The Holocaust in Ukraine

The Holocaust in the Reichskommissariat Ukraine.
The Holocaust in Ukraine

Kiev, Ukraine. June 23, 1941.

The Holocaust in Ukraine

Jews of Lubny


Operation Barbarossa

The goal of Operation Barbarossa was to capture all of the Russian industrial centers; destroy the Soviet army; and occupy the Ukraine and the surrounding region in order to exploit their natural resources.  The German-Soviet friendship had lasted just two years and in 1941 the Germans attacked Eastern Europe.  Transcarpathian Ruthenia came under control of the Hungarians and the Jews inhabiting that area shared the fate of Hungarian Jewry in 1944; the region of Transnistria came under the control of Romania and the Jews there were separated from the rest of the Reichkommissariat Ukraine as well.  The Nazi-occupied zone was divided into 6 parts: Wolhynien-Podolien; Shitomir; Kiev; Nikolajew; Dnjepropetrowsk; and the Crimea.  At least 900,000 of the 1,500,000 Jews living in these areas were exterminated, mostly by the Einsatzgruppen’s firing squads.  There was no dearth of torture nor rape in these areas as the Ukrainians often willingly collaborated with Nazi forces.

Ethnic Conflict Permeates

Although there was much anti-Semitism in the area, there was also an overwhelming sense of hatred between the Ukrainians and the Poles.  The latter would suffer a trying fate under the rule of the Nazis, but all turned their backs on the Jews.  The Ukrainians often collaborated wholeheartedly with the Nazi overlords – some attribute this aspirations of an independent state; others say financial gain – regardless, the results were brutal for their Jewish neighbors.
A quote from the diary of a Jew from Lvov:

In reality, they [The Ukrainians] hate only the Poles. They would love to stage a pogrom and slaughter them this very night, but instructions that had arrived earlier from the Nazi Ukrainians explicitly forbade any active hostile behaviour towards the Poles. So they redirect their base, primitive instincts at a safe target: at the Jews, Bolshevik lackeys.

Stanisław Różycki

June and July 1941, AŻIH (Archive of the Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw), Ring. I/869

The Murder of Ukrainian Jewry

One crucial aspect in understanding the fate of Jews is that the principle determinants of one’s survival as a Jew depended first and foremost on geographic location.  The extraneous factors, such as wealth and connection to the Soviet regime, were less important.

The front was first breeched by German Nazis on June 22, 1941 – a Sunday, and the longest day of the year.  The progression of the German troops into the USSR was shockingly fast, even the Nazis could not believe how quickly they were advancing towards Moscow.  This speed had a grave impact on the likelihood of survival with respect to geography: Jews living in the western areas of Ukraine were unable to escape the German onslaught, whereas Jews of eastern Ukraine were almost entirely evacuated.  Only about 50,000 Jews escaped from the western areas, whereas in central Ukrainian cities such as Kiev or Zhytomyr, over half of the Jews were able to take refuge behind Soviet lines.  In the far eastern areas of Ukraine, the SS arrived in cities that had just a fifth of their pre-war Jewish population.  About 70% of Jews in regions conquered after July, 1941, were able to flee with the Soviet troops.  

The Germans entered Lwow by the end of June, and had conquered Kiev by September.  By the time autumn came the only portion of the territory that remained under Soviet control was Odessa, which fell to the Romanians in November.  Indeed, by the end of the year the entire Ukraine was under Nazi control.  In the initial weeks of Operation Barbarossa, there were waves of violence against Jewish people.  Many of the participants were Ukrainians, who were taking out their feelings of anger at the Soviet Union, and were spurred on by Nazi propaganda.  Although the Germans were crucial in orchestrating the pogroms, it cannot be overstressed that the locals participated with glee.  In many cases the attacks against Jews were well underway before the Germans even got there; fed by their own anti-Semitic beliefs many Ukrainians did not need propaganda to set them off.  In many cities the pogroms were started under the pretense of seeking revenge on the Soviet forces, who had killed almost all of their prisoners as they retreated.  Upon opening up the NKVD jail cellars the mass of bodies of dead prisoners would be discovered and the entire population of local Ukrainian/Polish/Lithuanian people would retaliate against the Jews.  The most famous instance of that happening was in Lwow.  Even when some of the victims of the Soviets were Jews themselves, the evidence did not matter and the Jews were to pay for Bolshevism. 

Reichkommissariat Ukraine
Roundup of Jewish Men somewhere in Reichkommissariat Ukraine

Jewish men forcibly assembled in an unknown camp in eastern Ukraine.

Newspaper telling the Jews of Kiev to assemble for the alleged resettlement.

The Battle of Kiev

The battle of Kiev is sometimes considered to be the beginning of Hitler’s winning streak.  Although the Nazis did eventually take the city, it severely diverted the attentions of the German army away from Moscow.  On September 19, 1941 the Nazis entered Kiev.  It was the largest encirclement in the history of warfare at that time.

The Days Preceding Babi Yar

Between the 20th and 28th of September there were bombs going off all over the city.  These bombs had been left there by the Soviet Police upion their retreat and on the 24th of September one of them went off in the Rear Headquarters of the German Army Group South. The German administration met two days later and decided that they needed to kill all the Jews of Kiev as a reprisal. A memo was sent out in the local papers that threatened to kill any Jews who did not assemble for the supposed resettlement.

The Massacre at Babi Yar

The ravine was an enormous fixture of the local landscape of the suburbs of Kiev. Today it is known as the murder site of Kiev’s Jews between September 29-30, 1941.  A commander reported two days later:

The difficulties resulting from such a large scale action—in particular concerning the seizure—were overcome in Kiev by requesting the Jewish population through wall posters to move. Although only a participation of approximately 5,000 to 6,000 Jews had been expected at first, more than 30,000 Jews arrived who, until the very moment of their execution, still believed in their resettlement, thanks to an extremely clever organization.

Ukraine is Carved Up

Ukraine Split between Romania; Hungary; and Germany.

The territory was divided between the Germans; the Romanians; and the Hungarians.  The Romanians had taken the crucial city of Odessa and created a new entity called Transnistria, which had its own Romanian governor.  The Hungarians were awarded Transcarpathian Ruthenia. The Jews of Transcarpathia suffered the same fate as the rest of the Jews of Hungary in 1944. In the German territories there was a huge difference in the civilian death rate of western Ukraine and eastern Ukraine. The Jews of eastern Ukraine were more likely to be able to escape with the Russians who were fleeing eastwards – over 900,000 Jews escaped using this method. In the western cities of Lvov and Vinnytsia, however, the Jews were almost entirely exterminated on the spot.  There was a lack of Soviet news coverage about the Nazi treatment of Jews because of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the alliance between Hitler and Stalin.  The unforseen consequence of this dearth of information was that the Jews were mostly unaware of how they were going to be treated by the Nazis – they had no idea occupation meant certain death. (Image: Jews of Yampol, Ukraine being deported)

Outright Mass Murder

The Einsatzgruppen and the local Ukrainian collaborators were equally as responsible for the murder of Ukrainian Jewry.  The evolution of the Holocaust sees a crucial stage of incubation during the initial weeks of the fighting in Ukraine: the beginning of indiscriminately killing all Jewish men, women, and children.  Almost all of the Jews of the Reichskommissariat Ukraine were shot near their homes, they were seldom sent to concentration camps like the Jews of western Europe.  Another aspect of the Holocaust in eastern Europe is the fact that it was all carried out in front of the public.