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“The Phantom Holocaust” exposes forgotten Soviet Films

“The Phantom Holocaust” exposes forgotten Soviet Films

By Emily Sorkin Smith

Section: Featured, News

April 17, 2015

Olga Gershenson, associate professor of Judaic Studies at UMass Amherst, presented a talk highlighting Soviet-made Holocaust films in the Mandel Atrium on Monday night, April 13.

Gershenson discussed the use of art to keep memories of the Holocaust alive in Russian Jews and the various political barriers artists faced in the production and release of these movies. She presented clips from several movies made in Russia of parts of the former Soviet Union. Gershenson’s talk, titled “The Phantom Holocaust,” was presented by the Brandeis Genesis Institute (BGI) for Russian Jewry.

People are unaware of Soviet Holocaust films, Gershenson argued. “Why is there no Russian ‘Schindler’s List’? The assumption is that in the Soviet Union there were no Holocaust movies or for that matter any other way of commemorating the Jewish loss.” She explained that while there are many Soviet-made Holocaust films, they don’t get as much attention as those made in America and Europe.

Victor Viktin, executive director of BGI, introduced Gershenson and provided background on the Soviet Jewish Experience. “As tragic as it is, the Holocaust, the Second World War and what is known to some people in the audience who actually come from the Russian Jewish background as ‘Great Patriotic War’ played a great role in the formation of the Soviet Jewish experience.” Viktin, like Gershenson, earned degrees from universities in Russia, Israel and the U.S.

Gershenson has studied Russian-Jewish culture in Russia, where she grew up, Israel and the U.S. She decided to pursue the subject of Soviet Holocaust films because she feels that many Russians still don’t think much about the Holocaust. “The country still lives in a state of amnesia,” Gershenson said.

She moved through eras of Russian history in her talk, giving examples of several Holocaust films produced during the time and pointing out general themes. One trait common to many Soviet Holocaust films is the creation of cinematically powerful but historically inaccurate scenes. These scenes, like the execution scene in the 1945 film “The Unvanquished,” were meant more to stir up sympathies for Soviet politics and less to show Jewish victimization by Nazi soldiers. Pre-war Soviet films would often focus on Jewish doctors being removed from their clinics, as the 1938 film “Professor Mamlock” does. Gershenson explained that this film, like others of its type, portrayed Germans as victims of Nazism, instead of willing participants. The true heroes of these films, according to Gershenson, were communists.

The post-war era, Gershenson said, found “Jewish victims of war increasingly silenced in the Soviet Union.” Stalinist policy during the time kept filmmakers from pursuing Jewish themes.
The bulk of Soviet Holocaust films were made during the Khrushchev “thaw,” a period during the 1950s and ’60s when Soviet censorship laws and politics became much less restrictive. One movie made during this time was “The Fate of Man,” released in 1959. The film had much of the imagery common to Holocaust films, like striped uniforms and crematoriums, Gershenson explained. Later, during perestroika, another period of fewer cultural and political restrictions, many more Holocaust films were released in the Soviet Union. These films, however, continued to treat their subjects in a simplistic and universalistic way.

Russian culture still seems uncomfortable with the subject of the Holocaust and the crimes committed on Soviet soil, Gershenson explained. The films made, therefore, tend to externalize the issue, setting scenes in foreign nations or focuses on specific themes. Using the example of the 1990 film “Ladies’ Tailor,” set in Kiev, Gershenson argued that Holocaust films often focused more on Soviet themes. The scene where Jews march out of town, she said, “actually says more about mass immigration, mass exodus, of Jews from Russia at the time, than about the Holocaust.”

Gershenson grew up in Russia and received her B.A. there. She later moved to Israel where she received her M.A. and then to the United States to get her Ph.D. She has said that she was, “Jewish in Russia, Russian in Israel and finally an academic in the United States.”
BGI, the event’s presenters, aims to “galvanize the Russian-speaking Jewish community around the world” using three pillars: Community Engagement, Research and Scholarship and Professional Development. Part of their efforts, Viktin explained, is to strengthen Russian-Jewish identity in young adults.

The talk was co-sponsored by the Center for German and European Studies, the Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry, Brandeis Russian Studies, the Brandeis Russian Club and the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies.

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