Bygone times are passing
in front of me…
Memories of eighties
by Nataliya Yukhneva
The Jewish Cemetery, 1985
In the autumn of 1984 Beizer invited me to a session of his seminar – to hear a paper on the Medieval Jewish community in Prague. After that I became a regular participant of the seminar and attended it for three years, up to its leader's departure to Israel in May 1987. In Israel Beizer became a professional historian, he lectures at Hebrew University in Jerusalem; for several years he worked as one of the co-editors of a Jerusalem-based English scholarly magazine that publishes papers on East European Jewry (mainly – of the former Soviet Union). But the most important thing is that he writes and publishes books on Russian Jews. For residents of our city his well-grounded, based on analysis of numerous documents and at the same time well written, comprehensible and interesting for non-specialists book "The Jews of Leningrad. 1917-1939. Community Life and Sovietization" is especially noteworthy.
At the beginning of April 1985 Beizer announced at the seminar's regular session that on the following Sunday a ceremony commemorating Jewish victims of genocide and heroes of anti-Nazi resistance would take place at Preobrazhenskoye Jewish cemetery.
After the seminar Misha said to me:
- Good bye, see you at the next session.
- But we will see each other on Sunday! – I retorted.
Misha frowned in surprise. He held this unsafe for me (and not without grounds, as it later turned out). There was doubt in his voice when he said:
- You are planning to come? Well, all right then.
My first visit to the Jewish cemetery was in 1947.
On December 5 my classmate and friend Tanya lost her father, Aron Solomonovich Broun, professor of Chemistry of Leningrad University, who was killed in a car accident. All my classmates went to see him off on his last way.
The car with an open coffin was slowly moving from the University to Moskovskii Railway Station, followed by an endless, as I saw it then, column of mourners. Aron Solomonovich was a brilliant lecturer and students loved him, but as I see it now, it was not only this, but also the tragedy of his death that explained the unusually large scale of his funeral procession. The funeral turned into a demonstration. There were cars waiting at Moscovskii Railway Station. Most of the mourners went away. But there were enough cars, so that numerous people participated in the ceremony at the cemetery as well.
A month later, on January 13, Solomon Mikhoels died in exactly the same way – ostensibly, in a car accident. In my nearest surrounding there was no doubt about what it meant – he had been murdered. The similarity with Tanya's father's death was striking.
Spring was late to come in 1985; snow had not yet melted at the cemetery. Misha had explained well where to go to, it was easy to find the place. Even though, two or three people were standing at the lanes at some distance from each other and silently pointing at the direction to go, with a slight head or hand movement. I remembered one of them: it was Aba Taratuta, a long-time refusenik; we got acquainted about a year later (he lives in Israel now).
I came up to the grave at which the ceremony was supposed to take place. There was an unusual tall monument there: two metal vertical bars, a diagonal grating, a large six-pointed star in its upper part, a plaque under it. The plaque had the names of members of one big family who died during the war [WWII] on it. But they were not buried there. Maybe they were never buried at all. The plaque had names of the places where they perished: Auschwitz, Stalingrad, Krasnyi Bor (near Leningrad), Petsamo (on Kolskii peninsula). An inscription like this turns a tombstone into a symbol.
It was still too early when I came and a few people that I did not know were walking up and down the nearest lanes. I wandered a little around the cemetery, refreshing in my memory the verse of Pavlo Tychyna that I planned to recite if I had an opportunity to do so. At twelve sharp everyone was there. There were only a few strangers there, most of the participants being members of the historic seminar. The meeting was opened by Danila [Daniel] Romanovsky. He explained that the Memory Day was timed to the Warsaw ghetto uprising anniversary and that it was kept all over the world by Jews and non-Jews alike, and it was only in our country that the tragedy and heroism of Jews were always silenced. Romanovsky had visited Belorussian towns and collected evidence of the Holocaust; he lives in Israel and teaches Jewish history now. Some other people spoke at the meeting. An especially impressing story about his escape from a ghetto was told by Abram Lazarevich Kaplan (naturally, I got to know his name only later).
I was standing next to Beizer. I whispered:
- I want to speak…
- Tell Romanovsky. But don't be too long.
I got nearer to the monument where Romanovsky was conducting the meeting. He nodded, and when he thought it appropriate, said in a soft voice –"go ahead".
I wanted to convey to those present my sorrow for the victims and my admiration for the heroes, to speak on behalf of those who like myself, were scorched forever by the tragedy of the Jewish people.
- I want to speak on behalf of those non-Jews who have not come here today only because they do not know about this day or do not know where to come to… I will recite a poem by a Ukrainian poet Pavlo Tychyna written in 1942, the terrible year when Nazis massacred Jews.
[This is a long poem originally written in Ukrainian, in which the author laments over the tragic events of Jewish history, from ancient times to his own day. He mentions great Jewish poets and writers and expresses his admiration for the strong spirit of the Jewish people and his hope that the Nazi monster will soon be defeated. The opening and the closing lines are almost identical, the only difference being that the opening lines speak of "the edge of death", while in the closing lines we read about "the edge of life" These lines go like this:]
The Jewish people, accept my homage!
Not only pain guided my pen
At the time when at the edge of death
The ruthless death cut down your sons.
I want to sing your spirit, your proud strength.
Immortal is this strength!
Tychyna's poem is quoted exactly as I recited it then – with the same cuts and corrections of the translation.
The memorial meeting was over. Participants were leaving one by one, not all together. Misha took me firmly by the arm and quickly led to the exit. When we were some way off from the cemetery he started speaking:
- Natalya Vasilyevna! I see that all this is very serious with you…Can you tell me, if this is not a secret, of course, - why?
- How can it be a secret? But it can't be told in short… Come to me at May holidays.
On May 2 Misha came to me with Semion Frumkin, a participant of the historic seminar and an editor (together with Beizer) of the samizdat magazine LEA (Leningrad Jewish Anthology).
When I finished my story, Misha said in disbelief:
- These things just don't happen. - Then he thought a little and added: - Maybe they used to, but now they don't…
I was often asked afterwards: what made me, an ethnic Russian, get involved with the Jewish movement? I answered them – sometimes at some length, sometimes in a nutshell. Maybe sometime I will write about it, and also about how "these things do happen", even in our day (and they are not at all that rare).
But now I want to say some words about the beginning of the tradition of keeping the Memory Day for Jewish victims of Nazi genocide and resistance heroes at the Jewish cemetery in Leningrad.
In the western part of our country every big city and small town has a place where Jews were killed. On anniversaries of mass executions people used to assemble there to pay homage to those who were killed. In some places these were meetings with more or less considerable participation, in others only a few mourners used to come. In Leningrad such a place and date do not exist (the tragic events in Pushkin/Tsarskoye Selo were not known then). The International Holocaust Memorial Day – Yom ha-Shoa in Hebrew- is timed to the anniversary of the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising which took place in April-May 1943; this is a shifting date because it is set according to the Jewish (lunar) calendar. This is the day that Leningraders started to observe.
It was for the first time marked on May 1 1981. Over sixty people participated in the event, even though it took place in a private apartment. "Baby Yar" by Ye. Yevtushenko was recited and the first part of Symphony #13 by D. Shostakovich was played. Next year it was decided to hold the meeting under the open sky. Ten people headed for the Piskaryovskoye cemetery where victims of the Siege of Leningrad are buried. This is the site of the yearly Victory Day (May 9) commemorating meeting, which draws large participation. Where else could Leningraders go to pay homage to Jewish genocide victims? Two patrol cars were waiting there, ready for action; they left when they saw how small the group was. It had been planned to get together in a certain private apartment, but this plan failed because the police had sealed off that apartment. The participants gathered in another place. They listened to mournful music and spoke about victims and heroes of the Holocaust. In 1983, the year of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising fortieth anniversary, it was decided to mark the date at the Jewish cemetery. The place was expected to be safer. Indeed, the police were patrolling the cemetery on the outside only and nothing interfered with the meeting. Since then it became a custom to get together at Preobrazhenskoye Jewish Cemetery on the Memory Day. With each year the number of participants increased: whereas in 1983-85 only twenty to thirty people participated in the meeting, in 1986 the number rose to something like seventy. In 1986 my daughter Yekaterina came to the cemetery with me, in 1987 my son Andrei also came. In 1987 I wrote a poem about it:
The Jewish cemetery in Leningrad
A Jewish cemetery
With a Russian Orthodox name – Preobrazhenskoye.
We come here every spring
on the same day –
the day of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising,
the Memory day for victims and heroes.
We stand near a humble grave
who perished in the disaster of that war.
We swear to each other
to keep the memory of those who died,
of their life and death,
of their bravery,
and of the world
that ended with their end.
To keep it for those who will come after us,
so that they would be able
to feel pain for the victims
and pride for the heroes.
"We" are those who come
on Yom ha-Shoa
to the Jewish cemetery in Leningrad.
At the first seminar after the 1985 Memory Day (Beizer was away, he had left for Moscow, to take part in yet another demonstration of the "refuseniks') I felt (although nothing was voiced) that I had completely become "one of the family". The attitude towards me had always been friendly and trusting, but after my participating in the meeting and speaking at the cemetery I was in the same boat with the others, for I had put myself in the same risky situation regarding the KGB.
In the beginning of May the Institute's academic secretary rushed into the room where I was sitting with some colleagues. His eyes were wide open, his face looked worried. He said in a low voice: "You have to come to director's office". While he was walking with me to his room he explained: "The KGB people have come…" Two KGB officials were waiting there. One of them spoke with me, the other was sitting at some distance without interfering. Nothing was said about the cemetery. I was recommended to stop my contacts with Beizer and not to share anything with him ("Otherwise only god knows where our materials will go to"). Experienced people explained to me afterwards that I had been treated with utmost respect. First of, they did not summon me to the Big House [the KGB office], they came to me instead. Secondly, they did not question me, just scolded me mildly.
I immediately told everything to Alexander Sergeyevich Mylnikov, whom I trusted completely. He was Doctor of History and at that time he was Secretary of the Institute's [Communist] Party organization. (I had never been a Party member, but I must note, to the honour of my co-workers, that more than once did they elect quite decent people for that post). Alexander Sergeyevich was Director of Kunstkamera (which succeeded the Leningrad branch of the Institute of Anthropology) for several years later. He also supervised the European Department which he had organized in 1995 (he offered me work there, which I readily accepted). He passed away in 2003… The subject-matter of this memoir allows me to quote some lines of his congratulation for my birthday in 2000 (which was written in the style of West Slavonic folk verse):
She is obeyed by all who live in the cities of Russia,
Russians, Estonians, Tatars, nothing to say of the Jews-
Those on the Neva's banks dwelling and on dusty banks of the Jordan…
When Beizer returned from Moscow, I phoned him immediately:
- Come to me, I have to talk with you.
Misha's response was quick, he came at once. He knew (not had guessed, he really knew) what was supposed to happen.
Soon after that I went to Moscow and of course, I told everything to Chlenov. But since it was unwise to talk about such things in his apartment, we walked about in some suburbs for a long time.
Igor Kotler, who through his studies in anthropology was connected with me and with the Muscovites Chlenov, Krupnik and Kupovetsky, came to see me at the Institute (Kotler lives in the USA now, he is a specialist in Jewish Studies). He had started attending Beizer's seminar at the same time with me; needless to say that he also was at the cemetery. We walked through the museum halls; Igor was indignant:
- It was one of those present who snitched on you! It's like if you came to the ghetto to help and somebody informed on you to the Germans…
Yom ha-Shoa - 1987 in Leningrad and Glasnost
In 1987 it was decided to organize the Memory Day in a new way, as a mass meeting instead of a small-scale get-together of a group of friends. The times had changed! The District Executive Committee and the District Home Affairs Office were informed in advance. But an unpredictable thing happened ten days before April 26. At the night of April 17 (three days before Hitler's birthday anniversary) the Jewish Preobrazhenskoye cemetery was vandalized – several tombstones were damaged, many were broken. Three days later another raid took place; this time the vandals attacked the Jewish lot of the adjacent cemetery, the Memorial Cemetery of January 9 Victims (Preobrazhenskoye was closed and guarded). The police acted with unforgivable sluggishness; even a representative of the Leningrad City Home Affairs Office admitted that "the policemen did no act in accordance with the instructions" and assured that "those who failed to fulfill their duty will be compelled to answer before the law" (published in "Leningradskaya Pravda" on April 22).
The scope of the crime and the swastikas drawn on the uprooted tombstones attested to the fact that it was not just thoughtless hooliganism. Even then, in the spring of 1987, it was clear that the devastation of the cemetery was not an accident; it reflected a certain tendency of the anti-Semitic mood growth. The events that followed made this completely obvious. In 1988 we witnessed an unprecedented outbreak of anti-Semitism, one of manifestations of which was devastating Jewish cemeteries in a number of cities and towns.
On April 26 Preobrazhenskoye cemetery was just opened for visitors after order had been restored there. It was Sunday, people were in a hurry to see their loved ones' graves and make sure that they were all right. Not everyone knew about the Memory Day. Some asked the policemen who were patrolling the cemetery at the request of the organizers: "Is it true that there will be an anti-fascist meeting here?"
The meeting was held at a large open space between the entrance gate and the synagogue (funeral service house). At one o'clock two men with a white banner saying "Yom ha-Shoa" (in Hebrew) and "Memory Day" (in Russian) climb the synagogue stairs. During the meeting the people who are holding the banner change all the time. The anthem of Warsaw ghetto rebels and Jewish partisans of Poland and Belorussia is played. A young woman is reciting a Russian translation of the lyrics (she announces: "lyrics by Hirsh Glick, translated into Russian by Natalya Yukhnyova").
[In the original Russian text of the article the author gives her own Russian translation of the "Partisan Song". The English translation that is used here is taken from: http://www.generaciones-shoa.org.ar/english/texts/texts_partisan.htm
Never say that there is only death for you
Though leaden clouds may be concealing skies of blue
Because the hour that we have hungered for is near;
Beneath our tread the earth shall tremble: We are here!
From land of palm tree to the far-off land of snow
We shall be coming with our torment and our woe,
And everywhere our blood has sunk into the earth
Shall our bravery, our vigor blossom forth!
We'll have the morning sun to set our day aglow,
And all our yesterdays shall vanish with the foe,
And if the time is long before the sun appears,
Then let this song go like a signal through the years.
This song was written with our blood and not with lead;
It's not a song that birds sing overhead.
It was a people, among toppling barricades,
That sang this song of ours with pistols and grenades.
More and more people come to the plaza. Several hundred people are standing close to each other. The first and the most important speaker is Daniil (Daniel) Romanovsky. He says that World War II was one of the most terrible wars in history. Mankind lost fifty million lives in it. But some communities suffered especially hard losses and they remember it in a special way. The Nazis' goal was total annihilation of the Jewish people. Two thirds of European Jews – six million people – found death at their hands. That is why a special Memory Day for the Jewish Holocaust victims is observed – in the same way as Leningraders remember the Siege of Leningrad and the Japanese keep the memory of victims of the atom bombing. The blow hit the very centre of the Jewish world. Millions of Jew, including one million and two hundred thousand of children, perished in the furnaces of Auschwitz, Treblinka and other concentration camps, in ravines of Ukraine, Belorussia and Lithuania. A whole world with its culture, traditions and language was lost forever together with these people. "We, today's Jews – the speaker goes on, - "little resemble those who were killed by the Nazis. We do not know their language, we do not sing their songs, we do not remember their history. And if after one or two generations we will stop being Jewish, Hitler's goal will be reached – the Jewish people will come to the end of its earthly existence. There is only one remedy against this tragic outcome – memory. The nation will live if its memory lives".
Speakers change each other. There are war veterans and young people among them. They speak about brave Jewish fighters – soldiers and officers of the Soviet Army, about ghetto uprisings and partisan warfare. Time and again they repeat calls to remember – to remember every person who was killed, to collect memoirs of friends, relatives, eyewitnesses. Verse by Jewish poets is recited. Here is one of those poems; it was written by an anonymous author in a ghetto or in a concentration camp:
Jews, we've been driven out of our dear home
Into this cursed quagmire.
We are Jews, and that's the only reason
Why bullets and curses chase us.
We are sentenced to death and bound for death,
We are avengers, soldiers, partisans.
Maybe some of us will survive and return
To our parents' home, sooner or later.
The meeting comes to an end. Time has come for the ceremony of mourning. A long column of participants heads for the cenotaph where the Memory Day was held in the previous years. Candles are lit and put on the headstone. The weak lights are blinking in the wind, they go out and are lit again. A prayer is heard - :"El male rahamim…" More and more people come – everyone wants to light a candle of his own. More and more candles are lit – dozens of tiny lights in the memory and honour of those who were killed.
After the ceremony signatures are collected for a letter of appeal to the Writers' Union of the USSR to publish the so-called "Black Book" about Nazi crimes against the Jews. A group of writers, with Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasilii Grossman at the head, at the request of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, collected numerous eyewitness accounts, wills of those who were killed, official documents, photographs. This book, a document of accusation against the Nazis, was prepared for publication in the first post-war years, but it was only published abroad. With rare exceptions, the members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were shot down…
The appeal to the Writers' Union was signed by 192 people. A year later, also on Yom ha-Shoah, two such letters of appeal were adopted and signed – one in Leningrad and one in Moscow. The book was first published in our country only in 1991, in two places simultaneously – in Kiev and Zaporozhye.
But let us return to April 1987. On the next after the Memory Day morning I took a short (15 lines) report of it to "Leningradskaya Pravda" and handed it to Galina Grigoryevna Sapunova (the acting head of the information department). She accepted it, but she said that the final decision would be made by Boris Abramovich Feld (author of anti-Zionist writings which he published under the pen-name of B. Kravtsov) and asked to phone in the afternoon. I called, Sapunova said that they had already discussed the matter and decided that there was no point in publishing my report, after they had already published news about vandalism at the cemetery. I answered:
- I think the opposite is right.
And I heard her answer:
- I also think so…
I called Feld on the same day. A talk like this took place:
- We discussed it at the editorial board meeting and decided to decline. On May 9 we will remember all the 20 million – Russians, Georgians, Jews… We have already published material about the cemetery and also about two refuseniks demonstrations. It was decided to stop drawing attention.
- I think, after the destruction at the cemetery this publication would be even more timely.
- We don't have separate memory days, there's a common Memory Day for everyone.
- Armenians have their own day.
- But we don't inform our readers about it.
Feld finishes the conversation:
- We have nothing against it – people assembled at the cemetery, that's fine. But there are all kinds of things that happen in our city. You can't write about everything.
In the beginning of May, by prior arrangement, I brought a big article about the Memory Day and several good photographs to the "Moscow News" Editorial Office (to Vladimir Vladimirovich Shevelyov). The material was appreciated, or, at least, the attitude towards it was benevolent enough. But the Editorial Office met with certain difficulties…
- For the time being it's impossible, - Shevelyov said. – Editing won't help. It is impossible in principle. We are sitting on such a volcano, our whole business can get burned down any time…
He promised to phone. But he never did. The article with the photographs must be still lying somewhere in "Moscow News" archives up to this day.
I made the last (also unsuccessful) attempt to publish the ill-fated article within the framework of my scholarly work, in a periodical called "Social Anthropology of Peterburg-Leningrad", which I was supervising. I placed a short, strictly styled article about a new tradition in Leningrad in the section "Leningrad Today" – next to reports of Yakut community activities, of the Vepses' folklore festival and other materials of the same kind. What followed was that our director, whose imprimatur was necessary for sending the manuscripts to the publisher, put a resolute ban on my article. The strife for publishing my material lasted half a year; in the end, the issue got out without the article about the Jewish Memory Day.
Next year the dispute between our Institute's Director R.F. Its and me got out into the pages of the press – and that was some progress. On December 6 1988 "Leningradskaya Pravda" published (although after a long – over two months - period of hesitation on the part of the Editorial Office) my article on ethnic problems of Leningrad ("Such Different Leningraders"). It had words which raised an especially strong protest of the people in our Institute who were against publishing material devoted to Yom ha-Shoa: "Nazism threw the Jewish people into an abyss of a horrible disaster. This tragedy left an unhealed wound and brought on an unremitting pain into their world perception. That is why the Jewish national identity has a pronounced anti-Nazi trend. This found reflection in a recently established in Leningrad tradition to mark the International Memory Day for Jewish Holocaust victims and resistance heroes every spring, on Warsaw Ghetto Uprising anniversary". The response was prompt to come. On December 23 an article on national issues by R.F. Its appeared in "Leningradskaya Pravda". In it he equates as manifestations of nationalism such incomparable events as strikes in Yerevan and the bloody massacre in Sumgait, "Pamyat" speeches in the spirit of "Black Hundred" and Yom ha-Shoa. He forcefully condemns "striving for national separatism [in establishing] of a Memory Day for Jewish victims of Nazism, as though there never were victims of Nazis among Russians, Belorussians, Poles, Serbs and many others".
Unfortunately, this argument is very widespread even now. Jews were deprived even of the memory of their national tragedy. Inscriptions on monuments at the sites of mass executions of Jews on the Nazi occupied during the war territories of our country usually said that it was the site where "citizens of the USSR" or "citizens of the USSR and other countries" were killed, without mentioning their ethnic origin, although it was only Jews and Gypsies that Nazis annihilated only because of their ethnic origin. Neither school textbooks nor popular books about the war said a word about the genocide of the Jewish people. In the thick history monographs on the fight against the Nazis and even on the Nazi crimes against the nations of Europe scarcely a few lines were devoted to Jews. As a result, the general public hardly knew anything of the tragic fate of the Jews, of the six million death-toll (and does it know now?). And nothing at all was known of the Jewish resistance, of uprisings in ghettos and concentration camps.
Two years later an article called "Yom ha-Shoa in Leningrad and Glasnost" was published in the second issue (August 1989) of the newly established (in Riga) first legal Jewish magazine in our country, called VEK (Bulletin of Jewish Culture). The article ends with the words: "The attitude towards the Catastrophe of the European Jewry in our country arouses a keen sense of shame and guilt".
This article was published in "Neva" magazine, Sankt-Peterburg, #4, 2006 (without photographs).
Translated by Ilana (Elena) Romanovsky