THE FIRST SOVIET GENERATION
The Bolsheviks, victorious in the 1917 Russian Revolution, promised a new utopia: equality for the people, rights for workers, and a vast improvement in quality of life. Eager for change, young Russians – Jews included – quickly became loyal subjects of the new Soviet regime; dedication to the Motherland was nurtured in all spheres of society. The first generation of Soviet Jews pursued previously unavailable educational and professional opportunities, and were grateful for the upward mobility they achieved. For many, however, communist policies proved disastrous. The forced collectivization of farms and banning of private enterprise devastated agricultural output, causing mass starvation, especially in Ukraine. Accelerated industrialization, designed to modernize the USSR extremely rapidly, meant very strict labor discipline. At the same time, mass political purges resulted in the incarceration, forced labor or deaths of untold millions. Nevertheless, until the 1939-1940 annexation of the Baltics, eastern Poland, and parts of Romania, the majority of the Soviet population seemed to believe in the ideals – and propaganda – of their government. In the newly “liberated” territories, however, locals loathed Stalinist communism and blamed the Jews for the “Judeo-Bolshevik” takeover.
On August 23, 1939, nearly two years before the start of the Great Patriotic War, Germany’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and the USSR’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, signed “an agreement for mutual trade” and “a pact of nonaggression.” The pact contained a secret protocol that divided German and Soviet interests in Eastern Europe and split Poland between them. The agreement served the interests of both parties. Stalin needed time to strengthen his army and move his border westward; the Baltic nations, western Ukraine, western Belorussia, and parts of Romania (Bessarabia and Bukovina) were assigned to Soviet influence. Hitler needed access to Russia’s raw materials to supply his campaign in Western Europe; a common border also facilitated his secret goal of eventually conquering Russia and achieving Lebensraum, territorial expansion for the German people. Months before Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, numerous reports providing clear evidence of Germany’s preparation for war were submitted to Stalin; he dismissed them all. Soviet freight trains packed with supplies continued their deliveries into Germany even as the Wehrmacht launched its attack.
Patriotism was inculcated in the population from birth and Soviet propaganda “guaranteed” that any possible forthcoming war would be fought on foreign land, with minimal losses and a quick victory. Prior to the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, Soviet news media was intensely anti-Fascist. In the 1937 film, “If there will be War Tomorrow,” Soviet citizens young and old rush to volunteer and fight for their Motherland. They march to a sweeping victory in Berlin, where the local German workers and socialist proletariat are preparing to topple capitalism. In movies such as “Professor Mamlock” (1938), Soviet film was among the first to address the issue of Jewish persecution in Nazi Germany. Yet, with the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the Soviet people were suddenly informed that their sworn enemy had become an ally. Standard terms such as “fascist beasts” and “fascist barbarians” were eradicated from the media’s vocabulary and newspapers were ordered to stop writing about fascism altogether, so as not to provoke Hitler. A moratorium was placed on any mention of German atrocities and any remaining anti-German rhetoric from abroad was ascribed to the malicious work of foreign agents.
ANTICIPATION OF WAR
Contradictory to official rhetoric, the populations of the Soviet western territories witnessed the unquestionable preparations for war as Germany amassed troops and weapons at the border. The locals, many fiercely anti-Soviet, welcomed a potential Nazi invasion, believing economic and religious freedom would return. On the other hand, large local Jewish populations, facing increased anti-Semitism and fearing a Nazi push eastward, welcomed the Soviets. Shortly after the Red Army’s arrival in September 1939, however, many Jews were deported to the Soviet east for their now-illicit small business, religious, or political activities. This act of punishment inadvertently saved many from Hitler’s massacres. The majority of the Soviet people had no inkling of the German invasion. Polish refugees fleeing to the Soviet Union warned about Nazi policies, but these were dismissed as exaggerations. Members of the older generations who had lived through WWI, or studied in Germany in the 1920s, remembered a refined and just German people. Many of the most vulnerable in the Soviet west – the Jewish elderly, children and women – chose to stay home rather than embark on a difficult evacuation journey; the overwhelming majority perished. No one could have imagined the magnitude of the horror that was to be unleashed on June 22, 1941.