Between 1941 and 1944,
thousands of executions occurred in seven Soviet republics (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia), in the lands from Eastern Galicia to the rivers of the Baltic, from the Muscovite Forests to the borders of Caucasus. If you consider solely the official territory of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, researchers estimate the number of Jews exterminated climbs up to at least 2.2 million. This number includes 1.6 million victims in Ukraine, at least 500,000 in Belarus and at least 120,000 in Russia. More than 80% of the victims were shot; the rest were deported and assassinated in the death camps or in gas-vans. Other extermination practices included poison as well as the practice of burying victims alive, or death of victims in the mines and wells.
The death of Soviet Jews is not called the “Holocaust by Bullets” for nothing. This criminal “methodology” of murder by shooting, was used during the entirety of the Holocaust in the East regardless of the victim count; whether it be for the extermination of a Jewish family in a small town, or tens of thousands in a large Soviet occupied city.
Throughout the summer of 1941, just as later in 1944, the perpetrators followed the same process: extermination of a Jewish population by shooting men, women and children, often just outside a village or town. On the 22nd of June, 1941, Hitler began Operation Barbossa, the attack on the Soviet Union. The war carried out in the East by the Third Reich was an ideological battle, conquering of a Lebensraum (or living space), a war about total extermination of “Judeo-Bolshevism.” Right from first days of the invasion, the pogroms were in full swing the the Baltic countries, in Eastern Galicia – notably in Lviv – in Volhynie (Ukraine), often in response to the discovery of an assassination of a local nationalist from a NKVD prisons. The first victims of the Einsatzgruppen were Jewish men, in places like Tarnopol or Jitomir. The rest of the Jewish population, the women, children, and elderly, were confined to ghettos with abysmal living conditions leaving the Jews to starve, to freeze and fall ill – as they had, for example, in the Minsk ghetto in Belarus, created on the 20th of July 1941, or all the small Jewish neighborhoods scattered throughout the countryside.
Between August and September 1941,
the process of genocide carried out by the occupying German force intensified. Men were no longer the only ones being shot, but, now, women and children as well. In Belaïa Tserkov (Ukraine), 90 Jewish children were shot dead. On the 27th and 28th of August 1941, more than 23,000 Jews were executed by Nazis and their collaborators at Kamenets-Podolski (Ukraine).
The widespread and exhaustive extermination of Jews throughout the occupied territories was carried out by the Romanian Army and Gendarmes, Hitler’s allies. Hundreds of millions of Jews were assassinated in Bessarabia and Bucovina. The majority of them were murdered as early as July 1941, while the rest were concentrated into ghettos, in places like Czernowitz, or in camps, as is the case in Mărculeşti and Vapniarka.
Very often the shootings carried out by the Nazis occurred in broad daylight, on the outskirts of the town. The perpetrators regularly requisitioned locals to dig and fill the ditches, sometimes even to transport the victims or their belongings.
At the same time, in Belarus and in Ukraine, the ghettos were “liquidated,”
a word used by Nazis to describe the extermination of all Jews that were not considered useful as laborers. Up until spring 1944, the shootings would occur throughout the occupied Soviet territories, specifically for the Jews interned in labor camps and Jewish families that were caught by local police while in hiding.
The perpetrators were part of different German units. The most infamous are the Einsatzgruppen, “Intervention groups” that executed at least 500,000 Jews within the borders of the occupied Soviet lands.
On June 22nd,1941, following the directive of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, four Einsatzgruppen set-off eastwards. Comprising 2,800 to 3,000 men in total, the Einsatzgruppen were paramilitary units that included: men from criminal police and the Gestapo as the leaders of each division, assisted by a unit of WaffenSS , as well as a reserve battalion of ordinary policemen.
These heterogeneous groups were completed with drivers, translators, cooks, and other personal staff.
The units were completely motorized which allowed them to react quickly while in the field.
The Einsatzgruppen were divided into Einsatzkommandos and Sonderkommandos. They had to follow the troops to the front to invest in Soviet administrative buildings, uncover important documents and identify local communist leaders. They were also in charge of systematic checks on the population, arrests, or raid of Jews and their extermination.
One part of the military branch of the SS, that consisted also of Allgemeine (SS) and Sicherheitsdienst (SD).She was created originally by Heinrich Himmler as a political army. One of the most consequential shootings occurred in Kiev and obliterated one of the main Jewish communities of the USSR. On september 19th, 1941, the German troops entered Kiev as explosions rang through the city generated by far off retreating Soviet forces and a raging fire engulfing the city. The flames had just barely been extinguished when more than 33,000 Jews from Kiev were shot in the ravine of Babi Yar, the 29th and 30th of September 1941, by the Einsatzkommando 4a, police battalions and the local militia.
The massacres intensified in autumn of 1941
as persecution persisted from the Baltic countries all the way to Crimea. The shootings were incessant on the outskirts of Kaunas, Minsk, and the Paneriai Forest (also know as Ponary) near Vilnius.
Thousands of German, Austrian, and Czech Jews were also deported to the ghettos of the North-East, and were victim to the same fate as the local Jews. Another one of the biggest Jewish massacres occurred in Bogdanovka, a small town in Southern Ukraine, where more than 40,000 Jews (mostly native to Odessa and Bessarabie) were executed by Romanian forces and German colonists in just 10 days.
Another method of extermination came about towards the end of 1941: gas vans. Soon, Jews were no longer the only victims of the Einsatzgruppen and other mobile killing units: communists, Soviet prisoners of war, partisans, “Gypsies,” mentally handicapped people, etc. In 1942, Jews living in Russia and, notably, thousands of Jews evacuated from Northern Caucasia were either shot, or killed in gas vans.
Other units were present in the East,
like SS units or Ordungspolizei battalions “ordinary police.” Numerous battalions participated in the extermination of Jews in the East, for instance during the shooting of Jews from Kiev at Babi Yar on the 29th and 30th of September, 1941.
The police battalions were originally supposed to maintain order in the occupied territory and lead the fight against partisans. The Feldgendarmerie, one of the Wehrmacht groups dispersed in different administrative zones, played an important role – specifically for the extermination of the Jewish population.
This group was in charge of maintaining order within the military apparatus as well as amongst the public. Due to these responsibilities, the members of the Feldgendarmerie were regularly drafted for summary executions of Jewish partisans or other enemies.
A last unit, little known, was the Geheime Feldpolizei, also a military police, but in charge of political missions such as hunting the enemy within their own ranks. During the war, the Geheime Feldpolizei were focused on elimination the partisans and individuals that were considered “dangerous”.