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
(Continued from last week)
SITES OF MASS MURDER: KAMIANETS-PODILSKY
The massacre in the Ukrainian town of Kamianets-Podilsky was one of the first sites of mass murder during the “Holocaust by bullets.” Of the 40,000 residents of Kamianets-Podilsky, a regional administrative center located near the prewar Polish-Soviet border, Jews made up about a third of the town’s population. When German and Hungarian troops captured the town in early July, thousands of Jews fled east and approximately 12,000 remained.
Shortly after the region was captured, government officials in Budapest expelled all Jews from Carpatho-Ukraine, a region that came under Hungarian control during the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939. Carpatho-Ukraine contained not only large indigenous Jewish communities, but also thousands of Jewish refugees from the Greater German Reich and Poland.
As a result, by the end of July, more than 10,000 Jews from Carpatho-Ukraine arrived in Kamianets-Poldilsky, the nearest town across the Hungarian border. The influx of thousands of people put a strain on the already limited housing situation and meager food supply. Diplomatic efforts to return the Carpatho-Ukrainian Jews to Hungary failed. An army report from FK 183 described the quickly deteriorating situation:
“The numerous Jews were increased by the influx of Jews expelled from Hungary, of which some 3,000 have arrived in the last few days. Feeding them is proving enormously difficult; danger of epidemic also exists. Immediate order for their evacuation is urgently requested.”
On August 25, 1941, during a meeting between the High Command of the Army and the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories discussing the establishment of a civil administration in the region, Friedrich Jeckeln reportedly devised an “ominous solution” promising to “liquidate these Jews” before September 1, 1941.
The next day, on August 26, Jeckeln personally led the Aktion against the Jews in Kamianets-Podilsky. Since Einsatzgruppen C’s commandos were farther east, Jecklen called in Police Battalion 320, which was reinforced by a company of ethnic Germans from the Baltic region. The first day, Hungarian troops and police units led 4,200 men, women, and children to an execution site where they were shot.
According to eyewitnesses, the victims had to hand over all valuables, undress, climb down into a pit, and lie down on the ground or on top of each new layer of fresh corpses where they were shot in the back of the head. Witnesses also report that Jeckeln and several Wehrmacht officers supervised the events from a nearby hill overlooking the killing site. The next day, Police Battalion 320 shot an additional 11,000 Jews.
The Aktion not only included the murder of the Jews from Carptho-Ukraine, but also two-thirds of Kamianets-Podilsky’s indigenous Jewish population. When the shooting stopped, Jeckeln proudly informed the High Command of Army Group South, the highest military authority in Ukraine, that 23,600 Jews, including 14,000 Jews from Carpatho-Ukraine, had been killed. Although not yet a common practice in occupied Ukraine, the Germans established a ghetto for the remaining 4,800 Jews after the massacre.
The mass killing of Jews at Kamianets-Podilsky represents the largest massacre of Jews in Ukraine during the summer of 1941, and signaled a decisive shift in the Holocaust from targeting certain groups of Jewish males to the indiscriminate murder of entire Jewish communities. This transformation continued throughout the fall of 1941, as tens of thousands of men, women, and children were shot to death in ravines, open fields, and forests throughout Ukraine.
THE MASSACRE AT BABI YAR
Perhaps the most famous mass shooting in Ukraine took place at Babi Yar, the site of one of the largest mass shootings of Jews in German-occupied Europe. On September 19, 1941, German forces entered the city of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.
Prior to the German invasion of the Soviet Union, an estimated 160,000 Jews resided in Kyiv, which represented close to 20 percent of the city’s population. Once the invasion was underway, however, about 100,000 Jews fled Kyiv or were conscripted into the Red Army. Those that remained in the city mostly included women, children, and the elderly.
The immediate pretext for the massacre in Kyiv was a series of explosions in the Ukrainian capital caused by Soviet mines, which had been timed to explode after the Germans entered the city. These explosions destroyed German headquarters and many buildings along the main streets located in the center of the city. The blasts also killed a large number of German soldiers and officials.
In many smaller Ukrainian cities, after the Wehrmacht secured control, Nazi officials registered, isolated, and forced the local Jewish population to clear rubble, repair roads, sweep for mines, and perform other labor-intensive tasks. This usually continued for several weeks before security forces began organizing mass shootings.
In Kyiv, however, instead of utilizing Jewish forced labor to repair the damage caused by the mine explosions, Nazi officials used the sabotage as a pretext to murder the Jews who still remained in the Ukrainian capital. Some historians contend that this decision was made in coordination with housing authorities since the fires caused by the Soviet mine explosions created an immediate housing problem.
The Wehrmacht worked closely with the SS and police forces in Kyiv. On September 29-30, 1941, under the guidance of Einsatzgruppen C, the SS, German police units and their auxiliaries rounded up a significant proportion of the Jewish population in Kyiv and transported them to a ravine called Babi Yar, located just outside the city. The victims were summoned to the site, forced to undress, and then required to enter the ravine. Sonderkommando 4a, under the command of SS-Standartenführer Paul Blobel, shot them in small groups.
A brief report summarizing the events states that on September 29 and 30 Sonderkommando 4a, in collaboration with Einsatzgruppen HQ and Police Regiment South, executed 33,771 Jews. At least 40 copies of this post-action report were distributed in Berlin, to the SS, police battalions, the Wehrmacht, and high-ranking Nazi party officials. Since reports such as these were routinely copied, read, and discussed in detail, the 1941 mass shootings being conducted in Ukraine were widely known in Nazi government and party circles.
Just days after the mass murder of Kyiv’s Jews, Hitler issued an “Order of the Day to the Eastern Front” which described the Soviet Union as a system created and controlled by Jews. Hitler’s call to troops read:
“In a country that, owing to its vastness and fertility could feed the whole world, poverty rules to such an extent that we Germans could not imagine. This is a result of a nearly 25-year Jewish rule that, as bolshevism, is basically similar to the general form of capitalism. The bearers of this system in both cases are the same: Jews and only Jews.”
A week later, General Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau, the highest-ranking army official in Ukraine, reiterated Hitler’s message in a subsequent security order for troops in the Eastern Territories, calling for all soldiers to “accept and carry out severe retribution against the subhuman species of Jewry.”
The directives by Hitler and Reichenau clearly demonstrate how the Holocaust rapidly escalated in Ukraine. Within a matter of months, orders calling for the murder of Jewish males with communist ties expanded to include the indiscriminate murder of women, children, and entire Jewish communities. The radicalization of Nazi racial policy continued throughout the war as the Germans developed new methods of extermination.
(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.