Blavatnik Archive hosts international conference saluting WWII Jewish fighters
After the Soviet Red Army in 1944 liberated the Jewish ghetto near his village in World War II, Boris Feldman enlisted the next day. He recalled facing tough, bloody battles in a journey that finally ended a year later with the Nazis’ defeat in Europe.
For Feldman, who was awarded the Medal of Bravery and later settled in Brooklyn, the horrors of war must never be cast aside.
“Why do Holocausts repeat? Because everything is forgotten. Generations must remember. They must have the desire to learn history. History repeats itself and only grows in complexity,” he said in a 2007 video for the Blavatnik Archive.
The role of WWII Jewish fighters was recently celebrated in an international forum sponsored by the Blavatnik Archive, with the support of the Blavatnik Family Foundation, Genesis Philanthropy Group, and the David Berg Foundation.
The online conference Nov. 14-15 honored the nearly 1.5 million Jewish men and women who confronted Adolf Hitler and the Axis powers. The “Jewish Soldiers & Fighters in WWII” conference was organized in connection to the Archive’s traveling exhibit, “Road to Victory: Jewish Soldiers in WWII.”
The forum drew nearly 40 historians and leading experts from universities, archives, libraries, and museums in nine countries, exploring the “Jewish soldier” through historical and contemporary lenses. The sessions featured themes of identity, unique war experience, the impact of trauma, unjust and fake representation, captured experience in literature and music, and legacy.
“It is imperative that we learn from history, commit to research, education, and conversation, as well as honor those who fought, and remember those who tragically perished,” said Len Blavatnik, founder of Access Industries and the Blavatnik Family Foundation.
Targeted for genocide by Hitler and his allies, Jewish men and women fought alongside their non-Jewish fellow military and partisan combatants to defeat a monstrous enemy, protect their homelands and avenge the murder of their families. Building on Blavatnik Archive’s “Veteran Testimony Project,” comprised of 1,200 video testimonies and thousands of personal archival documents, the conference focused on learning lessons from those who were there. WWII veterans Vladimir Sats and Leonid Rozenberg opened day two of the event, recounting their war experiences.
Israel’s new ambassador to the United States, Michael Herzog, spoke at the conference, saying: “It gives me great pleasure that one of the first things I’m doing as Israel’s ambassador to the United States is to talk about the Jewish soldiers and fighters in World War II…In 1942, when my late father decided to volunteer for the British army, he wrote a letter to his parents – his father was the chief rabbi of Palestine, in Jerusalem – in which he said that he decided to volunteer to the British army ‘out of commitment as a Jew who takes pride in his people.’ Indeed, the story of the Jewish soldier in World War II is also the story of values and of identity.”
Scholars and experts from the University of Michigan, Hunter College, Johns Hopkins, and other top institutions took part in panels on Jewish identity, Jews in the Red Army, Soviet Jews, Jewish culture, and more.
Experts from Harvard University, Pennsylvania State University, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum discussed the importance and future of archives, research, and testimony in ensuring an accurate narrative on the Jewish fighters in WWII. Notably, Julie Chervinsky, director, Blavatnik Archive; Gordon “Nick” Mueller, president and CEO emeritus, the National World War II Museum; James Taylor, assistant director of narrative and content, Imperial War Museums; and Christian F. Ostermann, director of the history and public policy program, the Wilson Center to discuss activating museums and archives.
Derek Penslar, William Lee Frost Professor of Jewish History at Harvard University, said some of the same Jewish soldiers who helped defeat Nazism assisted three years after the war’s end in establishing the state of Israel.
“The process of documentation that this conference has engaged in should therefore not be misrepresented as yet another form of apologetics. It is correction of a historical misunderstanding and an illumination of the relationship between Jews’ position in a society and its culture on the one hand, and their involvement in the use of armed force in the other. And in that sense, the conference has been consistently pioneering and a truly spectacular success,” he said.
Two special lecture-concert programs featured music from the war: “Yiddish Songs of the Red Army,” drawing on the Grammy-nominated project Yiddish Glory, and “Songs from Testimonies,” drawing from the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies.
Before the conference, Marina Yudborovsky, Genesis Philanthropy Group CEO, said: “The role and legacy of Soviet Jewish soldiers in World War II cannot be overestimated, though for many years they remained shamefully forgotten. We, at Genesis Philanthropy Group, believe that preserving their memory, as well as the memory of Jewish fighters in all the Allied armies, is important for both an accurate historical record and for strengthening the Jewish identity of today’s youth.”
Elissa Bemporad (professor of history and the Jerry and William Ungar Chair in Eastern European Jewish History and the Holocaust, Queens College and the Graduate Center – CUNY); Derek Penslar (William Lee Frost, professor of Jewish history, Harvard University); and Anna Shternshis (Al and Malka Green professor of Yiddish Studies and the director of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies, University of Toronto) all served on a guiding committee for the event.
Recordings of each panel from the event can be found here.