Dr. Atina Grossmann, professor of history in the faculty of humanities and social services at Cooper Union in New York, visited Ramapo on Friday for a presentation on Jews during World War II. Her presentation, titled Revised Landscape of Jewish Persecution and Survival During and After World War II, focused on the untold stories of people who chose to flee Poland to the Soviet Union and Middle East.
Professor Michael Riff explained Grossmann’s topic of research as “a path of survival in the Holocaust that, despite its significance, has been under recognized.” Grossmann’s presentation delved into the stories of people, including her own parents, who found refuge in the Soviet Union, Middle East and other parts of Asia.
Grossmann addressed the surprising realization that Stalin provided crucial refuge for Jews during a dangerous time. She explained that out of the 10 percent of the Polish Jews that survived, up to 80 percent of them “survived because they escaped Nazi occupation, often at the very last minute, and ended up…deported to life in the Soviet Union.”
In 1940, many of the 350,000 Polish Jews that had found safety in the Soviet Union were deported because they were considered suspect foreigners. Many of them then moved further into Asia.
Her presentation included pictures from labor camps and children with their refugee families as well as pictures of her parents living in Iran in the 1930s.
Grossmann posed the question, “Why do we not know this story?”
She explained that many survivors who eventually returned to Poland were reluctant to share their story due to survivor’s guilt. When a new wave of anti-Semitism hit and Jews fled to America, they feared being rejected because of Cold War attitudes against Soviet Union.
“They knew that this was not a story that Cold War America would recognize,” said Grossmann.
She connected the issue with today’s refugee problem.
“I think this is important also because it reminds us of how important these refugee camps in the Middle East were,” said Grossmann. “Areas that we now think of as places from which crisis and terror is imported perhaps to the west actually, during World War II, were the places that provided refuge for the horrors and the barbarities that emulated from Europe. And this is the history I think we really need to think about very very seriously.”
Grossmann challenged the audience’s ideas of refugees and the Jewish experience during the time of the Holocaust.
“It’s a story from the margins, but in many ways, it’s actually central,” said Grossmann.