In this lecture, Professor Atina Grossmann addresses a transnational Holocaust story that remarkably – despite several decades of intensive scholarly and public attention to the history and memory of the Shoah – has remained essentially untold, marginalized in both historiography and commemoration.
Professor Atina Grossmann gave a public lecture co-hosted by the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research and the USC Max Kade Institute for Austrian-German-Swiss Studies, offering a different reading of World War II and the Holocaust by mapping Jewish death, survival, and displacement via what she called the geographical margins – the colonial and semi-colonial regions including the Soviet interior, Central Asia, Iran, and British India – before returning to Poland and Germany after the war.
3.3 million Jews resided in pre-war Poland. Perhaps 10% survived (around 330,000 people). Grossmann explained that between two-thirds and 80 percent of all Polish Jews who survived World War II survived because they escaped Nazi occupation in the Soviet Union. Stalin’s Soviet Union provided a refuge in the Soviet interior (Siberia) and then in Central Asia. The refuge may have been inadvertent and involuntary, and conditions were extremely harsh for those who endured them, but the majority of the remnant of Eastern European Jewry that survived World War II survived due to deportations away from the Soviet territories first attacked by the Germans.
Gesturing to a photograph of survivors arriving at a displaced persons camp in Frankfurt in 1946, Grossmann described that these people do not fit the standard image of survivors. She pointed out the presence of pregnant women, small children, old people, and babies. The story of these people has been essentially lost, Grossmann argued, not adequately addressed in research and lost in the cracks between different historiographies, missing from standard national and standard Holocaust narratives, and unmarked in museums and in cinema. Their stories have not yet entered our own conceptions or understandings of Jewish experience of the Holocaust or our definitions of survival or survivors. Grossmann’s lecture and larger evolving work in progress are attempts to illuminate the experiences of these people and add the movements of these Jews onto the maps of the Holocaust that so often omit them and the territories significant to their survival.
The surviving remnant began as several hundred thousand Jews -- maybe up to half a million people -- mostly Polish Jews. They fell into two groups: The first group was made up of Jews from Western Poland who fled from the Wehrmacht into Eastern Poland in 1939. People decided to flee in a climate of uncertainty and panic, with no idea of what was to come under Nazi rule. People who fled expected to be reunited with those they left behind. More men and more young people fled than women and old people. In 1940, these Jews faced deportation as spies or suspect foreigners from the newly Sovietized territories into which they had fled. They were deported as forced laborers to special camps in what is generally referred to “Siberia” (which is a cypher that stands in for many other regions in the Soviet Union.) The second group was made up of local Jews who had been living in Eastern Poland who were denounced as capitalists, Zionists, or subversives. They were also deported.
Several hundred thousand Polish Jews escaped the onslaught of the Germans due to this forced migration. The Jewish deportees endured harsh labor, hunger, disease, exhaustion, mistreatment, and what Grossmann described as utter bewilderment. They struggled to adapt. Many perished, but many survived. Grossmann emphasized that in contrast to the situation in Nazi-occupied Poland, the horrific conditions did not specifically or selectively affect Jews alone. All Poles and all inhabitants of the Soviet Union were also affected as mass evacuations of Soviet civilians into the Soviet interior were also underway.
Grossmann detailed important historical developments in the lives of these Jews, most notably Stalin’s negotiation of amnesty with the Polish government in exile in the summer of 1941; the resulting formation of a Polish army in exile and the release of Polish citizens from the special camps, whether they were Jewish or not; chaotic migration to the Central Asian republics where refugees hoped for warm climates and an abundance of food. Instead they found hunger, overcrowding, and disease, intensified by the evacuation happening at the same time of all Soviet citizens from the advancing front. Grossmann described that in addition to the horrible conditions they encountered, these refugees also experienced a variety of “wartime improvisations,” including theatre and universities in exile. Grossmann explained that local Uzbeks, who were Muslims in the process of being Sovietized themselves, sometimes resented these Western, Christian, and Jewish Soviet evacuees, yet often showed “astonishing generosity” despite their own poverty.
Grossmann showed photos of life of Polish Jews in Central Asia, pointing out, again in contrast to life under the Nazis, that it was possible to sustain Jewish culture and some extent of Jewish religious observance in Central Asia.
Grossmann detailed extensive relief efforts to support these Jews, including Polish government welfare offices (300 of them in Central Asia) and then the myriad of relief organizations that stepped in to assist when relations between the Soviet Union and the Polish government in exile collapsed in 1943, leaving Polish citizens on their own.
Tehran became a key site as relief organizations set up headquarters there to aid refugees and those remaining in the Central Asian republics. Grossmann described how the lifeline for Jews remaining in the Central Asian republics ran through the Persian corridor, as 10,000 packages a month flowed from Tehran to the Iranian-Soviet border and then into Central Asia. People sent blankets, sugar, tea, soap, matzo, as the operation to support Jewish refugees spread throughout the Middle East to Cairo, Beirut, Jerusalem, British India, and beyond.
In addition to relief organizations, the local Jewish Persian community aided Jewish refugees. So did German, Austrian, and Central European refugees who had arrived in Tehran in the 1930s, including Grossmann’s parents. Grossmann described these bourgeois Jewish refugees as being in “excruciatingly ambivalent” positions -- stateless, out of contact with their families left behind, having lost their professions and livelihoods, but retaining their European-ness in this exotic environment. Grossmann showed pictures of her mother and father while describing these bourgeois refugees and the lives they forged. Grossmann argued that this is another history that needs to be reconstructed.
Testimonies taken in Tehran from the Tehran Children offer harrowing accounts of the conditions people endured in the Soviet Union and Central Asian republics, about family members who died, diseases, people dying like flies. However, Grossmann argued, when you look at the photos of the refugees, people are posing to tell a very different story – one of survival and resilience. Reading from her notes, Grossmann quotes refugees as saying that exile saved their lives and that they were extremely lucky to be deported. This was death of a different quality, Grossmann argued. While still devastating, it was not total. It allowed for survival.
After the end of the war, up to 240,000 Jews returned to Poland up until 1949. The majority arrived between February and July of 1946. Grossmann shared that the very few survivors of the camps and ghettos came out to welcome them, gaping at the returning Jewish families that remained intact. They were like walking miracles, Grossmann quoted. Anti-Semitic violence soon motivated the mass exodus of these Polish Jews out of Poland. Forced to flee again, east to west this time, they became refugees from Poland entering Berlin and entering displaced persons camps. There the dominant narrative subsumed them and their experiences into a shared, undifferentiated collective. There was likely an enduring sense among these returning refugees from the Central Asian republics that in the face of the catastrophe the Polish Jews at home had experienced, their own stories were not worth telling.
Grossmann summarized that the undifferentiated story of the Holocaust omits the Soviet Union as the site where, with the aid of relief organizations and Zionist groups, the great majority of the surviving remnant of Jews had survived. On the geographic margins, rescue efforts were mounted for large numbers of Jews. Grossmann argued that this history decenters Palestine and Europe even though they remain key sites. This history reveals the impact of individual and organizational initiative and reframes the range of “ally.” Grossmann asserted that this path from Poland to Siberia to Central Asia to Iran back to Poland to American-occupied Germany, Austria, and Italy, and onwards, remaps and reconfigures the history of the Holocaust.
The almost hourlong Q&A after Grossmann’s lecture included active discussion about the Persian-Jewish community in Iran, the kinds of sources from which Grossmann and other historians are rebuilding this history (including memoirs, oral histories, testimonies, records from relief agencies, Soviet archival records, incoming interviews at DP camps), the extent to which returnees experienced stigma and shame, whether direct survivors distrusted the repatriates, and last but not least more about the intriguing history of Grossmann’s parents.
Summary by Martha Stroud