A Comment on Hirsh Bloshtein

After reading my post about Hirsh Bloshtein, and the memoir “A Return to My Birthplace, Keidan,” posted here, Aryeh Shcherbakov submitted the following commentary, which I have edited. Shcherbakov, of Tel Aviv, was born and raised in Vilnius, Lithuania. The family of his mother, Guta Kagan, was among those murdered in Keidan on Aug. 28, 1941. He serves as secretary of the Association of Keidaners in Israel.

by Aryeh Leonard Shcherbakov

I. A few critical notes about Bloshtein’s article

The timing of this article’s publication in 1958 is significant. Remember that Jewish cultural life in the USSR was almost completely destroyed in the last years of Stalin’s regime. His fierce anti-Semitic campaign culminated with the execution of 13 Yiddish writers and poets on August 12, 1952 and the subsequent “doctor’s plot” affair, which was only cut short by Stalin’s own death on March 5, 1953. The writers were accused of connections with the Joint Distribution Committee, of being Zionists and with spying for the USA. This all made people deadly afraid of any communication with the “west,” even with Communist parties abroad. The publication of Bloshtein’s article in the New York-based Yiddish newspaper Morgen Freiheit in 1958 could not have happened on his own initiative, but only by order of the Soviet authorities, wishing to restore their connections with left-wing American Jews. Such connections had been severely strained after author Howard Fast broke with the American Communist party in 1956, and published his famous book “The Naked God,” in 1957.

I am quite sure that Bloshtein’s visit to Kėdainiai in 1958 was also organized by the authorities. From his story it is quite clear that he was provided with a car and accompanied by local party officials. This also explains the many incorrect statements in his article. If he had been accompanied by any of the Jewish Keidan survivors, (such as Chaim Ronder, our main source for details of the massacre, who at that time was living in Kaunas, or any of his relatives who then were living in Vilnius), his story would be much more accurate.

Overall, Bloshtein adopts a particular tone, skillfully channeling the declaration of a faithful Soviet citizen and a party member, looking optimistically to the bright future – in spite of a great personal tragedy – not the tragedy of the entire Jewish nation.

He also gets many details wrong. Kėdainiai was not really a large city in 1958. The “six thousand” Jews he claims were there before the massacre actually numbered fewer than half that. Neither I nor any Keidaners of my acquaintance have any memory of an “arched gate” by the site of the mass grave. Nor have we ever heard of a grave of three communists on the bank of Smilga creek, which Bloshtein describes as the one where his nephew Chaim Dovid [Shneider] is buried, close to the common mass grave. Chaim Dovid was not a communist, but merely a Soviet sympathizer, and he was killed and buried on July 23, in Babėnai, which is several kilometers from the main mass grave in Daukšiai village. It should also be noted that the width of this mass grave is roughly four meters, not 50 as Bloshtein describes.

He was correct that survivors built the memorial by the mass gravesite, but – contrary to his statement – the local authorities did not maintain it. There was no park in the vicinity, as he asserts for readers of the Morgen Freiheit. If he saw flowers, they were probably put there in preparation for his visit. Visiting writers were generally treated as important guests by local officials. More to the point, the Soviets did not allow casual access to the memorial, as it was quite close to a military airfield. Every visit required special permission from the authorities.

His description of the smaller mass grave near Babėnai is also problematic. Buried there, as a memorial plaque notes, are 125 Soviet activists, including 95 Jews, not the 500 he mentions.

More significant are statements such as this:

“Of the six thousand Keidan Jews, a scant few were rescued during the horrible year 1941 … Good Lithuanian people put their own lives in danger to rescue their Jewish friends and acquaintances.”

This is completely misleading. Of those few Keidan Jews who survived, roughly three dozen were young men who fled into Russia at the urging of their families. A few others, who happened not to be in Kėdainiai in those fatal days, survived in the Kaunas or Šiauliai ghettos (and later in German concentration camps) or with partisans in the forests. Only three Jews survived the massacre in Kėdainiai on August 28, 1941. Two were helped by local people to hide in the forests over the next three years. The third stayed with a Lithuanian family and eventually married one of its members. The Germans later brought other Jews from the Kaunas ghetto to a labour camp near the Kėdainiai airfield. Some of these Jews managed to escape during the winter of 1944 and were indeed rescued by Lithuanian families, who kept them safe until the Red Army arrived in the summer of 1944. (This is described in the book “Kėdainių kraštas svastikos ir raudonosios žvaigždės šešėlyje”  [“Kėdainiai in the Shadow of the Swastika and the Red Star”] by Rimantas Žirgulis and Valdas Banys.)

Yet these rescuers were very few in number. During the massacre itself, most Kėdainiai inhabitants played no active role. Some sympathized with their Jewish neighbours and their suffering. Some took advantage of the situation to acquire Jewish property. About 30 or 40 so called “white-band” activists actively participated in the killing, while another 150 to 200 were temporarily mobilized to guard the execution place.

To be fair, active resistance of unarmed Lithuanian civilians to the armed “activists,” who were backed by the German army, could not have been expected. We can accuse only the murderers and the Lithuanian civil administration, which cooperated with the Nazis and provided the necessary means and infrastructure for the mass killings.

The number of Jews murdered on Aug. 28, 1941 remains in dispute. The number 2,076, appearing today on the gravesite memorial, is taken from the report of Einsatzkommando 3 commander Karl Jaeger, issued on December 1, 1941. German reports from that era have generally been accepted as precise. But there are incorrect entries in this one, and I also know that some mass executions were not recorded there at all.

The correct number, I am convinced, comes from Chaim Ronder, who provided the closest thing we have to eye-witness testimony; he reported that 3,700 Jews from Keidan and the surrounding area were killed (his account appeared in the 1977 Keidan “Sefer Zikaron”  Memorial Book, p. 286). The same number appears in several letters from Ronder written after the war, and also in his testimony to the KGB, dated October 7, 1957. He had no reason to lie, and KGB witnesses as a rule wouldn’t dare to fantasize or make up numbers.

Bloshtein’s 1958 visit to Keidan was probably his first since leaving the town in 1925, and also probably his last. The strong feelings he describes are understandable, and likely genuine. Yet I doubt that his companions shared his sentiments, although he tries to convince us of the contrary. As for his local hosts, the sight of the Jewish mass grave was nothing new…

The errors in Bloshtein’s article remain a conundrum to me. They can hardly be explained by sheer negligence, as his other sentences there are well thought out and very carefully formulated.

II. Some notes about Bloshtein

I first encountered Hirsh Bloshtein’s name while working with Andrew Cassel on the English translation of the 1977 Keidan Memorial (Yizkor) Book. At that time, his two poems included in the book made a greater impression upon me than did the story “The Big Celebration” (p. 177) which had been first printed in Russia in 1970.

But as we started collecting material related to Jewish Keidan, it became known that Bloshtein had left an interesting historical and literary document. Thanks to Yosef Shneider, a grandson of Bloshtein’s older brother Mane-Yossel, who was killed in Keidan in 1941, we learned of Bloshtein’s three-volume, semi-autobiographic Yiddish novel “On a Heym” (“Homeless”). The novel describes the deportation of Jewish families (including his own) from Keidan to Russia in 1915, their lives as refugees and finally their return to Keidan after 1920. This seems an important contribution to the history of Keidan’s Jewish community.

Finding the book was not simple: Bloshtein’s family in Israel owned only the first and third volumes. After many months of searching in Yiddish and Hebrew libraries around the world, Yosef Shneider was finally able to locate a copy, with the help of Keidaner descendent Batya Metzer, in a Jewish community library in Stockholm.

And here I come to a sensitive issue: Bloshtein’s alleged cooperation with the Soviet security police, mentioned by researcher Gennady Estraikh in his email to Andrew Cassel.

Hopefully, in time Estraikh will share his research results in a way that clarifies Bloshtein’s role. Meanwhile, it is important to understand the atmosphere of those awful years in the Soviet Union. Tens of thousands were involved in reporting on their fellow citizens – neighbours, study comrades, co-workers, and others. In particular, many writers and editors were party members, and as such, had to demonstrate their loyalty. Occasionally they did so willingly; more often it was under mental or physical pressure. Nearly always it was out of fear: If the authorities learned that a person was present when something “improper” was said, and had not rushed to immediately report it, he would be said to lack loyalty. This could have severe consequences for his career, and sometimes ruin his own life and that of his family.

It is easy today in the 21st century to pass judgement. Few of us can imagine ourselves in a situation like that of – to take one famous example – Yiddish poet Itzik Fefer. Fefer, a leading member of the Jewish Antifascist Committee (together with Peretz Markish) during the war, was widely known to have actively cooperated with the NKVD. Nevertheless, he was arrested in 1948, tortured, and executed with 12 other writers on August 12, 1952.

Other prominent Jewish writers, however, did not share their fate; Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman come to mind, just to name two. Some, such as poet Hirsh Osherovich, from Vilnius, were arrested and exiled during the anti-Jewish campaign of 1948-1953, but not executed. So the mere fact that Bloshtein survived does not prove he was an informer. An interesting anecdote, related by Yosef Shneider, suggests that, even if he cooperated with the NKVD/KGB, he was not protected. In December 1952 or January 1953, at the peak of the anti-Jewish propaganda campaign, Bloshtein hurriedly left his family in Chernovtsy, came alone to Vilnius and hid for about three months with his relatives there, leaving their apartment only at night for short walks. I know of similar cases, where someone who feared arrest left home, laying low in another location “until the rage passed” (to quote a Hebrew proverb). It is evident that Bloshtein had learned he might be arrested in the next wave. Fortunately for Bloshtein – and for all Soviet Jews, including me – Stalin died on March 5, 1953. The “doctors’ plot” was declared a fabrication, and the nation-wide anti-Jewish hysteria came to an immediate halt.

Given the complexity and sensitivity of this issue, it is probably best to keep an open mind about Bloshtein until more evidence comes to light. Moreover, his role as one of the last bearers of Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union, and a witness to Keidan’s early 20th-century history, make his writings worth preserving.

About Andrew

Retired journalist, Keidan descendent.
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