About the Book

Book cover for Survival on the Margins.

Survival on the Margins — Eliyana R. Adler | Harvard University Press

Co-winner of the Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research, 2021

Co-winner of the Rachel Feldhay Brenner Award in Polish Jewish Studies, 2021

Between 1940 and 1946, about 200,000 Polish Jewish refugees lived and toiled in the harsh Soviet interior. They endured hard labor, bitter cold, and extreme deprivation. But they survived the Holocaust. Drawing on untapped memoirs and testimonies of the survivors, Eliyana Adler rescues a forgotten story of the Holocaust.

Survival on the Margins uses testimonies and memoirs, as well as archival documents, to tell the story of the Polish Jewish refugees who survived World War II in the unoccupied regions of the USSR. Beginning with their decision to flee eastward and early months in the regions of Poland incorporated into the Soviet Union, the book follows the encounter of the refugees with Soviet policies and circumstances. As a result of the deportation of many of the Polish Jewish refugees into Soviet prisons, camps, and special settlements, they saw another side of Soviet power and had to learn how to survive harsh conditions of labor and climate.

With the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941, a general Amnesty for all incarcerated Polish citizens allowed the Jewish refugees to leave the forced settlements, although they could not return to their homes in the war zone. Most relocated to Central Asia, where they faced new types of culture shock and deprivation due to the war, but also a greater degree of personal autonomy. They began to receive word, via newspapers and letters from relatives in the Red Army, about the situation in Poland, but only discovered the level of destruction on their return in 1946.

In the aftermath of the war, upon coming to terms with the annihilation of the vibrant Polish Jewish communities they had known, most of the refugees joined the Polish survivors of the Holocaust in leaving Poland for DP camps in the west and resettlement around the globe. Their own struggles for survival in the Soviet Union paled in comparison to the genocide they narrowly escaped, and many stopped talking about their war experiences.

This book thus seeks to rescue the story of Polish Jewish survival in the Soviet Union for scholarly study and to enhance the understanding of the experience for family members of the Polish Jewish survivors on the margins of the war and the Holocaust.