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Source: Lea Zeltserman, Tablet, June 12, 2013

A doctor walks into an operating room and asks if the patient is asleep yet. As he is about to operate, a group of Nazis in uniform marches in—a round of “Heil Hitler” is followed by orders that the doctor put his scalpel down and leave the hospital. In the next scene, the doctor is paraded down a crowded street, still wearing his white uniform but with the word Jude scrawled across his chest in thick letters.

We know the doctor is headed to certain death, because that is what happens in Holocaust films. But this is no ordinary Holocaust film. This is a scene from Professor Mamlock, a Soviet film released in 1938 that tells the story of a German-Jewish doctor living under the Nazis. Part of a small, but significant, wave of anti-Fascist Soviet films, it was one of the first films in the world to address the issue of Jewish persecution in Nazi Germany and was seen by millions of people in the USSR before it was banned in August 1939, when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a not insignificant number of Soviet-Jewish families took the warning of the film to heart and managed to flee ahead of the Nazi invasion.

This past April, a newly subtitled print of Professor Mamlock was screened at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, followed by a Q&A session with Olga Gershenson, a professor of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the preeminent name in Soviet Holocaust film history. Wherever a Soviet Holocaust movie is screened, Gershenson is there, leading the discussion and translating the Soviet messaging for contemporary audiences. Her third bookThe Phantom Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and Jewish Catastrophe, which will be released next week, traces the story of a shadow Soviet film industry that only rarely managed to represent the tragedy that filmmakers, directors, and screenwriters sought to warn against or memorialize. While films like Schindler’s List are often the way Westerners are first exposed to the Holocaust, there are no parallels in Soviet/Russian culture—Professor Mamlock was shown briefly after Hitler invaded the USSR, but had disappeared from Soviet theaters by the end of the 1940s.

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