As a young Jewish boy in the Bronx during the 1950s I grew up in the shadow of the European Holocaust. The extermination of six million Jews at the hands of Nazi Germany during World War II was in the background but not discussed. It was never mentioned at home, in public school where the majority of the children in my community were Jews, or in religious studies. We never learned about family members who died or about the monument to people from their village my father's parents helped place in a cemetery in Queens.
The situation began to change in the 1960s, especially after Israeli victory in the 1967 war. I think Jews, at least people in my family, school, and neighborhood, saw themselves less as the victims of history and as people who had to hide to survive.
As a history teacher in high school and college I always include Jewish resistance to Nazi atrocities as part of the curriculum with lessons on the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the Bielski partisans in Belarus. I think it is crucial to understand how people fought for their lives and humanity against great odds. I teach similar lessons on African American resistance to slavery including about the approximately 200,000 African Americans who fought for freedom as part of the Union army and navy during the Civil War.
But I never taught a lesson about Jewish solders who fought in World War II, even though a half a million Jews served in the American military during the war and I had friends and relatives who were veterans of the battle to defeat Nazi Germany. The Library of Congress has a special online section with interviews with some of these veterans.
The 70th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe has brought a new focus on World War II and a way to teach about how Jews fought against and helped defeat Nazi Germany. On May 9, 2015, there was a very unusual march of aged World War II veterans in Brooklyn, New York. These were Jewish veterans of the Soviet Union's army. An estimated 500,000 Russian Jews fought in the Red Army after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Of these approximately 200,000 either died in battle or while German captives.
Stories of Russian Jewish veterans of World War II are told in the Blavatnik Archive, which preserves and disseminates primary resources "that contribute to the study of 20th century Jewish and world history, especially WWI and WWII." It includes "photographs, letters, documents and ephemera, and contemporary oral testimonies."
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Bielski partisans are powerful stories of resistance, but I wish I had known about these 500,000 Russian Jewish soldiers when I was a boy growing up in the Bronx in the shadow of the European Holocaust. Jews were victims of the Nazis, but a million Jewish men in the United States and Soviet armies helped to defeat Hitler and create a world where human dignity and equality are at least possibilities.