My Just War: The Memoir of a Jewish Red Army Soldier in World War II. – Review – book review
Lawrence G. Kelley
My Just War: The Memoir of a Jewish Red Army Soldier in World War II. By Gabriel Temkin. Novato, California: Presidio Press, 1998. 261 Pages, $24.95.
Fifty-five years ago the Red Army–at the staggering cost of 350 thousand killed–took Berlin, cleared Hitler’s Reichskanzlei, unfurled a Soviet flag over the Reichsrag, and jointly with the other Allied forces accepted the unconditional surrender of the Third Reich from OKW Chief Wilhelm Keitel in Karlshorst. In 2000 Israel officially declared Victory Day a national holiday. But unlike most states in the more political than geographic “West,” that country will mark the occasion on 9 May, a day after our V-E Day. The difference is not arbitrary: 9 May is the day when, owing to the time difference between Berlin and Moscow, the Soviet Union celebrated–and the states of the former Soviet Union continue to celebrate–the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Demographic imperatives in Israel, where Soviet emigres now make up a quarter of the populace, certainly influenced the decision, but it would be wrong to understand the government’s move in terms of political expediency alone. To most former East European Jews who suffered through the wanton terror and destruction of World War II, the Red Army is and will forever remain the savior of the Jewish nation. Neither the memory of pre-revolutionary pogroms nor widespread anti-Semitism in the USSR–a resilient feature of life in its successor states as well–can dim the pride which Jewish frontoviki feel in the victory of that most powerful of Russian institutions during the most salient and viscerally existential crusade of their lifetimes.
My Just War is the eminently readable wartime memoir of Gabriel Temkin, a frontovik and, like many in his generation, the walking embodiment of mid-20th-century East European history. A Polish Jew born in 1921, he fled German-occupied Lodz in 1939 for the relative security of the USSR, experienced firsthand the onslaught of the Wehrmacht in Belorussia, served in a Soviet labor battalion, endured devastating Hungarian captivity, escaped and evaded behind the lines west of Stalingrad, and for two years (1943-45) fought the Germans and their Axis allies in a Red Army rifle regiment, ending the war in Austria. Temkin’s retrospective, written from the vantage point of North America five decades after the fact, represents not a study, but a story with informed digressions. It provides a snail’s-eye view of life in the ranks during some of the Red Army’s proudest, most successful, and most costly moments. Reading Temkin’s work reveals insights and attachments which most of us, reared in a secure, democratic society and without systematic victimization or pervasive angst, can appreciate only with imagination. For Temkin and many like him inside and outside the Soviet Union, the Red Army–and for that matter, the Communist Party, however fundamentally flawed–represented the last, best hope in a meager set of imperfect alternatives, and the only one that promised protection and a realistic chance of survival.
The Soviet Union’s relationship with its Jewish citizens was always a troubled one. Jews comprised only one to two percent of the population in a country with more than 100 nationalities, but they made disproportionate contributions in virtually all the arts, sciences, medicine, and scholarship. Viewed more as a nationality than a religious grouping (few were observant in those years) they served the regime loyally, occupying prominent positions in the Party, the armed forces, the security services, and elsewhere in government and industry, even in the Soviet atomic weapons program. The irony of the situation lay in the fact that even a Jew born and raised in Moscow or Kiev, speaking Russian as his native language, embracing Russian culture, and making unprecedented contributions to the country he considered his own, remained largely a scorned outsider and a target of suspicion. For his entire life, he would carry an internal passport marked with the nationality “Jew,” rather than Russian or Ukrainian. And p eriodically the regime would persecute him for this forced identification, as Stalin did repeatedly. A Russian Jewish acquaintance, now a US citizen, captures the chagrin of his own non-acceptance with the tongue-in-cheek quip, “I can’t win. In Russia, I was always ‘a Jew’; in the West, I will always be ‘a Russian’!”
Temkin did not fight alone; many stood with him. Although the book jacket terms him one of the few Polish Jews to see combat in the Red Army, some 420,000 to 450,000 Soviet Jews also served in the war. Of that number, around 150,000 were lost (by comparison, about 300,000 Americans in Tom Brokaw’s entire “greatest generation” perished), but the alternative to fighting was far worse. The “war within a war” on the Eastern Front, behind whose lines Hitler systematically annihilated those pseudoscientifically branded as Untermenschen, left them little choice. What is more, many distinguished themselves in battle: 305 Soviet Jews became general officers, and 135 Heroes of the Soviet Union, representing 2.2 and 1.2 percent of the respective totals. Temkin himself received three decorations for valor. He endured gripping fear in the process, yet what he dreaded most was not death in battle, but capture and recognition as a Jew.
Time and distance have healed the author’s psychological wounds, and his text is largely devoid of invective. The book unemotionally depicts the reality that Red Army rifle units experienced in the war, warts and all. Notwithstanding his pride in defeating Hitler, Temkin does not hesitate to fault Soviet commanders for their all too great willingness to sacrifice massive numbers of troops, throwing them untrained and, at times, unarmed into the meat grinder. He stoically describes the debilitating results of inadequate field hygiene and minimal medical care. He charges that despite major improvements, the Soviet supply system failed to function properly even near the end of the war and provides a glimpse of the Lend Lease jeeps, trucks, and Spam furnished by the Western Allies, which he and his compatriots treasured but which Soviet historians systematically omitted from official histories. Finally, he describes the nature of the courage and shared adversity that bonded Red Army soldiers together more tightl y than at any other time in their lives. Russian-speakers will particularly appreciate Temkin’s endless catalogue of colorful troop expressions, although rendered in nonstandard transliteration, an editorial deficiency.
While commemorating a major tank battle on 3 May 2000, Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin, flanked by his Belorussian and Ukrainian counterparts, proclaimed triumph in the war against Nazi Germany to have been “a victory of the Slavic peoples.” Reading My Just War will suggest why such jingoistic and politically motivated rhetoric succeeded in alienating all the rest.
Colonel Lawrence G. Kelley, USMC Ret., a former Russian Foreign Area Officer with extensive experience in the former Soviet Union and East Germany.
COPYRIGHT 2001 U.S. Army War College
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