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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

Lea Zeltserman
June 12, 2013
Still from Fate of a Man.(Courtesy Olga Gershenson)
Still from Fate of a Man.(Courtesy Olga Gershenson)

A doctor walks into an operating room and asks if the patient is asleep yet. As he is about to operate, a group of Nazis in uniform marches in—a round of “Heil Hitler” is followed by orders that the doctor put his scalpel down and leave the hospital. In the next scene, the doctor is paraded down a crowded street, still wearing his white uniform but with the word Jude scrawled across his chest in thick letters.

We know the doctor is headed to certain death, because that is what happens in Holocaust films. But this is no ordinary Holocaust film. This is a scene from Professor Mamlock, a Soviet film released in 1938 that tells the story of a German-Jewish doctor living under the Nazis. Part of a small, but significant, wave of anti-Fascist Soviet films, it was one of the first films in the world to address the issue of Jewish persecution in Nazi Germany and was seen by millions of people in the USSR before it was banned in August 1939, when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a not insignificant number of Soviet-Jewish families took the warning of the film to heart and managed to flee ahead of the Nazi invasion.

This past April, a newly subtitled print of Professor Mamlock was screened at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, followed by a Q&A session with Olga Gershenson, a professor of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the preeminent name in Soviet Holocaust film history. Wherever a Soviet Holocaust movie is screened, Gershenson is there, leading the discussion and translating the Soviet messaging for contemporary audiences. Her third book, The Phantom Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and Jewish Catastrophe, which will be released next week, traces the story of a shadow Soviet film industry that only rarely managed to represent the tragedy that filmmakers, directors, and screenwriters sought to warn against or memorialize. While films like Schindler’s List are often the way Westerners are first exposed to the Holocaust, there are no parallels in Soviet/Russian culture—Professor Mamlock was shown briefly after Hitler invaded the USSR, but had disappeared from Soviet theaters by the end of the 1940s.

Professor Mamlock (1938), Dir. Herbert Rappaport and Adolf Minkin

Gershenson’s work is a monumental achievement in giving a voice to the lost Soviet Holocaust films—to the filmmakers, and to also the millions whose fates they attempted to memorialize. As the charges of censorship pile up, and the list of silenced filmmakers grows, the sense of loss is overwhelming. The tragedy of what might have been is most poignant in the details of Gershenson’s own research—such as the moment she found the screenplay for Gott mit Uns (God Is With Us), with a blank sign-out sheet signaling that no one had touched it in nearly 50 years. (“When I called [scriptwriter Grigorii] Kanovich in Israel, he nearly fainted. He’d thought it was lost,” she told me.)

Or writing about Boris Ermolaev, whose battle to bring his film Our Father to the screen cost him his career. Ermolaev now lives in a Montreal nursing home: “The sad irony is that this is a Jewish nursing home,” Gershenson writes, “but no one around him is aware of what an amazing film about the Holocaust he attempted to make and what kind of audacity it required back in 1960s Soviet Union.”

Or her meeting with Valentin Vinogradov, whose career was destroyed over his film Eastern Corridor (one of his later films was literally washed off the film stock by authorities). A believer to the end (he died in 2011), he saw the censorship of his work as an aberration, or betrayal, of the system, not a representation of the system. In Gershenson’s judgement, “Up to this day Vinogradov is one of the most important Soviet filmmakers that no one has ever heard of.”


The Soviets had many ways to kill a film, whether it was through subtle means such as self-censorship by the filmmakers themselves and poor reviews in Pravda, or outright rejection by Goskino, the central film governing body. Of course, it was never a matter of the Jewish topic being addressed. “[S]aying out loud that the screenplay’s problem lies with its representation of Jews would itself be anti-Semitic,” Gershenson writes. “This is why the SRK [a film studio editorial board] was hard pressed to avoid any on-the-record discussion of Jewish topics, while effectively trying to suppress it.” Modern filmmakers will shudder to read the details of all seven approval stages each film had to undergo, from the initial idea through to the distribution of the final film.

Since many of the archives are still inaccessible, and a lot of material was never preserved, Gershenson herself is a significant character in the story she tells, playing the part of detective in digging through archives and, tracking the whereabouts of long-lost directors and writers. She flies to Munich to meet with one aging scriptwriter (Maya Turkovskaya), then to Israel to talk to another director (Mikhail Kalik) and finds another (Grigorii Kanovich) in Tel Aviv through the Russian grapevine and meets him at a Lithuanian resort.

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. The vast majority of Jews were rounded up and shot in (or just outside) their towns by the Einsatzgruppen. For Russian Jews, Babi Yar, not Auschwitz, is the ultimate symbol of the Holocaust.

Jews also fought in the Red Army, often leaving their hometowns before the occupation and returning to nothing but deserted homes and mass graves. Others were evacuated eastward into areas like Tashkent and Uzbekistan. Most Russian Jews today can count Holocaust victims, Red Army veterans, and evacuees among their family wartime experiences.

The evacuation, and the failure of the Germans to fully occupy the country, also meant that a Yiddish culture (newspapers, film, theater) continued to exist throughout the war. As a result, the Jewish response to the Holocaust was immediate—and it was often supported by Soviet officials. The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, formed by direct order from Stalin, not only documented Jewish losses, but its archives also reveal plans for a number of Holocaust films.

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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Lea Zeltserman is a Toronto-based writer who focuses on Soviet-Jewish immigration. She is the publisher of the Soviet Samovar, a monthly round-up of Russian-Jewish news, culture and events. Her Twitter feed is @zeltserman.

Lea Zeltserman is a Toronto-based writer who focuses on Soviet Jewish immigration. She is the publisher of the Soviet Samovar, a monthly roundup of Russian Jewish news, culture and events. Her Twitter feed is @zeltserman.