The unknown Holocaust in the former Soviet Union

While Auschwitz and the Warsaw Ghetto are the most common symbols of the Holocaust, one must go beyond to fully comprehend its reach and impact

DR. ARKADAI ZELTSER in the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem. (photo credit: YAD VASHEM)
DR. ARKADAI ZELTSER in the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.
(photo credit: YAD VASHEM)
"For many years, the Holocaust was symbolized by two places – Auschwitz and the Warsaw Ghetto. These are commonly perceived as the primary symbols. But that’s not the entire story of the Holocaust.”
Dr. Arkadi Zeltser, director of the Moshe Mirilashvili Center for Research on the Holocaust in the Soviet Union at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, says that to fully grasp the Holocaust and its impact, one must go beyond Auschwitz and the Warsaw Ghetto, and learn about the events of the Holocaust in areas like the occupied Soviet Union. This is the mission of the Moshe Mirilashvili Center, which was founded in 2016 and operates under the auspices of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem. The center initiates and promotes innovative research relating to the history of the Jews during World War II who were living within the borders of the Soviet Union as of June 22, 1941, the date when Nazi Germany attacked the USSR.
When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, mobile SS killing units, known as Einsatzgruppen, as well as other police units, and even some soldiers of the Wehrmacht tasked with executing opponents of the Reich (including Communists and Jews), accompanied the German forces.
“The killings of Jews began immediately after the German army’s invasion of the USSR. “By the end of August 1941, 23,000 Jews were murdered in Kamenets-Podolski in Ukraine,” says Zeltser.
In late September 1941, 33,700 Jews were murdered over a two-day period at Babi Yar, near Kiev, and by the end of 1941, it is estimated that upwards of 700,000 Jews had been killed in the areas of the USSR.
“The Holocaust, as a campaign of mass murder, began in these areas,” he notes. “Much of the population did not die in camps; they were murdered in the immediate vicinity of their home towns, where they had lived for years before the war.”
During World War II, nearly half – approximately 2.6 million of the 5.1 million Jews in the occupied Soviet Union in June 1941 – were murdered by the Nazis and their allies with the help of local collaborators.
Despite these horrific facts, the events of the Holocaust in the USSR were relatively unknown compared to the iconic history of the Holocaust in areas of Central and Western Europe. Only thanks to the efforts of contemporary scholars, including those conducting current research activities, are we now better equipped to understand the history of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union.
“It is the goal of the Moshe Mirilashvili Center for Research on the Holocaust in the Soviet Union at Yad Vashem to research and to publicize this lesser-known aspect of the Holocaust.”
ONE OF the Mirilashvili Center’s innovative initiatives commemorating and documenting the Holocaust in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) is an online research project entitled “Untold Stories: Murder Sites of the Jews in the Occupied Territories of the USSR.” The goal of this extensive project is to provide a comprehensive picture of the more than 2,600 killing sites scattered throughout the former Soviet Union where more than two million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.
“We want to write about each murder site that was in the area,” says Zeltser. “By the end of this year, we will have investigated and documented 1,500 locations.”
The project consists of three sections: a history of the communities; a historical reconstruction of the events in the killing sites; and a description of the commemorative markers and memorials in the cities, towns and villages. Each of the sections contains relevant documents, video testimonies and photos.
The “Untold Stories” project allows the interested public to select specific towns and cities in the former Soviet Union where these killing sites are located. Once a town has been selected, another screen appears that shows the coordinates of the location in Google Maps, photographs, and a description of what happened in that town or city. The history of each community is based on official German and Soviet records from the period, the testimonies of survivors and of their non-Jewish neighbors, as well as the latest academic research. Thousands of documents and photos, as well as hundreds of video clips of interviews with survivors and witnesses, are available online, allowing enabling visitors to understand the specific stories as well as begin to grasp the general atmosphere of the period.
“Our mission is to research what happened in these places,” explains Zeltser.
“Relatives from all around the world want to go to these areas, to visit the killing sites, and say kaddish in memory of their loved ones. We provide them with a tool. They can go to Yad Vashem’s website and find exact locations of these mass graves, whether in Belarus, Russia, Lithuania or Ukraine. In many places, anyone can access this information easily from any device or computer and find the specific village or memorial that they are seeking.”
The project has attracted the attention of the public at large, as well as of Holocaust researchers around the world who are studying the history of the Holocaust in the FSU. The accessibility that the project provides has made ‘Untold Stories’ an important source of information.
AN ADDITIONAL project of the Moshe Mirilashvili Center, “Jews in the Red Army, 1941-1945,” explores the Jewish identity of soldiers in the Soviet armed forces during World War II. Between 350,000 and 500,000 Jews served in those years in different branches of the Red Army, including the infantry, armored corps, artillery, air force and the submarine fleet. In addition, Jews served as translators, doctors, military correspondents and political officers. Interestingly, a relatively large number of Jewish women served in the Red Army as doctors, nurses and translators, as well as directly in combat, as pilots or navigators in the air force, or in artillery units. As the details of the Nazi mass murder of the Jews became better known, the ethnic consciousness of a large proportion of Jewish soldiers and officers grew, and increasingly was a motivational force in their fighting.
The “Jews in the Red Army” project contains the biographies of several hundred Jewish soldiers, many of whom received formal recognition as Heroes of the Soviet Union. The information gathered is drawn from many sources, including memoirs, diaries, letters, military reports and medal recommendations. The biographies relate their prewar experiences as members of the intelligentsia, career military officers, or factory workers, and their postwar memoirs.
“When we speak of the participation of Jews in World War II,” says Zeltser, “we usually focus on their heroic deeds. This project aims to show them as individuals, with their prewar past, their activity during the war, and their postwar lives. Some of them were intellectuals, others were ordinary persons; some were high-ranking officers, and others held the rank of private. We cannot fully measure their Jewish identity, because there were no sociological polls during the war period. However, through the project, we show that the ethnic identity of Soviet Jewish soldiers was an important factor to the soldiers and should be considered as part of this historical phenomenon.” 
To date, some 500 biographies of Jewish soldiers have been uploaded to the site.
THE MOSHE MIRILASHVILI CENTER is active in the academic world, hosting a number of international conferences and workshops, including gatherings on “The Jewish Family in the Soviet Union under German Occupation,” “Jewish Leadership in Lithuanian Ghettos,” and the Center’s most recent conference on “The Holocaust as Reflected in Public Discourse in the Soviet Union during the Stalinist Period.”
These conferences have attracted top scholars from around the world, such as professors Christoph Dieckmann, Natalia Aleksiun, Atina Grossman, Anna Shternshis, David Shneer, Gennady Estraikh, Mikhail Krutikov, David Fishman and others.
Following the latest conference, Prof. Shternshis from the University of Toronto wrote, “I have to say that this was the best conference I have attended in the past 10 years, if not the best one ever. Its focus, its imagination and its rigorousness was incredible. I learned so much and I also enjoyed a wonderful collegial atmosphere. It is nothing short of inspirational to see how Yad Vashem fosters this kind of productive interdisciplinary conversation in the field. I cannot wait to continue! Thank you for including me in this discussion. I feel like I have been in the forefront of the field.”
“These conferences bring leading scholars from around the world to Yad Vashem, to explore the fate of Jews in the Soviet Union during World War II,” Zeltser notes. “They are an important platform for discussing different aspects of history and learning about new directions in research. Many of the conferences at Yad Vashem are open to the public, enabling both the public and researchers to gain new knowledge – and, at the same time, to witness the development of the contemporary research process.”
The Center has also inspired new research on the subject by young scholars. In the last two years, the Center organized annual workshops for young scholars in cooperation with the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. This joint activity helps those taking their first steps in the academic world to advance their research.
Through the continued efforts of the Moshe Mirilashvili Center at Yad Vashem, the study and understanding of the heretofore lesser-known events of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union will be placed in their proper perspective and continue to be an important part of Holocaust research.
'Activities of the Moshe Miriliashvili Center for Research on the Holocaust in the Soviet Union are generously sponsored by Michael and Laura Mirilashvili and the Еuro-Asian Jewish Congress.’
This article was written in cooperation with Yad Vashem.