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 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. At least half of the 17,000 post-war Jewish immigrants to Australia were born in Poland. 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 not ‘survivors’ of the concentration camp, nor escaped death because they either joined the anti-Nazi 'partisans' or because they were assisted or hidden by-non-Jews. In this chapter I provide a broader political and sociological context for the geographical trajectories, personal experiences, and stories of survival of the considerable numbers of Polish Jews who escaped probable extermination only because, in the period between September 1939 and June 1941, they either moved to, or resided in, the Soviet occupied section of Eastern Poland. Only 300,000 Polish Jews remained alive in 1945, and at least 70 per cent of them had spent the war years under Soviet rather than Nazi authority. Drawing on both documentary and memoir materials, I explore these lesser-known pathways, ones that are central to the family histories of a considerable number of Jews currently living in Australia, and which therefore deserve to be more widely known and understood. In the process, I also examine why, until very recently, in the broader context of more than seventy years of both academic accounts and personal memoirs that tell of wartime Jewish experiences, the ‘stories’ associated with the overwhelming majority of these Polish ‘survivors’ have remained almost invisible.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationShelter From The Holocaust
Subtitle of host publicationRethinking Jewish Survival in the Soviet Union
EditorsMark Edele, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Atina Grossmann
Place of PublicationDetroit Michigan USA
PublisherWayne State University Press
Number of pages66
ISBN (Electronic)978081482688
ISBN (Print)9780814344408, 9780814342671
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2017


  • Eastern Europe
  • holocaust survivors
  • refugees
  • Migration

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