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HOW MANY JEWS ARE THERE IN THE SOVIET UNION?

By JOSHUA ROTHENBERG

Before the population census in 1959, estimates of the Jewish population in


the Soviet Union varied by as much as one million-from as low as two million
at one extreme to as high as three million at the other.
Data on the Jewish population of various countries are ordinarily hard to
gather, since censuses in most countries do not include questions on religion or
nationality. In the Soviet Union such information should be much easier to ob-
tain, because a question on nationality status is included in the censuses, and Jews
are one of the recognized nationalities of the multi-national country.
According to the Soviet census of 1959, 2,268,000 persons have declared
that they are members of the Jewish nationality.l This has, nevertheless, not set-
tled the controversy on the size of the Jewish population in the country.
Opinions were frequently voiced that a large number of Soviet Jews have,
for various reasons, declared in the census questionnaires that they belong to
other than Jewish nationalities (for the most part to the Russian), and that con-
sequently the real size of the Jewish population in the Soviet Union is larger than
the 2,268,000 indicated in the census.
For instance, Professor Salo W. Baron expressed the opinion that "it stands
to reason that an unspecified number, perhaps several hundred thousands, pre-
ferred to list themselves as belonging to Russian, Ukrainian or some other na-
tionality ."'2
Mordecai Altshuler, an Israeli writer, maintained that "there are grounds to
assume that in the last 1959 census at least 10-15% of the Jews concealed their
Jewishness."3 Unfortunately, the assertions of these writers are based solely on
a general assumption and are not deduced from specific calculations.
On the other hand, many students of the Soviet scene accept unhesitantly
the findings of the 1959 census. The American lewish Year Book bases its an-

1 Itagi Vsesaiuznai Perepiski Naselenia SSR (Totals of the All-Union census of the popu-
lation of USSR) (Moskva 1963); further references to the respective Soviet republics are
based on the "totals" published by the Soviet Statistical Bureau for each republic. See also
Altshuler. Mordecai, "Kavim Ii-Demuto ha-Demografith shel ha-Qibbuts ha-Yehu:li be-Be-
brith ha-Moatsoth" (Outlines of the Demographic Character of the Jewish Community in
the Soviet Union). Gesher (September 1966), nos. 47-48, pp. 9-30; also, Abramovich, Moshe,
"ha-Yehudim ba-Mifqad ha-Sovyeti 1959" (The Jews in the 1959 Census), Malad (August-
September 1960), pp. 320-330; also Rothenberg, Joshu'l, "Nai Bamerkungen tsu an Alter
Folkstseilung" (New Remarks to an Old Census), Yiddisher Kemfer, New York (May 6,
1966), pp. 5-6; also Kantor, Jacob, "Einike Bamerkungen un Oisfirn tsu di farefentlechte
Sach-haklen fun Folkstseilung in Ratnfarband" (Some Remarks and Conclusions Concern-
ing the Published Totals of the Census in the Soviet Union), Bleter far Geschichte, vol. xv
(1962-1963).
2 B~ron, Salo W'o The Russian lew under the Tsars and Soviets (New York 1964), p. 329.
3 Altshuler, op. cit., p. 13.

234
Jews in the Soviet Union 235
nual data of the Jewish population in the Soviet Union on the figure obtained
by the Soviet census-takers, adding each year an estimated natural increase. Salo-
mon Schwartz, in his recent book on the post-war history of the Soviet Jews, re-
jects the theory that significant numbers of Jews failed to indicate their Jewish
nationality. There was no reason to do so, he maintains, because no advantage
could be gained by hiding the Jewish nationality in the census when the passports
indicate the real nationality status of the person. 4
To answer the question which of these two conflicting opinions is correct,
is of more than academic interest to us. Accurate information on the size of the
Jewish population in the Soviet Union is necessary and helpful for reasons that
need no elaboration.
It seems to us that a more reliable estimate of the size of the Jewish com-
munity in the Soviet Union is, nevertheless, possible to obtain.
The method to be used is to subject to a close analysis the last two Soviet
censuses, those of 1959 and 1939. However, only the areas of the Soviet Union
which were not occupied by the German forces during the German-Soviet War
of 1941-1945, i.e., the areas outside the great concentrations of the Jewish pop-
ulation in the Ukrainian and Byelorussian republics, can serve as a basis for sta-
tistical comparison. The Jewish population in the Ukraine and Byelorussia was
either annihilated by the Germans or totally displaced; in addition, the territories
and borders of these two republics have changed very substantially between 1939
and 1959. Large provinces formerly belonging to Poland, Rumania, and Czecho-
slovakia were incorporated during and after the War into the Ukrainian and Byelo-
russian SSR's.1I
By contrast, the eastern territories of the Soviet Union have not undergone
similar radical changes in their territories and in their populace. We will use,
therefore, as the main base for our present discussion the Russian Socialist Re-
public (RSFSR), which was, for the most part, unoccupied by the German in-
vaders, and had a substantial Jewish population before the War.
The census of January 1939 has shown the Jewish population of the RSFSR
to number 948,000. 6 It was estimated that the number has risen to ca. one mil-
lion from January 1939 to June 1941, when the war with Germany had started.
The natural increase in the two years, and the inner migration of Jews from west
to east (which went on uninterruptedly since the 1920's), should have made up
the estimated difference of 52,000. 7
Only a relatively small area of the RSFSR was captured by the German
army; the rest, including the two largest Soviet cities of Moscow and Leningrad
in which approximately half of the Jewish population of the RSFSR resided, re-
mained uninterruptedly under Soviet rule. The highest estimate given for the num-

4 Schwartz, Salomon, Evrei v Sovetskom Soiuze, s Nachala Mirovoi Voiny, 1939-1%5


(Jews in the Soviet Union, from the Beginning of World War 1939-1965) (New York 1966),
pp. 176, 182 et al.
IS The present western districts of the Ukraine and Byelorussia were until 1939 part of
Poland; the Bukovina district of the USSR was part of Rumania, and the Zacarpathian dis-
trict part of Czechoslovakia.
6 Zinger, L., Dos Banaite Folk (Moskva 1941), Appendix II.
7 A similar figure was arrived at by Schwartz in his op. cit.
236 JEWISH SOCIAL STUDIES

ber of Jews who had lived in the areas of the RSFSR occupied by the Germans
is 250,000. 8 Since these territories were among the latest to be occupied by the
German army, the evacuation of the civil population from these areas was con-
ducted in a more orderly fashion and was more extensive in scope than in the
eastern parts of the country. It is estimated that of the 250,000 Jews in the un-
occupied segments of the RSFSR, at least 150,000 managed to escape, while
100,000 were killed by the Germans.D
The number of RSFSR Jews who had escaped nazi annihilation would then
amount to 900,000 (one million minus 100,000 killed by the German forces).
How does this figure tally with the findings of the 1959 census which has found
875,000 Jews in the RSFSR?
According to the Central Statistical Bureau of the Soviet Union, the natural
increase of the population of the RSFSR between 1939 and 1959 amounted to
8.4% (an increase from 108,379 million to 117,534 million).10 It should, how-
ever, be noted that the differential in the increase of the population between the
German occupied and the unoccupied areas was very substantial. Whereas the
increase for the 20 years reached 28% in the unoccupied Uzbek republic and
14.3% in the unoccupied Georgian republic, it was only 3.4% in the occupied
Ukraine and showed even a decrease by as much as 10% in occupied Byelo-
russia. 11
Unfortunately, there are no separate figures available for the natural increase
in the occupied and unoccupied zones of the RSFSR; it is however certain that
the increase in the unoccupied zone should be estimated to be higher than the
average of 8.4% for the republic as a whole. Since, however, the rate of natural
increase of the Jewish population in the Soviet Union has shown a lower index
than that of the non-Jewish population, we shall merely accept the 8.4% figure
as the increase for the Jewish population also of the unoccupied zone.
The natural increase in the 18 years, from the year 1941, when the number
of RSFSR Jews was 900,000, till the year 1959 when the last census was taken,
will thus amount to ca. 68,000, and the number of RSFSR Jews in 1959 should
have been at least 968,000. However, the 1959 census has found only 875,000
Jews, i.e. 93,000 less than it should have been expected, if to disregard for the
moment migration changes.
Several possible explanations can be forwarded to explain the discrepancy:
1. territorial changes in the republic which have occurred between 1939 and 1959;
2. internal migration; 3. Jews not accounted for have indeed not revealed their
J ewishness.
Let us examine the three possibilities. The territory of the RSFSR has un-
dergone some changes in the eighteen years mentioned. 12 Th district of Crimea
which was part of the RSFSR in 1941 was incorporated after the war into the
Ukrainian republic. On the other hand some segments of northern Caucasus

8See Schwartz, op. cit., pp. 182-183.


DIbid., pp. 182-183. (This is approximately the same ratio of victims killed by the Ger-
man invaders as accepted for the Jewish population of the Soviet Union as a whole.)
10 SSSR v Tsifrakh v 1964 Godu (SSSR in figures in 1964) (Moskva 1965), p. !.
11 Ibid.
12 These changes were overlooked by many writers, including Schwartz in his op. cit.
Jews in the Soviet Union 237
(which included communities of the Oriental "Mountain Jews") part of the for-
merly German territory of East Prussia (now the Kaliningrad district) and some
small segments of the Baltic republics were included into the territory of the
RSFSR.
These territorial changes, however, have not substantially altered the com-
parable sizes of the Jewish population, since the losses in the seceded Crimea
were more or less offset by the gains in the newly organized territories. (The
whole Jewish population of Crimea in 1959 numbered no more than 26,374
persons.)
As for internal migration, we know that the historic trend for migration has
been not from east to west but in the opposite direction, from the overcrowded
Jewish communities in the former tsarist Pale of Settlement to the western areas
of the RSFSR. When the restrictions on Jewish residence were abolished in 1917,
the migration expanded to very substantial proportions. In the 13 years between
1926 and 1939, the Jewish population in the RSFSR increased by 366,000 or
by 60.3% while in the Ukrainian SSR there was a decrease of 2.6% and in
Byelorussian SSR a decrease of 7.8%.13
During the four years of the war, quite different migration processes took
place in the RSFSR. A substantial number of Jews were evacuated from their
places of residence, deeper into the immense spaces of the republic and outside
the confines of the republic, to Central Asia in particular. Some of them have
chosen to remain after the war in their new places of residence.
As we shall see later, the 1959 census shows a small increase in the Jewish
population of Central Asia due to the influx from outside the area (and most of
this increase should be attributed to the more numerous evacuees from the
Ukrainian, Byelorussian, Mold avian, and Baltic republics).
On the other hand, a substantial number of war evacuees from the western
republics of the Ukraine, Byelorussia, Moldavia and the Baltic who have settled
in various towns of the RSFSR, remained in the RSFSR after the war. It is im-
possible to determine their number since, unfortunately, the 1959 census did not
include a question on former residence (which, incidentally, the 1926 Soviet cen-
sus did include). We know that in the Ural and in Siberia which absorbed most
of the evacuated in the war industrial plants, together with their employees and
workers, Jewish communities have considerably increased in size (particularly in
the towns of Sverdlovsk, Chelabinsk, Magnitogorsk, Irkutsk).
Salomon Schwartz, in his discussion of the size of the Jewish population in
the RSFSR, also expressed amazement at the unexpectedly low figure of 875,000
Jews that the 1959 census had found in the republic. 14
Since Schwartz rejects the theory that significant numbers of Jews have failed
to indicate for the census their Jewish nationality, and since he accepts the ac-
curacy of the 1959 census information, he must find another explanation for the
decrease of the Jewish population in the republic. Schwartz maintains that the
decrease was due to a reversal in the process of inner migration in the post-war

18 Zinger, op. cit., p. 36.


If Schwartz, op. cit., pp. 181-183.
238 JEWISH SOCIAL STUDIES

period, and that Jews have since the end of the war in 1945 moved in mass from
the RSFSR to the Ukraine, Byelorussia and other western areas of the Soviet
Union. 15 He does not, however, substantiate his theory and does not give any
reason or explanation for the alleged reversal of the perennial migration trend
in the Soviet Union (which is, incidentally, not limited only to the Jewish popu-
lation.). No reason is given why the RSFSR Jews would suddenly decide to leave
their permanent places of residence in Moscow, Leningrad, and in the more in-
dustrially and culturally developed regions of the Russian republic and move into
the war-devastated, antisemitism-infested and culturally less developed regions of
the Ukraine and Byelorussia. On the contrary, there are good reasons to believe
that the traditional trend from west to east has not slackened after the war but
perhaps even increased in the first post-war years. The Ukrainian and Byelorus-
sian Jews, who were so eager "to come home," have found there conditions much
worse than expected, and there were, therefore, sufficient reasons to prompt and
perpetuate the migration trend which had already existed for decades.
If we assume, as we should, that the Jewish migration stream from west to
east was not interrupted by the war, just as the war had not reverted a similar
migration of the non-Jewish population to the east, we must provide an estimate
of the numbers. This is, of course, very difficult to do. If we will, however, ven-
ture to say that the post-war rate of migration was at least one quarter of the
average annual rate of 28,000 which prevailed in the years 1926-1939, we will
certainly be on the low side. According to that estimate, the number of Jews who
moved in the years 1946-1959 from the Ukraine and Byelorussia to the greener
pastures in the East would be 91,000. 16
According to these, we believe, very cautious estimates, there were in the
RSFSR in 1959 at least 184,000 more Jews (and possibly many more) than the
census has shown.

* * * *
Let us now examine the situation in the other Soviet republics which were
not occupied by the German armies.
In the five Central Asian republics (Uzbek, Kazakh, Tadzhik, Kirgiz, and
Turkmen SSR) and in the three Caucasian republics (Georgian, Azerbaidzhan
and Armenian) which were not occupied by the German army, the total Jewish
population before the war (in 1939) was 164,200. The census of 1959 revealed
240,305 Jews in this area, or an increase of 80,105 (almost 50%). The total in-
crease of the population of the area in the same period was 7,823 million (from
24,660 to 32,483) or 32%,17 For the Jewish population we should adapt a lower
rate of increase. Since the rate of increase for the Jewish population of the Soviet
Union for the period of 1926 till 1939 was 18% lower than the population as
a whole, as indicated in the census of 1926 and 1939,18 we must, for the lack

11\ Ibid., p. 183. . . . . .


16 A similar but much smaller migration from the Moldavlan SSR and Baltic republIcs
is a distinct probability, but we will disregard it in our present computations.
17 SSSR v Tsifrakh v 1964 Godu, op. cit., p. 8.
18 Zinger, op. cit., pp. 35-36, Appendix I, II.
Jews in the Soviet Union 239
of similar data for the later period, adapt the same differential for the post-war
period. H the rate of natural increase is larger in the Moslem areas than in the
non-Moslem areas of the Soviet Union, the fertility of the Jews in the former area
(of whom about a half are Oriental Jews) is also higher than for the Jewish popu-
lation in the European areas. We may, therefore, accept the same differential for
these areas as for the country as a whole, i.e., 18% lower than for the popula-
tion as a whole (or 26.3% instead of the 32% for the areas). Consequently, the
natural Jewish increase for the area would be 43,132. The balance of the in-
crease, 36,973, should be accounted for as the result of the war-time influx from
outside the area. This probably includes a certain number of Jews who were eva-
cuated from RSFSR regions, but since the prevailing number of Jewish evacuees
was from the more westerly areas of the Soviet Union, the RSFSR evacuees
would not total more than 10,000. Without doubt, the number of RSFSR Jews
who moved out of the RSFSR is more than offset by Jewish evacuees from other
republics who have settled in the RSFSR after the war.

* * * *
If we have come to the conclusion that significant numbers of Jews have
not divulged their Jewish identity in the RSFSR, a question will arise as to whether
a similar phenomenon has not taken place in other republics of the Soviet Union
as well.
It is unquestionable that the situation in the other republics, especially in
the Ukraine and Byelorussia (where almost half of the Jewish population of the
Soviet Union resided in 1959) is much different than in the RSFSR, and for the
following reasons:
First, Jews who live in the large towns of the RSFSR, like Leningrad and
Moscow, are much more linguistically and culturally assimilated than the Jews
of the former Pale of Settlement. Most visibly is this demonstrated by the high
proportion of writers and intellectuals of Jewish descent active in the large cen-
ters of Russian culture who consider themselves to be Russians, even if the entry
in their passports indicates diff.!rently. The estrangement from Jewishness is even
more pronounced in the more remote regions of the RSFSR, where Jews have
lived in smaller groups and werl! for a long time separated from the bulk of Soviet
Jewry. Their Jewish descent was in many cases not even known to the towns-
people who considered them to be as Russian as themselves.
Secondly, many of the Jews in the non-Russian areas of the country have
been dispatched there by the central Soviet authorities in official capacities, as
administrators and technicians. To the non-Russian population they are known
as Russians (Ruskil) which to them often means anyone who is not a native. It
would be awkward, sometimes unpleasant for these Jews to divulge for the cen-
sus-takers, who are local people, that their nationality is different from what has
been publicly known.
For these reasons the number of Jews who have declared another national-
ity (in most cases that of Russian) would be higher in the RSFSR and also in
the Asian and Caucasian areas than in the Ukraine and Byelorussia, where Jews
are not as assimilated, and are usually known to their neighbors as Jews.
240 JEWISH SOCIAL S11JDIES

It must be added here that it would be a mistake to assume, as it often is ~


ing assumed, that all Jews in the Soviet Union are marked as Jews in their pass-
ports. During the upheavals of the war, the bombings, hasty evacuations and
frequent dislocations, a number of people lost their passports. The receipt of a
new passport was a convenient occasion for some of those who felt burdened by
their Jewishness, to change their nationality status. Some may have even added
a little effort "to lose" their passports, especially during the "black years" of
1948-1953, when antisemitism erupted into the open as never before, and the
Soviet Jews expected (probably with good reason) that wagons were being pre-
pared for the wholesale deportation of Jews to Siberia. A passport marked "Jew"
was feared to be tantamount to a verdict of deportation.
It should, on all these grounds, be concluded that a certain number of Jews
in other than the Russian republic (RSFSR) have similarly eluded the census data
concerning their Jewish origin. The proportion of Jews who have so acted in the
other republics should, however, be estimated to be much lower than in the
RSFSR, for the reasons expounded above. Unfortunately, the estimate must be
hypothetical.
If we assume it to be only one fourth of what we have calculated for the
RSFSR, the number of "hidden Jews" for the rest of the country would amount
to at least 46,000.
The total number of Soviet Jews who were not divulged in the 1959 census
would thus be in the vicinity of a quarter of a million. We think this is a con-
servative figure, as we have always adapted the lower alternatives in our calcu-
lations. (For instance, it is almost certain that there are more than 10,000 eva-
cuated Ukrainian and Byelorussian Jews who remained in the RSFSR after the
war.)
In summing up our calculations we come to the conclusion that the number
of Jews who lived in 1959 in the Soviet Union was at least 2,500,000, and prob-
ably between 2,600,000 and 2,650,000.