Survival on the Margins

Review of Eliyana R. Adler’s Survival on the Margins: Polish Jewish Refugees in the Wartime Soviet Union. Published by Harvard University Press

This book tells the story of the tens of thousands of Polish Jews who were forcibly deported to special settlements and camps in the interior of the Soviet Union in 1940. They had found themselves in the Soviet zone when the armies of Hitler and Stalin gleefully dissected Poland in September 1939.

On one level, the deportees escaped the extermination when the Nazis invaded the USSR in the summer of 1941. On another, the story of the great suffering of these Jews has barely been told. The American academic, Eliyana Adler, relates this tragic episode in Jewish history for the first time in English, providing an opportunity to read the absorbing book of the testimonies of the unheard.

The vast majority of Polish Jews, more than 64,000, were deported in the third wave in June 1940. A few weeks before, Stalin had instigated the mass shooting of the Polish military and intellectual elite at Katyn and blamed it on the Nazis. Among the victims was Baruch Steinberg, the Chief Rabbi of the Polish army.

Many of the deportees refused to take Soviet citizenship, knowing that, eventually that it would make it impossible to leave the USSR. Some such as Yitzhak Erlichson, author of My Four Years in Soviet Russia, had managed to cross the border and escape the Nazis. He was arrested and accused of being a British spy.

Jewish families were told suddenly informed to pack and make their way to the railway station. In the mêlée, children were separated and aged grandparents disappeared. Many lacked appropriate clothing and adequate food in the overcrowded wagons.

During month-long, lice-infested journeys to destinations such as the Arctic, northern Kazakhstan, Siberia and the Urals, there were frequent outbreaks of typhoid. Some Zionists were pleased to be exiled to Tashkent — as it was nearer to Palestine. In Siberia, they felled trees in the bitter cold. As a Jew from Kraków commented: ‘we dress like Purim, eat as on Yom Kippur and work like in Egypt’. Clandestine services were held on Jewish festivals. One Jew insisted on fasting on Yom Kippur as a mark of defiance — he had not done so since his barmitzvah.

The Sikorski-Maisky pact of July 1941 offered an amnesty to all those Poles incarcerated in the USSR and the formation of an armed force to fight the Nazis. As the Germans were pushed back, Jewish soldiers bore witness to what had happened. ‘They took the children from their mothers and killed them’ one reported. ‘And they kept the shoes. Even when I slept, I saw the shoes. It was unrelenting.’

Some Polish Jews managed to leave straight after the war. Others such as the Yiddish writer, Moyshe Broderzon, was kept in the gulag, where Broderzon remained until August 1956. Jewish believers in the new Poland left after the Six Day War in 1967, expelled by the Communists.

Eliyana Adler’s meticulous research and ingathering of sources in this harrowing work has reclaimed a little-known chapter of the saga of Polish Jews for a new generation of readers.

Jewish Chronicle 8 January 2021

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