Natalie Belsky is Assistant Professor at the Department of History at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests include migration, minority politics in the USSR, Soviet citizenship, and East European Jewish history. She has conducted research in Russia, Kazakhstan, Israel and the United States. Invited by the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, she recently gave a lecture titled, “Shelter from the Holocaust: Rethinking Jewish Survival in the Soviet Union.” After her talk, Belsky shared more insights with Meyer Weinshel (UMN Graduate Student, German, Scandinavian and Dutch).
The multilingualism central to Jewish life and culture in Eastern Europe is fascinating, especially as it was shifting over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Can you speak to how Jews fleeing to the interior of the Soviet Union fared linguistically? Could they continue speaking the languages they knew, or did they have to adapt to their places of exile?
Soviet Jews are a particular case. Before 1939, Soviet Jews were relatively assimilated. But more broadly my research also includes Polish Jews, who had some knowledge of Russian but lived in rather multilingual communities. One of the things that I look at, is the encounter between Soviet and Polish Jews. In some cases, younger Soviet Jews found Polish Jews to be somewhat exotic, and it was difficult to see them as Jews like themselves. Over the course of those twenty years [between the Russian Revolution and the outbreak of the Second World War], the divergence taking place was profound. On the home front during the war, Central Asian languages factored into the equation as well. Jews who only spoke Yiddish, or who did not have the linguistic skills to navigate the Soviet system, faced additional challenges.