Tales of the Righteous from the USSR

by Antonella Salomoni

It is unusual that the Soviet Union – despite being recognized as an area with a high density of Jewish population and a major scene of their mass murder – has long remained an unexplored territory as far as the history of the Holocaust is concerned. In particular, there is a lack of precise data about the Jews who, often through eventful journeys, managed to flee the slaughters, sometimes literally remerging from mass graves, or to run away from ghettoes and concentration camps. In order to survive, the fugitives had to conceal their own identity and go as far as they could from the places where people could easily recognize them; they had to obtain forged identity documents that proved their non-Jewishness; they had to find means of subsistence, shelter and if possible a job. This was only possible thanks to the support of the local population. 

It is difficult to write now about the tales of the men and women who acted justly under Nazi occupation in the Soviet territory. For decades their choices have been nearly ignored because of the effort to conceal the Holocaust made by the Communist authorities. Not only the victims were associated and confused with the whole of the Soviet victims, but all attempts in the opposite direction was accused of being a form of “abetting Zionism”. Since the Nineties the restrictions however have largely withered and it was possible to substiantially increase the number of recognitions to those who rescued the Jews to escape from Nazis and their collaborators. The honour of Righteous among the nations, from 1st January 2012, is recognized to Soviet citizens in these proportions:

Ukrainans     2.402
Lithuanians      831
Belarussians        569
Russians        179
Latvians        132
Moldavians          79
Armenians          21
Estonians            3
total      4.216

Therefore there were thousands people who, in the different regions, risked their own lives to rescue neighbours, friends, simple acquaintancies or perfect strangers, refugees, whom they hid in the cellars individually or with their entire families, they provided with food and clothing, they took care when wounded or ill. This almost always was prompted by single individuals, who acted spontaneously and without previous planning, and managed to overcome the prejudice of the environment and the pressure of the German propaganda. Many of them rescued  children as requested by their parents, by disguising them as children of theirs. Very often true solidarity chains were established, that allowed the fugitives to move from one home to another. Sometimes this spontaneous brotherhood gave rise to underground resistance groups, which kept a slightly extended family structure and organized asaaults to the city jails or “stole” prisoners from the ghettoes. There were also frequent activities of document forging for many dozens people. It is superfluous to remember that – as a witness put it - «every gesture of pity, every compassionate look, every offer of a water sip and or a crust of bread» was bound to be punished by death. Given the impossibility to rebuild just an incomplete map of the thousands rescue deeds, it is possible to remember some exemplary case sto highlight the multiple kinds and reasons of help, as well as their geographical dissemination. 

In Riga, there were many Latvians and Russians who did everything in their power to rescue the Jews. The best-known case is the one of Latvian Jānis Lipke, who since the first days of existence of the ghetto did his best to find shelter for them. He made his choice because he had witnessed to the massacre of the Jews of the first days of December 1941 with his eigh-year old son. Therefore he left his post as a dockworker to join a firm serving the Luftwaffe. Taking advantage of his position as a guard to the manpower which taken out of the ghetto on a daily basis, during the three years of occupation, with the helo of his family and a group of freiends, he hid 42 people in various places, enabling their survival. After the war he had to face the hostility of his neighbours and fellow citizens, who considered him as a traitor, if not a half-Jew. In 1966, Yad Vashem recognized him as Righteous among the nations, with his wife Johanna.

In Kaunas, Lithuanian doctor Elena Kutorgiene-Buivydaite, author of a diary that set an example of dignity and civil passion, kept in touch with the Jews; she hosted them in her home, she found safer shelter for them or helped them espatriate, she kept precious goods for them or she helped their Jewish owners sell them. She also provided healthcare inside the city ghetto, and almost every day she was able to send the food that she received by her patients, and she cooperated with the clandestine organisation. She was exposed by neighbours and she was subjected to searches during the night and interrogations, but she  managed to be released after signing a document in which she declared that she would not have any conctat with the Jews. After that she carried on her dangerous relations. 
Afetr liberation, in August 1944, she worked for court of inquiry of German war crimes. In 1982 she was declared Rightoeus, with her son Viktoras. 

Whereas the librarian Ona Simaite helped the Vilnius Jews and she often went to the ghetto not only for humanitarian aims, but also to collaborate to save treasures (books and manuscripts) of Strashun, a famous collection.
Arrested for helping and hosting some fugitives, she was brutally tortured and deported to Dachau. Later she was transfered to another camp in the south of France, where she was released by the Americans in August 1944. She was declared a Righteous among the Nations in 1966. 

Also in the church environment you can find a lot of concrete actions on behalf of the Jews. The priest Aleksej A. Glagolev hid some Jews who had escaped from Babij Jar massacre and that had asked his help; he 
hosted them in a small building next to the Church, in Kiev. She gave them forged identity cards, in particular forged certificates of baptism, but also certificates as chorister, sacristan, guardian, and the Germans did not realize that such a small church could not have that high number of employees. Glagolev was declared Righteous in 1991, with his wife Tatjana and his daughter Magdalina. 

In Belarus, farmer Konstantin (Kostik) Kozlowski was a landmark for a lot of exiles and deserters. He was declared Righteous in 1994 with his sons Gennadi and Vladimir. He worked for a Jewish  shoemaker, therefore he could speak Yiddish very well, and this is why he managed to became a intermediary with the partisans of Belski brothers brigate, whom he was linked to since their childhood. 
He was their guide and courier, but also he let them to use his house as an asylum for refugees and he entered many times in the ghetto of Novogrudok to prepare the escapes and to go with the fugitives in woods. 
His family (he was widowed and have five sons) supported his actions and a brother of his, who was collaborating as policemen with occupants, started to give important informations to clandestines. 

These are only few examples of “a little goodness without ideology, that can we call senseless goodness” (Vasilij Grossman).

Antonella Salomoni, Professor of History of Shoah and genocides at the University of Bologna, Italy.

Analysis by

26 March 2013

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