Q&A With Misha Mitsel, JDC Senior Archivist and Agro-Joint Expert
JDC senior archivist Misha Mitsel’s book “The Final Chapter: The Agro-Joint in the Years of the Great Terror” explores the history of the Agro-Joint, which created Jewish agricultural colonies and industrial schools in southern Ukraine and Crimea during the 1920s and 1930s. Read a Q&A with Mitsel on this both tragic and triumphant time in JDC’s history.
Q: When did the idea come about that this was a facet of JDC history that deserved its own special look?
A: More than 10 years ago, the archives received an executive request to collect information on departed people, people who fell in the line of duty. It was obvious that among them were not only people who perished during the Holocaust in Europe but also those who used to work in the pre-war Soviet Union — Agro-Joint staff.
At the beginning of our project, our knowledge was very limited. We knew for sure of three names, and also, many more unknown names. We decided to contact appropriate archival agencies in the countries of the former Soviet Union. We began our research from Kiev, and we contacted the archives of the Security Services of Ukraine. And then it’s like a snowball, when we received access to so-called interrogation files, which had evidence of information previously undisclosed. It’s not only information about one accused person but about their circle of colleagues.
Little by little, we collected information for all the people who were employed by Agro-Joint and the process took us eight years. The first few years were only research, then research and writing, and the last stage was editing and publishing.
Q: What was the most surprising or shocking thing you discovered?
My knowledge about the Agro-Joint has grown at each stage of the process. Most surprising for me was the amount of people accused of so-called counter-revolutionary crimes, because when we started our project, our idea was to collect information about employees of Agro-Joint, people who were on the payroll. But that’s only part of the picture.
In fact, not only agronomists and administrative staff were accused of counter-revolutionary crimes, but also members of the Jewish collective farms and German Jewish doctors, refugees from Nazi Germany invited by the Agro-Joint to work in the agricultural colonies of southern Ukraine and Crimea. In total, we collected data and information for around 200 people. This is the most shocking result.
Q: What was the most difficult part?
The most difficult part was that files were dispersed. They belonged to various archival agencies in three countries — in the Russian Federation, Ukraine, and Moldova. But even within, they’re divided. Some files are still the property of the ex-KGB archives. Some files were transferred to the regular state archives, and the provenance of some files was also unknown. I believe we were able to convince the management of the ex-KGB archives because we presented ourselves as an agency. It wasn’t private research. It was institutional research with an explanation of our goals. And the goal was really noble, to retrieve the names of people who perished during the Great Terror in the Soviet Union.
Q: What do you see as the lessons of and the legacy of the Agro-Joint, both within the former Soviet Union and for JDC as an organization?
It’s kind of a less-known page in history, not only for JDC but for Ukrainians and Ukrainian history as well. It’s important to know that our organization has a very, very rich history and played an important role as an agency for Soviet Jews but also for the general Ukrainian population.
Q: What do you think is the most important takeaway from the story of the Agro-Joint?
It’s important to highlight that the Agro-Joint program of the resettlement of needy and jobless Jews from the shtetls of northern Ukraine and Belorussia to the colonies of southern Ukraine was only partly successful, because it was impossible to create islands, isolated islands with happy life in an ocean of sorrow.
Everything that was experienced by Jewish farmers mirrored general trends in Soviet Jewish history. They also were subject to forcible collectivization. They suffered like Ukrainians during the Great Famine in the 1930s, and also they became victims of the Great Terror. It’s simply impossible to separate. It’s hard to expect great achievement in such circumstances. Only at the end of the program in the years of 1935-1937, which were relatively quiet years of internal Soviet history, was the Agro-Joint self-sufficient. Farmers became more productive.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I feel like I’m taking part in very, very noble work, to retrieve the names of people. A publication of lists of departed people is very common after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to return to forgotten history, to return to banned history, unknown history. In Ukraine, this publishing program is called Rehabilitated by History. People feel very inspired by their participation in such a project. I also want to acknowledge the important aid I received from my editor Volodymyr Lyubchenko, my researcher Natalia Vysotskaya, and my book designer Svietlana Nevdashchenko.
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