Which Soviet republic had the most Jews?

Soviet Union

With the overthrow of the Tsarist regime in March 1917, a new era began for the Jewish population in the Russian Empire. The Provisional Government had ordered the repeal of the discriminatory laws against Jews as one of its first measures. Not least because of the various economic, educational and religious restrictions imposed on them under the autocratic regime, a majority of the Jewish population in Russia did not mourn either the tsar or the ancien régime. The tsars also had a reputation for sympathizing with the aggressive anti-Semitism in Russia, as it was particularly violent in the anti-Jewish pogroms of 1881/82 and 1903 to 1905/06.

On the other hand, in the first few months after the fall of the tsar, it remained completely unclear what the future would bring for the Jewish population. Many had already turned away from Russia at the time of World War I and the Revolution and had emigrated to the United States, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Argentina and Palestine, among others; hundreds of thousands more followed them until the beginning of the 1920s. Between 1870 and the early 1920s, almost three million Jews left Eastern Europe, the majority of whom emigrated from the Russian Empire or from Soviet Russia and Poland, which was re-established at the end of 1918. [1] But even for the Jews who remained in Russia, the first years under Soviet rule after the revolution and civil war were often associated with migration - to the country's major cities such as Kiev, Kharkov, Leningrad or Moscow - and with considerable social mobility. [2]

Under the Bolshevik regime

For the policy of the new rulers towards the Jews played a not insignificant role that the Bolsheviks did not understand or ideologically could not understand the peculiarity of Eastern European Judaism as an ethnic-national as well as religious-cultural population group. In this context, the religious philosopher Martin Buber once spoke of the "atypical" form of existence of the Jews, which in the narrower sense neither as an ethnic group nor as a nationality, but as a "peculiar one due to its special historical fate" dynamic Connection of nation and religion ". [3]

Despite differing ideological positions, Lenin and Stalin were united in their fundamental goal of assimilating the Jewish population. However, the political situation initially required a differentiated, sometimes seemingly contradicting approach to the Jewish minority. On the one hand, the regime denied the Jews the status of a nation and an autonomous national culture and fought against their religion and tradition; on the other hand, in the 1920s the Soviet state promoted the spread of the Yiddish language and the development of a proletarian Jewish-secular culture. The latter was of course only a temporary, tactically motivated measure and served the ideological penetration of the Jewish population with the ideas of socialism. The actual goal of Bolshevik Jewish policy, i.e. the complete assimilation and integration of the Jews into the newly created Soviet society, was never seriously questioned. Aside from their fundamentally anti-religious standpoint, the Bolshevik leaders viewed the Jewish religion as a major obstacle to assimilation. At the same time, they were convinced that religion would quickly lose its importance in the course of the political and socio-economic restructuring of Soviet society. After the successes with regard to the "disappearance" of the Jewish religion did not come about as quickly and comprehensively as the Soviet leadership had expected, the Stalinist regime pursued a policy from the end of the 1920s that consisted of a hitherto unprecedented tightening of the Repression against Jewish religious institutions and customs was marked. [4]

How the approximately 2.7 million Jews positioned themselves vis-à-vis the Bolshevik regime and how they reacted to the changes in society largely depended on factors such as their socio-economic position, level of education, age and, last but not least, on their religious and ideological stance. Looking at the 1920s and 1930s, the heterogeneous Jewish population in the Soviet Union can be divided into at least three larger groups, which sometimes had a difficult and conflicting relationship with one another and whose leading representatives often attacked each other sharply on an ideological and ideological level.

The largest group can be understood as the more or less strongly assimilated Soviet citizens of Jewish origin who had assimilated culturally based on their own convictions or because of their living conditions and who could hardly be identified as Jews in the respective Russian, Ukrainian or Belarusian majority population; many of them lived in larger cities, were married to non-Jewish Soviet citizens, and had little or no relationship with the Jewish religion and culture.

A second, smaller current in terms of their numerical importance formed the Jews, who regarded Jewish tradition and religion as an essential part of their everyday life even under the conditions of the Soviet regime and maintained them as much as possible. Because of the anti-religious policies of the Bolsheviks, they usually had to practice religious activities in secret. [5]

Finally, a third group comprised those Jews who, as supporters of the Bolshevik regime, had renounced Jewish tradition and religion and propagated a secular Yiddish Soviet culture. [6] Especially among its prominent representatives, the representatives of the Yiddish intelligentsia, an explicitly Jewish-cultural identity was predominant, which sometimes also had national features. Viewed across the entire Soviet Union, the supporters of Soviet-Yiddish culture did not represent a mass movement, but they were prominently represented especially within the metropolitan cultural scene as well as in the party and state and were quite influential here, especially in the 1920s. In particular, the activists of the Jewish party sections, who existed until their dissolution in 1930 and, depending on the point in time, up to 70 units with a total of 1,500 activists, contributed significantly to the implementation of the Bolshevik program among the Yiddish-speaking Soviet population and, not least because of their rigid approach, were against it Jewish religion and tradition very controversial and feared among the Jewish population. [7] Until the Soviet regime changed course in its policy towards nationalities at the beginning of the 1930s and in a few years closed all Yiddish-speaking institutions the establishment of which it had previously promoted, and numerous leading representatives of Yiddish Soviet culture as "Jewish nationalists" "to criticize, the Soviet-Yiddish intelligentsia was convinced of the fruitful symbiosis between Jewish-secular culture and the Bolshevik system. [8]

After practically all institutions of Soviet-Yiddish culture had been closed under the Stalinist regime, including the 1,100 or so secular Jewish schools, and many of their representatives had been repressed by state and party organs, especially in the course of the Stalinist "purges" At the end of the 1930s, the current was in fact robbed of its livelihood and condemned to insignificance within Soviet society. [9] Ironically, it was thanks to the attack by Hitler Germany on the Soviet Union and the Second World War that the Yiddish Soviet intelligentsia, or a number of its representatives, played a role again for a few years in the war and post-war period. It was the following "black years" of Soviet Jewry between 1939/41 and 1953, [10] which - largely determined by the experiences of extermination, persecution and anti-Semitism on the one hand, as well as by resistance against the Nazi regime and its henchmen - mourned On the other hand, sacrifice and a return to Jewish culture and tradition - put the question of the position and future of the Jews in the Soviet state on the agenda again. Up to this point in time, the majority of the approximately three million Jewish Soviet citizens can be described as largely integrated into the Soviet system, even if this process - like the social upheaval as a whole - had been accelerated with considerable political pressure and, in many cases, with violence. [11]

On the eve of World War II, Judaism had changed radically after less than a quarter of a century of Soviet rule. As an above-average well-educated population group, largely urban-modern and integrated into the newly emerging Soviet society, the Jews participated to a considerable extent in the social restructuring under the Bolshevik regime. [12] For many Soviet Jews, especially the younger generation, who had risen socially within Soviet society and had achieved a status that was unimaginable for their parents under the conditions of Tsarist Russia, the development from "shtetl Jews" to modern " Soviet people "represents a success story. That was clearly not the same for all groups of the Jewish population; The forced, forced restructuring of society under the Soviet regime brought with it extensive discrimination, especially for the religious sections of the population who were caught up in the traditional Jewish way of life.

World War and Holocaust

The Second World War and the Holocaust marked the decisive turning point for Jews on Soviet territory in the 20th century, which was rich in upheavals and excessive violence. With the forcible occupation and the "annexation" of Eastern Poland, the Baltic states as well as Northern Bukovina and Bessarabia between 1939 and 1941 as a consequence of what was stipulated in the German-Soviet non-aggression treaty ("Hitler-Stalin Pact") of August 1939 or in its secret additional protocol territorial division of Central Europe, an estimated two million Jews came under Soviet rule. [13] In contrast to the Soviet Jews, these Jews, who were still relatively deeply rooted in the Jewish religion and customs, were exposed under the new rulers to the radical and brutal measures of the Stalinist regime with a view to transforming their social structure. [14] The attack by National Socialist Germany on the Soviet Union, which began in June 1941, and the war of annihilation against the Soviet population had an even more dramatic effect on the Jews. [15] Of the approximately 5 million Jews on the territory of the Soviet Union within the borders of June 22, 1941, a total of around 2,825,000 people were killed in the Holocaust between 1941 and 1945, most of them around 1,430,000 people in Ukraine, for example 810,000 in Belarus, 215,000 to 220,000 in Lithuania, 144,000 to 170,000 in the Russian Soviet Republic, about 130,000 in Moldova, 75,000 to 77,000 in Latvia and about 1,000 in Estonia. [16]

A victory of the Soviet Union against the German Reich was in fact the only hope of survival for the Soviet Jews in the war years. The Jews were accordingly heavily involved in the army and in the resistance, and closely linked the fate of the Soviet regime with their own. [17] At the end of the war, however, this high level of identification with the Red Army and the Soviet power was increasingly unable to hide the fact that parts of the Soviet population had collaborated with the German occupation regime and participated in anti-Jewish crimes, such as the example of the Babi Yar / Babyn Yar massacre (Russian / ukr.) near Kiev. [18] The anti-Semitic propaganda of the occupation regime in the Soviet Union had also had some effects, so that even after the victory of the Soviet Union over Hitler's Germany, anti-Jewish attitudes remained virulent and increased against the background of the material needs of the time. [19] The Soviet regime was not only unable, but the majority were also unwilling to react to these anti-Jewish sentiments and attacks in the population. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Stalinist regime enforced a policy of concealing the Holocaust on Soviet soil and suppressed the rebuilding of Jewish social life in the Soviet Union. The commemoration of the Jewish tragedy was obviously not intended to call into question the propagated unity of the Soviet population and their heroic victory against fascist Germany.

Disappointed post-war hopes

After four years of war of annihilation and brutal occupation by National Socialist Germany, in the context of which, according to various estimates, between 20 and 30 million Soviet citizens were killed and material losses that could hardly be quantified, a physically emaciated and mentally exhausted population longed above all for peace, the End of suffering and privation and after normalization of living conditions. [20]

In view of the profound crisis situation in the post-war period, the Soviet regime found in its reports on the situation in the country an overall bad mood among the population, which could at least potentially turn against the rulers, even if Stalin himself, whose popularity as a "great leader "culminated in the victory in World War II, was not called into question. In the post-war period, however, little of the glamor of the victorious power shone in people's everyday lives.

A mixture of hopes for a better life after the destructive experiences of war and annihilation and the feeling of deep depression in the face of the suffering and loss they experienced also shaped the mood of the Jewish population. At the same time, however, the hopes and expectations of the Jews differed from those of the majority society due to their specific experiences in the war and post-war years. Regardless of the different attitudes towards the Bolshevik regime and the assessment of the role of Jewish culture and religion, a feeling of togetherness developed in the Jewish population, which was to become decisive for the post-war years. [21] During the war years, the crimes of the National Socialist race and extermination policy were at the center of Jewish (self) perception as a community of fate, but at the end of the war, anti-Semitism on the part of the Soviet population was added as a further link. In contrast to the war years, when the Jews were able to identify with both their Judaism and their membership of the Soviet state, the relationship between Jews and the Soviet state became strong after 1945 due to the indifferent and contradictory relationship of the Stalinist regime to that of the population since the war years growing anti-Semitism increasingly shaken. [22] The articulation of Jewish hopes, in which a Jewish national consciousness was increasingly expressed in the course of the 1940s, and the communication of the expectations of the Jewish population towards the Soviet regime since the end of the war were closely linked to the work of the Jewish Antifascist Committee.

A few months after the German attack on the Soviet Union, a number of mostly prominent and influential representatives of the Soviet-Jewish intelligentsia formed an anti-fascist committee on the initiative or at least with the support of the Soviet leadership. Among the 63 founding members of the Jewish Committee were well-known writers such as Wassili Grossman, Abraham Sutzkewer and Ilja Ehrenburg, musicians, actors, directors, dramaturges, critics, artists, journalists, leading scientists and doctors as well as high-ranking military and politicians. [23] They elected the popular actor and director of the Moscow Jewish Theater, Solomon Michoels, who headed the committee until his assassination by the Soviet secret service in January 1948, as their chairman. The declared aim of this committee was to convince both the Jewish population in the USSR and the world public of the heroic anti-fascist resistance of the Soviet Union against National Socialist Germany and to provide material support for the Red Army and the Soviet population by mobilizing foreign capital. [24] Not only abroad, but also among the Jewish population of the Soviet Union, the Jewish Antifascist Committee was extremely popular shortly after it was founded. From the point of view of the Stalinist regime, however, its tasks were narrowly set from the start, its existence owed to the necessity of war and not intended to be permanent.

The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, whose activities were significantly supported by numerous Jewish partner organizations abroad, existed until it was forcibly dissolved by the State Security organs in November 1948, but had already lost its original function at the end of the war. Although this only Jewish organization in the Soviet Union was intended to have a primarily propagandistic function on the part of the Soviet leadership, the Jewish Committee, in view of the catastrophic situation of the majority of Soviet Jews, could not remain inactive against the onslaught of those seeking help and increasingly assumed the role of "advocate for the Soviets Jews "pushed.

In thousands of letters during the war and immediately afterwards, Jews from all parts of the USSR informed the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee about the catastrophic situation of the Jewish population and called on them to provide material and moral support for Jewish Soviet citizens who, as a result of the war, Holocaust and anti-Jewish attacks on the part of the Soviet population found themselves in a psychologically and materially hopeless situation. [25] They asked the representatives of the committee to press the Soviet authorities for an immediate improvement in the situation of the Soviet Jews. Numerous letters with similar content were sent directly to the Central Committee, the Council of Ministers or individual leading Soviet politicians. Obviously, many Jews not only hoped that Stalin and the Soviet leadership would take a clear negative attitude towards anti-Semitic acts, but also hoped that the most pressing material problems would be remedied quickly. Undoubtedly, because of their committed anti-fascist struggle and the countless victims the war and the Holocaust had caused among the Jewish population, many Jews expected special consideration from the regime after the end of the war - an assumption that soon turned out to be a grave error.

Anti-Semitic campaigns

Two initiatives from the ranks of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were ultimately intended to seal the fate of this body, which was so important for the Soviet Jews in those years, and to serve the Stalinist regime as an occasion for an anti-Semitic orientation of its policy: on the one hand, towards Stalin in one Memorandum formulated the proposal of the chairmen of the committee for the establishment of a Jewish republic in the Crimea and, on the other hand, the publication of a collection of documents on the genocide of the Jewish population in the Soviet Union, which Ilya Ehrenburg and Wassili Grossman had begun, which later became known as the "Black Book" . [26] While the Crimean Memorandum provided the Stalinist regime with the pretext to bring the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee to trial as "part of a worldwide Zionist conspiracy" because it allegedly aimed, together with the enemies of the Soviet Union, to detach Crimea from the Soviet Union , the so-called Black Book Affair made it clear that the representatives of the Jewish Committee, through their planned documentation of the crimes against the Jews on the territory of the Soviet Union, got into the Stalin's enclosure, so to speak, on historical-political terrain. In particular, the collaboration of Soviet citizens with the German occupiers in crimes against the Jewish population was an undesirable topic from the perspective of the Soviet regime, which was fundamentally capable of undermining the credibility of the new Soviet master story about the "Great Patriotic War" and the "heroic resistance of the unanimous Soviet people against the fascist threat "in the Soviet discourse. [27] A publication of the "Black Book" in the Soviet Union was therefore ultimately prevented. The lack of willingness of the Soviet leadership, expressed in the Black Book affair for the Soviet Jews, to recognize the extermination of the Jews as a special phenomenon and to tolerate the commemoration of the Jewish victims to a limited extent, at least in the Jewish public, deepened the alienation of Jews and Soviet state. The lack of or disguised handling of the Holocaust in Soviet society remained a neuralgic point in relations between Jews and the regime until the end of the Soviet Union.

The anti-Semitic turn in the policy of the Soviet leadership - that is, the point in time from which the Stalinist regime began to not only passively tolerate anti-Semitism in the population, but also to use it as a means of active rule - apparently took place around 1947 / 48 and was more or less openly expressed in the campaigns against "cosmopolitanism". But while the murder of the chairman of the Jewish Antifascist Committee, Solomon Michoels, in January 1948 was carried out by camouflaged employees of the Soviet secret service on a secret mission and also the dissolution of the committee, the imprisonment, interrogation and sentencing of its members between 1948 and 1952 in Unseen, the campaigns against "cosmopolitanism" and "Zionism" unfolded in the Soviet public a degree of anti-Semitic agitation and repression that was previously unimaginable in Soviet society. [28] The dissolution of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, the secret trial and the campaigns against "cosmopolitanism" were closely related, but this had to remain hidden from the vast majority of contemporaries in the Soviet Union. The leadership around Stalin already constructed another case: the alleged espionage activity and "conspiracy of Jewish murder doctors" against Soviet functionaries, which was made public on January 13, 1953 in the Soviet mass media and, in its aggressive anti-Semitic rhetoric and conspiracy logic, memories of the darkest chapters of the Awakened hatred of Jews in the Tsarist Empire. Probably only the early death of the dictator on March 5, 1953 was able to prevent extensive nationwide anti-Jewish repression in the Soviet Union during this phase. But even if Stalin's successor to the state and party leadership quickly and unnoticed took the campaign against the "Jewish murderer doctors" off the agenda, anti-Semitism did not disappear from the minds of many Soviet citizens and functionaries. The war and post-war years therefore turned out to be not only the "black years" of Soviet Jewry, but also key years in which the fate of the Jews in the Soviet state took a decisive turn that went far beyond the death of the dictator Stalin and the Jews to a permanently discriminated minority in the Soviet state. The Soviet regimes that followed the Stalinist reign of terror also ultimately denied the Jews full membership or equal citizenship in the Soviet state.

Disappearance of Jewish life and longing for emigration

From the perspective of the Jewish population, there was no return to the "normality" of the pre-war years even after Stalin's death. The Soviet regime had incorporated anti-Semitism into its ideology in the form of anti-Zionism, and the Jews found themselves in the shambles of their failed integration into Soviet society. This was especially true of those Soviet citizens who had a Jewish identity and who practiced their Judaism in one way or another and who could be recognized as Jews by Soviet society. From now on they were afflicted with the stigma of "rootless cosmopolitanism" and were no longer able to cast off the fact that they were notoriously perceived as a minority that was notoriously alien to the Soviet people and supposedly "parasitic" on them. Even if they usually no longer had to fear their lives in the following decades, as they did in the late Stalin era, the discrimination resulting from such stigma was from then on part of everyday Jewish life in the USSR in all its forms. For their part, the Jews for their part basically had only two options: either an as inconspicuous as possible, that is to say no longer identifiable as "Jewish" as a Soviet citizen, or the hope of emigrating from the Soviet Union.

Jewish life, whether in a religious sense or in the sense of a secular Yiddish or Jewish-national culture, could hardly develop to any significant extent under the given conditions, even in the 1960s and 1970s. This also applied to the years of the so-called thaw under Nikita Khrushchev, who gave his famous secret speech on the XX. CPSU party congress in February 1956 courageously initiated the de-Stalinization of Soviet society, but its zeal for reform knew clear limits. In view of the preceding decades, it is hardly surprising that Jews were severely underrepresented in political functions, for example in the local Soviets or at the Union level. Yiddish-language publications in the Soviet Union were essentially limited to a few books and one magazine. [29] There were no longer any Jewish schools of any kind. In the cultural field there were few Jewish (amateur) theater groups or music ensembles, for example in Moscow or Vilnius. [30] Religious Jewish life still existed in a few places with a very limited number of synagogues, rabbis and parishioners. The few Jewish communities that still existed or existed again were then affected by a new anti-religious campaign between 1957 and 1964, which in places was accompanied by anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic propaganda. [31] Synagogues were again closed and community activities regulated. In addition, the Soviet regime launched a nationwide campaign against Judaism in the mass media that was unmistakably anti-Semitic.

Under these circumstances, the desire to emigrate, especially to Israel, became more and more important for many Jews. As early as the 1940s, there was a barely concealed wish among the Jewish population to emigrate to Palestine. This became clear not least during the visit of the first Israeli ambassador, Golda Meir, to Moscow in October 1948, when an estimated 5,000 Soviet Jews gathered in front of the Moscow choral synagogue and euphorically welcomed the representative of the newly founded Jewish state. Some then turned to leading state and party organs or the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee with a request to leave the country.

Leaving the Soviet Union remained a taboo for a long time and was handled very restrictively, even when it was theoretically permitted. Under Khrushchev, the restrictions in this regard were only slightly relaxed, and permission to leave the country remained the exception. From 1954 to 1964, only 1,542 Jews were able to leave the Soviet Union directly for Israel. [32] Under Khrushchev's successor, Leonid Brezhnev, the number of visas issued for Jews to travel to Israel increased significantly from 1965 onwards. However, it was mainly due to the effects of the Six Day War between Israel and the Arab states in 1967 that the situation for the Soviet Jews became increasingly unbearable due to the massive anti-Zionist propaganda and anti-Semitic moods in Soviet society and the public pressure on the Soviet leadership after permission to leave the country rise. In the 1970s and 1980s, the emigration of Jews already took on the form of mass emigration: from 1968 to 1989, around 240,000 Jews left the Soviet Union, around 11 percent of the Jewish Soviet population. Even the reform policy of the last central secretary of the CPSU from 1985 on, which was associated with the terms "perestroika" and "glasnost", was unable to regain the trust of many Jews in the Soviet state, although Jewish religion, culture and science are now developing more freely again and at least in big cities like Moscow, Leningrad, Minsk or Kiev could certainly speak of a new flowering of Jewish life. In the second half of the 1980s, however, right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism spread, as manifested, for example, in the activities of the Russian chauvinist-nationalist and radical anti-Semitic movement Pamjat ("Memory"). It is not least due to this development that a growing number of Soviet Jews voted to emigrate from the Soviet Union.