Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Surviving in Siberia

For Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, I bring you some material on a little-known subject: The many thousands of Jews who fled east from Poland, escaping the Nazis into the clutches of the Soviet Union. There, many were exiled to Siberia, where they survived the war in labor camps.

Many Jews mistakenly believe the Soviet Union was on the good side in World War II. Clearly, Jews were better off in Soviet labor camps than Nazi concentration camps, and many Jews were saved by fleeing to the USSR. Others were liberated by the Soviets from the Nazi camps at the war's end. But while the Soviets were no Nazis, they were plenty brutal towards their captives. About all that can be said in the Soviets' defense is that they were equally brutal towards all their citizens.

From the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum:
Between 1939 and 1941 nearly 300,000 Polish Jews, almost 10 percent of the Polish Jewish population, fled German-occupied areas of Poland and crossed into the Soviet zone. While Soviet authorities deported tens of thousands of Jews to Siberia, central Asia, and other remote areas in the interior of the Soviet Union, most of them managed to survive. After the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, more than a million Soviet Jews fled eastward into the Asian parts of the country, escaping almost certain death. Despite the harsh conditions of the Soviet interior, those who escaped there constituted the largest group of European Jews to survive the Nazi onslaught.

Saved By Deportation: The Unknown Odyssey of Polish Jews (a documentary):
In 1940, a year before the Nazis started deporting Jews to death camps, Joseph Stalin ordered the deportation of approximately 200,000 Polish Jews from Russian-occupied Eastern Poland to forced labor settlements in the Soviet interior. As cruel as Stalin's deportations were, in the end they largely saved Polish Jewish lives, for the deportees constituted the overwhelming majority of Polish Jews who escaped the Nazi Holocaust.

Run East: Flight from the Holocaust, by Jack Pomerantz and Lyric Wallwork Winik (a book):
Beautifully told, Run East provides remarkable detail in this powerful picture of a part of the Holocaust that has remained relatively unexplored--the world of European Jews who escaped to what was then the Soviet Union, only to be used by the Soviets, sometimes as laborers in Siberia and sometimes as soldiers fighting on the eastern front.

No, the Soviets were not our saviors or even (usually) our allies. But, despite themselves, they saved many Jews from the Nazis. Including some of my forebears.


A Simple Jew said...

Thank you for the recommendation. I just bought a used copy of "Run East" from

Zman Biur said...

I hope you enjoy the book.

I should clarify: I haven't seen the documentary or read the book. I'm just presenting them here since they address the topic. I hope they're as good as their promotional material claims.

A Simple Jew said...

I will let you know once I finish reading it.

Have a good day!

shanna said...

My father-in-law's parents were among those in Siberia, which is where my father-in-law was born. But for the Soviets, my husband probably would not exist today.

nowy zydow said...

Two of my relatives died in the USSR, one from being worked to death, not meeting his damn quota, being deprived of morsels of food and being buried like a dog after freezing to death in the God forsaken Komi ASSR in 1941: Josek Jurkiewicz born in 1918 in Sulejow, Poland. Then my aunt died at 11 months old, a baby from simple starvation because they starved my grandmother who could then not breastfeed, which led to infection, pneumonia. My family was not spared to live. They were used as slaves like most people in the USSR, whether you were a citizen or not. The Soviets refuse to give any papers they have on my family with their obsessions about documenting everything that happened at that time. I have nothing to thank them for.

Zman Biur said...


Thanks so much for your story. My grandmother and father barely survived Siberia themselves. I wish there were a way to tell the story, since the Jewish establishment doesn't seem interested.