Life, Death, and Survival Between Hitler and Stalin
Introduction to the Azrieli Series of Holocaust Survivor Memoirs’ latest title If, By Miracle
In the summer of 1945, when Michael Kutz realized that his whole family had been wiped out, that there was no one left, he began a long journey in search of a new home. That summer marked the end of his youth in Nieśwież, a small town in present-day Belarus, ninety-five kilometres south of the capital, Minsk. The orphaned fourteen-year-old recognized that alongside his family, a whole world was gone – the world now often compressed into the word shtetl: a town populated by a tightly knit Jewish community, its geography shaped by synagogues and religious schools, and its daily chatter inflected by competing visions of where and how Jews should live – in the ancient homeland or within other societies around the world. The Nazi genocide had eradicated one of the possibilities; there were no more Jews in Nieśwież at the end of World War II. Michael Kutz wrote his memoirs late in life and the sweeping breadth of his story takes us on a journey through twentieth-century Eastern European, Soviet, global, Canadian and Jewish history. Born in 1930 into a family of five, young Michael grew up in a decade that thoroughly transformed Jewish life in eastern Poland. Jews in the region struggled to maintain individual lives and communal cohesion amidst Europe-wide arguments about the status of national minorities, strong currents of antisemitism in Poland, increased overall secularization and urbanization, and, by the end of the decade, annexation and war.
Michael Kutz’s description of life in his hometown of Nieśwież gives the reader a window onto these times. With a population of almost 7,000 inhabitants, among them some 4,000 Jews, Nieśwież exemplified the crystallized image of a shtetl and its transformation in the interwar period: a small Eastern European town with a strong Jewish presence, where Jewish tradesmen and artisans were the driving economic force. The Belorussians and Ukrainians living in the town spoke and understood Yiddish, and much of the daily and weekly life followed the rhythm of Jewish religious observance. Several synagogues and cheders (religious elementary schools) catered to the large Jewish community. The very existence of this community in eastern Poland was the result of restrictions imposed upon the Jewish subjects of the Russian Empire: after 1792, Jews were required to live within the confines of the Pale of Settlement, a region covering large parts of present-day Ukraine, Belorussia, Lithuania, Latvia, eastern Poland and the western parts of Russia. With the 1917 Russian Revolution, these restrictions were lifted and many Jews moved away from the former Pale, but many stayed and became citizens of Poland, the Soviet Union, or the other states that emerged from World War I and thus continued the strong presence of Jews in the area.
Nieśwież fell to Poland in 1918 and, as Michael Kutz describes, its Jewish community experienced the political trends in Polish society characteristic of the time in its very own way. Since the turn of the century, right-wing forces had been on the rise in Poland. This trend intensified during World War I and, again, during the economic crisis of the 1920s and 1930s. At that time, the right-wing nationalist party National Democracy (ND, “Endecja”) became an influential political force, and Polish nationalism with an insistence on creating a “Poland of Poles” – i.e., of Catholics – gained traction among major parts of society. The “Endeks” singled out Jews as un-Polish and blamed them for the rising unemployment, frequently calling for boycotts of Jewish businesses and condoning the regular violent attacks on individual Jews. By the mid-1930s, this type of nationalism found expression in state policies that imposed special taxes on Jews and Jewish businesses, prohibited the ritual slaughter required to maintain the Jewish dietary laws (largely to break the monopoly of Jewish butchers on the meat market), introduced entry limitations for Jews to Polish universities, and banished Jewish students to the so-called ghetto benches in the back of classrooms. More and more professional associations were closed to Jews, making it impossible for Jews to conduct business.
Responses and reactions to these restrictions among the Jews were varied and continued a pattern that had developed in the Pale of Settlement and Poland since the late nineteenth century. The increasing industrialization of the economy in the region left many people unemployed or working under dismal conditions. As in other countries, younger people especially rebelled against worker exploitation, authoritarian state rule and patriarchal authority in the family. They joined political movements that sought to curtail capitalist exploitation and establish individual liberties and gender equality, and also championed rights to free religious and cultural self-expression.
Some Jews saw no prospects for a secure Jewish existence in Eastern Europe and turned to Zionism, advocating emigration to the ancient homeland of Israel – then Palestine under Ottoman and, later, British rule. Others joined moderate or radical left parties and youth movements that worked toward an overall revolution and, in part, promoted Jewish participation in pluralist societies. The split between Zionist activists organized in groups such as Betar or Hashomer Hatzair and others who joined the General Jewish Labor Bund in Lithuania, Poland and Russia often divided families and, more often than not, the young from the old. Kutz’s parents personify this split, arguing about whether young Michael should be educated in a Yiddish or Hebrew school. The focus on the language of instruction reflects the different political agendas: adherence to the Jewish religion and the vision of the establishment of a Jewish state by learning Hebrew countered the efforts toward integration and secularization articulated in promoting Yiddish.
Within the larger Polish political landscape, the Jewish political parties were looked upon with suspicion and driven underground; many activists were arrested and imprisoned. Promoting emigration was considered a sign of disloyalty, while left-wing activists were suspected of supporting the Soviet Union – tantamount to treason. Belorussians and Ukrainians were also suspected of promoting their own nations’ interest and subjected to surveillance and, in many cases, arrest. As a town in the peripheral regions of Poland, the residents of Nieśwież experienced these developments in a somewhat less intense way than those in larger cities and in the centre of Poland, yet Kutz includes enough information to make it clear that their impact on the locals was palpable.
The countries bordering Poland in the east and in the west – the Soviet Union and Germany – also underwent stark political and social transformations in the interwar period. Radical changes in these countries would soon determine Jewish life in Nieśwież and eastern Poland: one in the form of dismantling the institutions and frameworks of collective Jewish existence, the other by posing a lethal threat to individual Jews.
Since its creation in 1922, the USSR had been undergoing major transformations through the industrialization and secularization projects set in motion in the 1920s that reconfigured the social and moral fibre of Soviet society. Many previously marginalized social groups – peasants, workers and national minorities – had welcomed the lifting of restrictions and discriminations that had limited their access to education, disenfranchised them in perpetuity, or, as in the case of Jews, confined them to the Pale of Settlement. The attempts of the Bolshevik government to establish a society of equals that would meet the basic needs of everyone came at a price, however. The plan to re-engineer the social order radicalized over time to such an extent that new hierarchies and forms of violence developed that were detrimental to creating a society allowing for the pursuit of individual rights and liberties while achieving the common good.
Soviet Jews experienced these promising, yet eventually problematic developments in their own way. A brief renaissance of national cultures, such as the one that promoted Jewish culture through state support for publishing, theatre and schooling in Yiddish in the 1920s, soon gave way to an overall reorientation of social and cultural policies toward creating a unified Soviet culture. The secularization campaigns of the 1920s and 1930s, primarily aiming to rid Soviet society of the impact of patriarchal and authoritarian rule rooted in Russian Orthodoxy, targeted Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim institutions of worship and communal welfare. For Jews, the closing of synagogues, religious schools and community institutions such as the kehilla, the traditional locus of collective self-governance, eradicated the core of their way of life that had followed the religious calendar structured by the Sabbath and important holidays. By the end of the 1930s, Sovietization was largely a project of Russification, with Russian culture and language promoted as the core of Soviet identity. Similar to other national institutions with a religious basis, Jewish, i.e. Yiddish-language schools were closed and religious practices were ousted from the public sphere. If these religious practices continued at all, they were performed in secrecy. At the same time, many younger Jews born after the establishment of the Soviet Union ceased to value their Jewish identity and developed a strong sense of Soviet, civic identity in which their ethnic origin ceased to carry existential meaning in daily life.
In Germany, meanwhile, the Nazi Party (NSDAP) had been elected to government in 1933 and was in the process of transforming and radicalizing German society into a racist state purged of political dissent and national and social groups deemed inimical to German “Aryan” superiority: Jews, Roma, people with disabilities, gays and lesbians, and many others. Shortly after the Nazi rise to power, laws restricting the lives of German Jews were put in place, limiting their ability to work, receive an education, participate in social and political decision-making, or enjoy public parks and swimming pools.
In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws stripped German Jews of their citizenship, after which Jews had few prospects of surviving by their own means. More than 280,000 of the 600,000 German Jews emigrated in the five years following 1933. The rest were often caught between a lack of funds or visas for travel and the bureaucratic obstacles set by potential countries they wanted to immigrate to. Jews wanting to leave were forced to sell their personal property and pay a significant emigration tax. These policies impoverished prospective emigrants and stranded thousands in Nazi Germany who did not have the financial means to leave or were too old to start a life from scratch elsewhere.
As the Nazi government began its aggressive campaign to bring Europe under direct German rule, emigration became less and less feasible. The annexations of Austria and Sudetenland (the northwestern area of Czechoslovakia) in 1938, and finally the attack on Poland in September 1939, created an environment in which the crossing of international borders was nearly impossible. The remaining roughly 200,000 Jews in Germany were doomed to join the Jews in other occupied countries who were singled out, exploited and, finally, killed.
Nazi ideology further posited Bolshevism as the arch-enemy of Aryan Germany. Jews were conceptualized as the personification and promoters of Bolshevik power, and the spectre of Judeo-Bolshevism loomed large in Nazi propaganda that called for the destruction of the Communist state. The public articulation of Nazi ideology was accompanied by active planning for a war to expand into Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union by politicians, scientists and military strategists. In these plans, the lands to the East were viewed as the living space necessary for German Aryans to prosper. The so-called Generalplan Ost (General Plan East) conceptualized the eastern territories as living space for ethnic Germans and a source of raw materials, its inhabitants to be either exploited as labourers or exterminated as superfluous population, with a distinction drawn between the “low races” of Slavic people and Jews.
In essence, Jews in Germany and the Soviet Union were subject to diametrically opposed agendas and conditions: Nazi ideology singled out Jews based on a racialized understanding of difference and denied Jews their existence as social, political and legal subjects, cumulating eventually in their physical destruction. In the Soviet Union, the reality was much more complicated. Jews, at least in theory, were integrated into society, although it was at the cost of disavowing their Jewish identity and adopting central values of Soviet ideology such as internationalism, secularism and communism. Soviet ideology purported to promote equality and social relationships shaped by conscious and deliberate choice and agency; Nazi ideology, in contrast, was driven by the self-serving notions of superiority that underlie racism and justify the elimination of specific groups.
The inglorious alliance between Nazi Germany and the Soviet government, exemplified by the Treaty of Non-Aggression Pact between Germany and the Soviet Union (Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, 1939) was negotiated during the heated period leading up to the war. On the one side were Allied attempts to curtail Nazi Germany’s lust for power without active intervention; economic crisis and demand for heavy and military machinery in the Soviet Union; on the other were Germany’s preparation for war and need for raw materials. The Secret Protocols attached to the treaty, which already identified German and Soviet “spheres of influence,” didn’t become public until 1946 and their existence was denied by the Soviet government til 1989. The Protocols effectively assigned Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and eastern Poland to the Soviet Union, and East Prussia and western Poland to Germany – divisions that were to be implemented through war and the violent overthrow of local regimes.
Germany attacked Poland on September 1, 1939, and the Soviet army began their occupation of Poland later that month. In quick succession, parts of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bessarabia, and the northern Bukovina were annexed and incorporated into the Soviet Union. Nieśwież, like many other shtetls and cities with large Jewish populations in the former Pale of Settlement, also fell under Soviet rule; in total, approximately 1.5 million Jews in eastern Poland found themselves living within Soviet borders. For the time being, for the Jews this primarily meant catching up with the Soviet policies of secularization and Sovietization. The kehilla was dismantled; Jewish political movements and parties ceased to function; Jewish worker unions were merged with their Polish, Belorussian and Ukrainian counterparts; and many private businesses were closed. The anti-religious campaigning and promotion of Soviet ideology were implemented much faster than in the territories of the USSR as defined in 1922 – a process that had taken almost twenty years in places like Bobruisk in eastern Belorussia was enforced within weeks in the newly annexed parts of Belorussia. Whereas communal Jewish life in pre-war Poland could exist within the framework of Jewish schools, synagogues and self-administration but individual Jews often experienced discrimination, now the opposite was the case: Jews as individuals were, at least on paper, protected by legislation against national hatred and hostility, but the infrastructure of Jewish congregations and communities disappeared.
Simultaneously, many Jews in Poland fled from the newly German-occupied areas. Aware of the discrimination and violence with which the Nazi government and German society had threatened both individual and collective Jewish existence in Germany, more than 400,000 Polish Jews from western and central Poland fled east ward. Some of them soon returned since they saw no prospects for themselves in the Soviet Union or were unable to reunite with their families. Others, like Kutz’s mother, who was accused of anti-Soviet activity despite her work with socialist organizations, fell victim to Soviet attempts to eradicate the bourgeois presence or preemptively quell political dissent by activists who supported the Soviet project but criticized particular elements of Soviet policies. They were arrested, thousands of them being deported further inland to Siberia and the far eastern parts of the USSR.
Approximately 100,000 Jews originally from Poland stayed in the Belorussian Republic. Nieśwież’s Jewish community grew by about five hundred members. The children, elderly, men and women had to be housed, find work and be integrated into a new environment, a challenge that many towns and cities mastered rather well considering the circumstances of war, ongoing economic crisis, and internal political conflicts within the Soviet Union such as intra-Party strife or debates about the right course to establish a communist society. These refugees, however, also now reported that German atrocities against Polish Jews had begun immediately after the invasion. The spectre of violence loomed over Kutz, his family and Nieśwież’s Jews.
The Soviet government had downplayed the threat of war that Nazi Germany posed to the USSR, neglecting to equip the Soviet army with sufficient fuel and ammunition or preparing other means of protecting the population. The German invasion and air raids that began on June 22, 1941 caught both civilians and military by surprise. About two million Soviet combatants were captured in the summer of 1941. Many other Soviet soldiers who escaped turned into guerrilla fighters behind the front line, forming the core of the Soviet partisan movement that became an important element of the military victory against the Nazi regime and of Soviet civilians’ struggle for survival.
As German plans to establish a new racial, economic and political order in Europe unfolded, Belorussians, like others in the Soviet Union who fell under the occupation regime, suffered intense violence and hardship: 380,000 residents of Belorussia were deported for forced labour in concentration camps or in Germany; food was requisitioned for the German war effort, causing widespread starvation; and up to 2.3 million residents (25 per cent of the pre-war population) were killed during the war. More than four hundred Belorussian villages were severely damaged or destroyed; another 186 have not been rebuilt since the war. Exploitation and violence, often lethal, targeted the whole Soviet population, but Jews were targeted and subjected to increased humiliation, violation and systematic murder.
Overall, approximately 2.6 million Jews residing in Soviet territories were caught during the German occupation. Within weeks, Communist functionaries and individual Jews, many of them women and men who were part of the Soviet administrative or professional elite, were killed. Beginning in July, Jews in most Belorussian towns were confined to “Jewish residential districts” – i.e., ghettos. Many of these, as in Nieśwież, consisted of a few houses, sometimes even one house, in a specific neighbourhood in which all Jews of a given locality were to reside. Curfews, mandatory wearing of yellow circles or stars, or armbands, and a forced labour regime determined Jewish life under German occupation.
Ghettoization inhibited free access to food and other necessities, fulfilling the German occupation regime’s central goal of forcing starvation upon the Jewish population so as to decimate it. Life in the Nazi ghettos in the Soviet Union faced particular difficulties because the Jewish institutions that could have facilitated collective self-help had been destroyed during the anti-religious campaigns in the 1920s and in the course of a reversal in Soviet nationality policies in the 1930s. Michael Kutz and many other youths took on an important role in supplying their families, and themselves, with food: they were highly mobile within the ghettos and also managed to sneak through ghetto fences to barter for or retrieve food outside.
Above all, however, hovered the threat of mass murder. Beginning in late summer of 1941, the Jewish communities between Minsk and Borisov were annihilated in a concerted campaign of murder sometimes referred to as the “Holocaust by bullets.” Nazi killing squads called Einsatzgruppen, together with collaborating police formations comprised of locals, Lithuanians, Latvians and Ukrainians, began mass shootings in ghettos throughout Eastern Europe. When the Jews of Nieśwież were gathered for execution in late October 1941, Michael Kutz was separated from his parents and his siblings. The anguish and despair is palpable in the older Kutz’s memoir, as he relates what it meant for him as a young boy to lose the people closest to him in such a violent atrocity and the connection to a whole world of learning, caring and planning for the future. Kutz barely escaped the killing of 4,000 people on that day.
Like a few thousand other children and youth who escaped the murder in Belorussia, Kutz found shelter with friendly locals before joining a group of other ghetto refugees who became part of the Soviet partisan movement. As Jews, however, they faced hostility not only from local residents, but also from many Soviet partisans, mostly former members of the Soviet army, who were either suspicious of any civilian who wanted to join them or harboured sometimes violent anti-Jewish attitudes. As a young boy of eleven, Michael was in an especially precarious position. Like many others in his situation, he matured quickly and was eventually accepted into the ranks of the fighters. His experiences are at once characteristic and singular.
Many Jews who managed to escape from the ghettos or flee from the killing squads tried to join partisan units, knowing this would be their only chance to survive. Many were denied admission or even killed. In response to these events, several Jews established their own Jewish partisan detachments. Lev Gil’chik, Kirill Orlovskii, Boris Gindin, Israel Lapidus, Pavel Proniagin, Hirsch Kaplinsky and many others whose names we may never know, commandeered groups of Jews who decided to wage their own battle against the German occupiers. Eventually, they all joined loosely together in a partisan movement of about 380,000 in Belorussia alone. Among these, it is estimated, were up to 14,000 Jews; in the occupied Soviet Union overall were 35,400 Jewish partisans.
Kutz’s memoir also offers insights into two other important elements of the struggle for survival against the Nazi genocide. Hundreds of Jewish children, elderly, women, and men who did not find entry into partisan detachments nevertheless engaged in combat and sabotage missions. They survived in Jewish “family units” such as the detachments led by Tuvia Bielski or Shalom Zorin, who both headed groups of several hundred Jews hiding and surviving in the forests of Belorussia who provided food, clothes, ammunition, medical aid and other necessary services to other partisans and thus secured their own survival. Between 6,500 and 9,000 people lived in such units throughout the occupied Soviet Union; in Belorussia alone there were between 3,700 and 5,200 members.
While the member of a partisan unit, Kutz also learned about the end of Nieśwież’ Jewish community: in the summer of 1942, German troops had assembled and killed the remaining five hundred Jews interned in Nieśwież’ ghetto. As would happen later on in such towns as Slonim, Kopyl, Mir, Kamenets, Bialystok, Glubokoe, Novogrudok, Kobrin, Liachovichi and Derechin, a group of about thirty people had done what they could to make this destruction as difficult as possible for the Germans. Their efforts had a symbolic character, showing the will to fight the intruder while knowing it to be in vain. This attempt at preserving Jewish honour did produce a concrete result, however, since the fighting enabled several Jews to escape the ghetto and join the partisan movement. In recounting these efforts in the Nieśwież ghetto, Michael Kutz illuminates an aspect of Jewish resistance that we know too little about.
Michael Kutz describes for us the nearly hopeless situation experienced by the Jews residing in German-occupied Belorussia. For Jews who faced a rapidly executed policy of destruction and murder, who were caught behind the front lines, and who, for the most part, could not rely on pre-existing structures of self-help or self-defense, the woods offered the only space to escape from genocide.
All too many Jewish children, women, men, and elderly were not successful in doing so. When Kutz discovered, at the end of the war, that nearly the whole Jewish community of Nieśwież had been annihilated, he shared the realization of many across Belorussia: up to 800,000 Belorussian Jews had been killed by the German occupation regime and its auxiliaries. The centuries-long history of Jews in the Pale of Settlement, Poland and the Soviet Union came to an end.
The teenage Michael Kutz’s decision to leave this region was therefore understandable. He had lost his whole family and there was hardly anyone left with whom he could rebuild a life. The second half of his memoir is devoted to the post-war period, beginning with a description of his attempts to reach Israel, an account of his efforts to build a new life in Canada and the emotion he felt when he finally stood at the Holy Wall in Jerusalem.
Kutz provides moving insights into the long and excruciating period of insecurity and waiting that up to ten million displaced people in Europe shared as they waited to repatriate or relocate after World War II, among them former concentration camp inmates, forced labourers, war refugees and prisoners of war. In particular, many of the 250,000 Jewish displaced persons who were unwilling to or incapable of returning to their former hometowns longed for a state that would provide them with security and stability. They were forced to remain in limbo, caught up in the international debate about the formation of a Jewish state and international responsibility for the survivors of the Nazi genocide.
Michael Kutz’s account of the decades following the war testifies to a busy life and his work to support marginalized social groups. In some way, these attempts may be understood as an effort to revive the values and forms of mutual assistance that Kutz and his ancestors experienced within the Jewish community of Nieśwież.
Rather than being a memoir of destruction and redemption that results in closure, the following pages are a testimony to the long-lasting impact of the Nazi genocide on a young life. What follows is a rich account of a complicated life that encompasses growing up in interwar Poland, living under Soviet rule, surviving under German occupation and immigrating to Canada. At the same time, Michael Kutz successfully challenges the all-too-common portrayal of the Holocaust as the only salient experience of his and other survivors’ lives. As Kutz articulates clearly in these pages, the period of unquestionable traumatization, displacement and loss is not the only important experience in his life.
Washington University, St. Louis 2013
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