Semeon Grigorevich Shpiegel, a Kiev native and longtime resident of Brighton Beach, earned enough medals during his years of service in the Red Army during World War II to cover his entire chest. But he easily identifies the one of which he is proudest: the Medal for the Defense of Stalingrad.
It’s copper-colored, attached to a gray-and-red ribbon.
“It’s the first one,” Shpiegel — a retired engineer who came to Brooklyn from his homeland in 1974 — says. “It [Stalingrad] was the bloodiest battle.”
The Red Army’s successful battle against Germany and its fellow Axis armies, for nearly six months in 1942-43, on the Volga River in southwestern Russia, was one of the biggest battles in military history, a turning point in World War II that involved nearly two million soldiers and ended with a combined total of 1.2 million casualties (killed, wounded or missing-in-action). The army awarded the Defense of Stalingrad medal to 759,560 people.
Shpeigel and his medals, and some history of the Battle of Stalingrad (now Volgograd in post-Soviet Russia), are part of an exhibit that opened this week at the 92nd Street Y’s Weill Art Gallery.
“Lives of the Great Patriotic War: The Untold Stories of Soviet Jewish Soldiers in the Red Army During WWII” features the words (in English and Russian) and photographs (old ones in black-and-white, newer in color) that tell the exploits, feelings and sacrifices of a dozen men and women who wore the uniform of the Soviet Union’s armed forces seven decades ago.
The interviews and videotaped interviews that accompany the exhibit — and enlargements of two battle-scene postcards sent from the front — are culled from more than 1,000 conducted in 10 countries over the last several years by Soviet-born Julie Chervinsky and her father Leonid Reines.
Chervinsky, a journalism graduate of Syracuse University, is director of the Blavatnik Archive, a New York-based foundation that since 2006 has collected thousands of artifacts — postcards, letters, posters and the like — depicting Jewish life from the late 19th century, with an emphasis on Russia and Easter Europe.
Founded by philanthropist-investor Leonard (née Leonid) Blavatnik, who emigrated with his family in 1978, and lives in New York and London, the archive is sponsoring the Y’s exhibit and lecture series. President of Access Industries and listed this year by Forbes magazine as the 80th richest person in the world, Blavatnik is a contributor to a wide range of causes, including Colel Chabad, which offers a variety of services to impoverished Jews in Israel.
University of Michigan historian Zvi Gitelman spoke on “Soviet Jewry and the Great Patriotic War” at the Y on Sunday, the day before the exhibit opened.
The experiences of the Red Army’s Jewish soldiers during World War II “is a missing and very important part of Jewish history,” says Chervinsky, who edited a bilingual catalog of history and transcribed oral histories, the first in a series of publications that came out this week to coincide with the exhibit. “It was part of Jewish survival.”
World War II, known as The Great Patriotic War in the former Soviet Union, is still a major presence there — a chart in the exhibit shows that casualties in the Soviet Union, military and civilian, totaled 26 million, compared to seven million for Nazi Germany and 500,000 for the United States.
Wartime anniversaries in the onetime Soviet republics are still an occasion for great pomp, mourning and collective remembrance, with veterans — like Shpiegel, before he left for the U.S. — wearing their military dress jackets with all the medals displayed.
Shpiegel, who turns 89 in a few months, occasionally speaks to school groups about his life as a soldier. Most young people in this country, including those from Soviet-Jewish backgrounds, do not know about the role that Soviet soldiers, especially Jewish ones, played in the Allied war effort, he says. “Many think only American and British forces got to Berlin” at the end of the war, he says. “Kids do not know what happened.”
“As Jews, members of a group targeted for genocide, [Jewish soldiers in the Red Army] survived the Holocaust and contributed to the defeat of Nazi Germany,” a foreword to the exhibit’s catalog states. “The generation of Soviet Jewish veterans who fought in WWII bore witness to some of the greatest upheavals in 20th century Jewish and world history: the migration of Jewish shtetl life to an urban environment, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, the Holocaust and the war, and the mass migration of the Eastern European Jewish diaspora.
“As soldiers in the Soviet Red Army, they fought in WWII’s largest military force,” the foreword continues.
“Those coming from the pre-1939 Soviet areas were most often motivated to fight by Soviet patriotism and the knowledge that defeat would mean unimaginable catastrophe for the state that had offered them so much,” Gitelman writes in an introduction to the catalog. “Jews from what had been Eastern Poland and the Baltics were more aware of Nazi atrocities, and some had witnessed them before fleeing across the Soviet border. They may have been more motivated by revenge and the fight for Jewish survival than by Soviet patriotism.”
“They fought as Soviet citizens” and against the forces of the Final Solution. “You cannot separate” the twin motivations, Chervinsky says. One former soldier, who knew about the Nazis’ war crimes against Jews, says he had “an extra score to settle.”
All of this, in condensed form, is in the exhibit.
The exhibit text contains more explanatory background than in the panels displayed when the exhibit opened last year in Moscow’s Central Museum of the Great Patriotic War, and earlier this year in Ekaterinburg’s Regional Museum of History, Chervinsky says.
The extent of the Jewish role in the Red Army was not largely known in the USSR until Communism — and its prevalent anti-Semitism — fell two decades ago, she says.
Chervinsky calls the soldiers selected for the initial exhibit — it will probably go on tour after closing at the Y — a representative sample of the estimated 500,000 Jews, 10 percent women, who were part of the Red Army during the war. Most had low ranks: privates, sergeants, captains. “This is not an archive of ‘heroes’” — just plain soldiers.
“Ninety-nine percent wanted to tell us their stories — they were extremely grateful for an audience,” Chervinsky says. She and her father met the veterans at homes and at local Jewish community centers. The aging ex-soldiers brought out old photos, and described their pride in taking part in the fight of “absolute good against evil.”
They were proud to show off their medals.
A few onetime Red Army soldiers who now live in the New York area attended the exhibit’s opening this week as guests of honor.
Shpiegel, in poor health, was not able to come.
A volunteer in the army, he served as a mortar squad gun layer and machine-gun platoon commander, participating — in addition to the fighting at Stalingrad — in battles in Ukraine and Belarus. He was wounded three times.
When he feels better, Shpiegel says, he “of course” plans to see the exhibit.
Will be wear his military jacket that bears the medals he won in the Red Army?
“Lives of The Great Patriotic War” runs at the 92nd Street Y through Dec. 6. On Nov. 22 at 8:15 p.m., a panel will discuss “Remarkable Stories of Soviet Jewish Soldiers in WWII.” For information: firstname.lastname@example.org, (646) 861-7635.