The mass murder of the Jews began with the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. By the end of 1941, 80% of Lithuanian Jewry had been murdered, and by the beginning of 1943, most of the Jews of the western parts of Ukraine and Belorussia had been murdered. Additionally, Romanians and Germans murdered 150,000 Romanian and Ukrainian Jews in the first months after the invasion of the Soviet Union. In January 1942, a conference was held in Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin, in order to co-ordinate the implementation of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question”, the codename for the plan to murder all Jews within the Nazi’s reach.
The Invasion of the Soviet Union and the Beginnings of Mass Murder
The turning point in the Nazi’s plan to “solve the Jewish problem” began with Operation Barbarossa, the massive military invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, intended to wind up the war by winter. The invasion had been planned for a long time, and in anticipation, the Germans prepared units of Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Latvian and Belorussian nationalist and oppositionist collaborators.
Hitler considered the invasion of the USSR as part of his plan to provide the German nation with “living space” (Lebensraum) and an opportunity to destroy Communism, which he loathed. For this reason, he instructed his military commanders to subject Kommisars (pollical officers who accompanied the Red Army) and intellectuals to cruel and harsh treatment. Under his inspiration, the “Kommisars Order” set out the rules for treatment of these officials and for Jews in the Soviet territories.
In the first weeks of the invasion, Jewish women and children were shot by happenstance, but by the middle of August, the scope of the murders had been widened to include all Jews. This policy crystallised as a result of Hitler’s visit to the front and his conclusion that the territorial solution to the Jewish problem was by then impractical, a conclusion that paved the way for the systematic mass murder of the Jews. Jewish women and children were defined as “worthless consumers” who could not contribute to the workforce.
Four special operations divisions (Einsatzgruppen) – A, B, C, and D – operated behind the corps that took part in the campaign against the USSR. The units were made up of SS, police and auxiliaries mobilised from the local population.
Hundreds of thousands of Jews managed to flee into the depths of the Soviet Union, but approximately 2 million Jews remained under Nazi occupation and were the victims of mass murder carried out by the Einsatzgruppen units. In less than half a year, by then end of 1941, about half a million Jews had been murdered within the areas of the Soviet Union conquered by the Nazis.
The murders generally took place in forests, valleys and abandoned buildings close to the homes of the victims. The Jews were forced to undress and hand over their valuables a short distance from the mass graves. They were taken in groups to the pits and shot. Many were buried alive.
In September 1941, members of Einsatzgruppe C murdered 33,771 Jews from Kiev over two days in Babi Yar. Babi Yar also became a site for the mass murder of Sinti and Roma (gypsies) and Soviet prisoners of war. Ponar, a forest located 6.2 miles south of Vilna, became a killing ground for tens of thousands of Jews. From July 1941 to July 1944, more than 70,000 people, the vast majority Jews, were murdered in Ponar.
From November 1941, Jews and other victims of the Nazi regime (Soviet POWs, partisans, hostages and others) were murdered in the Blagovshchina forest, close to the village of Maly Trostinets, southeast of Minsk. The first to die were some 100,000 Jews from the Minsk ghetto, and starting in May 1942, Jews were brought from Germany, Bohemia and Moravia, Poland and the Low Countries and murdered there. Some were murdered in gas vans, and the rest were shot. All the victims were buried in pits that had been dug in advance. According to different estimates, between 206,500 and half a million people were murdered in the Trostinets area.
Towards the end of 1941, the Germans realised that they would not defeat the Soviet Union in a lightning war as they had originally planned. The German army would require a workforce that would help in paving roads, clearing minefields, producing ordinance and equipment. The decision was thus made to temporarily leave Jewish prisoners alive in camps and ghettos in order to employ them for the German war effort. The extermination was renewed in its full intensity in the spring of 1942. By the winter of 1943, most of the Jews of Belorussia and almost half of the 2.5 million Jews of Ukraine had already been murdered.
Murder of the Jews of the Baltic States
Some 220,000 Jews were living in Lithuania when the Germans invaded in June 1941. The day after the German invasion of the Soviet Union and even before the Germans arrived at the major Jewish settlements, murderous riots perpetrated by the Lithuanians broke out against the Jews. At the encouragement of the Germans, the riots continued and thousands of Jews were murdered.
The German entrance to Lithuania was accompanied by acts of murder, rape, looting and abuse. Ponar became the killing ground for tens of thousands of Jews. The victims were led from Vilna and its vicinity to pits, shot by Germans and Lithuanians, and thrown in. Few survived the massacres, and of those, hardly any managed to elude the local population. From July 1941 to 1944, more than 70,000 people, nearly all of them Jews, were murdered at Ponar.
On August 15, 1941, the Kovno ghetto was sealed, and as per German orders, 20,000 Jews were imprisoned in the poorer section of the Slobodka (Williampola) suburb. The fatal turning point in the lives of the ghetto inmates came on October 28, 1941, when the Germans gathered all of the Jews in the ghetto and a brutal selection took place. More than 9,000 residents of the ghetto were lead to the Ninth Fort (one of the forts surrounding the city) and murdered. By the end of 1941, only 40,000 Jews remained in all of Lithuania and they were concentrated in four ghettos – Vilna, Kovno, Siauliai and Swieciany – and in a few labour camps.
In the summer and autumn of 1943, the Vilna and Swieciany ghettos were liquidated and the ghettos in Kovno and Siauliai were converted to concentration camps. A few months later approximately 1,200 babies, children and elderly inmates were murdered in the Kovno ghetto, and many youngsters were sent from the ghetto to labour camps in Estonia. In July 1944, with Kovno on the brink of liberation by the Soviet army, the ghettos in Kovno and Swieciany were liquidated and many of their inhabitants were sent westwards to camps in areas still under German control, including Stutthof, Dachau, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Approximately 10,000 Lithuanian Jews were still alive when Germany surrendered in May 1945, as well as some 2,000 Jews who had fled to the Soviet Union and survived the war there.
Germany occupied Latvia at the beginning of the invasion of the USSR. At that time, approximately 74,000 Jews were living in the country. Units from Einsatzgruppe A carried out the first mass murder of Latvian Jews in July 1941. By the end of October, 34,000 Latvian Jews had been murdered.
At the end of October, 32,000 Jews were sealed in two ghettos in Riga. In November 1941, Friedrich Jeckeln, a senior SS officer, was ordered by Himmler to liquidate the ghettos and then to liquidate all of Latvian Jewry. Between November 30 and December 7, 1941, 25,000 Jews were murdered in the Rumbula forest. At the same time the Jews of the ghettos of Dvinsk and Liepaja were also murdered.
Before World War II, 4,550 Jews lived in Estonia, the smallest of the Baltic States, about half in the capital of Tallinn. The Soviet Union occupied Estonia in 1940 as a result of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. The Germans conquered Estonia in July 1941, and many Jews fled to the Soviet Union. Those who did not manage to escape were placed under a harsh regime of restrictions: they were forced to don the yellow star and were stripped of their possessions. With the arrival of the Einsatzgruppen units the destruction of Estonian Jewry began. Local right-wing militias assisted in the murder of the Jews. By October 1941, most of the Jewish males above the age of 16 had already been murdered. It was reported at the Wannsee Conference (January 1942) that Estonia had been successfully rendered “Judenfrei”, free of Jews.
Murder of the Jews of Romania
Romania, an ally of Nazi Germany from 1940 to 1944, had a Jewish population of about 757,000 before World War II. Extreme anti-Semitic tendencies, long evident in the country, escalated on the eve of the war.
In June 1941, in the weeks following the invasion of the USSR by Nazi Germany and the Romanian army, with the partial co-operation of Einsatzgruppe D and some of the local population, massacred 100,000 – 120,000 of the Jewish population of Bessarabia and North Bukovina (areas annexed by the USSR from Romania in June 1940). The slaughter was carried out on the orders of Marshal Ion Antonescu, the fascist dictator of Romania. Similar massacres were carried out by the Romanian army in Western Ukraine and especially in the city of Odessa. Prior to this, Romanian soldiers, police and civilians slaughtered 15,000 Jews in the city of Iasi and carried out pogroms against the Jews of other cities in Romanian territory.
In summer-autumn 1941, on the orders of the Romanian authorities, survivors of the massacre in Bessarabia and North Bukovina, together with Jews from South Bukovina and the Dorohoi region (which were part of Romania) were brutally deported to the ghettos and death camps of Transnistria in west Ukraine. A largely unsettled area between the Dniester and Bug rivers that Nazi Germany had ceded from Romania in return for its participation in the war against the Soviet Union. From the time of their deportation to Transnistria, until their liberation by the Red Army in March 1944, 120,000 of the deportees perished as a result of murder, hypothermia, starvation and epidemics. This in addition to the tens of thousands of the local Jews in Transnistria who were victims of the Romanian invasion.
In total, 380,000 – 400,000 Jews, including the Jews of Transnistria, were murdered in Romanian-controlled areas under the dictatorship of Antonescu.
The Wannsee Conference
There is no physical document that indicates specifically by whom, at what time, and in what way it was decided that such an order was never issued in writing; instead, it was given orally, by Hitler, or more likely with his knowledge, in the summer of 1941. On July 31, 1941, shortly after the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Nazi Reichsmarschall, Herman Göring, ordered Reinhard Heydrich, head of the RSHA, “to make all the necessary preparations… for the Final Solution of the Jewish problem in the German sphere of influence in Europe”.
Immediately following the invasion, the mass murder of men, women and children began, but in November 1941, the German policy toward Jews took a fateful turn. Mass murder by gunfire failed to meet the Nazis’ expectations and was taking a cumulative toll on the German soldiers’ performance. By then, too, the Nazi leadership realised that the Blitzkrieg had not gone well, that the war against the Soviet Union would not end quickly, and that killing by gunfire was not efficient enough and failed to achieve its goal. As a result, a decision was made in November or December to shift to organised, systematic murder on an industrial scale.
Already in the summer of 1941, Rudolf Höss, commander of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp (near the Polish town of Oswiecim), had received orders to explore new methods of mass murder using poison gas. The Germans had already employed gas in the Euthanasia Program and had murdered tens of thousands of the physically and mentally handicapped until the program was halted due to pressure from the German public and clergy. However, the methods and knowledge gained during the Euthanasia Program served as the basis for the systematic mass murder of the Jews – the “Final Solution”.
The first experiment with mass murder by gas was performed in Auschwitz in September 1941. The victims of the experiment were Soviet prisoners of war. The Germans pumped Zyklon B, a cyanic gas, into a sealed room and within a few minutes the victims had all been killed.
On January 20, 1942, a crucial meeting was held in Wannsee (a suburb of Berlin), chaired by Reinhard Heydrich with the participation of 15 officials and representatives of the Reich authorities. At this meeting, the Reich Security Main Office co-ordinated the extermination plans vis-à-vis the relevant ministries and authorities. Heydrich spoke about the inclusion of 11,000,000 Jews in the Nazi program for the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”. The minutes of the Wannsee Conference record that: “Due to the war, the emigration plan has been replaced with deportation of the Jews to the east, in accordance with the Führer’s will.”
As a result of the meeting, a network of extermination camps was established in which 1.7 million Jews were murdered in 1942-1943.