“I was killed near Rzhev
In a nameless bog,
In fifth company,
On the Left flank,
In a cruel air raid…”

On 27 January, 1945, Red Army Major Anatoly Shapiro liberated Auschwitz, after a fierce battle that cost 250 Soviet dead. His was the part of the story of the Holocaust few will dwell on. It’s about time we did so.

The Holocaust started in earnest on 22 June, 1941 in the East, when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa. Long before Anne Frank was exposed or Oswiecim became more than a village, Nazi units and their allies were murdering Jews wholesale in hundreds of sites across Ukraine, White Russia and the Baltic countries.

But those that escaped were not all passive victims or refugees. About half a million identifiably Jewish soldiers served in the Red Army in WWII. At least a third died in one of the bloodiest battlefronts in human history. Every advance of the German army doomed ever more Jews to extermination. Every Soviet victory made it possible to end the slaughter. For the Jews of the Soviet Union in WWII, the killing fields of Babi Yar were directly connected to the horrific meat-grinders of Stalingrad and the Rzhev salient.

“…I didn’t hear explosions
And did not see the flash
Down to an abyss from a cliff
No start, no end

And in this whole world
To the end of its days –
Neither patches, nor badges
From my tunic you’ll find…”

But this was not a morally simple war. Jews in the Red Army or in the Soviet anti-Fascist Committee fought for a genocidal monster no less anti-Semitic than his counterpart, and one who viewed them with intense suspicion. Though they stopped the killing – not just Jews but millions of others doomed to be ‘cleansed’ from Aryan-held territory – the Red Army was no liberator. One need only read Anne Appelbaum’s Iron Curtain to understand this. In the final analysis, this is the greatest tragedy of all – without real power or influence, Jews had to rely on the mercy and power of one monster to stop another.

I do not know if there are any “lessons” to be learned here, but there is a story to be told. There is likely hardly a Soviet Jew in America or Israel who does not have a relative or relatives who did not serve and fight, in a universe so morally warped it beggars imagination. They deserve to be heard, understood and struggled with no less than those that lived and struggled in the ghettoes and the camps.

“…In a bitter year’s summer
I was killed. And for me
Neither news nor bulletins
Will come after this day”

Alexander Tvardovsky, “I was killed near Rzhev” (fourth poem down)