Grades: For high-school students, ages 17-18
In the following educational environment, we offer you a model of teaching a complex and morally difficult subject – that of the history of the Holocaust in the occupied Soviet territories. This subject is presented in more detail and in further depth on the "The Untold Stories" project website.
The environment will focus on the specific story of the city of Berdichev Ukraine. Through the example of one city and one community, the key stages of the development of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” in the former Soviet Union will be examined. Materials from "The Untold Stories" site and from additional sources will be used.
The invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany on June 22, 1941 (Operation Barbarossa), served as the beginning of the mass extermination of Jews in the occupied Soviet territories. The Nazi policy of destruction was motivated by two main ideological reasons – the colonialist character of the war (“Lebensraum” , or “Living Space”) and the fight against “Judeo-Bolshevism”.
During the war, many Jewish communities throughout the previously Soviet controlled areas were completely destroyed. The tragic end of many of the larger communities has been well documented and has consequently become well-known. However, the stories of hundreds of smaller communities who were murdered in killing sites across the former Soviet Union remained unaddressed and unknown.
The online "Untold Stories" project ("The Untold Stories: The Murder Sites of the Jews in the Occupied Territories of the Former USSR") is dedicated to the fate of these smaller communities. In this project run by the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, researchers identify and scour through documents, photographs and testimonies with the aim of commemorating and sharing these untold stories.
In addition to providing background information on the communities themselves, "The Untold Stories" site also contains information on mass killing sites, where hundreds and thousands of Jews residing in these communities were murdered. This information includes testimonies – textual and video – of Jewish survivors, written accounts by local residents, reports of the Soviet Extraordinary State Commission, and SS and Wehrmacht reports. A special place is given to descriptions of the local efforts to commemorate the murdered Jews.
Note for Teachers:
The objective of this unit is to give the students a general idea about the pre-war life of the Jews in the Soviet Union. When tackling such difficult subjects such as extermination and the “Final Solution”, it is imperative to first present the prewar Jewish life of the region discussed.
The city of Berdichev is situated in the Zhitomir district of Ukraine, in the historic Volhynia region. The first mention of Jews in the city can be traced to 1593. In the 18th century, the city became one of the most important Jewish centers in Ukraine and a famous Hassidic center. This earned it the title of “Jerusalem of Volhynia”. Prominent rabbis, such as Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev or the famous advocate of Jewish Enlightenment Rabbi Yitzhak Ber Levinzon, lived and worked in the city.
After Berdichev's incorporation into the Russian Empire (1793), Jewish cultural life thrived in the city, and it became an important trade center. In 1798, a Jewish printing press was established in the city, which became one of the largest in mid-19th century Russia. The city also attracted major cultural Jewish figures, such as the prominent Yiddish and Hebrew writer, Mendele Mokher Seforim (Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh), who worked in Berdichev from 1858 to 1869, and the great Sholem Aleichem (Shalom Rabinovitz), who resided there in the 1880s.
According to the 1897 census, there were 41,617 Jews in the city, making up 80% of the population.
In his book The Town of the Little People, Sholem Aleichem describes the town of Kasrilovka, inspired by Berdichev:
...Stuffed in the farthest corner, in the back of beyond, detached from the rest of the world, this town sits like an orphan, bewitched and spellbound, turned in upon itself, as if it has nothing to do with all this hullabaloo with its messiness, buzz and fuss, commotion and confusion, boiling passions, desire to dominate others, and other nice things that people have managed to create, inventing various names for them like “culture”, “progress”, “civilization” and other pretty words that make a respectable person take off his hat reverently. Small, small people…
...You want to know what Kasrilovka looks like? It is indescribably pretty! Even more so, if you look at it from a distance!
...In the center of the town there is a wide semicircular, or maybe four-cornered, square with stores, butcher’s shops, stands and stalls. And every morning, the bazaar opens and lots of peasants come to it from every corner with all kinds of goods and foods – fish, onions, horse-radish, parsley and other vegetables. They sell all their greens and buy the things they need from the Jews, which brings the Jews some income – not that large, but income nonetheless. In the same square, all the goats of the town are lying during the day, basking in the sun; in the same square (may I be forgiven for mentioning it in the same breath), there are all the synagogues, prayer houses, and heders where Jewish children study the Torah, prayers, reading and writing… The rabbi with his students are chanting and screaming at the top of their voices – one could grow deaf from the noise!... There is also a bath-house where women wash, and a hospice where Jews die, and other hidden places that make themselves felt even from a distance…
Sholem Aleichem, Collected Writings (Moscow, 1960), Vol. IV (Russian).
During the Civil War (1918-1920), the Jews of Berdichev suffered from pogroms, organized by the troops of Symon Petliura and Pavlo Skoropadskyi, leaders of the Ukrainian Nationalists. Dozens of Jews were killed or wounded.
During the Soviet period, many religious institutions in the city were closed, and Zionist activity was prohibited. At the same time, the authorities supported and encouraged secular Jewish and Yiddish culture, seeing them as a tool for instilling Soviet ideology among the masses. Yiddish became an official language of government bodies and court proceedings were often conducted in Yiddish as well. In 1926, there were 30,812 Jews living in Berdichev, forming 55.6% of the overall population. In 1928, in the building of the former monastery of the Order of Discalced Carmelites, a Historical-Cultural Reserve (museum) was opened, where a large part of the display was dedicated to Yiddish culture.
By the end of the 1930s, Soviet policy toward nationalities changed, resulting in the closure of all Soviet Yiddish institutions The Jewish population of the city significantly decreased due to the mass immigration waves of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. According to the 1939 census, 23,266 Jews remained in Berdichev, i.e. 37.5% of the population.
About one third of Berdichev's Jewish population managed to evacuate or escape prior to the arrival of the Germans, on July 7, 1941.
Mikhail Valshenboim recalls this tumultuous time:
...The Germans came... At first, they did not touch anybody. I mean the advancing troops, the ones that entered the city in the very beginning. The second wave of the German troops was quite different. They began plundering. Together with policemen.
In the Flames of the Holocaust (Shoah) in Ukraine (Ghetto Fighters' House, 1998), p. 35 (Russian).
Murderous acts and plundering began taking place during the first days of the occupation. In their testimonies, many witnesses noted that before the war, the relations between Jews and other ethnic groups in Berdichev were quite friendly. But with the start of the occupation, everything changed:
When the Germans came, they immediately started killing Jews. And the locals could plunder their property. So, today they would take a wardrobe, tomorrow – a bed, the next day – something else, like gold, for example, and then they would wait till more Jews got killed, because then they could get even more stuff. After all, every Jewish family did have some property. When the Germans took Jews away pretending it was “for work”, they were not allowed to take anything with them but gold and a few things. All the property remained in their homes…
Ibid., p. 53.
Additional motivations for this change of attitude towards the Jews are described in the following testimony:
After the Germans entered the city, many Ukrainians started to show their negative attitude towards Jews. Anti-Semites of all shades, sensing their actions would go unpunished, came out of the woodwork like cockroaches. All the Jews who were more or less well-off were thrown out of their homes literally only with their hand luggage alone. The marauding scum put on the plundered clothes and went to the market to boast of their “new acquisitions”… In the evenings, many policemen got drunk and entered Jewish homes “to blow off some steam”. People hid in their homes after sundown, fearfully expecting the policemen to come to their homes – to break open the door, start with plunder, and then kill everybody.
Yefim Milshtein, The Inner Side of Hell (Minneapolis-St.Paul, 2005), pp. 3-4 (Russian).
In Vasily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate , a mother describes in a letter to her son a variety of feelings non-Jewish neighbors had towards Jews who were now outside the law:
The woman next door, a widow with a six-year-old daughter – a girl called Alyonushka with wonderful blue eyes, I wrote to you about her once – came round and said to me: ‘Anna Semyonovna, I’m moving into your room. Can you clear your things out by this evening?’ ‘Very well, I’ll move into your room then.’ ‘No, you’re moving into the little room behind the kitchen.’
I refused. There isn’t even a stove there, or a window.
I went to the surgery. When I came back, I found the door of my room had been smashed in and all my things piled in the little room. My neighbour just said: ‘I’ve kept the settee for myself. There’s no room for it where you are now.’
…‘You’re outside the law!’ she said, as though that were something very profitable for her. And then her little Alyonushka sat with me all evening while I told her fairy-tales. That was my house-warming party – the girl didn’t want to go to bed and her mother had to carry her away in her arms. Then, Vityenka, they opened the surgery again. I and another Jewish doctor were both dismissed. I asked for the previous month’s pay but the new director said: ‘Stalin can pay you whatever you earned under the Soviet regime. Write to him in Moscow.’ The assistant, Marusya, embraced me and keened quietly, ‘Lord God, Lord God, what will become of you, what will become of you all?’ And Doctor Tkachev shook me by the hand. I really don’t know which is worse – gloating spite, or these pitying glances like people cast at a mangy, half-dead cat.
Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate (New York Review Books Classics, 2006).
During the German occupation of Berdichev, Grossman’s own mother, Yekaterina (Malka) Savelyevna, was murdered as well.
- According to the testimonies above, what was the attitude of the local non-Jewish population towards the Jews? What motivated this attitude?
Murders acts against the Jews during the first days of the occupation were often unsystematic and chaotic in character. Vasily Grossman, describing these events in The Black Book, and Yefim Milshtein in his memoirs The Inner Side of Hell, both note that at times the German soldiers treated these murders as a form of entertainment:
A few days later, the Germans arrested several Jewish girls, forced them into the river near the dam and made them swim to the other side, where another group of Germans was waiting, which forced them to swim back by automatic gunfire. The girls turned back in a vain hope to survive before the Nazis got tired of killing defenseless people. The girls drowned one after another, and the Germans roared with laughter and made bets until not a single girl remained upon the surface. I saw it all from the cliff by the Catholic church. It was a long time before I could swallow the lump in my throat – long after everything was over.
Yefim Milshtein, The Inner Side of Hell, p. 3 (Russian).
As early as July 1941, organized acts of extermination took place in Berdichev as well as in other places. Thus, in July 1941, about 850 Jews, mostly men, were shot in the area of the Historical-Cultural Reserve by the soldiers of the Einsatzgruppe C. Later, in the first days of August, 300 more Jews were shot at the same site, and in late August – 546 more.
The following excerpt related these events. It is taken from the records of postwar court proceedings, conducted in 1946:
Prosecutor: For what purpose did your unit arrive in the city of Berdichev?
Defendant: When we arrived in Berdichev, it became clear that we had to perform the same task as we did in Lvov, that is, to shoot Jews.
Prosecutor: To conduct mass killings of Jews.
Prosecutor: Tell us how those shootings were done.
Defendant: We arrived in Berdichev a few days after it was taken by the Germans.
Prosecutor: It was in June 1941.
Defendant: Yes, in June 1941, but I can’t tell you the exact date.
Prosecutor: What happened later?
Defendant: On the very first day of our arrival to Berdichev, we received Renner’s instructions about our job.
Prosecutor: What instructions did you receive?
Defendant: To round up the Jews, take their valuables and shoot them.
Prosecutor: What did you do to carry out these instructions?
Defendant: We had to carry them out.
Prosecutor: So, you once again took part in raids against.
Defendant: Yes, I had to take part in them.
Prosecutor: For how many days did you conduct those raids?
Defendant: For two days. There were 4 raids in all.
Prosecutor: How many Jews did your unit arrest during those raids?
Defendant: Our group arrested up to 850 people.
Prosecutor: Where were those people shot?
Defendant: At a distance of a few kilometers from Berdichev.
Prosecutor: Did you personally take part in the killing of this group of people?
Defendant: Yes, I took part in it.
Prosecutor: For two days.
Prosecutor: How long did those shootings last? From what hour till what hour?
Defendant: One can say, for about 5 hours.
Prosecutor: How many people did you personally shoot during those two days?
Defendant: Approximately, up to 120.
Excerpt from the records of court proceedings: 1946, January 17-28, Military Tribunal of the Ministry of Interior, District of Ukraine, City of Kiev.
After the war, a captured German NCO, pilot radio operator Bruno Manci, who did not participate in the execution personally but was a witness to them, gave the following testimony:
In the summer, during July-August 1941, our squadron (9 planes) was near Berdichev. One day there was a rumor that thousands of Jews were about to be shot next to the old Berdichev citadel. My pilot and myself, sergeant-major Sneider, and a few of our comrades went to the city to find out if people really could be killed just because they were Jews. In the courtyard of the citadel, those condemned to death were standing in groups. Their names were registered; they were taken into the basement, then, after a short time, brought out again. Beyond the main wall, locals had dug a deep pit. The condemned were taken to the pit one by one, an SD officer (with three stars) was the one in charge and gave orders. The condemned stopped close to the pit, they were forced to their knees and killed with a shot to the back of their head. All this operation was conducted by a group of 5 SD soldiers and an officer. The condemned went to their death without resisting. We could see it all clearly, standing close by the execution site, near the pit. I could no longer watch this slaughter, and we left the place filled with indignation and horror.
Zhitomir District State Archive, fund 2636, series 1, file 9, pp. 52-51 in S. Yelisavetsky, The Berdichev Tragedy (Kiev, 1991), рp. 27-28 (Russian).
Mikhail Valshenboim remembers:
I don’t know about others, but I still have hardened areas on my arms until now. It’s from when I was walking with my father in that column. Since then… There were big guys in that column, butchers. Young ones. Those who hadn’t been drafted into the army yet. You know, I said then: “Why are we just walking? Let’s kill them!” I said it in Yiddish. Some of the policemen understood Yiddish. And one of them hit me on the arm, and kept on hitting… I still feel those hardened areas. Anyway, they never said they were leading us to be killed… They said they were taking us for work… And only when the people were undressing, they started to realize that this was it, this was the end. The Germans and the policemen rounded up people so many times – and they only talked about work, they never said they were taking people away to be killed. And everybody was sure it was for work. Only now do we know what was behind the word “work”. At that time, people who lived then could not wrap their heads around it, so to speak, that one could just round up people and take them to die. That one could simply shoot living people, innocent people… How could they know they were being taken to be killed? Maybe, if they knew about the death awaiting them, then certainly somebody would have ripped somebody’s throat, knowing he would have to die anyway.
In the Flames of the Holocaust (Shoah) in Ukraine, pp. 55-56.
- Who was involved in the killings of the Berdichev Jews? Who were the witnesses?
- What was the reaction of the Jews to the acts of extermination? Base your answer on the German and Jewish testimonies given.
In some cases, Jews, mostly men, were selected by the Germans to allegedly perform various jobs. They were then taken away, never to return. Later it became known that they had been killed.
Thus, on August 27 ,1941, SS soldiers assembled and took away 1,303 Jews "to be sent to agricultural labor”. On September 4, all of them were shot a few kilometers south of Berdichev, near the village of Khazhin. This execution took place only a few days after a ghetto was created in Berdichev.
The expulsion to the ghetto was completed by August 22, 1941. The Berdichev Ghetto was situated between the market square and the Gnilopyat river, in the poorest neighborhood of the city, called Yatki. The Jews had to settle in old huts, several families sharing one room. The expulsion began during the first days of August. Jews were not permitted to take any furniture with them. They were only allowed to leave the ghetto in order to go to the market to buy food, and this too was limited to after six in the evening, when there were practically no food or food-sellers left in the markets. During other hours, Jews were not permitted to leave the ghetto, under threat of severe punishment.
Mikhail Valshenboim remembers:
Nobody ruled us there. At least, I don’t remember that anybody was appointed over us. They simply brought all the people to those streets and then we were left to our own devices. Nobody took care of us, everyone tried to get by as best they could.
In the Flames of the Holocaust (Shoah) in Ukraine, p. 37 (Russian).
In order to obtain food and survive, people had to break the rules and leave the ghetto. The absence of any physical fence and poor security provided this opportunity, but the risk of being recognized and punished was enormous.
...of course, we have to “earn our living” outside the ghetto – in the market and close to the German units headquarters. The ghetto is not guarded carefully; you simply have to remove your Star of David before you go into the city. It’s easier for those who can roll their “R”s and don’t look Jewish, otherwise people may chase them away or call the police. Policemen won’t pull any punches – they will either beat you up or throw you into the basement at the police station.
Yefim Milshtein, The Inner Side of Hell, p. 9 (Russian).
- What were the conditions like in the ghetto?
After August 1941, when the ghetto was sealed, murder operations became total in character.
On September 15, 1941, 12,000 Jews, regardless of their sex or age, were rounded up in the ghetto by SS soldiers and Ukrainian policemen. They were taken to the farm of Shlemarka, located near the former military airfield. There they were shot and buried in pre-prepared ditches. This was the largest act of extermination of the Berdichev Jews.
The raid was organized on the night between September 14 and 15. The ghetto was closed off, and at four in the morning, SS soldiers and policemen began breaking into houses and throwing people out to the market square. Those who could not walk – the sick and the elderly – were often killed on the spot.
Mikhail Yablochnik recalls these events in his testimony:
- Well, on September 15 in the morning, at 5 in the morning, a commotion started. Germans and policemen surrounded all the houses, this area where the Jews lived. It was not a big area, but it housed a large population… And there was a big commotion.
- What do you mean by commotion? What could you hear?
- We heard shouts. We heard yells of policemen, we heard German speech… Something like that had never happened before… My father told me: “You are little, nobody will touch you, here, take the key to our doors…” In Ukraine back then, most doors were locked with a metal beam. I took such a key. He says: “Go and see what’s happening there, and lock us in from the outside… Later, you’ll tell us what happened. In the meantime, hide yourself”. So I did. I went out and locked them in from the outside. And started hanging around, checking what was going on, and was immediately captured.
- Who captured you?
- A policeman.
- The area was surrounded by vehicles. And people were already lined up in rows – the people they had already rounded up. They put me in a line, because they put only old people who couldn’t walk, or little children, in the vehicles. They threw them into the vehicles, locked them in and drove them away. And I was lined up in the row. There were many dogs and many policemen. There weren’t many Germans. The majority were policemen. So I was forced to go away, together with the key.
From the crowd assembled in the market square, the Germans selected a few specialists in professions they needed. Those people were allowed to take their families with them, but in the ensuing confusion, tragedies often happened: many of those selected could not find their wives and children in the crowd.
Mikhail Valshenboim remembers:
My father, as an expert builder, was allowed to take his family from the line that was led to execution. But in that hustle and bustle he could no longer see my mother, or my sisters, or my little brother. Maybe they had already been shot by that moment. So, instead, he took my mother’s sister and her two kids from the line. Took them instead of his own wife and children.
People were led from the ghetto to the execution site on foot. Those who could not walk – old people and little children – were taken by trucks. Thousands of people under guard were passing before the eyes of local residents, some of whom had seen the preparations for the execution; those who lived in the villages near the murder site could witness the killing itself.
The following is an excerpt from an interview with one such witness, Ivan Nikiforovich Nikolaichuk, who resided in the village of Radyanskoe. It was conducted on April 1, 1944.
Question: Comrade Nikolaichuk, please tell us what you know about the mass execution and the pits situated not far from you. What did you personally see?
Answer: Long before the mass killing of the civilians of Berdichev, Germans had brought lots of prisoners of war here to clear out the pits. At the same time, Germans blew the pits up with explosives. One day (I don’t remember which), in September 1941, Germans and policemen drove very many people past our house towards the pits that had been cleared out before. When they brought them to the pits, they started separating them – adults from children. Mothers did not give their children willingly, and then they were shot immediately… People were put in rows of 10-15 and shot with automatic rifles. This procedure went on until everybody was dead.
Most of the Jewish population of Berdichev was annihilated on that day.
From the report of Section VII of the headquarters of the 213th Support Division to the Commander of Operations and Logistics of Army Group South, September 19, 1941:
Harsh measures taken by the division against the Jews continue to be recognized as just and are welcomed. Nevertheless, Jews in small towns and in the country, with the exception of Berdichev, are not as numerous as they were in Volhynia.
Some of those who were able to escape from the ghetto managed to hide on the outskirts of Berdichev and in neighborhoods which were forbidden to the Jews. In late October, Germans and policemen organized a raid, as a result of which about 2,000 Jews were captured and, together with the selected specialists, were locked in the building of the Historical-Cultural Reserve. On November 3 1941 (according to other sources, October 29-30), 150 specialists were selected from the total number of prisoners, and all the rest were driven to the territory of the Sokulino sovkhoz and shot. The surviving specialists were taken to a camp on the Lysaya Gora (Bare Mountain).
On April 27, 1942, the Germans killed about 70 Jewish women from mixed families together with their children.
The last 60 Jewish specialists who were still alive were shot during the first advance of the Red Army on Zhitomir, in November 1943, or in the first days of January 1944.
On January 5, 1944, Berdichev was liberated. The few surviving Jews began to return to the city.
- What took place during the Aktion on September 15, 1941, according to the Jewish testimonies?
- How are these events described in the testimonies of the local non-Jewish population and in German reports?
- How can one explain the differences in the way events are described in each of these sources?
- In the Flames of the Holocaust (Shoah) in Ukraine, p. 40 (Russian).
- Central State Archive of Government Bodies, USSR, fund 7021, series 60, file 285, p. 18.
- Central State Archive of Government Bodies, Ukraine, fund KMF-8, series 2, file 165, p. 218. In S. Yelisavetsky, The Berdichev Tragedy, р. 36 (Russian).
Note for Teachers:
In this part of the lesson, it is important to emphasize how atypical the instances of rescue were.
Vasily Grossman in The Black Book notes that out of the 20,000 Jews of Berdichev who found themselves under German occupation, only very few survived.
We have seen that there were hundreds of Jews who managed to escape from the ghetto and hide, thus avoiding death on the day of the execution, on September 15, 1941. Most were captured and subsequently killed. Those who escaped had to rely on the aid and support of the local population in order to survive. However even the smallest efforts to save the Jews were severely punished, in some cases even by death. In contrast, informing on Jews or on those who were hiding them could well result in reward.
Below are three rescue stories of Jewish children.
Mikhail Valshenboim remembers:
When I was taking my shirt off [during the Aktion], I saw I was standing by a battered harvester… So I hid behind the harvester. I lay and kept my head down… Then I heard machine guns and automatic rifles… Screams, cries… As I was lying there, a policeman came up and saw me. He bent down to me, called me by a “nice” name and said: “Why are you lying here, little Yid?” Thankfully, he said it quietly. You understand, to me this conversation was a matter of life and death. I answered, just as quietly: “I have gold. Here, with me. Sewn into my underpants.” Underpants were the only thing I was wearing at the moment. In fact, I had nothing on me, but it was the first thing that came into my head. And he said: “Well, keep lying here. I’ll come back later.” He must have got interested in that gold. This is what saved me; otherwise, he would have dragged me to the pit as well. So, he left. And I lay there for a few more minutes, but then I realized that he knew me and could be back any moment, so I shouldn’t be lying there, I should leave. Then I crawled away, and kept crawling for a long time – at least a few hundred meters, so that nobody could see me. When I stopped crawling, I found myself in some garden or park. I stood up and started running.
It was already early evening, it was getting dark. I came to a village. (…) For a long time I was hiding, waiting for it to become completely dark… Then I asked to be let into a house. I explained who I was, told them I had escaped from the shooting. I was let into the house and given food. Even allowed to stay overnight…
-What kind of people were they?
-How shall I put it… More than 50 years have passed. I don’t even remember exactly which house I entered, where I spent that first night after my escape from death. What can I tell you? They were good people. Not everybody was bad. There were good people as well, quite a lot of them…
In the Flames of the Holocaust (Shoah) in Ukraine, pp. 41-43 (Russian).
Mikhail Valshenboim was taken in by a Ukrainian family in the village of Terekhovo, and when it was too dangerous to stay there, he joined a group of Red Army prisoners of war in the Kozyatin region. In December 1943, the area was liberated by the Soviet troops.
Yefim Milshtein, too, managed to escape from the murder site on September 15, 1941. A Ukrainian peasant woman sheltered him for a while.
Then she put some clothes on me which were obviously too large. She saw the face I made and said in Ukrainian: “These are my husband’s clothes”. She brought scissors, a needle and thread, and started to make adjustments on me. When she finished, she stepped aside, looked at me and started to cut my hair with the same scissors, combing the hair with a wooden comb and saying: “Now you look like one of our boys”…. She was clipping me like a sheep, though I had quite a decent city-style haircut, but I didn’t even think of resisting. Only later I understood that she wanted me to look like a village boy so as not to attract the attention of strangers; she wanted to stave off the danger. But the Germans were more cunning.
For an entire week she nursed me back to health: gave me food and drink, and always told me that what had happened to me was not the end of the world. Only a person with a strong mind could survive something like that, she said, and if you could escape from that slaughter, you shouldn’t lose your presence of mind, you must be on your guard in any situation, you must be prepared for anything.
We talked a lot during those long September evenings. She did not want any of the neighbors to see me, so I only left the house when it got dark, and even then only as far as the summer kitchen. She used to say: the fewer prying eyes – the better you’ll sleep.
But one day she came back from the field, sat down by the table tiredly and was silent for a long time. I did not ask questions though I felt some foreboding. At last, she said that the Germans had hung up an order saying that everyone was supposed to show them where Jews were hiding, and those who did show would be rewarded, and the reward was a cow. A cow! In the village, a cow meant life! Of course, she said, you don’t really look like a Jew and you are not circumcised, but if the neighbors saw you they would definitely inform, and then she herself would suffer: those who disobeyed the order would be shot. Your eyes may give you away, she said, so stay far away from policemen and from Germans as well. Better for them not to see you at all, but hiding is dangerous too, because those who are hiding arouse suspicion. You must know it and think several steps ahead.
What could I do? I understood I would have to leave. Where? In what direction? I remembered how the Germans separated my father from the crowd in the market square. She brightened up and said that if my father was alive and working for the Germans, I should try and find him, and together we would overcome any trouble.
She tied some food in a bundle, prayed to God to help me survive and forgive her for her sins, and told me how to get to Berdichev. She taught me how to behave in crowded places so as not to attract attention, how to beg for alms, how to say I had lost my family in a bombing raid and was going to Berdichev to my aunt and uncle, and there were tears in her eyes.
Yefim Milshtein, The Inner Side of Hell, pp. 8-9 (Russian).
Chaim Roitman shares his rescue story:
They called me Mitya Ostapchuk. But I am Chaim Roitman. I am from Berdichev. I am 13 now. My dad was killed by Germans, and mum too. I had a younger brother, Borya. A German gunned him down…
I was standing by the edge of the pit, waiting to be killed. A German came up to me and squinted his eyes. And I said: “Look – there’s a watch!” There was a piece of glass sparkling on the ground. The German went to pick it up, and I broke into a run. He started running after me and shooting, and made a hole in my cap. I kept running until I fell. Don’t remember what happened later. An old man picked me up: Gerasim Prokofievich Ostapchuk. He said: “You are Mitya, my son”. He had seven sons of his own, I became eighth.
One day, drunken Germans came and started shouting. They noticed I was black-haired. They asked Gerasim Prokofievich: “Whose is he?” He said: “Mine”. They said he was lying because I was black. And he replied calmly: “This is my son by my first wife, and she was a Gypsy”.
When Berdichev was liberated, I went into the city. I found my older brother Yasha. He escaped as well. Yasha is big, he’s 16. He is fighting now…
The Unknown Black Book (Jerusalem, 1993), р. 157 (Russian).
- What dilemmas had to be faced by people who tried to rescue Jews? What were the difficulties these rescuers had to confront?
After the end of the occupation, Jews tried to commemorate the fallen in various ways. Thus, Ilya Ehrenburg, Vasily Grossman and the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee started to prepare The Black Book for publication – a book of testimonies collected during the war. There were many local private initiatives to commemoraThe Untold Storieste the victims.
In 1945, Raisa Galperina, a Holocaust survivor, returned to Berdichev. She came to the field where her parents had been murdered together with thousands of other Jews on September 15, 1941, and did not find any sign or monument. So, Raisa planted a young tree at the site, and in later years, whenever she came here, the tree served as a kind of memorial to her murdered parent
"The Untold Stories" site ends the story of each community with the subject of postwar commemoration efforts.After the war, Soviet Jews wanted and saw it as very important to commemorate their murdered relatives and destroyed communities. However they were faced with serious opposition on the part of the Soviet authorities.
Researcher Mordechai Altshuler writes about the position of the authorities concerning the issue of commemoration of the Holocaust victims:
Both the religious communities and the authorities were keenly aware of the broad significance of the Jews’ activities in commemorating the Holocaust. The communities knew that this overstepped their religious domain but created solidarity among all Jews, including the largely non-religious and even the overtly anti-religious. The authorities were also aware of this aspect and believed - correctly - that these actions strengthened the collective Jewish national consciousness. Indeed, many locations where monuments were erected or where common graves of Holocaust victims were maintained became sites of pilgrimage for many Jews and their families. Thus, the commemorative act was a unifying factor that clashed with the authorities’ “atomization” policy regarding the Jews.
Mordechai Altshuler, "Jewish Holocaust Commemoration Activity in the USSR Under Stalin”,Yad Vashem Studies, XXX, p. 296.
In this matter, the story of Berdichev is typical to the Soviet Union. After the liberation of the city, Jews who returned to the city began to work on the construction of a monument in Shlemarka, the main site of execution. However, in 1946 the municipal and military authorities demanded from the chairman of the religious Jewish community, Metler, to stop all attempts to erect a monument there. Since it was impossible to build a memorial at the murder site, Jews built several symbolic gravestones to the Holocaust victims at the Jewish cemetery. At the same time, attempts to obtain permission to build a monument continued in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and in 1953, the community was allowed to erect a memorial sign at the site of the mass grave. A short time later, however, it disappeared.
After Stalin’s death, the community resumed its efforts to establish a monument, and started a fundraising campaign. Finally, in 1958, a new monument was erected, with two engraved inscriptions – in Russian and in Yiddish. The Russian inscription read: “Here lie the bodies of local residents and prisoners of war, savagely shot by the Hitlerite Fascists in 1941-1942”. completely ignoring the victims' Jewish origin. Only the Yiddish words hinted that the victims were in fact Jews. In addition, the authorities did not allow the monument to be placed at the execution site. It was built in the Jewish cemetery.
Only in 1990, a monument was erected at the murder site itself, in Shlemarka. Instead of the word “Jews” the inscription contained the typical postwar Soviet euphemism “Soviet civilians”: “In this area 18,640 Soviet civilians were brutally tortured and shot by Hitlerite invaders in September 1941”. The number of victims marked on the monument is the Soviet Extraordinary State Commission’s estimate for the total number of Jews murdered in Shlemarka, Sokulino and Khazhin.
Another monument was established at the same time in the territory of the museum, and the Ukrainian inscription also mentions “Soviet civilians”. Two additional monuments were erected at the site of the former ghetto (in Yatki), dedicated both to the Berdichev ghetto inmates and also to the Ukrainian gentiles who saved Jewish lives during World War II. The first bears an inscription in Ukrainian and Yiddish: “In 1941 there was a Jewish ghetto in this area, from which 30,000 Jews from Berdichev, shot by Fascists, left for eternity.” The second bears a Ukrainian inscription: “Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world. The Jewish people will never forget your honorable deeds and will carry your names from generation to generation as an example of the highest humanity and harmony between our peoples. To the Righteous Among the Nations, from the Jewish community of Berdichev.”
- What were the ways to commemorate the Holocaust victims in postwar USSR?
- What difficulties did the Jews encounter in their attempts to commemorate the Holocaust victims?
- Where did these difficulties stem from?