This week on Those Who Were There: Voices from the Holocaust, we’re listening to the story of Isaac Zieman. Born in Riga in 1920, Isaac was a passionate young Zionist with plans to make a life in Palestine. Instead, the Nazi invasion of Latvia propelled him on a years-long journey that took him across the Soviet Union and Europe and finally to the United States. He was the only member of his immediate family to survive World War II.

Chapter of the Gordonia Youth Movement in Riga, Latvia, ca. 1932
Chapter of the Gordonia Youth Movement in Riga, Latvia, ca. 1932. Credit: Photo courtesy of Museum of Family History

When Isaac was 10 years old, he joined a Zionist youth group called Gordonia. A natural leader, he became the head of the local chapter in the small town of Līvāni, where his family lived, at the age of 15. At 19, he was named head of Gordonia’s Riga branch and devoted himself to Socialist Zionism. But when Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Isaac was forced to begin an odyssey that took him across the Soviet Union twice and across Europe by the time the war had ended.

Isaac was separated from his family during the Nazi invasion of Latvia. He and other men from his town were mobilized by Soviet officials to build obstacles to slow down the advancing German tanks. Soon, Nazis bombers began attacking the area. Isaac was told to return home, but by then his family had fled. Under fire, Isaac joined a group of Jewish refugees heading east into the Soviet Union.

From there, Isaac was sent to work in forced labor camps across the Soviet Union, from Chelyabinsk Oblast to Kazakhstan, Stalingrad, Siberia, and Kyrgyzia. As a forced laborer in the Soviet Union, Isaac frequently endured horrific conditions, until – through ingenuity, grit, and the occasional kindness of others – he managed to escape the forced labor system. He changed his identity and joined the Polish Army, where he reconnected with the Labor Zionist movement.

As leading Holocaust historian Professor Sam Kassow remarked:

“A key reason why Isaac’s testimony is so significant is that it deals with a very important, yet relatively neglected aspect of the Holocaust: the 350,000 Jews from Poland and the Baltic states who spent the war years in the Soviet Union… The Jews in the wartime Soviet Union endured terrible privations—starvation, disease, exposure to harsh winters without adequate clothing, the casual neglect of callous and incompetent local officials—and most of the young Jews who joined the Red Army were either dead or wounded by the end of the war. Nonetheless, between 200,000 and 250,000 Polish and Baltic Jews in the wartime Soviet Union—or about 60 percent—survived. For the Polish and Baltic Jews who were under German occupation the survival rate was about 2 percent. By 1947, the vast majority of Jews in the Displaced Persons camps had spent the war years in the Soviet Union, not under Nazi rule.”

Discover the little-known history of Jewish refugees in the Soviet Union, and learn about Isaac Zeiman’s career as a psychoanalyst after the war, on this week’s episode of Those Who Were There: Voices from the Holocaust. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher.