviet Red Army as they fought the evil Nazis.
The Blavatnik Archive Veteran Oral History Project conducted more than 1,000 video-recorded interviews with former soldiers who are currently living in 10 countries around the world.
During WWII, approximately 30 million soldiers fought in the Russian army and 8 to 9 million perished. Approximately 500,000 Jewish soldiers marched to victory alongside their Soviet patriots. Nearly a third died in battle before Nazi Germany capitulated on May 8, 1945, (celebrated in Russia on May 9). More than 300 Jews rose to the rank of general or admiral.
Many Jews were motivated by their loyalty to their Soviet homeland. Many fought to avenge the murder of their families and co-religionists at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. No matter how bravely they fought, many veterans were aware that they might be labeled as cowards simply because they were Jewish. They often felt they had to constantly prove their courage in battle.
Sometimes, however, their Jewishness even saved their lives. One man tells how he was trapped in a snow storm and then was found by fellow Russian soldiers who accused him of being a deserter, a crime punishable by death: "They said, 'Deserter!' And they grabbed me and led me to their commander. ... They wouldn't believe me: why would I go out in a blizzard? ... And then I remembered that after all, I'm a Jew, and forgive me, but I took my pants off to show them that I'm a Jew. They all started laughing and they said: Germans kill a man with that badge. And that's how they let me go." (Lives of the Great Patriotic War).
Sadly, for many of these Jews, their loyalty and bravery was not rewarded. From 1948-1952 the Soviet government pursued an explicitly anti-Semitic policy which was highlighted by the notorious "Doctors Plot" in 1953 that cast all Jews as traitors. These veterans who had risked their lives in the Soviet Red Army now found themselves considered traitors.
In celebration of the defeat of Nazi Germany and in commemoration of the bravery of these Jewish soldiers, we can and must learn about their often heroic stories.
This Shabbat I encourage you to tell the story of Roman Yagel around your Shabbat table. He joined the Red Army in 1940. Here is an excerpt from his interview:
"The regiment commander and his deputy, a politruk, were looking for volunteers again. No one raised their hand. I raised mine. ... On the second day the regiment commander calls me and says, 'You're not going on this mission, you are a spy.' I said, 'Why am I a spy?' He said 'You raised your hand first.' I said, 'Yes, I raised my hand because no one else raised their hand and after me all those others raised their hands. I was first. And for that I'm a spy?' 'Yes, you were captured and you were probably in captivity and you are probably going to report back to the Germans.'"
"I could sense my own death. I barely survived, and for the second time that he's telling me I'm a spy. I didn't know what to do, I could tell that they were going to shoot me here. And that's when I decided to tell him who I was. I said, 'Comrade Major, I want to tell you something but please don't tell anyone else.' 'What is it?' 'I'm a Jew. How can I be a spy? A Jew is going to go report to the Germans? What are you talking about?' He looks at me and says, 'Do you know how to pray?' I said 'Yes, I know how to pray.' He said, 'So say something.' I said 'Shma Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad.' He said 'Amen' and we both started crying. He was a Jew. Yagel tears up. He said to me 'Everything's OK, you are under my command, nothing's going to happen to you.' "
Shmuel Herzfeld is rabbi of Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue in the District and author of Fifty-Four Pickup: Fifteen-Minute Inspirational Torah Lessons.