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Ghosts of Soviet Holocaust Cinema Finally Escape From the Censors’ Files

Long-lost and suppressed classics with complicated depictions of the Shoah have found a revivalist champion

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Still from Fate of a Man. (Courtesy Olga Gershenson)
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It’s often forgotten today, but the Soviets were the first witnesses to many Nazi atrocities—a point also made by David Shneer in his 2011 book on Soviet-Jewish photojournalists (Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust), many of whom captured some of the most iconic Holocaust imagery known today. The earliest images of concentration camps were taken by Soviet-Jewish photographers; similarly, Gershenson is certain that the 1938 Peat Bog Soldiers is the first film in the world to show the camps. Another film, the 1945 The Unvanquished, directed by Mark Donskoi, became the first Holocaust film to show Jews as explicit Nazi victims (the mass Jewish execution in the film was actually filmed in Babi Yar). The film slipped through before the state machinery had figured out its official stance on the Holocaust, but then it quickly disappeared from screens.

“What we know now is that if not for this severe censorship,” Gershenson said, “the way we think about Holocaust cinema today would have been dramatically different, because today when we think about Holocaust cinema, we think about Schindler’s List or Shoah. But there were all these incredible Soviet screenplays.”

While the fates of individual films rise and fall with the vagaries of Soviet policies over the decades—the post-Stalin thaw, the clampdown following the Six Day War and the rise of the immigration movement—common themes emerge in all of them. When the Holocaust is shown at all, it’s externalized. This is partly because a Holocaust that happened outside the USSR made for a narrative in which the Soviets were blameless. But other factors were at work—such as the lack of imagery for the rapid Einsatzgruppen execution that came very quickly on the heels of the Nazi arrival.

“There was no authentic language for representing the Holocaust there. How do you represent an Einsatzgruppen execution? It’s just so horrible. It’s not even a camp. It’s just—” said Gershenson, her voice cutting off mid-sentence. “Imagine a film where all your main characters come out on stage and are executed, and that’s it. End of film.”

So, Soviet filmmakers had to find ways to code their films for a home audience. German and Polish Jewish characters were made to look more like Soviet Jews. In Professor Mamlock, the German-Jewish Mamlock is mockingly called “Itzik,” a typical Russian reference to a shtetl Jew. More often, films hinted at Jewishness without including Jewish characters.

“I call it Holocaust without Jews. You have all these striped pajamas and concentration camps and chimneys,” Gershenson explained. “If you know the actual history, you think ‘Wow, these people are all Jews.’ ”

Sometimes, she writes, nothing remained of the original Jewish story—“On censors’ orders, screenplays were changed and entire plot lines disappeared. Jews were written out of Soviet films. Nonetheless … these films remained obsessed with Nazi genocide and retained a measure of ‘residual Jewishness.’ ” For example, a 1965 Belarus production called All These Years, briefly shows a family led to their deaths in a ravine, the scene backed by a Yiddish soundtrack. In Eastern Corridor, produced in 1965 and one of the few films to explicitly address the Holocaust, a Yiddish plea is uttered by a character during the drowning execution scene. (Like The Unvanquished 20 years earlier, it too quickly disappeared from theaters.)

The Unvanquished (1945), Dir. Marc Donskoi

This all echoed the official Soviet response to the Holocaust, which was to universalize suffering and thus conveniently avoid mentioning the specific group of Soviet citizens who were targeted for being Jewish. Some 27 million Soviets died in the war—“So in Soviet discourse, those 3 million were just ‘peaceful Soviet citizens,’ ” Gershenson said. Why talk about Jewish victims as a unique group when every victim was another “peaceful Soviet citizen”?

This was the case in Steps in the Night, a 1962 Lithuanian film. It was originally based on the true escape of 64 prisoners—60 of them Jewish—from a Nazi prison. Gershenson found four versions of the screenplay in the archives. In the first, a single token Jewish prisoner was included. The final film had no Jewish characters—the heroes were all strong-jawed Soviets in the finest socialist-realism tradition.

Gershenson sums up this loss best when she writes of the 1964 Goodbye, Boys! (which was screened in Toronto in 2012 for the first time in decades): “In an alternate reality, in which he had not been constrained by Soviet policies and restrictions, [director Mikhail] Kalik would have included images representing the Holocaust on Soviet soil. … In the only reality we have, Goodbye, Boys! was made and even distributed, but in some ways it remained a phantom, a phantom of a film that could have been.”

The story of this phantom film industry is not a redemptive story—there’s no sudden, post-Soviet flourishing of Holocaust cinema. Decades of repression and propaganda had done their work too well, and Holocaust films continued to follow the existing formulas. Russia is one of the few countries in the world where Schindler’s List was a box office flop.

“If we start talking about the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, it’s very uncomfortable,” Gershenson explained. “Because then everyone is implicated. Maybe not in Moscow, but certainly in places like Kiev and Kharkov and all these other areas. The story of wartime collaboration or nonresistance is a very complicated story. The executions, the ghettos—it was impossible without local assistance. Today, even people with conscience don’t want to talk about it because it’s so uncomfortable.”

In the very act of writing the Phantom Holocaust, Gershenson brings the story full circle, writing, as it were, the next chapter in Soviet-Jewish Holocaust cinema. Two of the scripts she uncovered have found a new life—the 1965 Stalemate was transformed into a Moscow theater production in 2010, and a well-known Russian filmmaker, Oleg Gaze, is now seeking funding to produce Gott mit Uns. Generations of Soviet censors are, one hopes, turning in their graves.


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E_Ma says:

Lea Zeltserman / Tabletmag erroneously wrote: “To understand Soviet Holocaust films, it is also important to understand the way that the Holocaust unfolded in Soviet territories. There were no concentration camps in the USSR, and Soviet Jews were not sent westward to the camps in Poland.”

This is not accurate as there were no “camps in Poland”. A sovereign and independent Poland no longer existed during the Nazi/German occupation. It was an occupied country, hence, Nazi/German occupied Poland is the correct historical term to use.

To say the ‘camps in Poland’ is very misleading. A correction is necessary.

Tarnów region, Poland

Karl E. Pfeifer says:

The anti-Nazi Soviet propaganda disappeared from the Soviet media after September 28, 1939. According to the non-aggression pact “both parties will tolerate in their territories no Polish agitation which affects the territories of the other party. They will suppress in their territories all beginnings of such agitation and inform each other concerning suitable measures for this purpose.”
Documents on german Foreign Policy (DGFP) 1918-1945, Series D, Volume 8, The War years September 4, 1939-March 18, 1940, Doc. 160, p. 166

Let us not forget the fact that during the period of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact the truth was withold from the Soviet people on the actions of Nazi Germany. In order to maintain the pact between the two countries, the Soviet authorities were concealing from the public the terrible attrocities being perpetrated by the Nazis in Germany and German-occupied territory. As a result of this lack of informations the Soviet people believed that their main enemy was the “capitalist” West, and that it was only against that threat they had to defend themselves. Consequently, during the war the Soviet people paid a staggering price in blood and property. Tens of thousands of citizens would certainly have abandoned their homes and belongings and fled from the advancing Nazi occupiers had they only known that a Holocaust awaited them at German hands.

Mark Burgh says:

The Nazi’s killed Jews all across the Ukraine and Russia, so the Holocaust did unfold in Soviet territories. To say that no totenlagers existed in Poland is a cowardly hair-splitting.

whatnot says:

‘Today, even people with conscience don’t want to talk about it because it’s so uncomfortable.’

oh please.

Rosalie H. Kaye says:

I knew that the Russians were certainly no lovers of the Jewish culture, but this was an eye opener. Thank you for sharing this very insightful article. Very well written. Just watching the few moments of the clips were very upsetting for me.

elino4ka says:

This should be translated into Russian and published in the former USSR.

AuntySemantic says:

Seriously? All the Jews who lived in “sovereign and independent Poland” on the morning of September 1, 1939 disappeared at the hands of Nazis and their willing Polish collaborators. The territory may have been technically known as German-occupied Poland, but not every murderer was German; some of the murderers were Poles.

genelevit says:

There are few inaccuracies in the article. First of all you need to distinguish between “concentration camps” and “death camps”. (Auschwitz had both). Concentration camps existed on the territory of the former USSR but not the death camps. Second – some Soviet Jews were indeed sent to the death camps (for example, the famous escape from Sobibor was organized mainly by the Soviet Jews) but not too many since most of them were murdered before the establishment of the death camps. Soviet movies didn’t address Holocaust explicitly (the way “Schindler’s list” did). The suppression of the Holocaust motive in the movies had to do more with the socialist
concept of the common equality among people (since the Nazis were the enemies of the entire humanity then all the people had to suffer from them equally) than with the anti-Semitism of the soviet leaders.

Natan79 says:

Will you give the town of Auschwitz / Oswiecim to a different country?

Mian says:

Of course, The Doctor’s Plot” and virulent Russian antisemitism (well represented amongst the Soviet leadership) notwithstanding.

Gene, your parroting of the official Soviet line would be laughable if I didn’t have the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that you really BELIEVE what you said and were not speaking ironically.

You frighten me, sir.

Natan79 says:

Soviets were anti-Semites. There’s a long and painful history to Soviet anti-Semitism. To ignore it is nonsense.

genelevit says:

First of all I didn’t say that Russians are not anti-Semites. (However, certainly not every one of them. For example, the directors of both movies: “The Eastern Corridor” and “The Fate of a Man” were not Jews. And, of course, not every soviet leader was an anti-Semite as well). I just said that the socialist concept of the equality among people was the main factor in suppression of the Holocaust motive in the Soviet movies. Antisemitism played only the secondary role.

Angela Maria Arbeláez Arbeláez says:

We cant say that Russian were ” not lovers of the Jewish Culture”, you mean the politicians or groups of people. Remember how many Russian Jews were living all around the Zar and Post Zar Russian.Of course we never will forget what happens there from the Progroms till the Holocaust.Thank you toTABLET for sharing this treasure of Russian Cinema.

Hershl says:

Pathetic comment by an obviously diseased mind.

Find something better to do with your life than this.

Hershl says:

The Soviet Union is dead.

The “glorious Socialist Ideal” was never realized.

It was and remains a wicked parody of the dreams of an enlightened society.

Get a life.

genelevit says:

“The Soviet Union is dead.” Yes, but the fraudulent concept of the equality among all people is still alive. ( People could have equal rights or equal opportunities but they cannot be “equal”) . Western “intellectuals”, “human rights activists” and “fighters for the social justice” are still trying to implement this dinosaur of the bolshevik doctrine into our society.

E_Ma says:

@markburgh:disqus, @AuntySemantic:disqus, @Natan79:disqus, @Hershl:disqus :

Your replies are completely unrelated to the excerpt and are unwarranted. The excerpt clearly discusses the geographic “location” incorrectly ["in Poland"], where it should actually read in “German occupied Poland”. Does this matter? Indeed it does, for historical accuracy. Those who collaborated with the Germans were not the focus here, the location was.

If the excerpt being discussed mentioned who collaborated, that’s another item, however, this was not the case. The geographic location is being discussed. Poland no longer existed during WWII from 1939 to 1945. Please learn your history and geography.

JetHag says:

“There were no concentration camps in the USSR” is incorrect. The U.S. Holocaust Museum recently published research which found that there were far more concentration camps than earlier believed. They stretched across large swathes of the USSR including Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia itself.

JetHag says:

Actually, the Germans incorporated it into the Third Reich.

peter says:

The First Holocaust Of
The 20th Century
From Multiple Sources
1-26-5 Victims of Soviet genocide Mass murder of a type never before seen in human history was carried out in Russia by the Soviet government from 1917 until roughly 1953. That was the world’s first modern holocaust, i.e. the systematic murder of millions of people by a government. The Soviet holocaust began years before the Nazis committed their holocaust [1]. After communists created the Soviet Union, they murdered or oppressed anyone who opposed them, or might oppose them in the future. The result was a 36-year campaign of bloodshed and mayhem. The people who ran the Soviet Union were felons who were not elected to power. Many of them had been wanted by the law, or had served time in jail, before they achieved their positions of authority. [Given that fact, it seems odd that anyone would consider the Soviet Union to be a valid entity. Yet American president Franklin Roosevelt did, as did various Western celebrities]. At least twenty million Russian citizens were murdered in the Soviet holocaust, and many more than that were imprisoned and/or tortured in some way. Many of the people who were murdered or oppressed were politically conservative or moderate Russians who simply opposed Soviet communism. But some of the people who were killed by the Soviets were political leftists who, for certain reasons, opposed the Soviet government, or, were seen as a political threat to the government. Most of the murders committed during the Soviet holocaust were committed by people who were racially/ethnically Jewish [in fact, Jews, via their political activism, built the Soviet Union]. Granted, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was not a Jew, and his predecessor Vladimir Lenin was only part-Jewish [however both were married to Jews]. But most of the top people who served in the Soviet government under both Stalin and Lenin were Jewish, and their names are well-known to many historians – for example Leon Trotsky, Lazar Kaganovich, Lev Kamenev, Genrikh Yagoda, Nikolai Yezhov [2]. The Soviet holocaust is rarely mentioned in the West today. And when it is mentioned, it isn’t referred to as a holocaust. The reason for that is because public mention of that holocaust – and calling it a holocaust – would cause the Nazi-committed holocaust to be significantly overshadowed. Such overshadowing would have major political, racial and financial consequences, not just for the Jews but for other people as well. Let’s look at the types of murders that were committed by the Soviet government during the 20th century’s first mass murder event: 1. Death by gunshot: millions of innocent Russian citizens were rounded up, jailed in various detention centers, and then shot in the back of the head – right where the head meets the neck. That type of ‘neck shot’ was a Soviet specialty, and is described Here. 2. Death by famine: in the Ukraine, the Soviet government created a famine by seizing livestock, crops, grain and other necessities from the citizens. Any citizen who resisted the governmental food or livestock mandates was usually shot. Desperate Ukrainian citizens ate anything to try to survive the famine: bugs, grass, even leather shoes. At least seven million people starved to death in the Ukrainian famine that began in 1932. The Jewish commissar L. Kaganovich oversaw that famine. There was another Soviet-produced famine in the Volga region of Russia beginning in 1921, in which up to5,000,000 people died. Both famines were carefully planned by the Soviet government [3]. 3. Death by gulag: Russian citizens were rounded up by the millions and put into Soviet forced-labor camps called gulags. Many gulag prisoners died from over-work, malnourishment or disease. Prisoners were also abused – for example, some were forced to eat human feces. Other were routinely beaten or left in freezing temperatures. A prisoner who was unable to reach quota – i.e. perform a set amount of work per day – was deprived of food or other necessities, which often led to the prisoner’s death. The gulags were usually located in very remote areas of Russia, meaning that even if a prisoner managed to escape, he would probably not reach a populated area and would then die from exposure to the elements. Unlike the victims of the later, Nazi-committed holocaust, the victims of the Soviet holocaust were mostly innocent citizens. They had usually done nothing wrong. They had merely opposed communism’s aims. Or, perhaps they had instead committed the “crime” of owning a nice house, or land. Hitler’s victims, on the other hand, were mostly communists, anarchists, ultra-liberals, gypsies, homosexuals or common criminals – in other words, they weren’t exactly the cream of society. The distinction between the types of victims in those two holocausts is noteworthy. Victims of Soviet genocide Interestingly, apart from the Soviet government, Jews also dominated many Eastern European communist governments [4], and as such they oversaw what might be referred to as micro-holocausts, i.e. the murder, torture and jailing of scores of other innocent citizens, most of them gentiles as well. Some Jews might make excuses for the Soviet holocaust. They might say that the Jews in Russia were only responding to anti-Semitism when they carried it out. But that’s a weak excuse. Murdering 20 million people and enslaving millions more for decades is not an appropriate response to a social feature that was caused by Jewish behavior in the first place. Other Jews might say that the Soviet holocaust was not a ‘real’ holocaust. But of course it was: certain people were methodically murdered over a long period of time. Certain people were selected for persecution. Actually, Hitler’s holocaust – which was in many ways a response to the Soviet holocaust – could possibly be described as having been more humane than the first holocaust. After all, Hitler gave his victims many opportunities to flee Europe during the 1930s – and many did. Hitler even planned to send Jews to Madagascar, until WWII made that idea unfeasible. But the Soviets didn’t give their victims a chance to flee Russia. A sad footnote to the genocide committed in the Soviet state is that no major Soviet officials were ever legally charged with committing murder, even after the fall of the Soviet Union. Kaganovich, Stalin’s right-hand man and the most important figure in the Soviet holocaust after Stalin himself, died of old age in 1991 without ever facing criminal charges. Yet Nazi ‘war criminals’ were executed by the allies even when they did not commit any murders, for example the publisher Julius Streicher, who was executed solely for what he printed. A similar example is German navy admiral Karl Doenitz, who was jailed for 10 years after WWII for the “crime” of commanding Germany’s navy during the war. Let the world begin to learn that there was a holocaust before the Holocaust [it's usually spelled with a capital "H" now]. The first holocaust claimed more innocents and lasted far longer than the Nazi-committed murder event [5]. The first holocaust’s perpetrators were mostly Jewish and their victims were mostly gentiles who merely said “no” to a hateful Jewish idea called communism [6]. [1] the number of people killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust is nowhere near 6 million — the actual number is more likely about 3 million, with the causes of the deaths of those people being shooting, disease and starvation in concentration camps. There is hardly any evidence to back the claim that concentration camp inmates were “gassed” by the Nazis. Empty containers which may have held cyanide-producing pellets – which were apparently found at German concentration camps by the allies after WWII – prove nothing, since such pellets were used throughout Europe long before WWII in pest-control fumigation. [2] there are three standard Jewish answers to the charge that Jews committed genocide in the Soviet Union: a) “Stalin wasn’t a Jew”; b) “Stalin was an anti-Semite” [maybe that's why he married a Jew]; and c) “you’re an anti-Semite.” Jewish denial of the role that Jews played in the Soviet holocaust is rather revealing of the mentality of the Jewish community in general. [3] some eyewitness accounts of the Soviet-produced famine. [4] Jewish-dominated Eastern European communist countries included Poland, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria. [5] the Nazis did not attempt to end the Jewish race in Europe, since the victims of the Nazis included many types of people besides Jews. Had the Nazis wanted to focus solely on the Jews, they would have. [6] the Jewish political activist Karl Marx is the godfather of communism. The ideology of communism was spread throughout Europe by activists who were usually Jewish, e.g. Karl Radek in Germany and Bela Kun in Hungary.

Saint_Etienne says:

How can you assert it with such confidence? State Antisemitism was rampant in the USSR since the 1940s.

Saint_Etienne says:

You sir, are peddling a bunch of vile lies, interspersed with a grain of truth here and there. Fortunately, your post is so long and disjointed that very few people with bother to read it. So I’ll save my time and not write a detailed rebuttal.

peter says:

Oh poppy cock.

Just a small correction: Tashkent and Uzbekistan are not two different places – Tashkent is the capital of Uzbekistan. Furthermore, people were not only evacuated to warm places like that – my father was evacuated to the south of Moscow with his nursery (he was 3), while my mother was born in Shadrinsk in the Urals (west of Siberia), where her parents were evacuated with the military plant her father, an engineer, worked for. She was born in January 1942, the temperature outside was 42 below zero (Celsius).


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Ghosts of Soviet Holocaust Cinema Finally Escape From the Censors’ Files

Long-lost and suppressed classics with complicated depictions of the Shoah have found a revivalist champion

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