August 27, 2012

Jewish Youth in Ghettos and Forests: Oral Histories of the Nazi Genocide in Byelorussia

Anika Walke, Book manuscript
Among the 800,000 Byelorussian Jews killed by the German Nazi regime and their collaborators were parents, grandparents and other relatives of thousands of young Jews who survived the war. These young girls and boys, some teenagers, some younger, thus became orphans and struggled for survival on their own. The book is the first systematic account of young Soviet Jews’ lives under conditions of Nazi occupation and genocide. The book also shows that the notion of internationalism, or interethnic solidarity, and shifting forms of national identification establish a powerful framework for the ways in which survivors of the genocide understood, survived, and, now, represent their experience of violence and displacement.

The book argues that we must take seriously the ideological implications of the Nazi genocide for people in the occupied territories. By tracking particular individuals and framing their stories against a broader historical and cultural backdrop, the study reveals the shift in perspective that Soviet Jewish children and adolescents had to undergo. Individually and as part of a longer narrative, the chapters trace the adolescents’ development from their privileged position as builders of a new society to a position at the bottom of society, as bodies that could be exploited for work and then targeted for extinction.

The story is one of repeated transformations of identity, from Soviet citizen in the prewar years, to a target of genocidal violence during the war, to barely accepted national minority in the postwar Soviet Union. The story is also one of multiple forms of violation piled on top of each other, beginning with Soviet nationality policies obstructing the cultural and religious framework of traditional Jewish identity, to Nazi annihilation policy eradicating Jewish people and their culture, to the systematic omission of Soviet Jews’ wartime experience from the official war portrayal within and beyond the Soviet Union.