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The Lesser of Two Evils: Eastern European Jewry Under Soviet Rule, 1939-1941 By Dov Levin

By Mark Heckman

Related to: Volhynia (Province)Book Reviews

Author: Levin, Dov; translated by Naftali Greenwood. Publishing information: Philadelphia; The Jewish Publication Society, 1995.

In September of 1939, at the same time as the German forces poured over Poland's western border and began WWII, Soviet troops were advancing into a wide area of Eastern Europe. The Soviets occupied eastern Poland, including parts of Belarus, Volhynia, and Galicia; Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina (occupied by the Romanians after WWI); and the Baltic countries. Living in these areas were more than two million Jews.

Dov Levin's well-researched book covers the efforts by the Soviets to "Sovietize" the Jews in the occupied areas, and the reactions by the Jews to Soviet rule, until the German invasion in June, 1941 pushed the Soviets out. For the most part, Jews were treated by the Soviets in the same way as were their Polish, Lithuanian, etc., neighbors. Social, political, military, and other leaders were arrested and exiled. The intelligentsia were given strict guidelines about what was and was not suitable topics for the arts and scholarly research. Wealthy Jews were dealt with just as harshly as were wealthy non-Jews. When it came to matters of national and religious identity, however, the Jews were treated differently than their non-Jewish neighbors.

Although the Soviets trumpeted Polish, Ukrainian, etc., nationalism, (with a very strong pro USSR slant, of course), a Soviet goal was to completely assimilate the Jews by stamping out Jewish nationalistic, spiritual, and cultural life. They did this in stages: first banning any political and religious activities, arresting and deporting or exiling community leaders, banning the teaching of Hebrew and slowly discouraging the use of Yiddish, and so on. As one Rabbi noted at the time, "The Germans will kill us, but the Soviets will kill our souls." In return, Jews who accepted the new rules were offered educational and career opportunities that had been denied them under the previous regimes.

Though many Jews were promoted into official government and Communist Party posts, Levin is careful to note that the percentage of Jews in such positions was not uniform throughout the annexed areas (in Ukraine and Bessarabia, for example, Jews who had been promoted were demoted or transferred, as part of an explicit "Ukrainization" policy) nor did it even approach the percentage of Jews in the local population. German atrocities created a flood of refugees, which the Soviets attempted to handle, as Levin says, "in a constructive and humane fashion, at least in Soviet terms of the time." Unless they managed to find work, or had some special skill (such as physicians), a large proportion of the refugees were deported to Siberia or Kazakhstan.

A special chapter is reserved for Lithuania, which for a time served as a "Gateway to the free world." 4,000-5,000 Jews managed to obtain transit permits and leave the Soviet Union during this period. Levin argues that this was a conscious policy by the Soviets to filter out and dispose of refugees other than by the politically damaging method of arrest and exile.

This book will be of interest to anyone who is researching their relatives who stayed in Eastern Europe instead of emigrating before WWII. I obtained this book from the library at the University of California, Davis, call number DS 135 P6 L47613 1995. --Mark Heckman (Dec 1999)

  • Last Modified: 06-08-2012
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