'Silent Holocaust' Finds Its Voice: Wartime Documents Tell Story of Lost Soviet Community

The documents are expected to help researchers measure the scope of persecution and extermination of Jews in the former Soviet Union.

More than a million new testimonial pages about Jews in the Soviet Union will be released by Yad Vashem, starting next week, in the wake of agreements with the KGB archives and the national archives of Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The documents, which include personal papers belonging to World War II survivors from these states, are expected to help researchers measure the scope of persecution and extermination of Jews in the former Soviet Union.

"There are many black holes concerning communities and individuals in Central and Eastern Europe, where the majority of Jews lived," says Dr. Haim Gertner, head of the archives division of the Yad Vashem World Center for Holocaust Research, Documentation and Education. "It has been very difficult for us to copy records from this region; it includes entire villages that were wiped out by the Nazis in one day, and nobody was left to narrate what happened."

Since the Iron Curtain fell in 1991, materials documenting the lives of Jews in the Soviet Union began to accumulate, but they were relayed to the West in small batches. In the current documentation project, personal papers belonging to survivors from these states were copied by Yad Vashem crews over the past two years. The document collection includes passports, identity papers, documents about house use (attesting to entry and occupation procedures enforced under Communist rule ), demographic registries, medical records, personal files of schoolteachers, and more. The records cover the lives of Jews before, during and after the war.

Dr. Arkadi Zeltser, head of Yad Vashem's center for the research of Jews of the Soviet Union during the Holocaust, says the new documents should help break the silence surrounding the murder of Jews in the Soviet Union. On the eve of the war, some five million Jews lived in the Soviet Union; by the end of the war, some 2.7 million had been murdered, estimates Zeltser, one of many researchers who refer to the extermination of Jews of the former Soviet Union as the "Holocaust that was silenced."

"The Holocaust of Jews in the former Soviet Union was never written about as a phenomenon of genocide. They (the Soviets ) claimed that Soviet Jews were murdered as Soviet citizens, not as Jews," says Zeltser, adding that the process of breaking the silence "will be a very long one."

Menachem Begin's fingerprints

The records include those of renowned Jews such as former prime minister Menachem Begin. "Begin was detained by the Soviet authorities on charges of anti-Communist, Zionist activity," notes Gertner. "The investigation file has 140 pages, in which everything is recorded, including who he was, what he studied, his fingerprints, and more. We are copying hundreds of files of people who had no idea that they were under investigation."

The cache of papers is also shedding light on little-known heroes. One dramatic story that has never been disclosed is that of Chaim Feyglman, commander of unit 106 of the Jewish partisan platoon, which operated in Belarus during the Second World War.

Feyglman grew up in a large family, in a town near Minsk. When war erupted in Belarus in 1941, he was detained while trying to escape from Minsk and return to his hometown. He was first sent to the Drozdi concentration camp, close to Minsk, and later transferred to a prison in Minsk, while his family remained in the city's ghetto. Feyglman managed to elude the Nazis. He found work in the ghetto's hospital, where he met Hersh Smolar, who later became a leader of the ghetto underground. Together with Smolar, Feyglman established the ghetto's underground in August 1941. Feyglman had access to a storage area in the ghetto where firearms and medicine were kept; he smuggled items to the partisans. When the Nazis learned about the hospital's underground cell, they murdered all the patients and doctors in the facility.

In August 1942, the Nazis murdered some 20,000 residents of the ghetto via gas trucks. At the end of June 1943, Feyglman escaped to neighboring forests, and became the commissar of unit 106, which had 1,000 fighters. The unit took part in a number of underground missions, including the dynamiting of railroad tracks. In July 1944, the unit disbanded and Feyglman was discharged. He worked at a series of jobs until he retired in April 1977. Feyglman, who was injured during the war, had a son, daughter and grandchildren. In 1991, he immigrated to Israel, together with his daughter and her family. Testimony provided by his comrades after the war was held at an archive in Belarus; these documents, together with Feyglman's personal papers, allow researchers to piece together his dramatic life story.

Yad Vashem will begin releasing the documents next week, on Holocaust Remembrance Day. The agreements, signed between Yad Vashem and the various national archives about five months ago, were supported by the Genesis Foundation and the European Jewish Fund.