Academic journal article Post Script

The Missing Links of Holocaust Cinema: Evacuation in Soviet Films

Academic journal article Post Script

The Missing Links of Holocaust Cinema: Evacuation in Soviet Films

Article excerpt

One of the unique features of the Holocaust on Soviet soil was the evacuation of Jews from Nazi-occupied territories to the Soviet rear. (1) Its effects are hard to over-estimate. As historian Mordechai Altshuler points out, escape and evacuation "marked the watershed between a chance to live and almost certain death." (2) Even if the Soviet evacuation policy did not favor Jews, close to a million-and-a-half Jews were saved by fleeing eastward to Central Asia and other hinterlands. (3) Some Jews were among the staff of important industries, cultural institutions, and elites, whom the Soviets evacuated in a relatively organized manner, while less privileged Jews fled on their own, covering hundreds of miles by foot or makeshift transport. Soviet Jewish refugees were joined by Polish Jews who escaped from Nazi-occupied territories. (4)

All evacuees faced great challenges, but those unaffiliated with any Soviet institution (like so many Jewish refugees) struggled the most. They had to secure housing in a city overrun with new arrivals, procure food, and find a means of existence when most of their professional and personal networks were disrupted. Survival was far from guaranteed: hunger, homelessness, and disease were rampant, and death was common. For Jewish refugees, growing antisemitism made the situation even worse. In short, Central Asia was no promised land.

The presence of Jewish refugees was felt in every major city that became an evacuation hub. Ghafur Ghulom, an Uzbek poet who witnessed an arrival of dejected Jewish refugees at Tashkent train station, was so moved that he penned a deeply compassionate poem, I Am a Jew (1941), placing Nazi atrocities in the long line of historical persecutions Jews faced. Not everyone was as sympathetic.

In addition to the objective difficulties, evacuees also had to cope with the stigma of evacuation, which was perceived as something shameful in wartime Soviet Union, as a cowardly act of running away and betrayal of one's civic duty. Evacuees were perceived as "useless" people who contributed neither to the society nor to the war effort. (5) The stigma attached to the evacuation was worst for men, but women also felt it. The only category of evacuees excused from stigma and shame were children. They were seen as a legitimately "weak" group in need of protection and sustenance. Indeed, children were overrepresented among the refugees and evacuees, many of them lost or orphaned.

For Jewish evacuees, increasing antisemitism exacerbated the stigma of evacuation. There were even cases of antisemitic attacks on fleeing Jews. Underpinning this behavior was an unfortunate assumption that "all Jews are cowards." (6) As historian Rebecca Manley puts it, "The popular post-war joke that Jews had served on the 'Tashkent front' merely underscores the degree to which the association between Jews and flight fostered a new wave of popular antisemitism that became a staple of the postwar period." (7) Indeed, when Jewish evacuees returned to their destroyed hometowns from evacuation, they encountered antisemitism refueled during the war by Nazi propaganda and Soviet policies.

Clearly, the stories of Jewish escape, survival, and return are significant chapters in the history of the Holocaust on Soviet territory. However, in my research on Soviet films representing the Holocaust I noticed that Jewish evacuees almost never appear on screen. (8) Even in the context of the overall limited representation of the Soviet-Jewish war experience in Soviet movies, this fact stands out. This chapter aims to understand the absence of Jewish evacuees from Soviet films.


Let us first attempt to understand a general positioning of evacuation in Soviet films. When we consider Soviet war films, it becomes quickly apparent that most of them deal with action on the front, and fewer with life in the rear. Of the latter movies, even fewer are concerned with evacuation. …

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