A different Silence: The survival of more than 200,000 Polish Jews in the Soviet Union during World War II as a case study in cultural amnesia

John Goldlust

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An oft-repeated generalisation about the post-Second World War Australian Jewish community is that it includes an unusually high proportion of survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. Indeed it is well documented that the demographic make-up of Australian Jewry was changed significantly as a result of the intake of around 25,000 pre-war and post-war Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe. The emerging global horror at the almost successful Nazi genocide policies, punctuated by the newsreels of the liberated death camps and their few remaining, emaciated inmates have seared these ideas, locations and images into our historical memory. So, when the term Jewish ‘Holocaust survivor’ is used, not unreasonably, we tend to think of the brave and fortunate few who managed to outlive the Nazi death machinery of the ‘camps’ to then go on to rebuild their lives and families (most of them also choosing to leave Europe for good).

Poland, with over three million Jews, was home to the largest pre-war Jewish community in Europe, of whom fewer than ten per cent remained alive when the war ended. A considerable proportion (probably as high as two-thirds) of the 17,000 post-war Jewish immigrants to Australia were born in Poland, and their subsequent impact on the character of existing Jewish communities, particularly Melbourne, has been quite profound. These immigrants lost most or even all of their family (parents, siblings, etc.) during the war, But a central characteristic that is little known, and even less discussed, is that most were neither ‘survivors’ of the concentration camps, nor had escaped because they were assisted or hidden by-non-Jews. Rather, a considerable number of the surviving post-war 'remnant' of Polish Jewry owe their lives to a fateful choice, made very early in the war, to move out of Nazi-controlled areas in which they were living and into the Russian occupied section of Eastern Poland. They, along with many thousands of other Jews who were resident in Eastern Poland at the time the Soviets and Nazi Germany divided the Polish territories in September 1939 soon after found themselves deported or imprisoned inside the USSR.

As a result of this, of the 300,000- 350,000 Polish Jews who did manage to survive the war, probably at least three quarters spent most (in many cases all) of the war years under Soviet rather than German authority. In the article I explore these lesser-known pathways, ones that are central to the family histories of a considerable number of Jews now living in Australia, and that therefore deserve to be more widely known and understood. In the process, I also seek to examine why, until very recently, in the broader context of more than sixty years of both academic accounts and personal memoirs that tell of the wartime Jewish experience, the ‘stories’ associated with the overwhelming majority of Polish ‘survivors’ have remained almost invisible.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)13-60
Number of pages48
JournalAustralian Jewish Historical Society. Journal
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2012
Externally publishedYes

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