Everyone calls it Yom Hashoa, Holocaust Day, but the official Hebrew name translates as Memorial Day for Martyrs and Heroes. A cursory glance at my Facebook feed makes clear what we all know: Jews are very good at remembering our martyrs. There are yellow stars, yahrtseyt (memorial) candles, photos of concentration camp prisoners, and a gut wrenching riff on the Pesach haggadah stating that each of us is obligated to feel as if we ourselves had been unable to leave Germany.
My own post was no different. I have martyrs enough in my own family, including the great-grandmother for whom I am named. But what I had not known until perestroika and glasnost allowed me to become acquainted with my cousins in Moscow, is that I also have a hero in my family.
Vidya, my mother’s first cousin, was a liberator of Auschwitz. That was one of countless heroic acts that he undertook with his Red Army tank battalion. I have become close with him over the past two decades, and in the process I have come to understand that hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews—women and men—risked their lives in order to defeat the Germans. It is one of the great ironies of our era that many of these Red Army veterans, like Vidya, now live in Germany. On some of my frequent visits to Munich, I have had the privilege of accompanying him to the Jewish community center, where these veterans gather for coffee and conversation.
I am in awe of these people, who were truly forced from the frying pan into the fire. After recovering from his third serious wound, which punctured his lung, Vidya had no real home to which to return. His father had been sent to a gulag and his mother—the only one of my grandmother’s siblings to survive the war—followed her husband there. Vidya was one of thousands of Red Army veterans who learned that their loved ones had either been killed by the Nazis or been imprisoned by Stalin’s increasingly brutal regime. Far too often, both were the case.
Growing up in the 1970s, knowing that I had relatives in Moscow that I had not yet met, I attended every Save Soviet Jewry demonstration. I wore a prisoner of conscience necklace. Our family ”adopted” recent immigrants and helped them adjust to life in Chicago As a member of Hashomer Hatzair, I learned about the young heroes of the Warsaw and Vilna Ghettos, who fought back against the Nazis in any way possible. But due to Soviet policies, I never learned about the many Jewish heroes who fought in the Red Army, only to have their identities disappear at the end of the war.
In school we were taught that the Americans were the good liberators, and the Russians were the evil ones. Reality, as always, is far more complex. Thanks to the VETERAN ORAL HISTORY PROJECT of the Blavatnik Archive Foundation, which is systematically archiving the testimonies of Jewish Red Army veterans and creating books, DVDs, and impressive traveling exhibits of these materials, it is possible for us to get a glimpse of these heroic women and men.
If you do not have time to explore this material for Yom Hashoa, you can do it on the date that the Red Army veterans observe: May 9, or Victory in Europe Day. As Vidya always tells me, though, every year there are fewer and fewer veterans at the May 9 commemoration. So don’t wait.