The Holocaust in Ukraine represents the first phase of the Holocaust in which an estimated 1.5 million Jews were shot to death at close range in ravines, open fields, and forests.
By: Jennifer Popowycz, PhD
Based on present-day borders, one in every four Jewish victims of the Holocaust was murdered in Ukraine.
In the history of the Holocaust, the summer and fall of 1941 are especially significant because they represent a period of critical escalation. In a matter of months mobile Nazi killing units, which had begun shooting all adult male Jews during the invasion of the Soviet Union, expanded to include a genocide targeting women, children, and entire Jewish communities.
On January 20, 1942, top Nazi officials and representatives of the Reich authorities met in Wannsee, a suburb outside of Berlin. At this meeting, chaired by Reinhard Heydrich, the Reich Security Main Office formed the extermination plans for the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” The Wannsee Conference, as it is now called, led to the creation of a network of extermination camps designed to systematically murder the entire European Jewish population.
Before the killing centers opened at Birkenau, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, and Majdanek, more than 1.5 million Jews had already been murdered by the Germans, their Axis allies, and local collaborators in Ukraine, Belarus, and other USSR republics. These were the first victims of the Holocaust.
They were not transported by trains to the famous killing sites in Poland, with their gas chambers and crematoria that typically characterize the Holocaust in the minds of most people. Instead, these Holocaust victims were taken from their homes, usually by foot, to the outskirts of the cities, towns, and villages where they lived and were brutally shot—face to face or in the back—often in the presence of local residents and non-Jewish neighbors.
The mass shooting of Jewish victims in the summer and fall of 1941 represents the first phase of the Holocaust, often referred to by historians as “the Holocaust by bullets.” It was during this initial phase that special German killing squads (Einsatzkommandos) coordinated the mass murder of Jews by bullets with the help of the SS, Wehrmacht troops, the Romanian military, special “operational squadrons,” order police units, and local collaborators.
NAZI EXTERMINATION POLICY ON THE EVE OF BARBAROSSA
Before World War II, the 1.5 million Jews living in the Soviet republic of Ukraine constituted the largest Jewish population within the Soviet Union, and one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe. Between 1939 and 1941, when Stalin occupied Galicia, western Volhynia, northern Bukovina, and southern Bessarabia (see map below), the number of Jews in the Ukrainian Soviet Republic (UkrSSR) rose to 2.45 million people, increasing the percentage of Jews from five to six percent.
On the eve of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Wehrmacht and German police developed what the historian Dieter Pohl terms “a graduated security system,” which in effect meant annihilating certain groups of suspected enemies. This policy was outlined by Hitler on June 6, 1941, in a directive known as the Commissar Order, and demanded the swift execution of suspected political leaders. The Commissar Order specifically stated:
”When fighting Bolshevism one can not count on the enemy acting in accordance with the principles of humanity or International Law. In particular it must be expected that the treatment of our prisoners by the political commissars of all types who are the true pillars of resistance will be cruel, inhuman, and dictated by hate…Therefore, when captured either in battle or offering resistance, they are to be shot on principle.”
Just days before the invasion, the Nazi leadership also issued a memorandum entitled “Guidelines for the Conduct of Troops of Russia,” which directly linked Jews as a racial group to the broader category of political enemies. The “Guidelines” described Bolshevism as the deadliest threat to the German people’s existence; justified the killing of Bolshevik agitators, armed insurgents, saboteurs, and Jews; and encouraged the total elimination of active or passive resistance.
As the historian Wendy Lower argues, “the German military helped prepare for the invasion by drafting and distributing orders for the ruthless isolation or elimination of individuals broadly defined as Bolsheviks and resistors[sic] and more narrowly identified as Jews.”
Both the Commissar Order and the “Guidelines for the Conduct of Troops in Russia,” explicitly connected the threat of communism to the Jewish race, reinforcing the highly propagandized Judeo-Bolshevik myth which alleged that communism was a Jewish plot designed at the German expense. More importantly, both directives also established a security policy of terror that sanctioned the mass killing of any groups seen as a potential threat.
CARRYING OUT THE “HOLOCAUST BY BULLETS” IN UKRAINE
Four commandos of Einsatzgruppen C, the Security Police, and Security Service followed the Wehrmacht’s armies in northern and central Ukraine. Sonderkommando 4a (Special Commando 4a or Sk 4a) swept through Volhynia while Sonderkommando 4b (Sk 4b) moved through Galicia and Podolia. Behind the army was Rear Area Army Group South under the command of General Karl von Roques.
Although prewar plans had anticipated the restriction of special commandos to the army rear areas, 6th Army High Command called Sk 4a and Sk 4b to the frontlines, leaving security measures in the rear to be split up between the Wehrmacht, SS, and police forces. The division of labor between the Sonderkommandos near the front and the Order Police battalions in Rear Area Army Group South initially worked according to plan, but when the Germans reached central Ukraine, this division began to blur.
The term “security measures,” encompassed a wide range of duties but, initially, the main focus was the murder of Soviet political functionaries and other perceived political enemies. In order to fulfill this goal, security task forces were instructed to kill all Jews occupying state and party positions and target Jewish able-bodied men who might foment serious resistance on the behalf of the Soviet state. Consequently, during the first weeks of the invasion, as German troops secured territory in Ukraine, large numbers of Jewish men were rounded up in cities and towns. Those who were deemed useful—skilled laborers, doctors, and specialists—were spared, while the rest were shot.
As large sections of the Soviet Union fell into German hands, the military assumed administrative control before a civil government could be set up. It was during this time that subsequent directives detailed the manner in which the Jewish population was to be exterminated.
In an order dated July 11, 1941, a commander of a police regiment in Belarus recommended that Jews be shot on the outskirts of towns and villages to shield local residents from the sights and sounds of mass murder. In order to “erase the impressions of the day,” the order also called for “evenings of comradery” to follow every mass killing incident, which typically included meals prepared by local residents, music, and drinking.
In the second half of July, orders for persecuting and murdering Jews became more extreme.
On July 21, 1941, Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of the Security Police (or Sipo, which included the Gestapo) and Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst) began to encourage his commandos to kill all military and civilian Jewish prisoners, not just those who belonged to the Soviet Communist Party or held government positions. It was also at the end of July that Friedrich Jeckeln, the Higher SS and Police Leader Russia South and the personal representative of Heinrich Himmler, ordered his forces to kill anyone suspected of having “abetted the Bolshevik system.”
(To be Continued Next Week)
This article originally appeared on The National WWII Museum web site. To read more, please access this article at: https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/ukraine-holocaust
Jennifer Popowycz, PhD is the Leventhal Research Fellow at The National WWII Museum. Her research focuses on the Eastern Front and Nazi occupation policies in Eastern Europe in World War II.