“The Nazi invasion to the Soviet Union is a distinct and significant watershed. With the invasion, the war became a World War and the destiny of the Jews was determined: the mass-murder of the Jews began in earnest, with brutality reaching an unparalleled level.”
With these words Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev opened an academic symposium marking 70 years since Operation Barbarossa - the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.
The Symposium took place with the support of the Genesis Philanthropy Group and European Jewish Fund, and the Gutwirth Family Fund.
Holocaust historians gathered together early this week at Yad Vashem's International Institute for Holocaust Research to discuss various political, economic and military aspects of the war in the Eastern Front and its devastating impact on the Jews. Operation Barbarossa was a campaign that determined the outcome of the war according to Dr. Daniel Uziel, a historian working in the Yad Vashem Archives. Despite the comparative advantage maintained by the Soviets, in terms of number of troops, planes and tanks, the Germans achieved exceptional results during the first month of the Operation. Their technological superiority and the element of surprise in their initial attack gave them an unprecedented advantage. Nevertheless, the Germans suffered from logistic difficulties, exhausted troops, and internal conflicts between Hitler and the German generals regarding the war strategy. Those difficulties gave the Soviet leaders an opportunity, and time to mobilize reserves and send troops from the Far East to the area of battle. The harsh Russian winter took a tremendous toll on the exhausted Germans, who lacked the necessary supplies and appropriate winter gear. The Germans now realized that victory in the war was uncertain.
The Germans, who suffered great losses on the Eastern Front, now lacked supplies and military equipment and were in desperate need of an inexpensive manpower. Dr. Yitzhak Arad, a former partisan, chairman of Yad Vashem (emeritus) and world-renowned researcher on the Holocaust on the eastern front described the inadvertent rescue of some Lithuanian, Latvian and Minsk Jews, who were spared in order to be used as labor in the Occupied Soviet territories.
The traditional assumption that the Wehrmacht was a professional army that did not take part at the murder of the Jews was refuted by Dr. Leonid Rein, of Yad Vashem's International Research Institute. He discussed new findings proving the direct participation of the Wehrmacht in the mass murder of Jews such as the mass murder in Liepaja.
Prof. Mordechai Altshuler, of The Hebrew University Jerusalem, discussed the destruction of formerly held convictions among Jews. The Soviet Jews’ belief in the invincibility of the Red Army was shattered, and the lack of stability reignited local antisemitism. The Soviet Jews, who believed that antisemitism in the Soviet Union had ended, woke up to a harsh new reality.
The Institute will hold two additional symposia this year examining different aspects of the invasion. New information has also been uploaded to the “Untold Stories” Research Project which tells the story of the murder of Jews in the occupied areas of the former Soviet Union that began with the German invasion of the former USSR on 22 June 1941.