Monday, January 8, 2018

Jewish Refugees in the Kresy: Soviet Loyalty Testing

When Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, a large number of Jews fled east. When the Red Army invaded Poland from the east sixteen days later, these Jewish refugees found themselves under Soviet rule. By the time the border was formalized between the Soviet and German zones of occupation, thousands of Jewish refugees were in the Soviet zone. Over the course of the coming months, these refugees were offered Soviet passports, which many rejected; in addition, when Nazi-Soviet cooperation over population transfers culminated in German committees appearing in eastern Poland to vet returnees to the Generalgouvernement, a large number of Jews applied to return to the German zone of occupation. An examination of these events makes it clear that the Jewish refugees were subjected to a series of loyalty tests by the Soviet occupation forces, culminating in the forced deportation of a large number to the Soviet interior.

            According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 300,000 Jewish refugees from the Generalgouvernement and the regions of Poland annexed to the Reich were in the Kresy – the Polish term for the eastern third of the Second Polish Republic, consisting of territory annexed from Lithuania and the Soviet Union – when the Soviets annexed the territory on November 15, 1939.[1] These refugees, like the Jewish population remaining under the Nazi occupation, came from a variety of walks of life. Beyond the professions of the refugees, which included white collar professionals, small business owners, tradespeople, and industrial laborers, the political persuasions of the refugees ran the gamut from members of mainstream Polish political parties to Jewish-specific parties, including those for the religious community (Agudas Yisroel), for Zionists (themselves running the gamut from left to right), and for socialists (the General Jewish Workers' Association, called the Bund in Yiddish).

            All of these factors contributed to the Soviets' suspicions of these refugees. As a state that was officially and militantly atheist, the Soviet Union viewed Judaism as an equivalent threat to any other faith, and as a nationalist movement, Zionism was seen by the Soviets as bourgeois and reactionary; as a result, the use of Hebrew for either religious or political reasons had been severely circumscribed by Soviet authorities in the early 1920s.[2] Regarding the Bund, its relationship with Soviet authorities was more complicated. Founded in 1897 in Vilnius, the party had split in 1920 into a left faction that was absorbed by the Bolsheviks the following year and a right faction that persisted underground for a few years before disappearing. Outside the USSR, however, the Bund had gained political power in Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and especially Poland. Members of the Bund in these countries had been labeled "social fascists" by Stalin with the rest of the non-Bolshevik left during the 1930s. Now Polish Bundists were arriving in the Soviet zone of occupation. Although a large percentage of Bundists from western Poland and the Generalgouvernement went to Vilnius, which would not be occupied by the Soviets until June 1940, significant numbers nevertheless gathered in Lviv, Bialystok, and other large cities and towns in the Soviet occupation zone.

            While the period of the Great Purges had ended by the time the Soviets occupied the Kresy, it is important to note that, as with former members of other non-Bolshevik political parties, such as Trotskyists or Mensheviks, former Bundists were purged in the 1930s. Noting the tendency of the accused during the purges to be former members of other socialist or left-wing parties, rather than actual "reactionaries," Robert Conquest notes that the Bund "was a particularly fatal association."[3] Therefore, it is unsurprising that the Bundist leadership in the Kresy was arrested in massive sweeps a few weeks after the Soviet invasion. Most famously, Henryk Erlich and Wiktor Alter, two prominent Bundist leaders from Warsaw, were arrested in Brest and Kovel, respectively.

            However, while Erlich and Alter's prominence in the Polish Bund had marked them for early detention, the majority of Jewish refugees in the Kresy when the border between the Soviet and Nazis zones was established were of unknown political affiliation. Therefore, to determine the loyalties of these new residents, it was necessary for the Soviet authorities to institute a series of tests. Calls for volunteers for labor battalions for details in the Soviet interior afforded the earliest opportunity. According to Grzegorz Hryciuk's highly detailed analysis of the period, nearly 60,000 refugees from the other parts of Poland – including not only Jews but also Ukrainians and Poles – relocated to eastern districts of Ukraine, including the Donbas mines, between October 1939 and August 1940.[4]

            However, even if every refugee sent on a work detail during this period were Jewish, it would still leave four-fifths of the refugees in the Kresy, with the loyalties of these refugees unknown to Soviet authorities. Another approach would be necessary. According to N.S. Lebedeva, based on her examination of Russian archival documents, NKVD head L.P. Beria, N.A. Bulganin, N.M. Shvernik, and L.P. Korniets, a high-ranking official in the government of the Ukrainian SSR, formed a commission on refugees in November.[5] In addition to addressing the continued allocation of volunteers to labor, the commission sought to investigate the possibility of repatriating the refugees to their former homes.

            Beyond the commission, however, was a decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR of November 29, 1939, granting citizenship to inhabitants of the Kresy. The decree was in three sections, the first of which defined two categories of people immediately receiving Soviet citizenship:

a) former Polish citizens who were on the territory of the western regions of the Ukraine and Belorussia when these became part of the USSR;

b) persons who arrived in the USSR on the basis of the agreement of November 16, 1939, between the Government of the USSR and the German Government, as well as those who arrived in consequence of the cession by the USSR to Lithuania of the city of Vilnius and Vilnius Region in accordance with the agreement of October 10, 1939.[6]


            Thus, any Polish citizen residing in the Kresy as of November 1-2 was a Soviet citizen, as was any person emigrating to the Soviet Union from Nazi Germany. The former category undoubtedly included many Jews, while the latter category specifically did not. Regarding the Vilnius region, many Jews fled to, rather than from, that area, believing Lithuanian independence might be permanent. Regarding the cited agreement between the Reich and Soviet Union of November 16, the agreement specifically stipulated the transfer of only ethnic Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians. The agreement of November formalized one of the secret annexes to the Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact in which the agreement of the Soviets to allow Volksdeutsche in the USSR to emigrate to the Reich is reciprocated: "A corresponding obligation is assumed by the Government of the German Reich in respect to the persons of Ukrainian or Belorussian descent residing in the territories under its jurisdiction."[7]

            The next step in the process of bestowing citizenship on previous Polish nationals was to issue them Soviet passports to replace their Polish passports. The so-called passportization operation appears in virtually all of the literature on the period. For instance, Sara Bender, in her book on the city of Bialystok during the war, notes that, while Polish citizens were forced to surrender their passports for Soviet ones, the refugees were allowed to choose, and if they elected not to accept Soviet citizenship, they could request return to the Generalgouvernement.[8] In contrast, Lebedeva and Yosef Litvak specifically interpret the choice as illusory and designed to prepare for these refugees' ultimate deportation; Litvak further states that the SS authorized the Soviet authorities to post public announcements that refugees could apply for return to the German zone of occupation, but he does not cite specific sources for this claim.[9]

            We do not know what percentages of Jewish refugees opted for a Soviet passport versus return to the Generalgouvernement. However, we can assume that many Jews who already had left-wing or communist sympathies and many who rightly feared returning to Nazi occupation accepted the Soviet passport. However, many also registered to go west. Christoph Mick, for instance, alleges that 75% of registrants in Lviv requesting to go west were Jewish.[10] Bender attributes some of these choices to a desire for family unity and reports that, at least at the end of 1939, conditions in Warsaw, e.g., were tolerable.[11] She also notes that Bundists broadly refused the passport, both fearing Stalinist political repression and having heard of Bundist underground activity getting under way in the German occupation zone. Bogdan Musial, citing NKVD documents on the topic, notes that the Soviet secret police viewed Bundist calls from Poland to support the Soviet regime "as a tactical manoeuvre to ensure the survival of the Bund’s own leadership corps."[12] Zionists generally refused the passport, fearing that they were be forbidden by Soviet authorities from eventually emigrating to Palestine; like many Bundists, they concentrated in Vilnius and continued to organize from there.

            It was with the arrival in the Kresy of committees of staff members of the German Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle (VoMi) to process applications for transfer to the Generalgouvernement, including of Volksdeutsche, that the magnitude of the number of Jews who had refused passportization was determined. In what in hindsight can only be considered a fatal miscalculation, thousands of Jews appeared before committees in Lviv, Bialystok, and other cities to request return to the German occupation zone. The incidents are attested in numerous primary sources from former Nazi and Soviet authorities and from Jewish émigrés. For instance, the Yiddish writer Moishe Grossman reported being told by another émigré about Jews crossing from the Generalgouvernement into the Kresy seeing Jews coming in the other direction and urging them to go back.[13]

            More reliably, one of the defendants in the Nuremberg Military Tribunal trial against the SS Race and Settlement Office, Otto Heinz Brückner, who worked for VoMi, testified about the resettlement actions. Asked whether he was able to process non-Volksdeutsche applications for resettlement, he said, "In a fairly large number of individual cases, we were. I did this whenever it was definite that these people were facing extinction in the Soviet Union, and if I could find a way to carry through this resettlement. I remember that at the time I re­settled Swiss, Swedes, Lithuanians, Russians and people of Jewish descent too. This meant a definite danger for me at that time."[14] Although Brückner's testimony must be approached with caution given its exculpatory nature, his account is corroborated in part by an entry in the diary of Hans Frank, the German Governor General of Poland in Krakow. In this entry, dated May 3, 1940, Frank recounts a meeting with Otto Wächter, who chaired the VoMi committee in Lviv and was later the district governor there, at which Wächter told Frank, “Of approximately 18,000 refugees, 16,500 were Jews, who in any case awaited admission to the Generalgouvernement.”[15]

            Finally, no less a figure than N.S. Khrushchev reported the spectacle in his memoirs. In Lviv at the time as head of the CPSU in Ukraine to oversee the city's incorporation into the USSR, Khrushchev reports being told by I.A. Serov, NKVD head in Ukraine, that the lines registering to go west were quite long. Serov reportedly said, "When I approached the place I found it very painful, because most of the waiting line consisted of people from the Jewish population. What’s going to happen to them? And yet, this is how devoted people are to all kinds of petty everyday things—an apartment, material objects. They give the Gestapo agents bribes to help them leave here sooner and return to their hearths and homes."[16]

            As noted by these sources, there were a number of Jews who returned to the Generalgouvernement under the auspices of VoMi. We can assume that most of these Jews perished over the course of the coming years. Conversely, we know that many Jews without Soviet passports remained in the Kresy following the appearance there of the resettlement committees. Because one of the four subsequent deportations specifically targeted the Jewish refugees who had not accepted the Soviet passport, some scholars have assumed that there was a coordinated effort between VoMi and the NKVD to identify Jewish applicants. In his book on the period, for instance, Dov Levin writes that VoMi's lists were "presumably forwarded" to the NKVD but he does not cite any sources.[17] As noted above, Litvak saw the whole process as a ruse, calling it a "malicious act of deceit"; however, his proof is the mere existence of the VoMi committees, which we know now were charged with much larger processes of population transfer.[18]

            There is one piece of information that perhaps supports the assertions of Levin and Litvak on this point, however. Specifically, in a message to V.M. Molotov asking for direction, Ye.I. Chekmenev, who headed the resettlement program for the Council of People's Soviet of the USSR (Sovnarkom), wrote the following:

The [Sovnarkom] Resettlement Administration has received two letters from the Berlin and Vienna resettlement bureaus concerning the resettlement of Jews from Germany to the USSR - specifically to Birobidzhan and the Western Ukraine.

Under the evacuation agreement between the USSR Government and Germany, only ethnic Ukrainians, Belarusians, Rusins [sic], and Russians are subject to evacuation to Soviet territory.

We believe that the proposals by the aforementioned resettlement bureaus cannot be accepted.

Awaiting further instructions.[19]


The message is notable not only because of its inclusion of Rusyns along with Ukrainians and Belarusians but also because it is clear that Chekmenev's recommendation was adopted by Molotov. It is uncertain whether Chekmenev was motivated by adhering to the letter of the agreements signed by Germany and the USSR, personal anti-Semitism, a desire to avoid further complication of what was already becoming a logistical nightmare, or some other factor.

            The aforementioned mass deportations from the Kresy began in February 1940, but the first two actions did not target the refugees. Rather, these deportations targeted, respectively, veterans of the Polish-Soviet war that ended in 1921 and their families. While these deportations were being carried out, however, decisions to target the now undocumented Jewish refugees were being made. Hryciuk identifies two high-level decisions: first, a decision of the Politburo of Central Committee of the CPSU on March 2, 1940; and second, a resolution of Sovnarkom on April 10.[20] The deportation targeting refugees in the Kresy was subsequently carried out on June 28-29, with more than 64,000 Jewish refugees deported and another 13,600 arrested and detained.[21]

            One irony of the fate of the Jewish refugees in the Kresy is that this mass deportation of refugees in June 1940 is that, while it undoubtedly netted many rank and file Jewish political party members, it largely missed the parties' leaders, most of whom, as noted above, had relocated to Vilnius. When Lithuania was subjected to direct Soviet rule in the same month, plans were made to target these leaders. For instance, Arcadius Kahan, who after the war would become an economic historian associated with the University of Chicago, was arrested almost immediately upon Soviet occupation of Vilnius, on the basis of his Bundist and Menshevik associations. In perhaps the most famous case, future Prime Minister of Israel Menachem Begin, who led the Revisionist Zionist Betar youth group in Vilnius, was arrested on September 20, 1940. In the fourth and final deportations, carried out across all of the territory the USSR occupied since September 1939 – including the Kresy, the Baltic states, Bessarabia, and Bukovina – the remaining known politically oriented Jewish refugees were seized and deported.

            One week later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The final irony of the Jewish refugees in the Kresy is that deportation to the Soviet interior likely saved their lives, as the vast majority of Jews in those areas, the Baltic states, and Bessarabia and Bukovina were killed in the coming weeks and months by Einsatzgruppen deployed the Nazi for that purpose. Some of the Jews who had been deported earlier were freed to fight the Nazis. Erlich and Alter, for instance, who months earlier had been tried for anti-Soviet activities and sentenced to death, were freed to help form the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. However, they were arrested again later in 1941 and executed. Begin, who had been held near Saint Petersburg, was allowed to leave and join the Anders Army, with which he deployed in 1942 to Palestine. Bundist and Zionist activists under the Nazi occupation organized resistance movements. Most died, but some, including Marek Edelman, a Bundist from Warsaw, returned to Poland after the war and continued their resistance to Soviet domination.

            In conclusion, the influx of thousands of Jewish refugees into the Kresy upon the Nazi invasion of Poland posed a significant challenge for Soviet authorities upon their own occupation of these territories a couple of weeks later, particularly because many of these refugees had political affiliations identified as problematic by the Soviets. Although citizenship was granted to these refugees, a series of loyalty tests were nevertheless imposed on them, with opportunities to volunteer for labor followed by passportization. Finally, Jews rejecting Soviet passports were given the opportunity to apply with the German authorities to return to their homes. Since few were admitted, they were largely arrested in the waves of deportation that followed. While these refugees were subsequently subjected to great hardship, their chance of survival was far greater if deported. In the end, the refugees’ own hostility to Soviet rule might have saved their own lives.


[1] Holocaust Encyclopedia, s.v. "German Invasion of Poland: Jewish Refugees, 1939," accessed November 30, 2017,

[2] Zvi Gitelman, A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present, 2nd ed. (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2001), 77.

[3] Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment (New York: Oxford UP, 2008), 272.

[4] Grzegorz Hryciuk, “Victims 1939-1941: The Soviet Repressions in Eastern Poland,” in Shared History – Divided Memory: Jews and Others in Soviet-Occupied Poland, 1939-1941, edited by Elazar Barkan, Elizabeth A. Cole, and Kai Struve, Leipziger Beiträge zur Jüdischen Geschichte und Kultur 5 (Leipzig, Germany: Leipziger Universitätsverlag, 2007), 198.

[5] N.S. Lebedeva, “The Deportation of the Polish Population to the USSR, 1939–41,” Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics, 16, nos. 1-2 (2000): 31

[6] "On the Acquisition of Citizenship of the USSR by Inhabitants of the Western Districts of the Ukrainian and Belorussian SSRs," Soviet Statutes and Decisions, 7, no. 3 (1971): 260

[7] German-Soviet Boundary and Friendship Treaty, Germany-Soviet Union, September 28, 1939, in “The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact: The Documents,” Litanus, 35, no. 1 (1989): 1-5, accessed November 30, 2017,

[8] Sara Bender, The Jews of Bialystok During World War II and the Holocaust, translated by Yaffa Murciano (Waltham, Mass.: Brandeis UP, 2008), 86.

[9] Lebedeva, ibid, 31; Yosef Litvak, “The Plight of Refugees From the German-occupied Territories,” in The Soviet Takeover of the Polish Eastern Provinces, 1939-41, edited by Keith Sword (New York: Macmillan, 1991), 67

[10] Christoph Mick, “Incompatible Experiences: Poles, Ukrainians and Jews in Lviv under Soviet and German Occupation, 1939–44,” Journal of Contemporary History, 46, no. 2 (2011): 352.

[11] Bender, ibid, 55.

[12] Bogdan Musial, “Jewish Resistance in Poland's Eastern Borderlands During the Second World War, 1939–41,” Patterns of Prejudice, 38, no. 4 (2004): 379.

[13] Quoted in Ben-Cion Pinchuk, “Jewish Refugees in Soviet Poland,” Jewish Social Studies, 40, no. 2 (1978): 158, note 82.

[14] Testimony of Otto Heinz Brückner, United States v. Ulrich Greifelt et al., December 19, 1947, in Trials of the Major War Criminals Before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals, vol. IV (Washington, D.C.: US GPO, 1949): 843.

[15] Hans Frank, entry of May 3, 1940, Diensttagebuch Hans Frank, 2233-PS, International Military Tribunal XXIX, Nuremberg, Germany, 358.

[16] Nikita Khrushchev, Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev, vol. 1, edited by Sergei Khrushchev (College Park, Pa.: Penn State UP, 2005), 242.

[17] Dov Levin, The Lesser of Two Evils: Eastern European Jewry Under Soviet Rule, 1939-1941 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1995), 194.

[18] Litvak, ibid, 67.

[19] Ye.I. Chekmenev to V.M. Molotov, February 9, 1940, in Pavel Polyan, “Two Million Unsaved Jews,” Moscow News, April 27, 2005, accessed November 30, 2017,

[20] Hryciuk, ibid, 189.

[21] Ibid, 190.

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