Interview # 3. Under the Soviets

Is it true that the Jews in eastern Poland overwhelmingly supported the Russian-Soviet invader?

Wladyslaw Bartoszewski replies: The issue should not be understated, but, at the same time, it should not be examined only from the Polish point of view. One has to understand the situation of the Jews who lived east of the Bug and San rivers. In 1939, these territories were occupied by the alien Russian-Soviet power. Approximately 30 to 40 percent of all Polish Jews lived there. Both the Poles and Jews in that area belonged to culturally impoverished segments of their respective populations. There was illiteracy, especially in the rural areas. We are talking here about the districts (wojewodztwa) occupied by the Soviets - the Vilna, Nowogrodek, Wolyn, Polesie, Lvov, Stanislawow, Tarnopol, and some of the Bialystok districts. For Jews who had lived under the Polish rule for only twenty years and whose parents and grandparents had been Russian Jews (speaking Russian), the return of Russian-Soviet power did not mean the same thing it did for the Poles.

In 1939, the order under which entire generations had lived until 1917-1918 was suddenly restored. Polish rule lasted there only for 21 years, or even 19, if we consider the war events in these territories before 1920. Some Jews had supported Polish rule. Some were to a certain degree assimilated both culturally and politically and treated their Jewish faith as a private matter - they considered themselves Polish citizens. Many were fierce enemies of Communism. Many were immediately deported, together with the Poles, to Siberia, the Soviet Union?s outback. They were considered enemies, because they were Zionists, or property owners, or former councilors or deputies in the prewar Polish Sejm (Congress). These Jews were persecuted. Among the masses who lived without any perspectives for their future, two options prevailed: Zionism or Communism. Icchak Cukierman, later known as Antek in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, wrote in his diaries (published in several languages) about the attempts to organize a Zionist group in Vilna under Soviet rule with the goal of preserving the Zionists and getting them ready to go to Palestine. It proved too difficult. So, finally, they decided against organizing the group.

Some Zionists fled the Soviet-occupied territory to continue their clandestine activities under the German occupation, hoping against hope to be able to establish a Zionist group there. Zionists had Jewish national consciousness. They were not Communists. Later they became heroes of the Ghetto uprising. It is worth noting, however, that the last living commander and the hero of the uprising, is Marek Edelman, a member of the Bund. (I have talked about the Bund and Zionism in the previous interview)

The Jewish Communists, however, supported Soviet Communism. So did the Polish Communists: Stefan Jedrychowski and his wife, Stachelski and his wife, and Wanda Wasilewska, the daughter of a government minister in the Pilsudski era. The Jews had their black sheep. But we had ours, too.

In September 1939, in small towns without a Polish elite (teachers, pharmacists, priests, as well as landed gentry living not far from the town), it was impossible not to notice young, elated Jews accompanying the Soviet soldiers. This does not prove Jewish presence in the KGB, as some generalizations and simplifications have suggested. Nobody could become a KGB employee straight off the street. But one could be recruited. Indeed, fairly numerous young Jewish, Ukrainian, Belorussian Communists applied to various formations of militia and self-government. Jews, Ukrainians and Belorussians made up two thirds of the population in the territories east of the Bug and San rivers. This subject cannot be considered without some reference to statistics, The remaining one third consisted of Polish gentry and military settlers, people who were of no use to the new power since by definition they were the worst enemies of the proletariat. Polish foresters and State Treasury officials were likewise considered to be enemies, and were accordingly deported with their families in 1940 and 1941. This is a widely known fact.

So, who was not considered a potential enemy? The poor, who could be mobilized under class slogans. What was the nationality of the poor in those territories? Jewish, Ukrainian and Belorussian. The villages were Ukrainian and Belorussian, small towns were Jewish. Polish members of the intelligentsia (professionals, university professors, teachers, lawyers etc) were deported en masse from Vilna and Lvov, the main centers of Polish life. This is well known too. Not only they. There were also some Jews, and nationally conscious Ukrainians who landed in prisons and gulags. Some of these were imprisoned in closed camps, others were sent to forced settlements. Those who knew the language were better able survive. Basically, all Jews 30 years old and over spoke Russian, because they had been Russian Jews. How can we understand, judge, and evaluate it all today?