George Lifton Seay of Dialogue interviews Joshua Rubenstein about The Unknown Black Book.
“And in the sky, the moon wept
Looking on with pity
With loving radiance.
Here they crammed us in
Like herring into a barrel
Barely, barely did we find shelter
We sat in one corner.
Night fell, outlining
And covered with darkness
— from a poem by Lev Rozhetsky, Odessa schoolboy, August 1944
Distinct from the classic Black Book, which did not include this material, The Unknown Black Book provides, for the first time in English, a revelatory compilation of testimonies from Jews who survived open-air massacres and other atrocities carried out by the Germans and their allies in the occupied Soviet territories during World War II – Ukraine, Belorussia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and the Crimea. These documents, from residents of cities, small towns, and rural areas, are raw, first-hand accounts by survivors of work camps, ghettos, forced marches, beatings, starvation, and disease. Collected under the sponsored direction of two renowned Soviet Jewish journalists, Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman, they tell of Jews who lived in pits, walled-off corners of apartments, attics, and basement dugouts, unable to emerge due to fear that their neighbors would betray them, as often happened.
Introductory essays by Yitzchak Arad, Ilya Altman, and Joshua Rubenstein examine the Final Solution on the “Russian Front,” the postwar trials of the perpetrators, and the complicated publication history of the testimonies.
“Important...Far surpasses the earlier...Black Book in its editorial work, contextual essays, illustrations, and above all, the completeness of the actual testimonies culled from the Russian archives...Every library and research institute serving students and scholars of European history and genocide studies should include this book in its collections...The remarkable amount of detail, hitherto unknown facts…in these eyewitness accounts will raise new questions, especially about Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Latvian, ethnic German, and Romanian collaboration. The testimony proves that WWII-era pogroms were more widespread than previously believed…and that the genocide was only possible because of the lethal partnership between state-sponsored Nazi perpetrators and local collaborators facts the Soviet officials in 1944 had suppressed because, in their assessment, too much was revealed in these testimonies about “the vile activity” of Soviet citizens.”
— Wendy Lower, author of Nazi Empire-Building and the Holocaust in Ukraine
“An extraordinary collection of eye-witness reports, diary entries, and other accounts of the mass murder of Jews far from the gates of Auschwitz and Treblinka. Of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, more than 2.5 million died in territories controlled by the Soviet Union before the war. Most of the victims were slaughtered in open-air massacres....”
“It is impossible to convey the full impact of these testimonies in [this] review....”
“These accounts do not provide any simple explanation for such gratuitous yet systematic and relentless violence. Sometimes it seems as if the Jews’ countrymen were prepared to murder them wholesale simply out of greed for their possessions. But that hardly explains such dark evil, just as attempts to portray the Holocaust as a bureaucratic undertaking planned and executed by detached civil servants and automaton-like killers are inadequate.”
“The Unknown Black Book reveals the sheer brutality on the individual level – the tortures and rapes, the looting and destruction, and, not least, the glee and the humor, as well as the hatred and contempt, expressed by the killers. It makes for very disturbing reading. But these accounts from those who saw what happened convey what cannot be learned from official documents about the nature of this vast criminal enterprise, in which hundreds of thousands were transformed into monsters.”
— Omer Bartov, Wall Street Journal
“A unique source for a fuller understanding of the tragic events during those dark years.”
— Walter Laqueur, editor of The Holocaust Encyclopedia
“The Unknown Black Book invites the reader to enter an almost unimaginable world where atrocity became a way of life and survival a miracle. The Unknown Black Book captures that grim detail race murder and at the same time disarms denial.”
— Richard Overy, author of The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia
Joshua Rubenstein is Northeast Regional Director of Amnesty International USA. He is author of Tangled Loyalties: The Life and Times of Ilya Ehrenburg, and co-editor (with Vladimir Naumov) of Stalin’s Secret Pogrom: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which won the National Jewish Book Award. He is an associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, and lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Ilya Altman is Director of the Center for Holocaust Research and Education in Moscow. He lives in Moscow, Russia.
Yitzhak Arad is former Director of Yad Vashem. His publications include Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps and Ghetto in Flames: The Struggle and Destruction of the Jews in Vilna in the Holocaust. He lives in Ramat Hasharon, Israel.