When American forces liberated Mikhailo Soikys in Germany in 1945, he could have emigrated to the United States. But Soikys, who survived Auschwitz by pretending to be a Georgian Turk and then escaped from a train bound for Buchenwald, decided to return to what was then the Soviet Union.
“I thought things had changed,” the 75-year-old Ukrainian Jew explained while visiting a center for Holocaust survivors in Kiev. “But it was worse. Had I known, I would have chosen differently.”
Unlike their Western counterparts, Jewish survivors of Adolf Hitler’s concentration camps who returned to Eastern Europe continued to suffer at the hands of the state. Even now, more than 50 years after the end of World War II, questions linger over how to compensate those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
“In the Soviet Union, Holocaust victims were persecuted for surviving,” said Anya Verhovska, who coordinates the videotaping of East European survivors’ testimony for Hollywood producer Steven Spielberg’s Visual History Foundation. The foundation is collecting Holocaust survivors’ testimony around the world.
If survivors were alive, the Stalinist thinking went, they must have collaborated with the enemy. At the very least, they were considered dangerously contaminated by exposure to the “bourgeois” West.
“Some people were sent to the gulag immediately. One survivor even asked why we were so interested in Auschwitz when the gulag was worse,” Verhovska said.
Clara Vinocur, who in 1942 ran away from a firing squad preparing to execute Jews sick with typhoid, now heads the Kiev branch of the Ukrainian Assn. of Jewish Concentration Camp and Ghetto Victims.
“It wasn’t just Jews but [other] Ukrainians too. Any civilians who lived in Nazi-occupied territory were considered ‘enemies of the people,’ ” she explained.
Given the official Soviet bias against Jews in education and the job market, the added stigma of having spent the war in occupied territory meant that Holocaust survivors suffered a double discrimination.
“If you talked about [having been in] the ghetto, you were blocked from getting jobs,” recalled Liubov Patsula, 74, who in 1942 watched the Germans shoot her mother and neighbors in a village ghetto outside the Ukrainian city of Odessa.
The silence was so impenetrable that until Vinocur attended the Soviet Union’s first congress of Nazi concentration camp and ghetto survivors in Moscow in 1991, she didn’t know a single person like herself in Kiev. A front-page announcement in the Jewish supplement to the Ukrainian parliament’s newspaper eventually led her to more than 150 Holocaust survivors in the Ukrainian capital. Altogether, Vinocur says, there are about 4,000 survivors throughout this country of 52 million, where the Jewish community, numbering 500,000, is the third-largest in Europe.
Vinocur’s group includes some middle-aged members, who were infants during the war. But Holocaust survivors are mostly old and therefore most vulnerable to post-Soviet economic upheavals. Most are barely surviving on tiny pensions that don’t cover the cost of staple foods, much less utilities, medicine and clothing.
With the end of the Cold War, these elderly Ukrainians became eligible for compensation from Germany. But the 1 billion marks--about $660 million--earmarked for Belarus, Russia and Ukraine is for all those who “especially suffered” from the Nazis, not just for Holocaust survivors.
While ghetto and concentration camp victims are entitled to the largest awards--of about $600--the vast majority of people eligible for compensation are Ukraine’s mainly Slavic Ostarbeiter, people who were shipped to Germany to perform forced labor. Saul Kagan, executive director of the New York-based Conference on Jewish Material Claims, established in 1951 to obtain German compensation for Holocaust survivors, thinks that reflects a lack of understanding of Hitler’s Final Solution. Forced laborers suffered, but they were not faced with extermination as a group, he told journalists at last month’s opening of Hesed Avot, a Kiev welfare center for elderly Jews.
Such arguments are not very persuasive in the former Soviet Union. Even after half a century, the war that killed every sixth inhabitant of Ukraine--more than 5 million people--and wiped out a third of Belarus’ population still looms large in public consciousness. “Everyone in Ukraine suffered. But there isn’t enough money for everyone,” said Anatoly Omelchenko, deputy director of the Ukrainian government agency charged with distributing the compensation.
One problem is that Ukraine has more claimants than originally estimated. “It was thought that Ukraine and Russia each had 600,000, and Belarus 300,000,” Omelchenko explained. “But in reality, neither Russia nor Belarus has that many, while we’ve already received 624,000 applications.”
At least 300 of those applications came from Jews who eluded capture by hiding, in forests or with non-Jewish families. The latter, ironically, are eligible for aid from an American fund for “righteous Gentiles.”
But since the Jews they sheltered were not in ghettos or concentration camps--and were hiding precisely to avoid that fate--they don’t fall into the recognized categories for reparations.
Vinocur, with the help of the claims conference, hopes to persuade the German and Ukrainian governments to change the rules.
In the long term, however, the one-time payments can be of only marginal help, covering the costs of some needed clothing, utility debts and perhaps gifts for grandchildren. They can’t fill all of the gaps in Ukraine’s tattered post-Soviet safety net.
That’s what the Hesed Avot--which means the “loving care of ancestors"--welfare center intends to do. At the freshly renovated ex-kindergarten in an outlying district of Kiev, elderly Jews--including Holocaust survivors--can get free medical consultations, attend Hanukkah celebrations or lectures on Jewish culture, and rent wheelchairs, walkers and crutches for a nominal fee. “This is a God-given place,” said Lev Pikersky, 74, while waiting in the neat little hair salon for volunteer barber Aaron Furier to trim his flowing gray locks.
The claims conference raised the $1 million to refurbish the center by selling unclaimed Jewish properties in what was East Germany. It is administered by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, an overseas aid organization.
“This is paid for by the people who did not survive,” said Kagan of the claims conference, gesturing at the center’s small auditorium. “It’s the mystical heritage of those who perished to benefit those who lived.”