GERMAN OCCUPATION OF THE SOVIET UNION
"The war against Russia...is one of ideologies and racial differences," Hitler told his generals in March 1941, "and will have to be conducted with unprecedented, unmerciful and unrelenting harshness." The Nazi committed such horrible crimes on the northern front against Russia that Russian soldiers had to be warned not to take out their anger on the first German civilians they encountered.
The Nazis were brutal occupiers. Hundreds of thousand of people were killed when Minsk, Smolensk and Kiev were surrounded and only 40 percent of the prisoners taken survived. The Germans took 5.7 million Soviet prisoners; 3.3 million died in captivity. The were also reports that Germans killed severely wounded German soldiers in the winter of 1941-43 to save food for healthy soldiers. Weisel wrote, Hitler "mandated a policy of cruelty in the Soviet territories when certain segments of the population there were ready to greet them with flowers.
The Nazi's had three policies in the Crimea: 1) recruit Tatars for German militias; 2) restore the Crimean Tatars as a pro-German Kulturvolj; and 3) use the S.S. to murder tens of thousands of Tatars.
The Wehrmacht was followed into Russia by the Eisanatzgruppe D, whose mission was, according to its Nazi leader SS Gen. Otto Ohlendorf, "to kill Jews and other 'unwanted' people." In the first year after the invasion the group killed 90,000 men, women and children."
German Occupation of the Ukraine and Belarus
The Germans easily captured Kiev and Minsk and most of the Ukraine and Belarus The Nazi occupation was cruel and repressive and marked by partisan resistance. Some Belarussians escaped by hiding in carts filled with dead soldiers and then walked much of the 5,000 kilometers to Central Asia.♪
In the Ukraine, Wehrmacht soldiers beat villagers with iron rods and dumped babies into wells. Remembering the horrors he witnessed one witness said the Germans possessed a "a thing almost worse" a glint of thrill in their eyes. In the Ukraine non-Jews hid Jews under the floorboards or rooms where animals were kept. [Source: U.S. News and World Report]
Tired of Stalinist policies, some Ukrainians and Belarussians welcomed the Nazis as liberators. Some joined the Schultzmannschaft, the local police force and participated in the killing of Jews and other activities and fled with the Nazis when the Red Army pushed them back. Some Germans felt a kinship towards Ukrainians, like they semi-German.
Other Ukrainians and Belorussians participated in a very active resistance against the Germans. Some Partisans were supported by Moscow. Members of the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army), based mainly in western Ukraine, fought against both the Germans and Russians. Once a woman resistance fighter gave a false tip to the gestapo that resulted in ambush of six truckloads of Nazi soldiers.
Babi Yar and the Killing of Jews in the Ukraine
About a million Ukrainian Jews were killed in World War II. An estimated half million Jews died in Nazi camps. Another half million were executed after they were rounded up. Around 200,000 Odessa Jews murdered. Most of Kiev's Jews were killed at Babi Yar. About a million Jews were left after the war was over. Towns that had two dozen synagogue at the war’s outset had only two when the war finished.
Babi Yar is the notorious mass grave in the Ukraine. For decades Soviet authorities refused to admit that most the victims were Jews. Babi Yar was one of the first mass killings of Jews and is seen as an early phase of the developing Holocaust.
The Germans captured Kiev in June 1941. Soon afterwards, 30,000 Jews from Kiev districts were herded to Babi Yar, a ravine not far from central Kiev, and shot in groups. The killing continued for the next two years. More than 100,000 people are believed to have been executed at Babi Yar before Kiev was liberated in 1943 by the Red Army
In one two day period in 1942, according to an official Nazi report, 33,711 Soviet Jews were gunned down at Babi Yar. It was the greatest mass murder of the war (by contrast the gas ovens at Birkenau-Aushwitz could handle only 6,000 people a day). The leader of the operation, Paul Blobel, received the Iron Cross from Hitler.
Describing the slaughter Luci Dawidowisz wrote in the New York Times, "Bruised and bloodied, numbed by incomprehensibility of their fate, the Jews emerged onto a grassy clearing...The ground was strewn with clothing. Ukrainian militiamen ordered the Jews to undress. Those who balked, who resisted, were assaulted, their clothes ripped off. Naked bleeding people were everywhere. Screams and hysterical laughter filled the air. Some people's hair turned gray on the spot. Others went mad in moments." [Source: New York Times magazine, Sept 27, 1981]
"The Germans led small groups away from the clearing towards a narrow ledge along a ravine. At a sand quarry behind the ledge, hidden from view of the Jews, the Germans had mounted machine guns. When the ledge held as many Jews as it could, the Germans gunned them down. The bodies toppled into the ravine, piling up layer upon layer. Where once a clear stream flowed, now blood ran.
"The machine gunners worked for an hour at a time and then were relived by another crew. From time to time, German soldiers and Ukrainian militiamen descended into the ravine, trampling over the dead to make sure they dead, tamping them down to make more room, shoveling sand from the quarry over them."
Dubro: More Killing of Jews in Ukraine
Thousands of people witnessed the executions of Jews at Dubno airfield in the Ukraine in October 1942. One of these witnesses, Herman Graebe, wrote: "About 1,500 persons have been killed daily. All of the 5000 Jews who had been living in Dubno before the pogrom were to be liquidated...All these people had the regulation yellow patches on the front and back of their clothes and thus could be recognized instantly as Jews.
SS officers with dogs and whips made sure the Jews undressed and placed the clothes, underwear and shoes in separate piles. "Without screaming or weeping these people undressed, stood around in family groups, kissed each other, said farewells, and waited for a sign from another SS man...I watched a family of about eight people...The child was cooing with delight. The couple were looking on with tears in their eyes. the father was holding the hand of a boy about ten years old and speaking to him softly... The man who did the shooting...was an SS man, who sat on the edge of the narrow end of the pit, his feet dangling into the pit. He had a tommy gun on his knees and was smoking a cigarette. " [Source: The Trial of German Major War Criminals, HMSO 1949]
After the family was shot behind a mound, Graebe walked to a pit where their bodies fell. "People were closely wedged together so that only their heads were visible. Nearly all had blood running over their shoulders from their heads, Some of the people shot were still moving. Some were lifting their arms and turning their heads to show they were still alive. The pit was nearly two thirds full. I estimated it already contained 1000 people."
Then another 20 or so people were lined up in front of the pit. "They laid down in front of the dead or injured people; some caressed those who were still alive and spoke to them in low voices. Then I head a series of shots. I looked into the pit and saw the bodies were twitching or the heads lying motionless on top of the bodies which lay before them. Blood was running away from their necks. I was surprised I was not ordered away but I saw there two or three postmen in uniform nearby.”
Fate of Jews in Belarus
Belarus's large Jewish population—some 800,000 individuals—was virtually wiped out after the Nazis invaded. A half million Jews from Belarus and other places in eastern Europe were incinerated in a crematorium set up in Trostentse, just outside Minsk.
Jews were rounded up in towns near the Polish border, and shot and dumped in mass graves. In the spa town of Domachevo, 2,900 Jews were rounded up and marched to a sand hill outside the town and executed in front of their graves during the two days of Yom Kippur in September 1941.
One witness of the Domachevo mass execution said, the Jews "were shot in batches by machine-gun fire. The shooting lasted for a long time. Women and children were murdered along with male Jews." There were "cries and screaming. The Jews were ordered to undress and put their clothes on a pile. They were pushed, sometimes with rifle butts, by policemen and Germans, towards the pits. After they disappeared in the direction of the pits I heard sounds of shooting—machine gun fire and then single shots...As they died they collapsed into the grave."
In World War II the Nazis blockaded Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) for almost 900 days. Over a million people died form scurvy and starvation as well as from incendiary bombs and artillery shells delivered in air and artillery bombardments. Most of them died during the "winter of starvation" in 1941-42. Incredibly 1½ million survived, helped in part by a winter supply route that opened over the frozen Lake Ladoga.
By some reckonings, the Leningrad blockade was world's worst siege. It lasted for 880 days from August 30 1941 to January 27, 1944. An estimated 1.3 million to 1.5 million defenders and civilians died. Over 641,000 died of hunger, 17,000 civilians were killed by shelling. More than 150,000 shells and 100,000 bombs were dropped on the city.
The Nazi-Red Army front was only a few kilometers from the city. Russian troops used to take the tram to the front. Like the food, ammunition was in such short supply that soldiers were rationed seven bullets a day. The list of heroic acts is long. One geologist loaded himself with explosives and leapt onto a Nazi tank.
In one attempt to break the Nazi blockade on Leningrad, Russian soldiers attempted to open a route through a 616-square-mile, cranberry-bush-covered bog called Mysonoi Bor. The plan was a disaster. The soldiers were forced to retreat through a 50-meter -wide corridor under near-continuous shelling by the Germans. The official death toll for the three-day campaign was 20,000, but some claim as many as 300,000 were killed.
Food Shortages and Survivors During the Leningrad Blockade
During Nazi blockade of Leningrad residents were rationed a mere 4¼ ounces of bread, made largely from cellulose, the same material used to make paper. To supplement this meager diet Lenigraders ate pancakes made with coffee grounds, jellies concocted from briefcase leather and wallpaper paste. Glue and linseed oil were considered delicacies. Some even ate dogs and cats and, yes, there were reports of cannibalism. When the empty granaries forced emaciated rats out into the street citizens scooped them up and put them into pots of boiling water.
Describing Leningrad in the spring of 1942, Aleksandr A. Fadeyev wrote: ""Along the footpaths, in gardens and cemeteries, you could see the bent figures of women picking what was edible among them—dandelions, sorrel, nettles, goosefoot grass. Passing along the Champ de Mars, which was now laid out in allotments, I saw that the lower branches of the lime trees had been stripped as far as a hand could reach."
One 8-year old schoolgirl chronicled the death of all the people in her family until she was alone. One man endured the Leningrad Blockade by eating wood glue and sleeping among dead bodies to keep warm.
Nikolay I. Vavilov is now regarded as one of the "giants of modern botanic exploration." In the 1920s and 1930s he created one of greatest seedbanks in the world in Leningrad, backed up by 400 research stations and a staff of 20,000. To give you a sense of how committed his team was, during the day siege of Leningrad the corpses of researchers were found around boxes of seeds and sacks of potatoes: they preferred to starve to death rather than touch any of the seeds. By one count 31 scientist died directly or indirectly from hunger. Vavilov was arrested under Stalin for speaking out against some of the dictator’s crazy agricultural schemes and died in prison in 1943. A number of Vavilov’s collegues were also arrested and died in prison. [Source: Robert E. Rhoades, National Geographic, April 1991]
Eyewitness Accounts from Leningrad
Describing the siege of Leningrad, a 72-year-old school administrator named Anna Zosimova told Time magazine: "It seem strange to say it, but those were good years. I was young, and when you are young, you are happy. I loved to dance and we used to have parties as often as we could. We worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, doing hard work, shovel work. But we had time to enjoy ourselves."
Describing New Year's Eve in 1943, the bitterly cold first winter of the siege, Zosimova said, "we were allowed to go into the city. I took friends from the place where we were digging and went to my uncle's apartment" and made a soup from flour, salt and mustard. "I got a tree and some decorations. We sang songs. We ate soup. We had a celebration." On New Years Day she went back to work digging trenches.: "We were crossing a bridge, and the Germans started shelling. One of my friends, her name was Galya, was hit. She died a little while later."
Aleksandr A. Fadeyev wrote: "The people of Leningrad, above all the women of Leningrad, can be proud that, in the conditions of the blockade, they saved the children. A considerable proportion of the child population had been evacuated from Leningrad" and "a wide network of kindergartens was set up in Leningrad to which the starving city gave up the best of what it had...I visited many of these kindergartens...I saw the faces of children which expressed such grown-up a seriousness, children's eyes which reflected such thoughtfulness and sorrow, that those faces and eyes told me more than could be gathered from all the stories of famine.”
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016