Israeli-born artist hopes Vienna exhibit will help uncover "repressed history" of Jews who fought in Soviet army in World War II
Many Austrian historians tend to give most of the credit to the American, French and British soldiers who also brought peace, all but ignoring the role of the Red Army and the heroism of the hundreds of thousands of Jewish fighters who belonged to its ranks.
With a new exhibit in Vienna’s Jewish Museum, Israeli‑born artist Oz Almog has attempted to uncover what he says is the “repressed history” of the 500,000 Jews who fought in the Soviet army – a third of the 1.5 million Jewish soldiers from all Allied nations.
“A lot of Jewish Russians gave their lives to fight Nazi Germany,” Almog said.
“But in the German‑speaking world, the Jewish Soviet heroes of World War II are ignored.”
“Until Sept. 11, the Soviet Jew was the ultimate enemy in Germany and Austria,” Almog said, explaining that a deeply rooted anti‑Semitism – combined with a fear of Soviet communism – created an especially potent target upon which Germans and Austrians have projected their hatred.
Almog’s exhibit, “Toward the Light of Dawn – Heroes of the Soviet Union,” features pictures of some 160 Jewish soldiers that hang on the red walls of one of the museum’s small rooms. The sound of soldiers singing a marching tune plays softly in the background and a large gold Soviet star rotates in the center of the room.
Three plastic yellow roses mark each frame, along with a brief biography of each soldier. Among those featured is a Ukrainian woman, Polina Gelman, a pilot who flew 860 bombing missions over German‑held territory.
Gelman was a member of a squadron made up of female pilots dubbed “Night Witches” for their bombing raids carried out in the dark. The Soviets formed the unit in a desperate attempt to stop the massive loss of men’s lives, Almog said.
He notes that his exhibit is also directed at a timely problem: the continued anti‑Semitism and marginalization of Jews in many European countries, including Austria.
Born April 15, 1956 in Kfar Saba, Israel, Almog came from a family of Russian pioneers and Roman‑ian/Russian immigrants. After training in classical painting and performing his military service in the Israeli navy, he completed a course of studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.
The 45‑year‑old Almog, who divides his time between Austria and Israel, also stressed that the message of his exhibit is meant for a Russian audience, where Jewish history has been largely ignored.
Exhibit materials note that “during and after the war, anti‑Semites would assert that Jews had not fought at the front but had stayed in the background awaiting its outcome.”
Soviet Jews also ignored their own history, at least until 1990, Almog said.
“They felt more comfortable if they didn’t stick out,” he explained.
The exhibit runs until June 16. Almog hopes it will travel to other countries, including Germany, Russia and Israel.
“It’s important for Americans and Jews to be reminded again that they had allies and brothers in some sinister corner of the world,” he said. “Now, before everybody forgets them, I want to bring them to the surface. Stories have a tendency to vanish.”
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