The first million

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On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany launches a surprise attack on the Soviet Union.

The Red Army is defeated and retreats. Huge territories fall under the control of the Germans.

Soon the Germans, with the active participation of local collaborators, begin the total extermination of the Jews.

By the end of 1941, prior to the decision made at the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, approximately one million Jews had already been tragically murdered in these territories.

In remembrance of these innocent victims, we have compiled several episodes from our documentary project SEARCHING FOR THE UNKNOWN HOLOCAUST

Through this project, we hope to educate and raise awareness about the atrocities committed during this dark period in history.

Historical Background

The German invasion of the Soviet Union, code-named Operation Barbarossa, began on June 22, 1941. It was not only the largest German military operation of World War II but also aimed to radically expand the borders of the German ‘Living Space’ (Lebensraum). Nazi leaders considered it a crucial battle between Aryan Germany and the Soviet Union led by ‘Judeo-Bolsheviks.’ To win this clash, before the war, Hitler absolved the German army of any legal responsibility in its dealings with the civilian population. Subsequent orders, including the notorious ‘Commissar Order’ (Kommissarbefehl), issued by the German military and security forces, stipulated that Nazi Germany would persecute Soviet Jews, the only ethnic group specifically targeted in these orders, along with other enemies of the Reich.

Immediately after the German army occupied a specific area, specialized task forces (Einsatzgruppen), subordinated to the SD and Security Police, entered. These units’ primary task was to kill all Jews, and others considered hostile to the Reich. Other German forces, including the regular army, were also involved in murdering Jews. In contrast to all other German-dominated countries, Jews in the occupied Soviet areas were primarily killed by shootings. At the same time, a small number were put to death in gas vans, and poison was administered to children.

The extermination did not commence in full force from the beginning. In the initial weeks of the war, only of conscription age were targeted. But from late July to August, the killing operations increasingly targeted the entire Jewish population, resembling mopping-up operations. The pace of these Aktionen depended on the deployment of German troops and the security assessment of each area, as Jews were considered a significant security risk. Once the Germans overcame their logistical challenges, they killed the Jews near their houses, on the outskirts of cities and villages. The task was regarded as urgent, and the Germans did not wait until well-hidden killing sites in remote and inaccessible areas were established. This haste resulted in the victims generally not being identified and a high number of local witnesses to the executions.

German directives and policies made distinctions between the ‘annexed’ Soviet territories, i. e. the regions the USSR occupied and annexed after the outbreak of the Second World War (Bessarabia and North Bukovina that came to form the Soviet Republic of Moldavia, East Poland that was divided between the Soviet republics of Ukraine and Belorussia, three Baltic states: Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia that came to form respective Soviet republics) and the pre-war ‘core’ Soviet areas.

The Nazis saw a particular urgency in exterminating Jews within the pre-World War II borders of the Soviet Union. This translated into a policy where, as a rule, all the Jews in these areas were annihilated within several weeks or months after the beginning of the occupation. This policy was epitomized in the massacre of 33,771 Kiev Jews in the ravine of Babi Yar on September 29-30, 1941, less than two weeks after the German occupation began. In contrast, after the initial waves of killing operations against the Jews from the ‘annexed’ areas subsided in the fall of 1941, many thousands of them were left alive while confined to ghettos and forced labor until the final and total annihilation of the Jews took place shortly before the German retreat in 1943-1944.

The Germans extensively employed local collaborators in persecuting and exterminating the Jews. In the occupied Soviet territories, their numbers were high due to widespread resentment among Soviet citizens towards the harsh prewar policies of the Soviet regime. Collaborators were involved not only in rounding up the Jews, as was common practice in the rest of German-dominated Europe but also in murdering them.

Nevertheless, despite the extremely harsh German occupation regime in the occupied Soviet areas (possibly only comparable in the extent of brutality to occupied Poland and Serbia), virulent anti-Semitic propaganda, and the death penalty for anyone aiding persecuted Jews, a small number of local people helped Jews survive.

Overall, approximately one million Soviet Jews were exterminated in 1941. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 ushered in the genocidal stage of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” These Jews were annihilated before the Wannsee Conference, held on January 20, 1942, which expanded the Final Solution to the rest of Europe in 1942.