Olga GershensonThe Phantom Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and Jewish Catastrophe

Rutgers University Press, 2013

by Bernice Heilbrunn on February 5, 2014

Olga Gershenson

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[Cross-posted from New Books in Jewish Studies] Fifty years of Holocaust screenplays and films –largely unknown, killed by censors, and buried in dusty archives – come to life in Olga Gershenson’s The Phantom Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and Jewish Catastrophe (Rutgers UP, 2013). As she ventures across three continents to uncover the stories behind these films, we follow her adventures, eager to learn what happened, why, when – and what comes next. This page-turning exploration begins with the first-ever films made about the Nazi threat to Jewish life in the 1930s – artistically successful movies released to crowded theaters in the USSR, Europe, and the US. The power of film being what it is, some 1930s viewers learned the lesson of Nazi hatred and fled to safety when Germany invaded the USSR in 1941.

Immediately after the war, Soviet filmmakers again broke new ground when in 1945 they portrayed the Holocaust in “The Unvanquished.” The war just over, Soviet censors, Gershenson discovered, had no set policy and hardly knew how Stalin wanted them to respond. But the respected filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein supported the film, a movie featuring Jewish victims filmed on site in Kiev; it became one of the few Soviet movies that identified the Holocaust with Jews. Thereafter, the Holocaust would be a universal problem sans Jews that occurred anywhere but in the USSR.

Among the stories that Gershenson relates, she raises the curtain on “Ordinary Fascism,” a blockbuster when it was released in the USSR in 1966.  The three-hour black-and-white documentary montage, narrated by its famous director Mikhail Romm, apparently drew 20 million Soviets to cinemas before it was withdrawn. Gershenson describes Ordinary Fascism as “a real breakthrough,” “stunning,” and an explosion.” Romm’s irreverent, casual commentary to Nazi newsreels, footage, photos, and art explored the psychology of Nazism – and, viewers recognized, made Soviets reflect on themselves. Why did Soviet censors refuse to permit a book on the subject to be released? Censors explained that a film would be seen once and forgotten. A book, on the other hand, would start people thinking!

As Gershenson explains: “Half of all Holocaust victims…were killed on Soviet soil, mostly in swift machine-gun executions. And yet, watching popular Holocaust movies…the impression is that Holocaust victims were mainly Polish and German Jews killed in concentration camps.”  Her stories explain why Soviet filmmakers almost never shared the Soviet Holocaust experience on the screen.

Gershenson’s book has a partner website. Here you can find video clips of featured films, with subtitles.

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