What’s in a Name? How Titles Construct and Convey Knowledge about Migrants

After spending a decade researching and writing about the same group of migrants, I continue to face a challenge in crafting and delivering an “elevator speech” about them because the group has no simple shorthand label. Names matter. They convey information at a variety of levels. As we know, “refugee,” “asylum seeker,” “migrant,” and “immigrant” not only have different meanings but also different connotations. Terms like “undocumented” and “illegal” fight for recognition in the public sphere. Each refers to the same individuals and groups of people in motion, but they affect how we see these people in different ways. The names contain knowledge—both explicit and implicit—that filters how we view people, and perhaps how they view themselves. This essay examines the application of different terms to a particular group of Polish Jews during and after the Second World War, and it considers how these terms continue to define their experiences.

In the fall of 1939, following the German invasion, thousands of Jews from the German-occupied territories of Poland chose to flee to the regions now under Soviet control.1 In many cases, this was a split-second decision, an effort to evade the German bombing or ground forces until it was safe to return home. Other individuals and families carefully weighed their options and came up with plans for who should go and who should stay. Some, including men mobilized in the Polish military, were caught offsides and just happened to be away from their homes when the Soviets invaded.

In the Soviet lexicon, all of these people fell under the category of bezhentsy, meaning refugees. As Olga Medvedeva-Nathoo notes, however, the Russian term contains the root for running and is not entirely positive.2 The refugees understood that their status was diminished, but they were probably unaware of the strong association between bezhentsy and illegal economic activity in the reports of the Soviet security services. Partly due to this association, the Soviet state elected in June of 1940 to deport the refugees to labor camps, special settlements, and communal farms far from their homes in the former Polish territories.

Those deported joined many other Polish citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish, who had already entered the Gulag system. Their status as refugees was no longer important. They were distinguished now mainly as Polish nationals. Many remember being told, on their arrival at the forced labor installations, that they would never be allowed to return to Poland. Even ethnic Poles often considered them part of the nation at this point, as they shared the same experience as all Poles of suffering under Soviet hegemony.

USHMM photo 66195
Two Polish Jewish refugees, Henryk and Hanka Starski, pose in front of Tamarlane’s tomb in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, ca. 1942-1946. Copyright © United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (photo 66195).

After the German invasion of the Soviet Union and the subsequent amnesty of Polish citizens in 1941, however, the refugees-cum-Polish deportees once again lost their previous appellations as new developments provided them with new designations. The amnesty agreement worked out between the Polish government-in-exile in London and the USSR not only freed Polish citizens from their deportation sites but also allowed the Poles to form an army to be evacuated from the USSR in order to fight under Allied command. For both military and humanitarian reasons, Polish authorities in exile wanted to find as many of their trained military personnel and evacuate as many Polish citizens as possible. Yet, at this juncture, neither the Polish military recruiters nor the Soviet officials who oversaw the process considered Polish Jews to be part of the Polish nation. Instead they were seen as Jews in an ethno-national sense, and they were mostly kept from joining the army and the evacuation.

For Soviet purposes, the Polish Jews became a small stream in the flood of “evacuees” into areas beyond German reach. In fact, the millions of Soviet citizens converging in the Urals, Siberia, and especially Central Asia reached those areas by a number of methods. Some, like the Polish citizens, as well as many Soviet citizens, had been deported to those regions prior to or even during the war. Others arrived as part of the official evacuation of industry, cultural institutions, and civilians. Despite Soviet efforts to avoid panic and to maintain control over the population, many others had fled on their own. By referring to the entire mixed multitude as “evacuees,” Soviet authorities created the impression that the state was still functioning effectively and directing its people to safety.3

Meanwhile, to local people in the places of evacuation, as well as to Soviet citizens generally, the Polish evacuees, as well as others from western regions annexed after 1939, became known as “zapadniki” or westerners. Whether they had reached the interior due to deportation or self-evacuation, they were new to the USSR and brought different customs, languages, and practices. Jews were overrepresented in this group.

Atina Grossmann has pointed out the irony that these Polish Jews, who stood out for their western mannerisms in the USSR, came to be called “Asiatics” when they returned to Poland after the war.4 Of the small remnant of Polish Jews who had survived the camps or who came out of hiding or from the partisans at the end of the war, those who returned from the USSR earned this unofficial appellation due to their time spent in the distant Central Asian republics.

USHMM photo 47557
Group portrait of children in the Ghetto Fighters Hebrew School in Lodz after the war. Most of the children would have survived in the USSR. Copyright © United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (photo 47557).

The postwar Polish authorities were more likely to designate them as “repatriates.” This group included all of the Polish citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish, who were able to return in 1946 as a result of an agreement with the Soviets. In many cases, the repatriation trains arrived in the western territories given to Poland in compensation for the eastern areas taken by the Soviets in 1939. As many of the Polish repatriates had come from the latter area and lost their land and possessions there, settlement in what the Poles called the “recovered territories” was a restitution of sorts. For the Jews among them, the relatively unsettled areas contained less antisemitism and offered the opportunity for escape westward.

When they began arriving in the Displaced Persons (DPs) camps in the British, American, and French zones of occupation, the recent repatriates were initially labeled “infiltrees.” Given the tenuous hold of British authorities on their mandate in Palestine and the desire of many Jewish survivors to live in the Jewish homeland, British authorities in Germany were particularly concerned about the high numbers of Jewish DPs in their occupation zone. But none of the Allies wanted to take on the responsibility of additional displaced persons in the wake of the war.

Nevertheless, the Polish Jews soon became largely indistinguishable from the rest of the Jewish DPs. Laura Jockusch and Tamar Lewinsky have written about how their relatively late arrival gave them less influence in the formation of Jewish DP culture, yet they joined in eagerly.5 Like other DPs, they devoted themselves both to commemoration of their lost communities and loved ones and to seeking opportunities for resettlement abroad. Indeed, Jewish DPs who had survived in Poland and in the USSR often married and emigrated together. While the world viewed the hordes of postwar refugees as DPs, the Jews among this group saw themselves as the She’erit Hapletah, or the Surviving Remnant.

USHMM photo 66559
Jewish DPs gather in the Hasenecke DP camp to commemorate the Holocaust victims from Miedzyrzec Podlaski, 1947. Pictured is Cantor Pinchos Rabinowitz, who officiated at the service and survived the war in the Komi Soviet Socialist Republic and in Uzbekistan. Copyright © United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (photo 66559).

In the countries willing to take them in, the DPs became “refugees” once again. Whether they settled in Israel, the United States, Canada, South America, South Africa, Australia, or elsewhere, the new arrivals all had accents, emotional and physical scars, and great motivation to start new lives. They often lived among other refugees, and the society-at-large did not initially make distinctions regarding how or where they had made it through the war. As refugees, they committed themselves to building new families and lives and to becoming contributing members of their adopted homelands. Over time they came to call themselves “Israelis,” “Americans,” “Bolivians,” and so on, adopting the nationality of their host country.

Only in later decades, with the rise of what Annette Wieviorka calls “the era of the witness,” did a new term arise to distinguish the most worthy refugees: “Survivor.”6 As the Holocaust entered the public consciousness and the Survivor became a sort of secular saint, different groups developed definitions of survival. Most of these did not include the Polish Jews who had fled east in 1939 and spent the war years in the Soviet interior. Yet many of them had suffered German violence and humiliation before they left, and all of them had escaped as a direct result of the German invasion. Moreover, as we have seen, the groups largely merged after the war.

After having been called “bezhentsy,” “deportees,” “Poles,” “Jews,” “evacuees,” “zapadniki,” “Asiatics,” “repatriates,” “infiltrees,” “DPs,” and “refugees”; having called themselves “Poles,” “Jews,” members of the “She’erit Hapletah,” and citizens of their new countries; and having suffered and survived so many experiences; they found themselves outside of popular and scholarly discourses of the war. Fortunately, interest in the Holocaust has finally begun to lead to research into this war story as well. Using interviews, testimonies, memoirs, and archival materials, a number of scholars are exploring the experiences of the thousands of Polish Jews who survived the Second World War in the unoccupied regions of the Soviet Union.7 Growing knowledge of their wartime trails and trials is encouraging us to rethink previous ideas about migration, agency, refugees, and even survival during the war. Yet we still lack a name for this group.


Eliyana R. Adler is associate professor in history and Jewish studies at the Pennsylvania State University and author of Survival on the Margins: Polish Jewish Refugees in the Wartime Soviet Union (Harvard University Press, 2020).

  1. John Goldlust points out that even before the war, the identity and title of Polish Jews was not simple. See his “Identity Profusions: Bio-Historical Journeys from ‘Polish Jew’/‘Jewish Pole’ through ‘Soviet Citizen’ to ‘Holocaust Survivor’,” in Shelter from the Holocaust: Rethinking Jewish Survival in the Soviet Union, ed. Mark Edele, Sheila Fitzpatrick, and Atina Grossmann (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2017), chap. 1. ↩︎
  2. Olga Medvedeva-Nathoo, “Certificate of Birth, Certificate of Survival (From the Cycle ‘Scraps of Lives: Polish Jews in Central Asia during the Second World War’),” American Association for Polish-Jewish Studies, New Views, http://www.aapjstudies.org/manager/external/ckfinder/userfiles/files/Medvedeva-Nathoo(1).pdf, 2–3. ↩︎
  3. For more on the process and experience of the evacuation, see Rebecca Manley, To the Tashkent Station: Evacuation and Survival in the Soviet Union at War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009). ↩︎
  4. Atina Grossmann, “Jewish Refugees in Soviet Central Asia, Iran, and India: Lost Memories of Displacement, Trauma, and Rescue,” in Shelter from the Holocaust, ed. Edele et al, 187. ↩︎
  5. Laura Jockusch and Tamar Lewinsky, “Paradise Lost? Postwar Memory of Polish Jewish Survival in the Soviet Union,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 24, no. 3 (2010): 373–99. ↩︎
  6. Annette Wieviorka, The Era of the Witness (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006). ↩︎
  7. See for example the articles in Shelter from the Holocaust, and Markus Nesselrodt, Dem Holocaust Entkommen: Polnische Juden in der Sowjetunion, 1939-1946 (Oldenbourg: De Gruyter, 2019). ↩︎
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