World War II and the Making of the Soviet Jew

Employees (IfZ):   Tobias Wals

Before World War II, about one-third of the population in Zhytomyr, a medium-sized city in western Soviet Ukraine, was Jewish. Much of this group survived the war and the Holocaust, in most cases in the Soviet hinterland or as part of the Red Army, and returned after the city was liberated. But the Jewish community in the postwar years differed considerably from the prewar community. Jewish customs and religion had all but disappeared, as had the Yiddish language. Over the course of a generation, traditional life was replaced by a new Jewish identity that was Russian-speaking and secular.

This research project focuses on the shaping of this Soviet Jewish identity in the wake of World War II. On the basis of testimonies and first-person documents, the different war experiences of the Zhytomyr Jews are reconstructed - under German occupation, in the army and in the Soviet hinterland. It is shown that, on the one hand, Sovietized Jews had better chances to survive the war; and on the other hand, the war and its aftermath itself had an assimilative effect on Soviet citizens, especially on the Jewish population. In the end, a pronounced Jewish distinctiveness remained, but this was determined in a highly negative way, by silence and denial.

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