“June 22, 1941 was like an earthquake, like a huge volcano erupting,” recalled Zakhar Trubakov in his memoirs. One of a handful of Jews who witnessed the massacre of the Jews of Kiev at Babi Yar, he described the feeling that gripped him and the public during the German invasion of the Soviet Union.
In June 1941, after having defeated Yugoslavia and Greece, Nazi Germany launched a surprise attack on the USSR. “Operation Barbarossa” was the codename given to the incursion of some four million troops into Soviet territory. The armies of Romania and Finland fought alongside the German military, as did army detachments sent by Germany’s allies—Italy, Slovakia, Hungary and Croatia. The objective of the operation was to precipitate the collapse of the “fortress of Bolshevism” before the onset of winter, and the invading army seized thousands of kilometers of territory. Within a short amount of time, Nazi Germany was besieging Leningrad in the north, and later in the offensive its troops reached the banks of the Volga River in the south, not far from the capital, Moscow.
Operation Barbarossa was a milestone in World War II, and a turning point in the fate of the Jews. The campaign in the USSR and the Soviet-annexed territories was an ideological and racist war to the death, and was characterized even after the battles ended by the implementation of Nazi Germany’s murderous policy and by widespread harm to the civilian population, especially the Jews. The ideological campaign and the identification of Communism (which was called “Bolshevism”) with Jews and Judaism created a close linkage between the war and the anti- Jewish policy. Nazi Germany, which had already instituted a policy of expelling, isolating and persecuting the Jews in Germany, Poland and Western Europe—a policy that inflicted hunger, suffering and death— carried out a broad official policy of mass murder for the first time after invading the USSR, which soon became systematic.
At the rear of the German Army in the war in the USSR were the Einsatzgruppen, four mobile killing units of the SS that were tasked with the war on "ideological threats"—Communists, partisans and Jews. Army units, police and other forces committed murder alongside them. Primarily men were shot in the first weeks after the invasion. Starting early in August 1941, however, the circle of murder gradually expanded to encompass broad swathes of territory and all of the Jews in the occupied areas—men, women and children—except for a small number who were assigned to perform forced labor.
The acts of murder followed a particular template: Through threats and various forms of deception, the Jews were required to report to locations, where they were gathered together. From there they were taken by foot or on trucks to a location nearby—such as a ravine, forest, castle or vacation spot—and murdered. Sometimes the Germans made use of anti-tank ditches, often forcing a group from among the victims to dig the killing pits themselves. The Jews were ordered to undress and hand over their valuables at some distance from the mass graves, and then they were taken to the pits and shot. Many were buried alive. For example, according to the German reports 33,771 Jews from Kiev were murdered in a ravine near the city of Babi Yar on September 29-30, 1941 (on Yom Kippur Eve). In Ponary, a forest about ten kilometers away from Vilnius, Lithuania, over 70,000 people, the overwhelming majority of whom were Jews, were murdered starting in July 1941. During that same time period, Jews were also murdered in similar operations in German-occupied Yugoslav territory and by the Antonescu regime on Romanian-occupied land. Dr. Ahron Peretz, who eventually founded and served as director of the Gynecology Department in Rambam Hospital in Haifa, testified at the Eichmann trial about the murder of the Jews of his hometown of Kaunas, Lithuania: “Only a few survived that place, and they later recounted the shocking events to us.”
The ability of the SS men and the German commanders and soldiers to murder the Jews stemmed first and foremost from their profound identification with Nazi ideology, which was predicated on an extreme antisemitism that considered Jews and Judaism to be the root of all evil in the world. According to this standpoint, the Jews and Judaism were a demonic force that aspired to rule the world, were instigating social revolutions and spreading Communism, and were a destructive race that was poisoning and undermining the very foundations of human existence. After years of persecution characterized by degrading, isolating and depriving Jews of their rights and dignity everywhere the Nazis reached, the Nazi German worldview became even more extreme, to the point that largescale murder that was as comprehensive as possible could be committed. Internalizing Nazi German ideology, propaganda and policy was crucial to the ability to murder Jewish women and men, old people and children face to face. Along with this, a diverse range of psychological and social contexts enabled "ordinary" men to cast off all moral restraint and join in the slaughter of unarmed, innocent civilians.
The German invasion of the USSR also involved pogroms committed by locals against their Jewish neighbors, and tens of thousands of Jews were murdered by their compatriots well before the policy of the German occupiers was clear. Additionally, local militias and organized groups in Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia and eastern Poland collaborated with the Germans and participated in the persecution and murder of Jews. Moreover, Germany’s allies in Romania and Croatia administered an independent policy of persecution, property expropriation and murdering Jews. Many civilians expressed schadenfreude – joy at the misfortune of others – over the catastrophe that had befallen the Jews, and they exploited their plight for their own profit by informing on them, extorting money, and robbing them of their property. There were those who hid and rescued Jews, the few Righteous Among the Nations who risked their lives to help their Jewish neighbors. However, traditional and modern antisemitism, the atmosphere of intimidation that the Germans imposed, and the human tendency towards conforming led a majority of the local populations to react to the murder of the Jews with indifference.
Close to a million Jews who lived in the German-occupied Soviet territories managed to flee deeper into the country together with the retreating Soviet army; the evacuation on the “eastbound trains” turned out to have saved them in hindsight, even though these Jews also lived in grim conditions during the war and suffered from shortages and hunger, and sometimes performed forced labor in service to the Soviet authorities.
Under the dark shadow of mass murder, the Jews began the struggle to live. They fled to villages and the woods in search of places to hide. Thousands joined partisan units and fought in the forests. Against all odds, underground cells tried to organize acts of resistance and rescue in dozens of towns and cities. In many ghettos and labor camps, the Jews fought for their human dignity and their Jewish spirit, managing to establish educational, cultural and religious institutions, and even to document some of the atrocities and the suffering for posterity.
Jewish life that had existed for centuries in Eastern Europe was practically obliterated. Approximately one million Jews were murdered within the Soviet Union's prewar borders, and some 1.5 million Jews were massacred in the territories annexed by the USSR between 1939 and 1940. In the last months of 1941, based on the accumulating experience in mass murder, and particularly due to the ideological radicalization that considered the war to be an "all-or- nothing" moment, the idea of murdering the Jews en masse crystalized into a comprehensive plan, beginning by destroying all the Jews of Europe: extermination camps were established and run, improved technologies for mass murder were implemented, and deportations by train "to the east" from the rest of Europe began. The murder of the Jews of the USSR and the annexed territories was the beginning of the consolidation of the “Final Solution”—the systematic annihilation of the Jews by Nazi Germany. By the end of the war, some six million Jews had been murdered.