How the Definition of Holocaust Survivor Has Changed Since the End of World War II
For decades, Jews who were forced east into the uneasy confines of the Soviet Union were excluded from the conversation about the trauma of genocide
Simcha Fogelman and Leah Burstyn met on the German-Polish border in 1946 and then traveled together to a displaced persons camp in Kassel, Germany, where they married. Both Polish Jews, they each survived the Holocaust through twists of fate that saved them from the horrors of the Nazi death camps. Simcha escaped from a ghetto in Belarus to the untamed forest, where he joined partisans carrying out sabotage missions against the Nazis. Leah, meanwhile, fled east from Poland to central Asia with her parents and siblings.
But for decades after the war, only Simcha was considered a Holocaust survivor by friends, neighbors and relatives — even by his wife, despite her own harrowing experiences.
“The narrative after the war was the narrative of the partisans and the concentration camps,” says Eva Fogelman, their daughter, who today is a psychologist known for her work on intergenerational trauma from the Holocaust.
Even as the experience of those Jews (know as “flight” or “indirect” survivors) who found involuntary refuge in the Soviet Union and further east has gained more attention within the memorial and scholarly communities, it has remained largely absent in the public consciousness of what the Holocaust meant.
Moments of global attention like the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann and cultural touchstones like Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, the American television series “Holocaust,” and the films Schindler’s List or The Pianist, focused solely on the Nazi Final Solution, the camps and the ghettos. Few depictions, if any, focused on the experience of flight survivors, despite them being the largest group of Jews to outlast the Nazi regime, numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
The post-war struggle of Simcha and Leah to understand their place among Jewish survivors during the war played out similarly among other families and communities, and continues today. For most of the 20th century, researchers say a confluence of factors contributed to what amounts to a hierarchy of suffering that privileged the stories of those who survived the ghettos and camps and the resistance fighters and minimized those of flight survivors. Who was then–and is today–considered a survivor of the Holocaust raises searing questions about historical memory and the long-lasting effects of trauma.
When Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939, partitioning control of the country under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Polish Jews, along with non-Jews, suddenly faced the prospect of life under invaders from Germany or from the U.S.S.R.
For some families, geography and circumstances left them with no choice but to face their fate. Others contended with wrenching, often split-second decisions over whether to leave, says historian Atina Grossmann. For many, Soviet rule seemed the lesser of two evils. Some fled as German bombs were falling on their towns; others were driven out by the Germans through acts of violence and threats of death.
Simcha, a soldier in the Polish army, was among an estimated 300,000 Polish Jews who escaped to the Soviet zone within weeks of the invasion. He fled to Soviet-occupied Ilya, Belarus, where he had family. But the Soviet zone was far from a haven. The former Polish citizens and Jewish refugees from other countries were treated as enemies of the state, especially the intelligentsia and educated classes, who were considered a threat to communist rule. Many were arrested and deported to the Soviet Union; others were killed by the Soviet secret police.
When Germany broke the pact in 1941 and advanced into Eastern Europe, Simcha was forced into the Ilya ghetto. On the Jewish holiday of Purim in 1942, the Nazi SS’s Einsatzgruppen conducted mass executions of Jews in Ilya’s town square. An eyewitness to the murders, Simcha escaped into the woods to join the Belarusian partisans and spent the rest of the war disrupting German supply lines among other forms of sabotage.
Meanwhile, Leah, her parents and four siblings fled Wyszków, Poland, as bombs fell in the 1939 German invasion. They headed east, stopping in Bialystok, Poland, for three months, before Soviet authorities deported them.
The Burstyns were among an estimated 750,000 to 780,000 Polish citizens, Jews and gentiles alike, that the Soviet secret police deported to various parts of the Soviet Union between between October 1939 and June 1941. Many were deported for rejecting Soviet citizenship, although it is unclear if the Burstyns belong to this group. In June 1940 alone, around 70,000 Jews—mostly refugees who rejected Soviet citizenship—were deported to the Soviet interior. Others were pressured to “evacuate” east as more refugees of Nazi violence flooded Soviet territories in Eastern Europe.
Deportees labored in the Soviet penalty system of the gulag, working in mines, farms and factories in the Urals, northern Kazakhstan and as far as Siberia. They endured extreme conditions, starvation and disease. The Burstyns ended up in one of these camps in the Urals, spending 13 months there.
Once again, the Nazis breaking their non-aggression pact had far-reaching consequences. Upon the Nazi invasion, the Soviet Union formed a political alliance formed with the Polish government-in-exile, agreeing under the Sikorski-Mayski agreement to release all Polish citizens in Soviet territory, including those regarded as prisoners of war. Some Polish Jews chose to stay in or near their former labor camps, while others went to warmer climates in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and other Central Asian Soviet republics.
Like many Polish Jews, the Burstyns sought refuge in Tashkent, the capital city of Uzbekistan, which had been idealized in Yiddish literature as the city of bread. But food and homes were not as plentiful as they’d hoped, and Leah’s family left for Kyrgyzstan, where they settled in the capital of Jalal-Abad from 1942 to 1945.
They worked for their neighbors, who owned cotton and wheat fields. Leah spoke some Russian, which earned her a position in the office, while the rest of the family worked in the fields.
The war left its mark on Leah, showing up in subtle ways, her daughter recalls. Having starved on and off for so many years, she was always concerned about food and whether her family had enough to eat. Her experience with frostbite made her hypersensitive to cold weather.
But growing up, Eva rarely heard these stories; her mother spoke about them with fellow survivors, but not her children, Eva says. Flight survivors like her mother were thought to have “escaped” the murderous regime, even though she was part of the largest cohort of Eastern European survivors.
That the biggest group of survivors came from the Soviet Union is a reminder of the sheer effectiveness of the Nazi campaign to wipe out the Jews, says Grossmann, a professor of history at the Cooper Union in New York City. Before the war, Poland’s Jewish population numbered 3.3 million; after the Holocaust, only an estimated 350,000 to 400,000 remained, most of whom (about 230,000), were flight survivors who found themselves in the Soviet Union.
Their stories also challenge us to “remap and reconfigure” Holocaust history, she added.
It was in the displaced persons (DP) camps—created by Allied Forces as temporary centers for facilitating resettlement—like the one where Leah and Simcha’s relationship blossomed, where the hierarchy of suffering began to take shape.
The camps became communities where Jews began to rebuild their lives. They opened schools and hospitals and resumed religious practices. Leah and Simcha started a business together, selling coffee, cigarettes and chocolate.
These refugees also formed committees to represent displaced Jews on the international stage. Some of the first testimonial collection projects began in the DP camps, including the central publication on the Holocaust, issued by Jewish DPs and distributed around the Yiddish speaking world, Fun letsn khurbn. It did not feature a single story of a flight survivor in more than 1,000 pages of testimony and research, says Markus Nesselrodt, an assistant professor at the European University Viadrina, Frankfurt an der Oder.
Researchers attribute numerous factors to the omission of the flight survivor experience from these initial collections. For one, the DP camp leadership in the American and British zones consisted primarily of those who survived the concentration camps and ghettos, simply because they reached the DP camps first. These camp and ghetto survivors used their harrowing experiences to make the political case for resettlement abroad. Second, commemorative events in the camps often focused on anniversaries of uprisings or local remembrance days, write historians Laura Jockusch and Tamar Lewinsky in the journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies. But because the Soviet exile experience didn’t offer any such dates, “the story of the [flight] refugees was one of survival through hardships that did not seem directly related to the Holocaust.”
Penn State University professor Eliyana Rebecca Adler, who is working on a book about Polish Jews in the Soviet Union, surmises that many flight survivors didn’t see much of a difference between their experiences and those of their relatives’ plight in Nazi Germany.
“The Holocaust’s losses were their losses,” she says. “It wasn’t that they were marginalized but they were taking part in commemoration of their families and their communities.”
Yet early survivor organizations had a tendency to valorize partisans, ghetto fighters and those who survived the concentration camps. Historian David Slucki analyzed the activities of Katsetler Farband, a group formed by activist survivors in 1946 with affiliates in major American cities. He found that from the outset, the group’s rhetoric and activities framed the Holocaust with Polish Jews at its center and “partisans retaining the ultimate moral authority, and with a sense of holiness overshadowing all efforts at memorialization.”
In published volumes and newsletters, the group featured firsthand accounts and historic narratives that emphasized the suffering of Jews in the ghettos and concentration camps in Poland and Lithuania as well as experiences of resistance in Warsaw, Lodz, Vilna, and Paris and among partisans in the forests.
Even its membership application, the group’s biases come out. It asked applicants if they were in camps or ghettos or if they were a partisan, but not if they were deported or fled to the Soviet Union. Yet, Slucki writes, in a sample of more 90 declarations, only three applicants said they participated in a partisan unit, and one claimed involvement in the Soviet army. No one in the sample said they were in the Soviet Union, in what Slucki considers a strong indication that, at least initially, the group “was drawing clear parameters around the experience of survival, the basis of which was internment in a ghetto or concentration camp.”
Moreover, he writes, “The disparity between this emphasis on resistance and the small number of actual partisans among the members highlights the ideological centrality of the partisan idea to this nascent survivor community.”
No single authority determines whether or not a person is considered a Holocaust survivor.
As public awareness of the Holocaust progressed in the late 20th century through efforts of memorial groups, flight survivors lifted their voices, says Nesselrodt. They shared testimonies with the Shoah Foundation and other memorial projects. They sought restitution, prompting institutions such as the Claims Conference, Yad Vashem (Israel’s museum devoted to the Holocaust) and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to expand their framework to include not just flight survivors but others previously excluded from restitution and recognition, such as those who went into hiding.
Yad Vashem’s definition of a Holocaust survivor now says:
Philosophically, one might say that all Jews, anywhere in the world, who were still alive by the end of 1945, survived the Nazi genocidal intention, yet this is too broad a definition, as it lacks the distinction between those who suffered the tyrannical Nazi "boot on their neck," and those who might have, had the war against Nazism been lost. At Yad Vashem, we define Shoah survivors as Jews who lived for any amount of time under Nazi domination, direct or indirect, and survived. This includes French, Bulgarian and Romanian Jews who spent the entire war under anti-Jewish terror regimes but were not all deported, as well as Jews who forcefully left Germany in the late 1930s. From a larger perspective, other destitute Jewish refugees who escaped their countries fleeing the invading German army, including those who spent years and in many cases died deep in the Soviet Union, may also be considered Holocaust survivors. No historical definition can be completely satisfactory.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has a broad interpretation:
Any person, Jewish or non-Jewish, who was “displaced, persecuted or discriminated against due to the racial, religious, ethnic, social and political policies of the Nazis and they collaborators between 1933 and 1945.
It wasn’t until 2012, 60 years after the West German government first agreed to pay reparations to Holocaust survivors,, that Germany adopted a similar framework for those who fled the advancing German army and resettled in the Soviet Union.
Yet, as they aged and shared their stories, it became clear that flight survivors still had different impressions of how their experiences fit into Holocaust memory.
Adler, the Penn State professor, compared accounts shared with memorial projects and found mixed results. Some flight survivors distinguished between their own experience and that of those who lived through the concentration camps and ghettos. Others were unsure if they qualified as Holocaust survivors at all. Some were certain they did not, believing that what they endured in the Soviet Union paled in comparison to the suffering of those in Nazi-occupied territories.
Among other survivors, Adler attributed their uncertainty or refusal to identify with the Holocaust to an interviewer’s line of questioning. In some instances, interviewers minimized or overlooked their particular experiences in the Soviet Union and focused instead on the stories of relatives in Nazi Germany. Over time, the diverse reality of survivors, with their complex, overlapping network of trajectories, became sublimated into a monolithic notion of a survivor as a symbol of Jewish suffering, Adler says.
Families enforced these flat and rigid notions, says Eva Fogelman. She found such paradigms even in her own family. Whenever Fogelman’s family got together, her mother told her father’s story, not hers, she recalls.
As the last generation of Holocaust survivors fades, an international network of academics and descendants are integrating the flight survivors’ stories into the historiography of the Holocaust. The first conference dedicated to the topic of Polish Jews in exile in the Soviet Union was held in Poland in 2018 and several forthcoming books focus on distinct aspects of the Soviet experience.
Stories of Jews in exile show the diversity of wartime experiences, says Grossman, and “globalize” the Holocaust as not just as a genocide but a refugee crisis whose ripples are still manifesting in countries worldwide. Recognizing a broader swath of people as Holocaust survivors also expands its geographic boundaries , making the Holocaust part of the history of countries in Asia, the Middle East, even Latin America—wherever Jews sought refuge—instead of simply the history of Jewish people or Europe.
And while the circumstances of the Holocaust—including the odds of survival—were unprecedented, the experiences of refugees and evacuees offer similarities to other genocides, she says.
“It makes the experience of many survivors and parts of the Holocaust story less unique and therefore more able to fit into a narrative that we can connect with the experiences of other refugees in the past and today,” she said.
Even as a child, Fogelman says, it was hard for her to distinguish between her parents’ suffering. As she matured in her profession, she came to disavow the notion of a “hierarchy of suffering.”
She says, “I feel anybody who experienced the occupation — whether it for one day or they escaped or hid — if you were endangered as Jews, you were a Holocaust survivor.”