It’s that time of year again. A browse through various Russian news sites reminds me that May 9th, “Victory Day” is soon approaching. Moscow’s Red Square will be filled with members of the Russian Armed Forces who will no doubt put on a formidable parade, as they have done every year since 1945 in honor of their veterans and to commemorate the 71st anniversary of the capitulation of Nazi Germany. Russia, as well as other former Soviet countries will celebrate with parades, fly-pasts and countless messages of thanks to veterans.
As long as I can remember, in my family, the 9th of May was a cause for celebration (and a chance to raise a few shots of vodka over the dinner table). It would start with a phone call to my grandparents in Moscow, congratulating both of them on the roles they and their extended families played in the war.
My grandfather, Boris Hononovich Khan, served as a tank engineer in the Red Army. Since early childhood I can recall his captivating stories about his service, whether it was coming under aerial attack by the Luftwaffe outside Stalingrad, or the feeling of pride he experienced whilst watching columns of German prisoners being marched away from the front lines. My grandmother, Polina, and her family were evacuated to Uzbekistan before the German advance on Kiev. Before they fled, they housed Jewish refugees from Poland in their already cramped communal apartment.
Perhaps, for Russians, especially Russian Jews, the memories of commemoration and liberation are particularly moving because of the enormous toll paid by the Soviet Union during the Second World War. It is especially poignant because many families had relatives who fought the Nazis and others who perished in the flames of the Holocaust. Even today it is difficult to find a family who did not lose a relative during those years.
Jews served in all ranks ...many of them would later join the fledgling IDF during Israel’s War of Independence.
This year’s Den’ Pobedy (Victory Day) comes at a bittersweet time. It will be the first year that we will celebrate without my grandfather. It’s difficult to determine how to mark this occasion without his presence. A popular Russian song devoted to the Victory characterized this feeling as, “joy, with tears upon our eyes”. His absence raises a greater question: how can we honor those Jewish veterans who fought, under numerous flags, against the tyranny of Nazism?
For my generation, especially those in Israel, memories of the Second World War are underscored by the catastrophe that was the Holocaust. Yet the fact that 1.5 million Jews served in the allied armies is sometimes overlooked. Whether in the ruins of Stalingrad, the beaches of Normandy or the jungles in Burma, Jews fought on land, in the sea and in the air. Included in that figure are some 250,000 Jews who died in battle.
Jews served in all ranks - from privates to generals, and their contribution was not only limited to the battlefield, but to engineering and planning units that paved the way for military operations. Many of them would later join the fledgling IDF during Israel’s War of Independence.
In Israel, commemoration of Victory Day only gained prominence after waves of Aliyah from the Former Soviet Union. In 2012, Israel established a monument at Netanya to the Red Army and its contribution to Victory in World War Two. But the story of the Jewish contribution to the allied forces is still untold.
For over ten years, the Museum of the Jewish Soldier in World War Two, situated at Latrun, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, has been bogged down in bureaucratic backlog. Last year, at the ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Rivlin paid tribute to Jewish WWII veterans and underscored the importance of seeing the project through. Yet today, one year later, no significant progress has been made.
Seventy-one years after the victory, as numbers of veterans are dwindling, it is up to my generation to continue to tell their story. It is up to us to preserve their memories and ensure that a lasting and fitting memorial is built and will remain for generations to come.
To the members of ‘the greatest generation’ we owe an innumerable debt. We will remember them.
The author is a member of the campaign to establish the Museum of the Jewish Soldier in World War Two, a former soldier in Israel’s elite Givati Infantry Brigade and currently a student in the United States.