Letter from Ilya Ehrenburg to Yerusalimsky, 1944. From Ilya Ehrenburg in the USSR to [Lazar?] Yerusalimski in (?), 22 September 1944, about Ehrenburg's project, The Black Book, a collection of eyewitness accounts, letters, and other materials documenting the Nazi atrocities against the Jewish population. He asks Yerusalimsky to please send him any information he might have, especially anything relating to anti-Nazi resistance and instances in which non-Jews expressed solidarity with or helped Jewish victims. Russian. Typed. RG 107, Letters Collection. (YIVO. Published with permission.)

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Black Book

Account of Nazi atrocities against Jews in the Soviet Union. The first plenary session of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC) in May 1942 set up a subcommittee to collect material on Nazi crimes against the Jewish population of the occupied territories. Once the tide of the war turned in early 1943, the JAC indicated its intention to systematize the accumulation of this material and began receiving relevant testimonies.

When Solomon Mikhoels and Itsik Fefer visited the United States in 1943, plans to publish an anthology were announced. A proposal to this effect had been submitted to the JAC in late 1942 by Albert Einstein and the American Committee of Jewish Writers, Artists, and Scientists. Mikhoels and Fefer received the consent of Communist Party Central Committee Secretary Aleksandr Shcherbakov, who headed the Sovinformburo—under whose auspices the JAC functioned—and of Central Committee Department of Propaganda and Agitation head Georgii Aleksandrov.

In parallel, also in 1943, a literary commission was set up on the initiative of Ilya Ehrenburg to prepare a book of testimonies and documents on the Nazi extermination of the Jews. In April 1944, Ehrenburg published a short monograph in Yiddish under the title Merder fun felker: Materialn vegn di retsikhes fun di Daytshishe farkhaper in di tsaytvaylik okupirte Sovetishe rayonen (Murderers of Peoples: Material about the Murders by the German Occupiers in the Temporarily Occupied Soviet Territories); a second volume under the same title appeared, also in Yiddish, in September 1944.

In late 1944 and early 1945, the manuscripts of two Black Books were submitted to Sovinformburo Deputy Chief Solomon Lozovskii. One, comprising sketches based on documentary material, was to be edited by Ehrenburg; the other, composed of documents, was compiled by the JAC. At some stage in mid-1945, after Ehrenburg’s version was criticized and sections relating to collaboration by the local population were excised, it was decided that only one Black Book would be published. A new, enlarged editorial board was formed, including Yiddish- and Russian-language writers; Vasilii Grossman was appointed editor.

In fall 1945, the new version was presented to Lozovskii, who appointed a commission to “receive” it. After recommending changes, the commission decided in favor of publication, and the manuscript was given to Der Emes publishing house. Glavlit, the censorship agency, approved publication, and in early 1946, the document was sent abroad to 11 countries, including Palestine. Indeed, The Black Book: The Nazi Crime against the Jewish People, relating to Nazi atrocities against Jews in the Soviet Union and elsewhere and including materials received from the JAC, appeared in the United States. It was published under the name of the Jewish Black Book Committee, which was made up of the World Jewish Congress based in New York, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in Moscow, the Va‘ad Le’umi (Jewish National Council) in Jerusalem, and the American Committee of Jewish Writers, Artists, and Scientists.

A preface by Albert Einstein, emphasizing that “percentagewise” the Jews had suffered heavier losses than any other nation and presenting Jews as a nation that required compensation for its wartime suffering by throwing Palestine open to Jewish immigration, raised objections in Moscow and was omitted. Parts of the Black Book were also published in Romanian (Cartea Neagră; 1946). The book’s two volumes included letters and diaries, descriptions by writers and journalists, and documentary material placed at the disposal of the editorial board by the Special State Commission for Investigating Crimes Committed by the German Fascist Occupiers and Determining the Damage Caused by Them to Soviet Citizens, Kolkhozes, and Government Institutions.

By now, however, the Soviet position regarding the war, the Holocaust, and Jews had changed. New attitudes impeded progress toward publication of the Black Book within the Soviet Union. In late 1945, the Special State Commission was dissolved and cases against Nazi war criminals in the Soviet Union became rarer. Manifestly the Soviet leadership, or elements within it, had reservations about emphasizing the special fate of Jews at the hands of the Nazis—testimony to a growing antisemitism from above. Attempts to underscore and document Jewish suffering were regarded as Jewish particularism.

In November 1946, Mikhoels, Fefer, Grossman, and Ehrenburg approached Central Committee Secretary Andrei Zhdanov (Shcherbakov had died in May 1945) for help with publication. Zhdanov transferred the request to the Central Committee Department of Propaganda and Agitation, which took exception to the emphasis placed on Jews as the sole, or at least main, victims of fascism. Nevertheless, in June 1947 Der Emes instructed the printing house of the Higher Party School to typeset and print 50,000 copies. Two months later, however, Glavlit issued an order to stop publication. Mikhoels wrote another letter to Zhdanov in September, which Zhdanov consigned to Central Committee Secretary Mikhail Suslov. In October, the JAC received a reply from the Propaganda and Agitation Department saying that the book contained “grave political errors” and could not be published. The type forms, which had already been set, were broken up.

The Black Book, based on the manuscript sent to Palestine in 1946 and supplemented by materials smuggled out of the Soviet Union in 1965 and 1970, was finally published in Russian under the title Chernaia kniga (Black Book) in Israel in 1980. It was subsequently translated into Hebrew, Yiddish, and English. Finally, in 1993 the Jewish publishing house Yad in Vilnius published in full the original galley proofs of the version slated to appear in 1947, proofread by Ehrenburg’s daughter Irina; the book appeared in English in 2002 and was titled The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry. A further collection of documents, based on materials collected by the JAC but not included in the manuscript it submitted, appeared in 1993 under the title Neizvestnaia chernaia kniga (The Unknown Black Book).

Suggested Reading

Mordechai Altshuler and Sima Ycikas, “Were There Two Black Books about the Holocaust in the Soviet Union?” Jews and Jewish Topics in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe 17.1 (Spring 1992): 37–55; Shimon Redlich, War, Holocaust and Stalinism: A Documented Study of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in the USSR (Luxembourg, 1995); Joshua Rubenstein, Tangled Loyalties: The Life and Times of Ilya Ehrenburg (New York, 1996).