Living in History

I am reading Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands. I would be interested in the history anyway, but I have a personal interest too. Snyder identifies the “bloodlands” thus:

The bloodlands were where most of Europe’s Jews lived, where Hitler and Stalin’s imperial plans overlapped, where the Wehrmacht and the Red Army fought, and where the Soviet NKVD and the German SS concentrated their forces. Most killing sites were in the bloodlands: in the political geography of the 1930s and early 1940s, this meant Poland, the Baltic States, Soviet Belarus, Soviet Ukraine, and the western fringe of Soviet Russia. Stalin’s crimes are often associated with Russia, and Hitler’s with Germany. But the deadliest part of the Soviet Union was its non-Russian periphery, and Nazis generally killed beyond Germany. The horror of the twentieth century is thought to be located in the camps. But the concentration camps are not where most of the victims of National Socialism and Stalinism died. These misunderstandings regarding the sites and methods of mass killing prevent us from perceiving the horror of the twentieth century.

All of my grandparents were born in Russian-controlled Ukraine: my father fled Soviet Ukraine, from a shtetl called Orinin in the Southwestern bloodlands. What passed for his childhood was lived out in the midst of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, pogroms that killed over one hundred thousand Jews, and the first Ukrainian famine. During the Great Depression, after finally having arrived in the U.S. in 1927, and unaware of the second Ukrainian famine, the Holomodor, my father returned, to Russia proper, believing the economic situation and the prospect of work might be better in the new proletarian society. They were not. He managed to depart again after a year, though tens of thousands of other American working class faithful who had emigrated to Russia in the same belief were sent to and lost in the Gulag. In August 1941, one month after the birth of my sister, my father’s first child, all of the Jews of Orinin were murdered by an SS Einsatzgruppe. One great aunt and one great uncle that I know of – of course, there were others – my father’s mother’s sister and brother and their families, disappeared in the bloodlands.

Of the fourteen million people deliberately murdered in the bloodlands between 1933 and 1945, a third belong in the Soviet account.

This is a history of political mass murder. The fourteen million were all victims of a Soviet or Nazi killing policy, often of an interaction between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, but never casualties of the war between them. A quarter of them were killed before the Second World War even began. A further two hundred thousand died between 1939 and 1941, while Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were remaking Europe as allies. The deaths of the fourteen million were sometimes projected in economic plans, or hastened by economic considerations, but were not caused by economic necessity in any strict sense. Stalin knew what would happen when he seized food from the starving peasants of Ukraine in 1933, just as Hitler knew what could be expected when he deprived Soviet prisoners of war of food eight years later. In both cases, more than three million people died. The hundreds of thousands of Soviet peasants and workers shot during the Great Terror in 1937 and 1938 were victims of express directives of Stalin, just as the millions of Jews shot and gassed between 1941 and 1945 were victims of an explicit policy of Hitler.

My father was, as we say, an ordinary man. He sought only safety at last, a way to live, and, as it turned out, a family’s love. That is what most people want. Yet the first thirty-seven years of his life – he served in the U.S. military during the Second World War too – were lived in the midst of epic historical events in which he played no role and the outcome of which, like most others, he was far too insignificant and powerless to affect. We all live in history, which is to say in time, but some of us live in history with a capital H. My father lived in it for nearly half his life. With some thought, it is probably decidably true that most people do.

There is probably no place and time in recorded history – which recording plays a prominent role in the creation of History – in which more people lived more outside of History than the United States, and less clearly, the Western democracies in general, in the decades after World War II. Vietnam returned some of us to History for a while, but if one wasn’t poor and male it was quite possible to be oblivious to it. Mental oblivion is a kind of commodity in affluent societies, bought cheap. At the fall of the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union, we could watch some of it, and other people living in it, on TV.

An identifying characteristic of ordinary people living in History is that, individually, most other people never know about it, or them, and these people – most of us – are forgotten, their Historic lives never recorded. History is like a great wave, or many waves, of events rolling over space and through time. The powerful and great can create their own waves, and ride like surfers over the rest, though assuredly they often fall and are lost, as daring surfers will be. Everyone else just tries to go with the currents, to be buoyed along the way, hopes for a soft landing and maybe some pleasure along the way.

There are a number of reasons I might be having these thoughts now. I have them a lot, and I am working on a book about my father – part of why I am reading Bloodlands – and the life of America outside of History is everywhere around me.

And then there is, too, an epigraph to Snyder’s book, one of several:

A stranger drowned on the Black Sea alone
With no one to hear his prayers for forgiveness.

“Storm on the Black Sea”
Traditional Ukrainian Song

And another:

Whole cities disappear. In nature’s stead
Only a white shield to counter nonexistence.

Tomas Venclova
The Shield of Achilles”

And these mordant lines from Vassily Grossman, who lived in History:

Everything flows, everything changes.
You can’t board the same prison train twice.

It isn’t that we should feel guilty about living outside of History. That is the hope, isn’t it, of every formulation, eschatological or merely political, of how we reach an “end of history”? It is, in its best sense, the middle class aspiration – to live in modest abundance, in peace and in love. I recall now, too, lines Peter Hitchens offered in writing movingly last week on the death of his brother Christopher, from Hilaire Beloc’s “Dedicatory Ode.”

From quiet homes and first beginning,
Out to the undiscovered ends,
There’s nothing worth the wear of winning,
But laughter and the love of friends.

Only the most inveterate of adventurers, I think, or the makers of all those waves (not to mention the young), would disagree. Yet if one would be conscious – conscious as Christopher Hitchens would have had us always be – one would always have, amid the soothing laughter and quieting love, the clang of Grossman, like a train bell, in one’s ears. For the following perversion of human being, of human consciousness and behavior, deformed by monstrous oppression, transpired this past week too, and has been crushing unrecorded lives beneath the weight of History for sixty years now. We owe them remembrance. We owe them full consciousness. We are carried by the waters too.


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9 thoughts on “Living in History

  1. To all the Jewish community I pray that you can use your political muscle to lobby for the Ukrainian Christians who suffered under Nazism and the Soviet Empire. Germany must pay more compensation. The Ukrainian diaspora was not educated enough to lobby for their just compensation.

    My grandmother was only offered $800 for 5 years forced labour in Nazi Germany. Her elderly parents burned alive in their straw huts.

    She is 85 years old, and I think she needs to be compensated. $800 is an insult!

    Jews please help Christians. Show the Neo Nazis that you are a generous people who help other races and religions.

    I can be contacted on my email birojek at hotmail dot com.

  2. Howard Sachar’s History of Jews in the Modern World covers the pogroms that occurred after WWI very well, if you want more details and estimates of Jews killed and displaced.

  3. Jay, a very nice essay.

    Do you have a reference for the 100,000 Jews killed in pogroms in Eastern Europe? I assume that you are referring to the pogroms after the first world war. I knew that these were very large but not that the number killed was anywhere near 100,000. These pogroms seem to have nearly vanished from historical memory, probably because they were dwarfed by the Holocaust a generation later. It would be nice to have a source for information about them.

    1. David, yes I was referring to the Civil War period of 1917-21, which swirled all around my father’s town, though he offered me, only in adulthood, some vague memories of being led by his grandfather through woods to the safe-haven homes of some friendly Ukrainians. According to accounts, the pogroms were conducted by all sides – Red Russians troops, White Russians, and mostly Ukrainian nationalists. I’ve encountered a lot of numbers, as low as 30 thousand to as high as 250 thousand. In addition to Rebecca’s recommendation of Sachar, I’ll note the seminal work of Nahum Gergel, from the late 20s, that was later published in English by the YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science: “”The Pogroms in the Ukraine in 1918-1921.” I think his work supports a number as high as 150 thousand. I settled on 100 thousand, in casual blogging, as a minimal number defensible against claims of hyperbole.

      1. Thanks a lot Jay. One thing that I am unclear about is to what degree the pogroms were associated with the Russian Civil War versus taking place in areas where that war was not a factor (like, say, Romania). I have always heard of these pogroms as occurring in “Eastern Europe”, not exclusively in Russia. This question is wrapped up with the question of determining the number killed because the civil war was so bloody that I am sure that the total number of Jews killed either in the fighting or by the accompanying starvation and epidemics was much more the 100,000. Deaths due to pogroms outside of Russia would, probably, be easier to disentangle from the war dead than is the case in Russia.

        1. David, without the time now to go back and review my sources – or being in a position to assess the quality of original sources – I can tell you that the data is quite precise. It does not include deaths from the famine of 1921-22 and is restricted to Ukraine. Various sources will cite specific pogroms, with shtetl names and death counts. Even the attribution of specific pogroms to the Russian, Red or White army or to Ukrainian nationalists is based on the flux of war, i.e. the Russian Army being pushed back during WW I, the give and take of ground between the Reds and the the Whites during the civil war, and opportunities amid the flux by Ukrainian forces.

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