Military history



In January 1948, Stalin was killing a Jew. Solomon Mikhoels, the chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and the director of the Moscow Yiddish Theater, had been sent to Minsk to judge a play for the Stalin Prize. Once arrived, he was invited to the country house of the head of the Soviet Belarusian state police, Lavrenty Tsanava, who had him murdered, along with an inconvenient witness. Mikhoels’s body, crushed by a truck, was left on a quiet street.

Minsk had seen the ruthless German mass murder of Jews only a few years before. The irony of the Soviets killing one more Soviet Jew in Minsk would not have been lost on Tsanava, a policeman-cum-historian. He was finishing a history of the Belarusian partisan movement, which ignored the special plight and struggle of the Jews under German occupation. A Soviet history of Jewish partisans had been written, but would be suppressed. The Jews had suffered more than anyone else in Minsk during the war; it seemed that liberation by the Soviets had not brought the suffering of Soviet Jews to an end. It also seemed that the history of the Holocaust in the USSR would remain unwritten.1

Mikhoels had stood for issues that Stalin wanted to avoid. He was personally acquainted with people of Jewish origin in Stalin’s immediate milieu, such as the politburo member Lazar Kaganovich and the wives of politburo members Viacheslav Molotov and Kliment Voroshilov. What was worse, Mikhoels had sought to reach Stalin in order to communicate with him about the fate of the Jews during the war. Like Vasily Grossman, Mikhoels had been a member of the Soviet Union’s official Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee during the war. Mikhoels had worked, at Stalin’s instructions, to bring the plight of Soviet Jews to the attention of the world—in order to raise money for the Soviet war effort. After the war, Mikhoels found himself unable to let the mass murder of the Jews pass into historical oblivion, and unwilling to submerge the special suffering of the Jews into that of Soviet peoples generally. In September 1945 he had brought ashes from Babi Yar in a crystal vase to a lecture in Kiev, and had continued in the years after the war to speak openly of the death pits. Mikhoels also petitioned Stalin’s propaganda chief Andrei Zhdanov in 1947 to allow the publication of the Black Book of Soviet Jewry, a collection of documents and testimonies about the mass killing edited by Grossman, Ilya Ehrenburg, and others. This was in vain. The Zhdanov era in Soviet culture could not endorse a Jewish history of the war. In the postwar Soviet Union, memorial obelisks could not have Stars of David, only five-pointed red stars. In the western Soviet Union, in the lands the Soviets annexed during and again after the war, in the lands where some 1.6 million Jews were killed, monuments to Lenin were raised on pedestals built from Jewish tombstones. The synagogue where the Kovel Jews had left their final messages was being used to store grain.2

Svetlana Allilueva, Stalin’s daughter, overheard her father arranging the cover story for the murder with Tsanava: “car accident.” Mikhoels was a person of some stature in Soviet culture, and his political campaigning was unwelcome. Yet Stalin’s hostility toward Mikhoels as a Jew probably had as much to do with patrimony as it did with politics. Stalin’s son Iakov, who died in German captivity, had married a Jew. Svetlana’s first love had been a Jewish actor, whom Stalin called a British spy and sent to the Gulag. Svetlana’s first husband was also Jewish; Stalin called him stingy and cowardly, and forced her to divorce him so that she could marry the son of Zhdanov, Stalin’s purifier of Soviet culture. The match smacked of the founding of a royal family, one that was less Jewish than Svetlana’s own affections. Stalin had always had close collaborators who were Jewish, most notably Kaganovich. Yet now, as he neared seventy years of age, and as concerns about succession must have been growing in his mind, his own attitude about Jews seemed to be shifting.3

After Mikhoels was dead, the Soviet political police, now under the name Ministry of State Security, retroactively provided the reason why the killing was in the Soviet interest: Jewish nationalism. Viktor Abakumov, head of the Ministry (or MGB), concluded in March 1948 that Mikhoels was a Jewish nationalist who had fallen in with dangerous Americans. By Soviet standards, this was an easy enough case to make. Mikhoels had been instructed by the Soviet leadership, as a member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee during the war, to appeal to the national sentiments of Jews. He had traveled in 1943 to the United States to raise money, and there he had made sympathetic remarks about Zionism. By sheer accident, his airplane rested for a few hours on a runway in Palestine, where by his own account he kissed the air of the Holy Land. In February 1944, Mikhoels had joined a campaign to make of the Crimean Peninsula, cleared by the Soviets of supposed Muslim enemies after 1943, a “Jewish socialist republic.” Crimea, on the Black Sea, was a maritime border region of the Soviet Union. The idea that it might serve as a Soviet Jewish homeland had been raised several times, and was supported by some prominent American Jews. Stalin preferred the Soviet solution, Birobidzhan, the Jewish autonomous region deep in the Soviet Far East.4

Given the centrality of the Second World War to the experience of all east Europeans, in the USSR and in the new satellite states, everyone in the new communist Europe would have to understand that the Russian nation had struggled and suffered like no other. Russians would have to be the greatest victors and the greatest victims, now and forever. The Russian heartland, perhaps, could be protected from the dangerous West: by the other Soviet republics, and by the new satellite states of eastern Europe. The contradiction here was obvious: those peoples who were forming the buffer had the least reason to accept the Stalinist claim about Russian martyrdom and purity. The case would be a particularly hard one to make in places such as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, where the Second World War had begun and ended with a Soviet occupation. It would be none too simple in western Ukraine, where nationalist partisans fought the Soviets for years after the war. Poles were unlikely to forget that the Second World War had begun with allied German and Soviet armies invading Poland.

The logical difficulties would be all the greater among Jews. Since the Germans had killed Soviet Jews, then Polish Jews, and then other European Jews, the Holocaust could hardly be contained in any Soviet history of the war—least of all one that moved the center of gravity of suffering east to Russia where relatively few Jews died. It was one thing for Jews to regard the return of Soviet power as liberation, which most did, but quite another for them to recognize that other Soviet citizens had suffered more than they. Jews understood the Red Army as a liberating force precisely becauseNazi policy had been to exterminate them. Yet this sense of gratitude, because of its special sources, did not convert automatically into a political legend about a Great Fatherland War and Russia. Jews, after all, had also fought in the Red Army, and had been more likely to have been decorated for bravery than Soviet citizens generally.5

The number of Jews killed by the Germans in the Soviet Union was a state secret. The Germans killed about a million native Soviet Jews, plus about 1.6 million more Polish, Lithuanian, and Latvian Jews brought into the USSR by the Soviet annexations of 1939 and 1940. The Romanians also killed Jews chiefly on territories that after the war were within the boundaries of the Soviet Union. These numbers were of an obvious sensitivity, since they revealed that, even by comparison with the dreadful suffering of other Soviet peoples, the Jews had suffered a very special fate. Jews were less than two percent of the population and Russians more than half; the Germans had murdered more Jewish civilians than Russian civilians in the occupied Soviet Union. Jews were in a category of their own, even by comparison with the Slavic peoples who had suffered more than the Russians, such as Ukrainians and Belarusians and Poles. The Soviet leadership knew this, and so did Soviet citizens who lived in the lands that the Germans had occupied. But the Holocaust could never become part of the Soviet history of the war.6

These high figures of murdered Jews also raised the troubling question of just how the Germans had managed to kill so many civilians in such a short time in the occupied Soviet Union. They had help from Soviet citizens. As everyone with experience of the war knew, the German armies were enormous, but the German occupying forces in the rear were sparse. German civilian authorities and police lacked the numbers to govern the western Soviet Union in any recognizable fashion, let alone to carry out a thorough policy of mass murder. Local officials continued to do their jobs under their new masters, local young men volunteered for the police, and in the ghettos some Jews took on the task of policing the rest. The shootings east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line had implicated, in one way or another, hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens. (For that matter, much of the crucial work at the death facilities west of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line in occupied Poland had been performed by Soviet citizens. It was unmentionable that Soviet citizens had staffed Treblinka, Sobibór, and Bełżec.) That the Germans needed collaborators, and found them, is not surprising. But collaboration undermined the myth of a united Soviet population defending the honor of the fatherland by resisting the hated fascist invader. Its prevalence was one more reason that the mass murder of the Jews was to be forgotten.

During the war, the Soviets and their allies had been in general agreement that the war was not to be understood as a war of the liberation of Jews. From different perspectives, the Soviet, Polish, American, and British leaderships all believed that Jewish suffering was best understood as one aspect of a generally wicked German occupation. Though Allied leaders were quite aware of the course of the Holocaust, none treated it as a reason to make war on Nazi Germany, or to turn much special attention to the suffering of Jews. The Jewish issue was generally avoided in propaganda. When Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt issued a “Declaration Concerning Atrocities” in Moscow in October 1943, they mentioned, among the Nazi crimes, “the wholesale shooting of Polish officers,” which was a reference to Katyn, actually a Soviet crime; and “the execution of French, Dutch, Belgian or Norwegian hostages” and “Cretan peasants”—but not Jews. The “peoples” of Poland and the Soviet Union were mentioned, but the Jewish minority in each country was not named. By the time that summary of atrocities was published, over five million Jews had been shot or gassed because they were Jews.7

In its more enlightened form, this reticence about racial murder reflected a principled hesitation to endorse Hitler’s racist understanding of the world. The Jews were not citizens of any one country, went the reasoning, and thus to group them together, went the fear, was to acknowledge their unity as a race, and to accept Hitler’s racial view of the world. In its less enlightened form, this view was a concession to popular anti-Semitism—very much present in the Soviet Union, Poland, Britain, and the United States. For London and Washington, this tension was resolved with victory in the war in 1945. The Americans and the British liberated no part of Europe that had a very significant Jewish population before the war, and saw none of the German death facilities. The politics of postwar economic, political, and military cooperation in western Europe had relatively little to do with the Jewish question.

The territory of Stalin’s enlarged state included most of the German killing fields, and that of his postwar empire (including communist Poland) the sites of all of the German death factories. Stalin and his politburo had to confront, after the war, continued resistance to the reimposition of Soviet power, in ways that made the wartime fate of the Jews unavoidable as a matter of ideology and politics. Postwar resistance in the western Soviet Union was a continuation of the war in two senses: these were the lands that the Soviets had won by conquest in the first place, and the lands where people had taken up arms in large numbers to fight them. In the Baltics and Ukraine and Poland, some partisans were openly anti-Semitic, and continued to use the Nazi tactic of associating Soviet power with Jewry.

In this situation, the Soviets had every political incentive to continue to distance themselves and their state from Jewish suffering, and indeed to make special efforts to ensure that anti-Semites did not associate the return of Soviet power with the return of Jews. In Lithuania, once again incorporated into the Soviet Union, the general secretary of the local branch of the Soviet communist party counted the Jews killed in the Holocaust as “sons of the nation,” Lithuanians who died as martyrs for communism. Nikita Khrushchev, politburo member and general secretary of the party in Ukraine, went even further. He was in charge of the struggle to defeat Ukrainian nationalists in what had been southeastern Poland, a place that before the war had been densely settled with Jews and Poles. The Germans had killed the Jews, and the Soviets had deported the Poles. Khrushchev wanted Ukrainians to thank the Soviet Union for the “unification” of their country at the expense of Poland and for the “cleansing” of Polish landlords. Knowing that the nationalists wanted ethnic purity, he did not want Soviet power to stand for anything else.8

Sensitive as he was to the mood of the population, Stalin sought a way to present the war that would flatter the Russians while marginalizing the Jews (and, for that matter, every other people of the Soviet Union). The whole Soviet idea of the Great Patriotic War was premised on the view that the war began in 1941, when Germany invaded the USSR, not in 1939, when Germany and the Soviet Union together invaded Poland. In other words, in the official story, the territories absorbed as a result of Soviet aggression in 1939 had to be considered as somehow always having been Soviet, rather than as the booty of a war that Stalin had helped Hitler to begin. Otherwise the Soviet Union would figure as one of the two powers that started the war, as one of the aggressors, which was obviously unacceptable.

No Soviet account of the war could note one of its central facts: German and Soviet occupation together was worse than German occupation alone. The populations east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, subject to one German and two Soviet occupations, suffered more than those of any other region of Europe. From a Soviet perspective, all of the deaths in that zone could simply be lumped together with Soviet losses, even though the people in question had been Soviet citizens for only a matter of months when they died, and even though many of them were killed by the NKVD rather than the SS. In this way, Polish, Romanian, Lithuanian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian deaths, sometimes caused by the Soviet rather than the German forces, served to make the tragedy of the Soviet Union (or even, to the inattentive, of Russia) seem all the greater.

The vast losses suffered by Soviet Jews were mostly the deaths of Jews in lands just invaded by the Soviet Union. These Jews were citizens of Poland, Romania, and the Baltic States, brought under Soviet control by force only twenty-one months before the German invasion in the case of Poland, and only twelve months before in the case of northeastern Romania and the Baltics. The Soviet citizens who suffered most in the war had been brought by force under Soviet rule right before the Germans came—as a result of a Soviet alliance with Nazi Germany. This was awkward. The history of the war had to begin in 1941, and these people had to be “peaceful Soviet citizens.”

Jews in the lands east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, so recently conquered by the Soviet Union, were the first to be reached by the Einsatzgruppen when Hitler betrayed Stalin and Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. They had been shielded by the Soviet press from knowledge of German policies toward Jews of 1939 and 1940. They had virtually no time to evacuate since Stalin had refused to believe in a German invasion. They had been subject to terror and deportation in the enlarged Soviet Union in 1939-1941 during the period when Stalin and Hitler were allied, and then terribly exposed to German forces by the breaking of that alliance. These Jews in this small zone made up more than a quarter of the total victims of the Holocaust.

If the Stalinist notion of the war was to prevail, the fact that the Jews were its main victims had to be forgotten. Also to be forgotten was that the Soviet Union had been allied to Nazi Germany when the war began in 1939, and that the Soviet Union had been unprepared for the German attack in 1941. The murder of the Jews was not only an undesirable memory in and of itself; it called forth other undesirable memories. It had to be forgotten.


After the Second World War, it was much harder for the Soviet leadership to control the mental world of Soviet citizens. Although the apparatus of censorship remained in force, too many people had experienced life beyond the Soviet Union for Soviet norms to seem like the only norms, or Soviet lives necessarily the best sort of lives. The war itself could not be contained within a Fatherland, be it Russian or Soviet; it had touched too many other peoples and its aftermath shaped not just a country but a world. In particular, the establishment of the State of Israel made Soviet political amnesia about the fate of the Jews impossible. Even after the Holocaust, more Jews lived in the Soviet Union than in Palestine, but the latter was to become the national homeland of the Jews. If Jews were to have a national state, would this be a blow to British imperialism in the Middle East, to be supported, or a challenge to the loyalty of Soviet Jews, to be feared?9

At first, the Soviet leadership seemed to expect that Israel would be a socialist state friendly to the Soviet Union, and the communist bloc supported Israel in ways that no one else could. In the second half of 1947, about seventy thousand Jews were permitted to leave Poland for Israel; many of them had just been expelled from the Soviet Union to Poland. After the United Nations recognized the State of Israel in May 1948 (with the Soviets voting in favor), the new state was invaded by its neighbors. Its nascent armies defended itself and, in dozens of cases, cleared territories of Arabs. The Poles trained Jewish soldiers on their own territory, then dispatched them to Palestine. The Czechoslovaks sent arms. As Arthur Koestler noted, the weapons shipments “aroused a feeling of gratitude among the Jews towards the Soviet Union.”10

Yet by the end of 1948 Stalin had decided that Jews were influencing the Soviet state more than the Soviets were influencing the Jewish state. Spontaneous signs of affection for Israel were apparent in Moscow, and in Stalin’s own court. Muscovites seemed to adore the new Israeli ambassador, Golda Meir (born in Kiev and raised in the United States). The high holidays were observed with enormous fanfare. Rosh Hashanah saw the largest public gathering in Moscow in twenty years. Some ten thousand Jews crowded in and around the Choral Synagogue. When the shofar blew and people promised each other to meet “next year in Jerusalem,” the mood was euphoric. The anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, 7 November 1948, fell during the Days of Awe, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Polina Zhemchuzhina, the wife of the commissar for foreign affairs Viacheslav Molotov, saw Golda Meir that day, and encouraged her to continue to go to synagogue. What was worse, Zhemchuzhina said this in Yiddish, the language of her parents and of Meir’s—in that paranoid setting, a suggestion of national unity among Jews across borders. Ekaterina Gorbman, the wife of another politburo member, Kliment Voroshilov, was heard to exclaim: “Now we too have our own homeland!”11


In late 1948 and early 1949, public life in the Soviet Union veered toward anti-Semitism. The new line was set, indirectly but discernibly, by Pravda on 28 January 1949. An article on “unpatriotic theater critics,” who were “bearers of stateless cosmopolitanism,” began a campaign of denunciation of Jews in every sphere of professional life. Pravda purged itself of Jews in early March. Jewish officers were cashiered from the Red Army and Jewish activists removed from leadership positions in the communist party. A few dozen Jewish poets and novelists who used Russian literary pseudonyms found their real or prior names published in parentheses. Jewish writers who had taken an interest in Yiddish culture or in the German murder of Jews found themselves under arrest. As Grossman recalled, “Throughout the whole of the USSR it seemed that only Jews thieved and took bribes, only Jews were criminally indifferent towards the sufferings of the sick, and only Jews published vicious or badly written books.”12

The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was formally dissolved in November 1948, and more than a hundred Jewish writers and activists were arrested. The writer Der Nister, for example, was arrested in 1949, and died in police custody the following year. His novel The Family Mashber contained a vision that now seemed prophetic, as Soviet practices seemed to converge with Nazi models: “a heavily laden freight train with a long row of uniformly red cars, its black wheels rolling along, all turning at the same speed while seeming to be standing still.” Jews across the Soviet Union were in a state of distress. The MGB reported the anxieties of the Jews in Soviet Ukraine, who understood that the policy must come from the top, and worried that “no one can say what form this is going to take.” Only five years had passed since the end of the German occupation. For that matter, only eleven years had passed since the end of the Great Terror.13

Soviet Jews now risked two epithets: that they were “Jewish nationalists” and “rootless cosmopolitans.” Although these two charges might have seemed mutually contradictory, since a nationalist is someone who emphasizes his roots, within a Stalinist logic they could function together. Jews were “cosmopolitans” in that their attachment to Soviet culture and the Russian language was supposedly insincere. They could not be counted upon to defend the Soviet Union or the Russian nation from penetration by various currents coming from the west. In this guise, the Jew was inherently attracted to the United States, where Jews (as Stalin believed Jews thought) could go and become rich. American industrial power was obvious to the Soviets, who used Studebaker automobiles to deport their own populations. Technological superiority (and simple ruthlessness) had also been on display at the end of the war in Japan, in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

America’s power was visible as well during the blockade of Berlin in the second half of 1948. Germany was still occupied by the four victorious powers: the Soviets, Americans, British, and French. Berlin, which lay within the Soviet zone, was under joint occupation. The western Allies had announced that they would introduce a new German currency, the Deutschmark, in the zones they controlled. The Soviets blockaded west Berlin, with the evident goal of forcing west Berliners to accept supplies from the Soviets, and thus accept Soviet control of their society. The Americans then undertook to supply the isolated city by air, which Moscow claimed could never work. In May 1949, the Soviets had to give up the blockade. The Americans, along with the British, proved capable of supplying thousands of tons of supplies by air every day. In this one action, goodwill, prosperity, and power were all on display. As the Cold War began, America and Americans seemed able to do what none of Moscow’s previous rivals had: to present a universal and attractive vision of life. It was all well and good to lump the Americans with the Nazis as members of the same reactionary “camp,” but Jews (and others, of course) would find such an association implausible.

Soviet Jews were also called “Zionists,” in that they might prefer Israel, the Jewish national state, to the Soviet Union, their homeland. Israel after the war, like Poland or Latvia or Finland before the war, was a national state that might attract the loyalty of a diaspora nationality within the Soviet Union. In the interwar period, Soviet policy had first sought to support all nationalities in their cultural development, but then turned sharply against certain national minorities, such as the Poles, Latvians, and Finns. The Soviet Union could offer education and assimilation to Jews (as to all other groups), but what if those educated Soviet Jews, after the establishment of Israel and the triumph of the United States, sensed a better alternative elsewhere?

A Soviet Jew could appear to be both a “rootless cosmopolitan” and a “Zionist,” insofar as Israel, in the emerging Soviet view, was seen as an American satellite. A Jew attracted to America might support America’s new client; a Jew attracted to Israel was supporting Israel’s new patron. Either way, or both ways, Soviet Jews were no longer dependable citizens of the Soviet Union. So, perhaps, it appeared to Stalin.

Now that Jewishness and Jewish connections with the United States were suspect, Viktor Abakumov, head of the MGB, tried to find a way to make the former activists of the dissolved Anti-Fascist Committee into agents of American espionage. In some sense, the job was easy. The Committee had been created to allow Soviet Jews to speak to world Jewry, so its members could easily be called both Jewish nationalists and cosmopolitans. Yet this logic did not immediately seem to justify a mass terror action, or the model of the national operations of 1937-1938. Abakumov found himself frustrated from above. Without Stalin’s express approval, he could not drag any truly important Jews into the plot, let alone begin anything like a mass operation.

During the national operations of 1937-1938, no member of the politburo had belonged to any of the targeted nationalities. Matters would be different for any prospective Jewish operation. In 1949, Lazar Kaganovich was no longer Stalin’s closest associate and no longer his presumed successor, but he was still a member of the Soviet politburo. Any claim of Jewish nationalist penetration of top Soviet organs (on the analogy of Polish nationalist penetration of 1937-1938) would have to begin with Kaganovich. Stalin refused to allow Kaganovich, the only Jewish politburo member, to be investigated. At this time, five of the 210 full and candidate members of the central committee of the Soviet communist party were men of Jewish origin; none of them was investigated.

Abakumov’s search for Jewish spies did reach the families of politburo members. Polina Zhemchuzhina, Molotov’s wife, was arrested in January 1949. She denied the charges of treason. In his one act of rebellion, Molotov abstained from the vote to condemn his wife. Later, though, he apologized: “I acknowledge my heavy sense of remorse for not having prevented Zhemchuzhina, a person very dear to me, from making her mistakes and from forming ties with anti-Soviet Jewish nationalists such as Mikhoels.” The next day she was arrested. Zhemchuzhina was sentenced to forced labor, and Molotov divorced her. She spent five years in exile in Kazakhstan, among kulaks, the kind of people her husband had helped to deport in the 1930s. It seems that they helped her to survive. Molotov, for his part, lost his position as commissar for foreign affairs. He had been appointed to the job in 1939, in part because he (unlike his predecessor Litvinov) was not Jewish, and Stalin had then needed someone with whom Hitler would negotiate. He lost the same job in 1949, at least in part because his wife was Jewish.14

Those people who were investigated were not very cooperative. When fourteen more or less unknown Soviet Jews were finally chosen to be tried in May 1952, the result was an unusual sort of judiciary chaos. Only two of the accused confessed to all of the charges during the investigations; the rest admitted only some of the charges or denied them all. Then, during the trial itself, every single one of them claimed to be innocent. Even Itzik Fefer, a police informant all along, and during the trial a witness for the prosecution, refused in the end to cooperate. Thirteen of the fourteen defenders were sentenced to death in August 1952 and executed. Although the trial created a precedent for executing Jews for spying for the Americans, it was of little political value. The people in question were too little known to arouse much interest, and their comportment was inappropriate for a show trial.15

If Stalin indeed wanted a spectacular Jewish affair, he would have to look elsewhere.


Communist Poland looked like a promising place for an anti-Semitic show trial, though in the end one never took place. The Jewish question was even more sensitive in Warsaw than in Moscow. Poland had been the home to more than three million Jews before the war; by 1948 it had been remade as a nationally homogeneous ethnic Polish state ruled by communists—some of whom were of Jewish origin. Poles were co-opted by formerly German property in the west and formerly Jewish property in the cities—the Polish language developed words meaning “formerly German” and “formerly Jewish,” applied to property. Yet while Ukrainians and Germans were deported from communist Poland, Jews were actually deported to Poland: about one hundred thousand from the Soviet Union. Poles could hardly fail to notice that the highest ranks of the communist party and its security apparatus remained multinational even as the country was ethnically cleansed: party and secret police leaders were disproportionately of Jewish origin. Jews who chose to stay in Poland after the war were often communists with a sense of mission, who believed in the transformation of the country for the good of all.16

Poland had been the center of Jewish life in Europe for five hundred years; now that history seemed to be over. Some ninety percent of Poland’s prewar Jewish population had been killed during the war. Most of the Polish-Jewish survivors of the war left their homeland in the years following the war. Many of them could not return to their homes in any event, since these now lay in the Soviet Union, which had annexed eastern Poland. In Soviet ethnic cleansing policies, Ukrainians and Belarusians and Lithuanians were to remain in the Soviet republics that bore their names, whereas Jews, like Poles, were to go to Poland. Jews who tried to return home were often greeted with distrust and violence. Some Poles were perhaps also afraid that Jews would claim property that they had lost during the war, because Poles had, in one way or another, stolen it from them (often after their own homes had been destroyed). Yet Jews were often resettled in formerly German Silesia, a “recovered territory” taken from Germany, where this issue could not have arisen. Even so, here as elsewhere in postwar Poland, Jews were beaten and killed and threatened to such an extent that most survivors decided to leave. It mattered, of course, that they had places to go: the United States or Israel. To get to these places, Polish Jews first went to Germany to displaced persons camps.

The voluntary movement of Holocaust survivors to Germany was not only a melancholy irony. It was also the latest stage in a journey that revealed many of the dreadful policies to which Jews and others had been subjected. Jews in displaced persons camps in Germany were very often Jews from western and central Poland who had fled from the Germans in 1939, or been deported by the Soviets to the Gulag in 1940, only to return to a postwar Poland where people wanted to keep their property and blamed them personally for Soviet rule. It was very dangerous to be a Jew in postwar Poland—though no more so than to be a Ukrainian or a German or a Pole in the anti-communist underground. These other groups generally wished to stay in their homeland. Jews, however, had a special reason to be unsure of themselves in their own country: three million of their fellows had just been killed in occupied Poland.

The departure of Polish Jews to Israel and the United States made the role of Jewish communists in Polish politics even more visible than it would otherwise have been. The Polish communist regime faced a double political handicap: it was not national in a geopolitical sense, since it was dependent upon the support of Moscow; and it was not national in an ethnic sense, since some of its prominent representatives were Jewish (and these people had spent the war in the Soviet Union).17

Polish communists of Jewish origin could be in power in 1949 because of the international politics of the early Cold War in 1948. For reasons that had nothing to do with Poland, and everything to do with a larger rupture within the communist bloc, Stalin paid more attention to the risk of majority nationalism than to the risk of Jewish “cosmopolitanism” or “Zionism” in summer 1948.

Since Stalin was trying to coordinate and control his new group of communist allies, Moscow’s ideological line reacted to perceived disloyalty in eastern Europe. As Stalin must have observed, it was much harder for the leaders of communist regimes to follow the Soviet line than it had been for leaders of communist parties before the war: these comrades actually had to govern. Stalin also had to adjust his ideological line to the realities of American power. These anxieties came to the fore in summer 1948; the concern with Jews dropped momentarily into the background. This was crucial for Poland, since it allowed communists of Jewish origin to secure power, and then to make sure that no anti-Semitic show trial took place.

In summer 1948, Stalin’s major worry in eastern Europe was communist Yugoslavia. In this important Balkan country, communism involved admiration for the Soviet Union but not dependence upon Soviet power. Tito (Josip Broz), the leader of the Yugoslav communists and Yugoslav partisans, had succeeded in taking power without Soviet help. After the war, Tito showed signs of independence from Stalin in foreign policy. He spoke of a Balkan federation after Stalin had abandoned the idea. He was supporting communist revolutionaries in neighboring Greece, a country that Stalin regarded as falling within the American and British sphere of influence. President Harry Truman had made clear, in his “doctrine” announced in March 1947, that the Americans would take action to prevent the spread of communism to Greece. Stalin cared more about stabilizing his gains in Europe than about further revolutionary adventures. He clearly believed that he could bring down Tito and have him replaced with more solicitous Yugoslav leadership.18

The Tito-Stalin split shaped international communism. Tito’s independent stand, and the expulsion of Yugoslavia from the Cominform that followed, made him a negative model of “national communism.” Between April and September 1948, Moscow’s satellite regimes were encouraged to concern themselves with the supposed nationalist danger (the “right-wing deviation” from the party line) rather than the (Jewish) cosmopolitan one (the “left-wing deviation”). When Polish general secretary Władysław Gomułka objected to the new line, he opened himself to charges that he too exemplified a national “deviation.” In June 1948, Andrei Zhdanov instructed rival Polish communists to bring down Gomułka. The Polish politburo member Jakub Berman agreed that the Polish party suffered from a national deviation. That August, Gomułka was removed from his position as general secretary. At the end of the month he had to issue a self-criticism to the assembled central committee of the Polish party.19

Gomułka was in fact a national communist, and Polish comrades of Jewish origins were perhaps right to fear him. He was not Jewish (though he did have a Jewish wife), and was seen as more attentive to the interests of non-Jewish Poles than his comrades. Unlike Jakub Berman and several other leading communists, he had remained in Poland during the war, and so was less well known to the Soviet leadership in Moscow than were comrades who had fled to the Soviet Union. He had certainly profited from national questions: he had presided over the dual ethnic cleansings of Germans and Ukrainians, and had taken personal responsibility for the settlement of Poles in the western “recovered territories.” He had gone so far as to make a speech to the central committee in which he criticized certain traditions of the Polish Left for their disproportionate attention to Jews.

After his fall, Gomułka was replaced by a triumvirate of Bolesław Bierut, Jakub Berman, and Hilary Minc (the latter two of whom were of Jewish origin). The new Polish troika came to power just in time to avoid an anti-Semitic action in Poland. Disconcertingly for them, the line from Moscow altered during the very weeks when they were trying to consolidate their position. While the right-wing national deviation was still possible, Stalin’s most explicit signals in autumn 1948 concerned the role of Jews in east European communist parties. He made clear that Zionists and cosmopolitans were no longer welcome. Perhaps sensing the new mood, Gomułka appealed to Stalin that December: there were too many “Jewish comrades” in the Polish party leadership who “do not feel connected to the Polish nation.” This, according to Gomułka, led to the alienation of the party from Polish society and risked “national nihilism.”20

The year 1949 thus brought a particular sort of Stalinism to Poland. Jewish Stalinists exercised a great deal of power, but were caught between Stalinist anti-Semitism in Moscow and popular anti-Semitism in their own country. Neither of these was important enough to make their rule impossible, but they had to make sure that the two did not meet. Jewish communists had to stress that their political identification with the Polish nation was so strong that it erased their Jewish origins and removed any possibility of distinct Jewish policies.

One striking example of this tendency was the reimagining of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, the major instance of Jewish resistance to the Holocaust, as a Polish national revolt led by communists. Hersh Smolar, the Polish-Jewish communist who had been the hero of the Minsk ghetto, now drained the Jewishness from Jewish resistance to Nazis. He described the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the obligatory ideological terms of Zhdanov: there had been “two camps” within the ghetto, one progressive and one reactionary. Those who spoke of Israel were in the reactionary camp now, as they had been then. The progressives were the communists, and the communists had fought. This was an extraordinary distortion: while the communists had indeed urged armed resistance in the ghetto, the left-wing Zionists and the Bund had more popular support, and the right-wing Zionists more guns. Smolar promised purges to Jewish political activists who failed to accept Polish national communism: “And if there turn out to be people among us who are going to buzz on like flies about some sort of supposedly higher and more essential Jewish national goals, then we will eliminate those people from our society, just like the fighters of the ghetto pushed aside the cowards and those of weak will.”21

All resistance to fascism was by definition led by communists; if it was not led by communists, then it was not resistance. The history of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 had to be rewritten such that communists could be seen as leading Polish Jews—just as they were supposedly leading the Polish anti-Nazi resistance generally. In the politically acceptable history of the Second World War, the resistance in the ghetto had little to do with the mass murder of Jews, and much to do with the courage of communists. This fundamental shift of emphasis obscured the Jewish experience of the war, as the Holocaust became nothing more than an instance of fascism. It was precisely Jewish communists who had to develop and communicate these misrepresentations, so that they could not be charged with attending to Jewish rather than Polish goals. In order to seem like plausible Polish communist leaders, Jewish communists had to delete from history the single most important example of Jews resisting Nazis from Jewish motivations. The bait in Stalin’s political trap was left by Hitler.22

This was Polish-Jewish Stalinist self-defense from Stalin’s own anti-Semitism. If Jewish resistance heroes were willing, in effect, to deny the significance of Hitler’s anti-Semitism to Jewish life and politics, and in some cases to their own desire to resist the German occupation, then surely they had proven their devotion. Stalinism involved denying the most obvious historical facts, and their most pressing personal significance: in the case of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, Polish-Jewish communists managed both. By comparison, the associated slander of the Home Army and the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 was an easy labor. Since it had not been led by communists, it could not have been an uprising. Since the Home Army soldiers were not communists, they were reactionaries, acting against the interests of the toiling masses. The Polish patriots who died seeking to liberate their capital were fascists, little better than Hitler. The Home Army, which had fought the Germans with much greater determination than the Polish communists, was a “bespittled dwarf of reaction.”23

Jakub Berman was the politburo member responsible for both ideology and security in 1949. He repeated a key Stalinist argument for terror: as the revolution nears completion, its enemies fight ever more desperately, and so committed revolutionaries must resort to ever more extreme measures. With feigned deafness to the Soviet line, he framed the struggle as one against the right-wing, or national, deviation. No one could fault Berman for lack of attention to nationalism after the Tito-Stalin split. Meanwhile, no one could have done more than Berman to discolor the Jewish memory of German mass killing in occupied Poland. Berman, who had lost much of his immediate family to Treblinka in 1942, presided over a Polish national communism in which, only a few years later, the gas chambers fell deep into the historical background.24

The Holocaust had drawn many Jews toward communism, the ideology of the Soviet liberator; and yet now, in order to rule Poland and to appease Stalin, leading Jewish communists had to deny the Holocaust’s importance. Berman had already made a first important move in this direction in December 1946, when he directed that the official estimate of non-Jewish Polish dead be significantly increased and that of Jewish dead somewhat decreased so that the two numbers were equal: three million each. The Holocaust was already politics, and of a dangerous and difficult sort. It, like every other historical event, had to be understood “dialectically,” in terms that corresponded to Stalin’s ideological line and the political desiderata of the present moment. Perhaps more Jews than non-Jewish Poles had died. But perhaps that was politically inconvenient. Perhaps it would be better if the number were even. To allow one’s personal sense of factuality or fairness to interfere with such dialectical adjustments was to fail as a communist. To recall one’s own family’s deaths in the gas chamber was pure bourgeois sentimentality. A successful communist had to look ahead, as Berman did, to see just what the moment demanded from the truth, and act accordingly and decisively. The Second World War, like the Cold War, was a struggle of progressive against reactionary forces, and that was that.25

Berman, a very intelligent man, understood all of this as well as anyone could, and he brought these premises to their logical conclusions. He presided over a security apparatus that arrested members of the Home Army who had accepted the special assignment of saving Jews. They and their actions had no historical resonance within a Stalinist worldview: the Jews had suffered no more than anyone else, and the soldiers of the Home Army were no better than fascists.

Berman’s most glaring fault, from the perspective of Stalin himself, was that he was himself of Jewish origin (though his documents showed Polish nationality). This was not exactly a secret: he had married under a khuppah. In July 1949, the Soviet ambassador complained in a note to Moscow that the Polish leadership was dominated by Jews such as Berman, and that the security apparatus was run by Jews—an exaggerated assessment, although not without some basis. In the period 1944-1954, 167 of 450 high-ranking Ministry of Public Security officers were Jewish by self-declaration or origin, so about thirty-seven percent in a country where Jews were fewer than one percent of the population. Most though far from all people of Jewish origin in the upper reaches of the security service defined themselves as Poles in their identity documents. This may or may not have reflected how they regarded themselves; these matters were rarely simple. But passport identity, even when it did (as it often did) reflect a sincere identification with the Polish state or nation, did not prevent people of Jewish background from being seen as Jews by much of the Polish population or by the Soviet leadership.26

Berman, the most important communist of Jewish origin in Poland, was the obvious target of any potential anti-Semitic show trial. He understood this perfectly well. To make matters worse, he could be connected with the leading actors of the main drama of the early Cold War, the Field brothers. The Americans Noel and Hermann Field were by then under arrest in Czechoslovakia and Poland as American spies. Noel Field had been an American diplomat, but also an agent of Soviet intelligence; he was friendly with Allen Dulles, the American intelligence chief who had directed the OSS office in Bern, Switzerland; he also ran a relief organization that aided communists after the war. Field came to Prague in 1949, probably believing that the Soviets again wished for his services; he was arrested. His brother Hermann came to look for him, and was himself arrested in Warsaw. The two of them, under torture, confessed to having organized a vast espionage organization in eastern Europe.27

Though they were never tried themselves, the Field brothers’ alleged activities provided the plot line for a number of the show trials that were then being held throughout communist eastern Europe. In Hungary in September 1949, for example, Lászlo Rájk was show-tried and executed as an agent of Noel Field. The Hungarian investigation had supposedly discovered cells of the Fields’ organization in fraternal communist countries as well. As it happened, Hermann Field knew Berman’s secretary and had once given her a letter for him. The Fields were dangerous precisely because they did in fact know many communists, could in fact be associated with American intelligence, and now under torture could be expected to say anything. At a certain point, Stalin himself asked Berman about Field.28

Jakub Berman could also be linked to Jewish politics of a kind that were no longer permitted. He knew the members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, since he had met with Mikhoels and Fefer before their 1943 visit to the United States. He came from a family that represented some of the range of Jewish politics in Poland. A brother (killed at Treblinka) had been a member of Poalei-Zion Right, one branch of socialist Zionism. Another brother, Adolf, who had survived the Warsaw ghetto, was a member of Poalei-Zion Left, another branch of left-wing Zionism. Adolf Berman had organized social services for children in the Warsaw ghetto, and after the war directed the Central Committee of Polish Jews. As Poland became communist, he remained a left-wing Zionist, in the conviction that these political positions could somehow be reconciled.29

In 1949, it was becoming clear that people such as Adolf Berman had no place in postwar Poland. Indeed, it was to him personally that Smolar had directed the harsh words about the reactionary character of Zionism and the need to eliminate cowardly Jews from Polish society. In so doing Smolar was creating a kind of Stalinist defense against Stalin himself: if Jewish communists in Poland were ostentatiously anti-Zionist and pro-Polish, they could elude accusations of Zionism and cosmopolitanism. But it was less than clear that even this categorical approach could defend Jakub Berman from the association with his brother. Stalinist anti-Semitism could not be so easily resisted by individual loyalty and commitment.

Jakub Berman survived because he was defended by his friend and ally Bolesław Bierut, the general secretary of the Polish party and the gentile face of its ruling triumvirate. Stalin once asked Bierut whom he needed more, Berman or Minc: Bierut was too wise to fall into that trap. Bierut placed himself between Stalin and Berman, which was to take a risk. In general, Polish communists never permitted themselves the brutality to one another that was evident in Czechoslovakia, Romania, or Hungary. Even the disgraced Gomułka was never forced to sign a humiliating confession or face trial. Polish communists who were in power in the late 1940s usually knew, from personal experience, just what had happened to their comrades in the 1930s. Back then, Stalin had sent a signal; Polish communists had duly denounced each other, which led to mass murder, and the end of the party itself. Although all foreign communists suffered in the Great Terror, this Polish experience was unique, and perhaps created a certain sense of concern for the lives of one’s own closest comrades.30

As the pressure from the Soviet Union built, Berman finally allowed the security services to follow the anti-Jewish line in 1950. Polish Jews fell under special suspicion as American or Israeli spies. This was not without a certain awkwardness, as those building the cases against Polish Jews were sometimes themselves Polish Jews. The Polish security apparatus itself was purged of some of its Jewish officers. Because this often involved Jews purging other Jews, the relevant department of the security apparatus was informally called the bureau of “self-extermination.” It was directed by Józef Światło, whose own sister had left for Israel in 1947. 31

Yet Berman, Minc, and Bierut held on, maintaining that they were the proper Poles, the proper communists, the proper patriots, both to an incredulous society and to a doubting Stalin. Although Jews, communists and otherwise, were forced to stifle the memory of the Holocaust, there was no public campaign in Poland in those years against Zionists and cosmopolitans. Making concessions and relying on the loyalty of his friend Bierut, Berman was able to maintain that in Poland the main danger came from the Polish, not the Jewish, national deviation. When in July 1951 Gomułka was finally arrested, the two security officers who came for him, as he likely remembered, were men of Jewish origin.


In the years 1950-1952, as the Poles dragged their feet, the Cold War became a military confrontation. The Korean War sharpened Stalin’s concerns about American power.

In the early 1950s, the Soviet Union seemed to be in a much stronger position than it had been before the war. The three powers then presented as encircling the Soviet Union—Germany, Poland, and Japan—had all been substantially weakened. Poland was now a Soviet satellite whose minister of defense was a Soviet officer. Soviet troops had reached Berlin, and remained. In October 1949 the Soviet occupation zone of Germany had been transformed into the German Democratic Republic, a Soviet satellite ruled by German communists. East Prussia, the formerly German district on the Baltic Sea, had been divided between communist Poland and the USSR itself. Japan, the great threat of the 1930s, had been defeated and disarmed. Yet here the Soviet Union had not contributed to the victory, and so took little part in the occupation. The Americans were building military bases in Japan and teaching the Japanese to play baseball.32

Even in defeat, Japan had changed the politics of east Asia. The Japanese incursion in China in 1937 had, in the end, only aided the Chinese communists. In 1944 the Japanese had mounted a successful ground offensive against the Chinese nationalist government. This made no difference to the outcome of the war, but it did fatally weaken the nationalist regime. Once the Japanese surrendered, their forces were withdrawn from the Chinese mainland. Then the Chinese communists had their moment, much as Russia’s communists had thirty years before. Japan in the Second World War played the role that Germany had played in the First World War: having failed to win a great empire for itself, it served as the handmaiden to a communist revolution in a neighbor. The People’s Republic of China was declared in October 1949.33

Although in Washington Chinese communism looked like the continuation of a world communist revolution, it was ambivalent news for Stalin. Mao Zedong, the leader of the Chinese communists, was not a personal client of Stalin, as were many of the east European communists. Although Chinese communists accepted the Stalinist version of Marxism, Stalin had never exercised personal control of their party. Stalin knew that Mao would be an ambitious and unpredictable rival. “The battle of China,” he said, “isn’t over yet.” In making policy in east Asia, Stalin had now to ensure that the Soviet Union maintained its position of leader of the communist world. This concern arose first with respect to Korea, where a communist state had also just been established. Japan, which had ruled Korea since 1905, withdrew after the war. The Korean peninsula was then occupied by the Soviet Union in the north and the United States in the south. North Korean communists established a people’s republic in North Korea in 1948.34


In spring 1950 Stalin had to decide what to say to Kim Il-Sung, the North Korean communist leader, who wished to invade the southern part of the peninsula. Stalin knew that the Americans considered Korea beyond the “defensive perimeter” they were constructing in Japan and the Pacific, because the secretary of state had said as much in January. The US Army had withdrawn from the peninsula in 1949. Kim Il-Sung told Stalin that his forces would quickly overcome the South Korean army. Stalin gave Kim Il-Sung his blessing for war, and sent Soviet arms to the North Koreans, who invaded the South on 25 June 1950. Stalin even dispatched several hundred Soviet Koreans from Soviet central Asia to fight on the North Korean side—the same people who had been deported by order of Stalin only thirteen years earlier.35

The Korean War looked very much like an armed confrontation between the communist and capitalist worlds. The Americans responded quickly and firmly, sending troops from Japan and elsewhere in the Pacific, and were able to push the North Koreans across the original border. In September, Truman approved NSC-68, a secret and formal confirmation of the American grand strategy of containment of communism throughout the world—an idea formulated by George Kennan. In October, the Chinese intervened on the side of the North Koreans. Until 1952 the United States and its allies were making war against communist North Korea and communist China, with American tanks battling Soviet-made tanks, and American aircraft engaging Soviet-made fighters.

Stalin seemed to fear a broader war, perhaps a war on two fronts. In January 1951, Stalin called together the leaders of his east European satellites, and ordered them to build up their armies in preparation for a war in Europe. In 1951 and 1952, the troop strength of the Red Army doubled.36

During precisely these years, in 1951 and 1952, the idea that Soviet Jews were undercover agents of the United States seems to have gained resonance in Stalin’s mind. Defied in Berlin, frustrated in Poland, and embattled in Korea, Stalin faced again, at least in his own increasingly troubled imagination, encirclement by enemies. As in the 1930s, so in the 1950s, it was possible to see the Soviet Union as the object of an international plot, masterminded no longer from Berlin, Warsaw, and Tokyo (with London in the background) but from Washington (with London in the background). Stalin apparently believed that a Third World War was inevitable, and reacted to what he saw as the coming threat much as he had in the late 1930s.

In some respects, the international situation could seem more threatening now than then. The Great Depression had at least brought poverty to the capitalist world. But by the early 1950s it seemed that the countries liberated by the Western powers would undergo a quick economic recovery. In the 1930s, the capitalist powers were divided against one another. As of April 1949, the most important of them were united in a new military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.37

Stalin found a way in July 1951 to turn his own security services against an imagined Jewish plot inside the Soviet Union. The narrative of the plot, as it emerged in the second half of that year, had two parts: Russians who might have been seen as anti-Jewish had been murdered, and their murders had been covered up by the Soviet security apparatus.

One of the supposed victims was Aleksandr Shcherbakov, the wartime propagandist who had claimed that Russian people were “bearing the main burden” of the war. He had overseen the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, and had purged newspapers of Jewish journalists at Stalin’s orders. The other was Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s purifier of Soviet culture, who had blocked the publication of the Black Book of Soviet Jewry. Their deaths were supposedly the beginning of a wave of Jewish medical terrorism, sponsored by American paymasters, which was to end only with the slaughter of the Soviet leadership.

One of the ostensible murderers was the Jewish doctor Yakov Etinger, who had died in police custody in March 1951. Viktor Abakumov, director of the MGB, had supposedly failed to report on this plot, because he was himself involved in it. In order to prevent his own role from being known, he had deliberately killed Etinger. Because Abakumov had killed Etinger, Etinger had been unable to confess to the full range of his crimes.38

A first outline of these extraordinary claims was presented in a denunciation of Abakumov sent to Stalin by Abakumov’s MGB subordinate Mikhail Riumin. The choice of Etinger played to Stalin’s worries. Etinger had been arrested not as part of any medical plot but as a Jewish nationalist. By his clever initiative, Riumin had linked Jewish nationalism, Stalin’s recent anxiety, with medical murder, one of his traditional preoccupations. None of Riumin’s particular claims, of course, made very much sense. Shcherbakov had died the day after he had insisted, against doctors’ orders, on taking part in a Victory Day parade. Zhdanov, too, had ignored doctors’ orders to rest. As for Etinger, the Jewish doctor in question, he had been killed not by Abakumov but by Riumin himself, in March 1951. Riumin had exhausted Etinger by the unceasing interrogations known as the “conveyer method,” after doctors had told him that this would endanger the man’s life.39

Yet Riumin had hit upon a connection that he believed would appeal to Stalin: terrorist Jewish doctors killing prominent (Russian) communists. Henceforth the direction of the investigation would be clear: purge the MGB of Jews and their lackeys, and find more Jewish killer doctors. Abakumov was duly arrested on 4 July 1951 and replaced by Riumin, who began an anti-Jewish purge of the MGB. The central committee then ordered further investigation of the “terrorist activities of Etinger” on 11 July. Five days later the MGB arrested the electrocardiogram specialist Sofia Karpai. She was extremely important to the entire investigation: she was the only Jewish doctor still alive who could be linked in any way to the death of a Soviet leader. She had indeed taken and interpreted two readings of Zhdanov’s heart. Yet under arrest she declined to endorse the story of medical murder, and refused to implicate anyone else.40

The case was weak. But further evidence of Jewish plots could be generated elsewhere.


Another Soviet satellite, communist Czechoslovakia, would provide the antiSemitic show trial that Poland did not. A week after Sofia Karpai’s arrest, on 23 July 1951, Stalin signaled to Klement Gottwald, the communist president of Czechoslovakia, that he should rid himself of his close associate Rudolf Slánský, who ostensibly represented “Jewish bourgeois nationalism.” On 6 September, Slánský was removed from his position as general secretary.41

Moscow’s evident disfavor provoked a real espionage plot, or at least a botched attempt at one. Czechs working for American intelligence noticed that Moscow had sent no congratulations to Slánský on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday (on 31 July 1951). They moved ahead to encourage Slánský to defect from Czechoslovakia. In early November they sent him a letter in which they offered refuge in the West. The courier who was to deliver the message was in fact a double agent, working for the communist Czechoslovak security services. He gave the letter to his superiors, who showed it to the Soviets. On 11 November 1951 Stalin sent a personal envoy to Gottwald to demand Slánský’s immediate arrest. Although neither Slánský nor Gottwald had seen the letter at this point, Gottwald now seemed to believe that he had no choice. Slánský was arrested on 24 November and interrogated for a year.42

The final result of the Slánský case was spectacular: a Czechoslovak Stalinist show trial on the Soviet model of 1936, with an overlay of unabashed antiSemitism. Although some of the most prominent victims of the Moscow show trials of 1936 had been Jewish, they were not tried for their Jewishness. In Prague eleven out of the fourteen defendants were of Jewish origin, and were identified as such in the trial record. The word cosmopolitan was used as if it were a term of legal art whose meaning was known to all. On 20 November 1952, Slánský set the tone of the political séance, summoning forth the spirits of communists who had gone before him to their deaths: “I acknowledge fully my guilt and wish honestly and truthfully to describe everything that I have done and the crimes that I have committed.” He was obviously following a rehearsed script. At one point in the trial, he answered a question that the prosecutor had forgotten to ask.43

Slánský confessed to a conspiracy that ran the gamut of the obligatory obsessions of the day: with Titoists, Zionists, Free Masons, and American intelligence officers who recruited only Jews. Among his supposed crimes was the medical murder of Gottwald. Rudolf Margolius, another of the defendants, had to denounce his parents, both of whom had died at Auschwitz. As during the Great Terror, the various plots turned out to be coordinated by a “center,” in this case an “Anti-State Conspiratorial Center.” All fourteen defendants asked for the death penalty, and eleven of them got it. As the noose was placed around Slánský’s neck on 3 December 1952, he thanked the hangman and said: “I am getting what I deserve.” The bodies of the eleven executed defendants were cremated; their ashes were later used to fill the ruts of a road.44


At such a moment, it could hardly have seemed unlikely that a public trial of Soviet Jews would follow. Thirteen Soviet citizens had been executed in Moscow in August 1952 on charges of espionage for the United States, on the basis of allegations of cosmopolitanism and Zionism rather than reliable information. These had been people incriminated as Jewish nationalists and American spies by evidence generated from torture, and then tried in secret. Eleven Czechoslovak citizens had been executed in Prague in December 1952, on much the same basis, but after a public trial that recalled the Great Terror. Now even the Polish regime began to arrest people as Israeli spies.45

In autumn 1952 several more Soviet doctors were under investigation. None of them had anything to do with Zhdanov or Shcherbakov, but they had treated other Soviet and foreign communist dignitaries before their deaths. One of them was Stalin’s personal doctor, who had advised him to retire in early 1952. At Stalin’s express and repeated orders, these people were beaten terribly, and some of them then produced the right kind of scripted confessions. Miron Vovsi, who happened to be a cousin of Solomon Mikhoels, confessed in the robotic language of Stalinism: “Thinking it all over, I came to the conclusion that despite the rottenness of my crimes, I must disclose the terrible truth to the investigation of my villainous work conducted with the aim of destroying the health and shortening the life of specific, leading state workers of the Soviet Union.”46

Once these confessions were in hand, the time must have seemed right to an aging man. Stalin usually planned well before he struck his blow, but he now seemed to be in a hurry. On 4 December 1952, the day after the execution of Slánský, the Soviet central committee took cognizance of a “doctors’ plot,” in which a leading role was played by “Jewish nationals.” One of the plotters was supposedly Stalin’s doctor, who was Russian; those who were of Jewish origin were listed as such. Stalin had now contrived to condemn his physician, the man who had advised him to end his political career. Stalin showed other signs that his political worries were linked to his personal fears. He clung, literally, to his daughter Svetlana, dancing with her at his seventy-third birthday party on 21 December 1952.47

It was as if, that December, Stalin wanted to purge his own death. A communist cannot believe in the immortal soul, but he must believe in History: as revealed in changes in the modes of production, as reflected by the rise of the proletariat, as represented by the communist party, as distilled by Stalin, and thus in fact as made by Stalin’s will. If life was nothing but a social construction, then perhaps death was too, and all could be reversed by the exercise of courageous and willful dialectics. Doctors caused it rather than delayed it; the man who warned of forthcoming death was a murderer rather than a counselor. What was needed was the right performance. Solomon Mikhoels was at his best in the role of King Lear, a ruler who foolishly conceded power too soon, and to the wrong successors. Now Mikhoels had been banished, like a specter of impotence. No doubt his Jewish people, and all they stood for, the risk of the defilement of the Soviet Union, the risk of another history of the Second World War, the risk of the wrong future, could be banished as well.48

Stalin, a sick man of seventy-three, listening to no counsel but his own, pushed forward. In December 1952 he said that “every Jew is a nationalist and an agent of American intelligence,” a paranoid formulation even by his standards. The Jews, he said that same month, “believed that their nation had been saved by the United States.” Here was a legend that had not yet even arisen; but Stalin was not entirely wrong. With characteristic perspicacity, Stalin correctly forecast one of the major myths of the Cold War, and even of the decades that followed its end. None of the Allies did very much to rescue Jews; the Americans never even saw the major killing sites.49

On 13 January 1953, the party newspaper Pravda revealed an American plot to murder the Soviet leadership by medical means. The doctors, it was understood, were Jews. The news agency TASS characterized the “terrorist group of doctors” as “monsters in human form.” Yet despite the vitriolic language, so redolent of the Great Terror, all was not quite ready. The people named in the article had not yet all admitted to their supposed crimes, which was a precondition to any show trial. Those accused must confess in private before they can be expected to do so in public: this was the minimum condition of the scenography of Stalinism. The accused could not be expected to follow a show trial in a public courtroom if they had not already agreed to it in the confines of an interrogation chamber.50

Sofia Karpai, the cardiologist who was the key defendant, had not confessed to anything at all. She was Jewish and a woman; perhaps the interrogators assumed that she would be the first to break. In the end, she was the only one of all of the accused with the strength to stand by her story and defend her innocence. At what turned out to be her last interrogation, on 18 February 1953, she held firm, explicitly denying the charges against her. Like Stalin, she was ill and dying; unlike him, she must have understood this to be the case. She seemed to believe that it mattered to speak the truth. By doing so, she slowed the investigation. She outlived Stalin, if only by a matter of days; she perhaps ensured that other people outlived Stalin as well.51

In February 1953, the Soviet leadership was drafting and redrafting a collective Jewish self-denunciation, including phrases that might have come straight from Nazi propaganda. It was to be signed by prominent Soviet Jews and published in Pravda. Vasily Grossman was among those intimidated into signing the letter. In vicious press attacks, it suddenly emerged that his recently published novel of the war, For a Just Cause, was not patriotic enough. For a Just Cause was a vast novel of the Battle of Stalingrad, mostly within Stalinist conventions. (Now Grossman’s perspective changed. In its sequel, his masterpiece Life and Fate, Grossman would have a Nazi interrogator contemplate the future: “Today you’re appalled by our hatred of the Jews. Tomorrow you may make use of our experience yourselves.”) In the latest known draft of the letter, of 20 February 1953, the signatories were to affirm that there were “two camps,” progressive and reactionary, among Jews. Israel was in the reactionary camp: its leaders were “Jewish millionaires connected with American monopolists.” Soviet Jews were also to acknowledge that “the nations of the Soviet Union and above all the great Russian nation” had saved humanity and the Jews.52

The letter condemned imperialism generally and the Jews of the doctors’ plot by name. In Stalinist terms, it could be read as a justification, or even an invitation, to a large-scale purge of Soviet Jews who were not sufficiently anti-imperialist. The Soviet citizens who were to sign the letter would have had to identify themselves as Jews (not all of them were seen as such, or saw themselves as such), and as leaders of a community that was clearly in danger. Ilya Ehrenburg, like Grossman a Soviet writer of Jewish origin, had allowed Stalin to sign his name over polemical articles about Israel. Now, however, he hesitated to endorse such a document. He wrote a disingenuous letter to Stalin, asking him what to do. He mounted the same sort of defense as had Berman and the Polish-Jewish communists a few years earlier: since Jews are not a nation, and we personally are loyal communists, how can we take part in a campaign against ourselves as representatives of some collective national entity known as Jewry?53

Stalin never replied. He was found in a coma on 1 March 1953 and died four days later. What Stalin had wanted can only be guessed; he might not have been entirely sure himself; he might have been awaiting the response of Soviet society to the first probes. Plagued by mortality and doubts about the succession, worried by the influence of Jews in the Soviet system, and fighting a Cold War against a powerful enemy that he understood only dimly, he turned to the traditional means of self-defense: trials and purges. Judging by the rumors circulating at the time, Soviet citizens had no trouble imagining the possible outcomes: doctors would have been show-tried with Soviet leaders who were their supposed allies; remaining Jews would have been purged from the state police and the armed forces; the thirty-five thousand Soviet Jewish doctors (and perhaps scientists as well) might have been deported to camps; and perhaps even the Jewish people as such would have been subject to forced removal or even mass shootings.54

Such an action, had it taken place, would have been one more in a series of national operations and ethnic deportations, which had begun in 1930 with the Poles and then continued through the Great Terror and during and after the Second World War. All of this would have been in line with Stalin’s previous practice, and would have fit a traditional logic. The national minorities to be feared and punished were those with apparent connections to the non-Soviet world. Though it had brought death to 5.7 million Jews, the war had also contributed to the establishment of a Jewish national homeland, beyond the reach of Stalin. Like the enemy nations of the 1930s, the Jews now had reasons for grievance inside the Soviet Union (four years of purges and official antiSemitism), an external protector outside the Soviet Union (Israel), and a role to play in an international struggle (led by the United States). The precedents were clear and the logic was known. But Stalinism was coming to an end.


Taking into account all the trials in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, and all the people who died in police custody, Stalin killed no more than a few dozen Jews in these last years of his life. If he did indeed want one final national terror operation, which is far from clear, he was unable to see it to completion. It is tempting to imagine that only his death prevented this outcome, that the Soviet Union was hurtling toward another national purge on the scale of the 1930s, but the evidence is very mixed. Stalin’s own actions were surprisingly hesitant, and the reactions of his organs of power slow.

Stalin was not the master of his country in the 1950s as he was in the 1930s, and it was no longer the same country. He had become more a cult than a personality. He visited no factories, farms, or government offices after the Second World War, and made only three public speeches between 1946 and 1953. By 1950 Stalin no longer led the Soviet Union as a lone tyrant, as he had for most of the previous fifteen years. In the 1950s the key members of the politburo met regularly during his long absences from Moscow, and had their own networks of clients in the Soviet bureaucracies. Like the Great Terror of 1937-1938, a mass death purge of Jews would have created possibilities for upward mobility in Soviet society generally. But it was not at all clear that Soviet citizens, antiSemitic though many of them certainly were, would have wanted such an opportunity at such a price.55

What was most striking was the fussiness of it all. During the Great Terror, Stalin’s suggestions were transformed into orders, the orders into quotas, the quotas into corpses, the corpses into numbers. Nothing of the kind happened in the Jewish case. Though Stalin spent much of the last five years of his life preoccupied with Soviet Jews, he was unable to find the security chief who could make the right kind of case. In the old days, Stalin rid himself of security chiefs after they had completed some sort of mass action, and then blamed them for its excesses. Now officers of the MGB, perhaps understandably, seemed hesitant to commit the excesses in the first place. First Stalin had Abakumov work the case, although Lavrenty Beria was in overall charge of state security. Then he let Abakumov be denounced by Riumin, who in his turn fell in November 1952. Riumin’s successor had a heart attack on his first day on the job. Finally the investigation was taken up by S. A. Goglidze, a client of Beria.56

Stalin had lost his once total power to draw people into his fictitious world. He found himself threatening security chiefs, rather than instructing them. His subordinates understood that Stalin wanted confessions and coincidences that could be presented as proof. But they were constantly hindered by a certain attention to bureaucratic propriety and even, in some measure, to law. The judge who sentenced the members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee advised the defendants of their right to appeal. In the persecutions of Soviet Jews, security chiefs sometimes had trouble making their subordinates—and, perhaps most important, the defendants—understand what was expected of them. Interrogations, though brutal, did not always produce the kind of evidence that was needed. Torture, though it took place, was a last resort, and one upon which Stalin had personally to insist.57


Stalin was right to be concerned about the influence of the war and of the West, and about the continuation of the Soviet system as he had formed it. In the years after the Second World War, far from all Soviet citizens were eager to accept that the 1940s had justified the 1930s, that the victory over Germany had retrospectively justified the repressions of Soviet citizens. That, of course, had been the logic of the Great Terror at the time: that a war was coming, and so dangerous elements had to be removed. In Stalin’s mind, a coming war with the Americans likely justified another round of preemptive repressions in the 1950s. It is not at all clear that Soviet citizens were willing to take that step. Although many went along with the anti-Semitic hysteria of the early 1950s, refusing for example to see Jewish doctors or to take medicine from Jewish pharmacists, this was not an endorsement of a return to mass terror.

The Soviet Union lasted almost four decades after Stalin’s death, but its security organs never again organized a famine or a mass shooting. Stalin’s successors, brutal though they were, abandoned the practice of mass terror in the Stalinist sense. Nikita Khrushchev, who eventually triumphed in the struggle for Stalin’s succession, released most of the Ukrainian prisoners he had sent to the Gulag a decade before. It was not that Khrushchev was personally incapable of mass killing: he had been bloodthirsty during the Terror of 1937-1938 and the reconquest of western Ukraine after the Second World War. It was rather that he believed that the Soviet Union could no longer be run in the same fashion. He even revealed some of Stalin’s crimes in a speech to a party congress in February 1956, although he emphasized the suffering of communist party elites rather than the groups who had suffered in far larger numbers: peasants, workers, and the members of the national minorities.

East European states remained satellites of the Soviet Union, but none of them moved beyond show trials (the prelude to the Great Terror of the late 1930s) to mass killing. Most of them (Poland was an exception) collectivized agriculture, but never denied peasants the right to private plots. There was no starvation in the satellite states, as there had been in the Soviet Union. Under Khrushchev, the Soviet Union would invade its communist satellite Hungary in 1956. Although the civil war that followed killed thousands of people and the intervention forced a change of leadership, no mass blood purges followed. Relatively few people were purposefully killed in communist eastern Europe after 1953. The numbers were orders of magnitude less than during the eras of mass killing (1933-1945) and ethnic cleansing (1945-1947).


Stalinist anti-Semitism haunted eastern Europe long after the death of Stalin. It was rarely a major tool of governance, but it was always available in moments of political stress. Anti-Semitism allowed leaders to revise the history of wartime suffering (recalled as the suffering only of Slavs) and also the history of Stalinism itself (which was portrayed as the deformed, Jewish version of communism).

In Poland in 1968, fifteen years after Stalin’s death, the Holocaust was revisited for the purposes of communist nationalism. By this time Władysław Gomulka had returned to power. In February 1956, when Khrushchev criticized some aspects of Stalin’s rule; he undermined the position of east European communist leaders associated with Stalinism, and strengthened the hand of those who could call themselves reformers. This was the end for the triumvirate of Berman, Bierut, and Minc. Gomułka was released from prison, rehabilitated, and allowed to take power that October. He represented the hope of some Poles for a reform communism, of others for a more national communism. Poland had already gained what it could from postwar reconstruction and rapid industrialization; attempts to improve the economic system proved either counterproductive or politically risky. After all attempts to improve the economic system failed, nationalism remained.58

In Poland in 1968, Gomułka’s regime enacted an anti-Zionist purge that recalled the rhetoric of Stalin’s last years. Twenty years after his own fall from grace in 1948, Gomułka took revenge on Polish-Jewish communists, or rather upon some of their children. As in the Soviet Union in 1952 and 1953, so in Poland in 1967 and 1968 the question of succession loomed. Gomułka had been in power for a long time. Like Stalin, he was willing to discredit rivals by way of their association with the Jewish question, and in particular by their softness on the supposed Zionist threat.

“Zionism” returned to the communist Polish press with the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War of June 1967. In the Soviet Union, the war confirmed the status of Israel as an American satellite, a line that was to be followed in the east European communist states. Yet Poles sometimes supported Israel (“our little Jews,” as people said) against the Arabs, who were backed by the Soviet Union. Some Poles saw Israel at that point much as they saw themselves: as the persecuted underdog, opposed by the Soviet Union, representing Western civilization. For such people, Israel’s victory over Arab states was a fantasy of Poland defeating the Soviet Union.59

The official Polish communist position was rather different. The Polish communist leadership identified Israel with Nazi Germany, and Zionism with National Socialism. These claims were often made by people who had lived through, and indeed sometimes fought in, the Second World War. Yet these grotesque comparisons followed from a certain political logic, now common to communist leaders in Poland and the Soviet Union. In the communist worldview, it was not the Jews but the Slavs (Russians in the USSR, Poles in Poland) who were the central figures (as victors and victims) of the Second World War. The Jews, always an immense problem for this story of suffering, had been assimilated to it in the postwar years, counted when necessary as “Soviet citizens” in the USSR and as “Poles” in Poland. In Poland, Jewish communists had done the most to eliminate Jews from the history of the German occupation in Poland. Having performed this task by 1956, the Jewish communists lost power. It was the non-Jewish communist Gomułka who exploited the legend of ethnic Polish innocence.

This recitation of the Second World War was also a propaganda stance in the Cold War. Poles and Russians, Slavic victims of the last German war, were accordingly still threatened by Germany, which now meant West Germany and its patron the United States. In the world of the Cold War, this was not entirely unconvincing. The chancellor of West Germany at the time was a former Nazi. Maps of Germany in German schoolbooks included the lands lost to Poland in 1945 (marked as “under Polish administration”). West Germany had never extended diplomatic recognition to postwar Poland. In the western democracies, as in West Germany, there was then little public discussion of German war crimes. In admitting West Germany to NATO in 1955, the United States in effect overlooked the atrocities of its recent German enemy.

As in the 1950s, Stalinist anti-Semitism assigned Israel a perfidious place in the Cold War. Picking up a theme from the Soviet press of January 1953, the Polish press in 1967 explained that West Germany had conveyed Nazi ideology to Israel. Political cartoons portrayed the Israeli army as the Wehrmacht. Thus Israel’s claim that its existence was morally sanctioned by the Second World War and the Holocaust was supposed to be reversed: on the Polish communist account, capitalism had led to imperialism, of which National Socialism was an example. At the moment, the leader of the imperialist camp was the United States, of which Israel and West Germany alike were the cat’s paws. Israel was just one more instance of imperialism, sustaining a world order that generated crimes against humanity, rather than a small state with a special historical claim to victimhood. The communists wished to monopolize claims of victimhood for themselves.60

These Nazi-Zionist comparisons began in communist Poland with the Six-Day War in June 1967, but came home when the Polish regime repressed opponents the following spring. Polish university students, protesting the ban on the performance of a play, called a peaceful rally against the regime for 8 March 1968. The regime then castigated their leaders as “Zionists.” The previous year Jews in Poland had been called a “fifth column,” supporting Poland’s enemies abroad. Now the problems of Poland as a whole were blamed upon the Jews, categorized once again, as in the USSR fifteen years before, as both “Zionists” and “cosmopolitans.” As in the Soviet Union, this was only an apparent contradiction: the “Zionists” supposedly favored Israel, and the “cosmopolitans” were supposedly drawn to the United States, but both were allies of imperialism and thus enemies of the Polish state. They were outsiders and traitors, indifferent to Poland and Polishness.61

In an agile maneuver, Polish communists were now claiming an old European anti-Semitic argument for their own. The Nazi stereotype of “Judeobolshevism,” Hitler’s own idea that communism was a Jewish plot, had been quite widespread in prewar Poland. The prominence of Polish Jews in the early communist regime, though a product of very special historical circumstances, had done little to dispel the popular association between Jews and communists. Now, in spring 1968, Polish communists played to this stereotype by claiming that the problem with Stalinism was its Jewishness. If anything had gone wrong in communist Poland in the 1940s and 1950s, it was the fault of the Jews who exerted too much control over the party and thereby deformed the whole system. Some communists might have done harm to Poles, was the implication, but these communists had been Jews. But Polish communism, it followed, could be cleansed of such people, or at least of their sons and daughters. Gomułka’s regime, in this way, tried to make communism ethnically Polish.

The solution could only be a purge of Jews from public life and positions of political influence. But who was a Jew? In 1968, students with Jewish names or Stalinist parents received disproportionate attention in the press. Polish authorities used anti-Semitism to separate the rest of the population from the students, organizing huge rallies of workers and soldiers. The Polish working class became, in the pronouncements of the country’s leaders, the ethnically Polish working class. But matters were not so simple. The Gomułka regime was happy to use the Jewish label to rid itself of criticism in general. A Jew, by the party definition, was not always someone whose parents were Jewish. Characteristic of the campaign was a certain vagueness about Jews: often a “Zionist” was simply an intellectual or someone unfavorable to the regime.62

The campaign was calculatedly unjust, deliberately provocative, and absurd in its historical vacuity. It was not, however, lethal. The anti-Semitic tropes of Polish communism recalled late Stalinism, and thus stereotypes familiar in Nazi Germany. There was never any plan, however, to murder Jews. Although at least one suicide can be connected to the “anti-Zionist campaign,” and many people were beaten by the police, no one was actually killed. The regime made about 2,591 arrests, drafted a few hundred more students to garrisons distant from Warsaw, and sentenced some of the student leaders to prison. About seventeen thousand Polish citizens (most but not all of Jewish origin) accepted the regime’s offer of one-way travel documents and left the country.63

Residents of Warsaw could not help but notice that they left from a railway station not far from the Umschlagplatz, whence the Jews of Warsaw had been deported by train to Treblinka only twenty-six years earlier. Three million Jews at least had lived in Poland before the Second World War. After this episode of communist anti-Semitism, perhaps thirty thousand remained. For Polish communists and those who believed them, the Jews were not victims in 1968 or at any earlier point: they were people who conspired to deprive Poles of their righteous claim to innocence and heroism.

The Stalinist anti-Semitism of Poland in 1968 changed the lives of tens of thousands of people, and ended the faith in Marxism of many intelligent young men and women in eastern Europe. Marxism, of course, had other problems. By this time the economic potential of the Stalinist model was exhausted in communist Poland, as it was throughout the communist bloc. Collectivization was no boon to agrarian economies. Only so much fast growth could be generated by forced industrialization. After a generation, it was clear more or less everywhere that western Europe was more prosperous than the communist world, and that the gap was growing. Polish communist leaders, in embracing anti-Semitism, were implicitly admitting that their system could not be improved. They alienated many of the people who might earlier have believed in a reform of communism, and had no idea how they might improve the system themselves. In 1970 Gomułka would fall from power after trying to increase prices, and be replaced by an entirely unideological successor who would try to borrow his way to Poland’s prosperity. The failure of that scheme led to the emergence of the Solidarity movement in 1980.64

Even as the Polish students were falling under police batons in March 1968, Czechoslovak communists were trying to reform Marxism in eastern Europe. During the Prague Spring, the communist regime allowed a great deal of free public expression, in the hope of generating support for economic reform. Predictably, discussions had led in other directions than the regime had expected. Despite Soviet pressure, Aleksandr Dubček, the general secretary of the Czechoslovak party, allowed gatherings and debates to continue. That August, Soviet (and Polish and East German and Bulgarian and Hungarian) troops invaded Czechoslovakia and crushed the Prague Spring.

Soviet propaganda confirmed that the Polish leadership’s experiment with anti-Semitism was no deviation. In the Soviet press, much attention was devoted to the real or imagined Jewish origins of Czechoslovak communist reformers. In Poland in the 1970s and 1980s, the secret police made a point of emphasizing the Jewish origins of some members of the opposition. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985 as a reformer in the Soviet Union, opponents of his reforms tried to exploit Russian anti-Semitism in defense of the old system.65

Stalinism had displaced east European Jews from their historical position as victims of the Germans, and embedded them instead in an account of an imperialist conspiracy against communism. From there, it was but a small step to present them as part of a conspiracy of their own. And thus the communists’ hesitation to distinguish and define Hitler’s major crime tended, as the decades passed, to confirm an aspect of Hitler’s worldview.


Stalinist anti-Semitism in Moscow, Prague, and Warsaw killed only a handful of people, but it confused the European past. The Holocaust complicated the Stalinist story of the suffering of Soviet citizens as such, and displaced Russians and Slavs as the most victimized of groups. It was the communists and their loyal Slavic (and other) followers who were to be understood as both the victors and the victims of the Second World War. The scheme of Slavic innocence and Western aggression was to be applied to the Cold War as well, even if this meant that Jews, associated with Israel and America in the imperialist Western camp, were to be regarded as the aggressors of history.

So long as communists governed most of Europe, the Holocaust could never be seen for what it was. Precisely because so many millions of non-Jewish east Europeans had indeed been killed on the battlefields, in the Dulags and Stalags, in besieged cities, and in reprisals in the villages and the countryside, the communist emphasis upon non-Jewish suffering always had a historical foundation. Communist leaders, beginning with Stalin and continuing to the end, could rightly say that few people in the West appreciated the role of the Red Army in the defeat of the Wehrmacht, and the suffering that the peoples of eastern Europe endured under German occupation. It took just one modification, the submersion of the Holocaust into a generic account of suffering, to externalize that which had once been so central to eastern Europe, Jewish civilization. During the Cold War, the natural response in the West was to emphasize the enormous suffering that Stalinism had brought to the citizens of the Soviet Union. This, too, was true; but like the Soviet accounts it was not the only truth, or the whole truth. In this competition for memory, the Holocaust, the other German mass killing policies, and the Stalinist mass murders became three different histories, even though in historical fact they shared a place and time.

Like the vast majority of the mass killing of civilians by both the Nazi and the Soviet regimes, the Holocaust took place in the bloodlands. After the war, the traditional homelands of European Jewry lay in the communist world, as did the death factories and the killing fields. By introducing a new kind of antiSemitism into the world, Stalin made of the Holocaust something less than it was. When an international collective memory of the Holocaust emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, it rested on the experiences of German and west European Jews, minor groups of victims, and on Auschwitz, where only about one in six of the total number of murdered Jews died. Historians and commemorators in western Europe and the United States tended to correct that Stalinist distortion by erring in the other direction, by passing quickly over the nearly five million Jews killed east of Auschwitz, and the nearly five million non-Jews killed by the Nazis. Deprived of its Jewish distinctiveness in the East, and stripped of its geography in the West, the Holocaust never quite became part of European history, even as Europeans and many others came to agree that all should remember the Holocaust.

Stalin’s empire covered Hitler’s. The iron curtain fell between West and East, and between the survivors and the dead. Now that it has lifted, we may see, if we so wish, the history of Europe between Hitler and Stalin.

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