Holocaust Research Paper
The chaotic cultural and political swirl that followed WWII provides a uniquely rich opportunity to study the sociology of adaptation and assimilation and its implications for national, racial and gender identity that emerged among following generations. Examination of materials collected by the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation and the works of Nahum Boneh (Mular) led me to the question to what extent the success of Soviet partisans resulted from their nationality policies.
My undergraduate and graduate degree studies in Belarus culminated to a thesis on the Nazi occupation of the western Soviet states with a specific focus on youth in what the Germans called Kreisgebiet Pinsk. Now a Belarusian territory, this region was part of the Reichskommissariat Ukraine populated by Belarusians, Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians and Tatars. Within a span of three decades, this land between Ukraine and Poland came under the authority of Germans, Poles, Soviets, Nazis and then Soviets again.
While working on that thesis, I became interested in researching the national identity of the population as a dynamic concept. Eastern Europe was paradigmatic; a cultural background placed under diverse systems, ideologies and religions (or denial thereof) within one decade. I am also intrigued to examine the influence of other factors, such as gender, ethnicity, religious background, and others, on the conceptions of citizenship offered to the population of Kreisgebiet Pinsk by different governments in the course of the decade from mid-1930s to mid-1940s. Thus, my project focuses primarily on the labor history of the war, the Holocaust, occupation policy of Soviets and Nazis in Belarus regarding nationality and the gender history of Soviet partisans. I would like to focus on the dynamics of national identity within this region during the period 1939-45, when Kreisgebiet Pinsk was first integrated into Soviet Belarus, and then occupied by the Nazis. More specifically, I would like to start by examining the state of national identity when the region became part of Soviet Belarus, then what it developed into by 1941, right before the Nazi occupation, and finally, how it changed by 1945, at the end of the Nazi occupation. Prior to the First World War, Pinsk was under the Russian Empire in the Minsk province. Between the two world wars, Pinsk was in the Polesie province of Poland and then fell under Soviet occupation at the height of the Second World War.
On September 20 1939, Soviet troops invaded Pinsk following Germany’s attack of Poland. As soon as the KGB troops occupied Pinsk, they began massive arrests of military personnel, police, and eventually began to arrest and imprison civilians. The elderly, children and women of the arrested men were deported en masse to Siberia and Northern Russia where they served as a labor force. More importantly, during the twenty-one months of occupation, the Soviets imposed Soviet citizenship by issuing mandatory passports, contrary to international law, which allows people to choose their own nationality.
The Nazis occupied Pinsk in July 1941 as the Soviet troops left. The German troops immediately established a Jewish Council after which they killed up to 8,000 well-known Jews and then an additional 3,000 children and elderly Jews. The murders were followed by a series of economic repression against the remaining Jews, with most of them being subjected to hard labor.
My research to date suggests that the deliberate educational policies and promotion of minorities by Soviets and the Nazis were at the cornerstone of an imposition of nationalism. Scholars such as Terry Martin and Elisa Bemporad argue in their works that Soviet nationality policy, korenizatsiya, was successful in the eastern part of Belarus in 1920s-1930s. The question remains how successful this policy was in western Belarus, including Pinsk region, that became Soviet in 1939. However, Ernest Gellner argues that nationalism is a political construction that can be a force for modernism. As such, one might argue that the various nationalities that emerged from the WWII were as a result of people converging in cities due to the demands of the industrial revolution, thereby necessitating that prevailing governments create a common identity for the people.
Even though the Nazis perpetuated a war of extermination in the East, very quickly they realized that their economy depended less on conquering land and more on a cheap labor force. World War II progressed from a fight for natural resources to a fight for human ones, a shift that challenged Nazi nationality policy. Propaganda materials show that the Nazis and Soviets implemented different kinds of methods to attract locals to their respective sides in order to benefit from their labor.
Gender also has relevance. My gender studies at the University of Oslo and at the City College of New York opened questions about gender dynamics in the period of Nazi occupation. By mid-1941, the ban on marriages between “Reich German men” and local women in occupied Eastern territories came under challenge based on the opportunity “to lead these people towards the German Volk.” The Nazis had to reconsider the idea of Reich citizenship only for Aryans due to the realities of occupation.
The Soviets formally provided equal rights for both genders. But, in reality female partisans who lived in the forests surrounded by armed men did not enjoy equal treatment. Using sources like Faye Schulman’s A Partisan’s Memoir: Woman of the Holocaust, and the research of Regina Mühlhäuser, I have investigated these questions. I hope to look closely at several topics such as the new conceptions of women within the nation, what it meant to be a good citizen and how the Nazis and Soviet’s nationality policies depended on gender identities.
Finally, I believe history offers perspective about the past, the present and the future. Issues of citizenship and national identity have relevance for contemporary European policymaking. Emerging European forms of integration are again forcing people to make difficult choices, as is the case recently in Ukraine. Conception of citizenship is also on the agenda in many countries nowadays, including the United States where the prevailing question is who is entitled to hold citizenship and how does this depend on national and gender identity.
I have conducted research in the Belarusian archives and I became familiar with numerous Nazi and Soviet documents. However, during my first graduate degree a traditional Soviet historiographical framework limited my research. Now, I have the tools to go beyond that and look at bigger questions related to nationality policies, and I approach archival materials from a different perspective. My experience in journalism has trained me to ask questions, adjust my research and focus on unexpected answers. Having worked in social media, I have also learned the skills essential for an academic career – such as how to present information in a way that catches the attention of the public.
I am a native speaker of Belarusian and Russian, and I can read and understand Ukrainian and Polish. Next summer I will be taking part in a language program in Germany to improve my skills in German.
Benjamin, Frommer. “Expulsion or Integration: Unmixing Interethnic Marriage in Postwar Czechoslovakia,” East European Politics & Societies 14, (2): 381-410.
Gellner, Ernest. ‘Nations and nationalism’. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Polish Forums. Holocaust by Germans in Poland. https://polishforums.com/history/poland-holocaust-germans-worse-genocide-55789/
Regina, Mühlhäuser. “Between 'Racial Awareness' and Fantasies of Potency: Nazi Sexual Politics in the Occupied Territories of the Soviet Union, 1942-1945,” Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Snyder, Timothy. "The causes of the Holocaust". Contemporary European History. 21 (2): 149-168.