Yad Vashem marks 80 years since the onset of mass annihilation

On the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yad Vashem and Tzohar invite the public to take part in the “Generations Light the Way” project by lighting memorial candles in memory of the six million.

JEWISH WOMEN about to be murdered by Einsatzgruppe A and Latvian collaborators, December 1941 (photo credit: Courtesy)
JEWISH WOMEN about to be murdered by Einsatzgruppe A and Latvian collaborators, December 1941
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Every year, Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, sets a specific theme as the focus of Holocaust Remembrance Day. This year’s theme is “Until the Very Last Jew: Eighty Years Since the Onset of Mass Annihilation.”
“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, Trubakov described the feeling that gripped him and the public during the German invasion of the Soviet Union.
That invasion, known as “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, characterized even after the battles ended by the implementation of Nazi Germany’s murderous policies that created widespread harm to the Jews in particular, in addition to the rest of the civilian population. The fallacious identification of Judaism with Communism (particularly “Bolshevism”) was used to create a close linkage between the war and extreme anti-Jewish policies. Nazi Germany, which had already instituted a strategy of persecuting the Jews across Europe, inflicting hunger, suffering and death, now carried out mass shootings that soon would develop into an overall policy to annihilate all Jews, known as the “Final Solution.”
At the rear of the German Army in the USSR were the Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing units of SS soldiers who were tasked with the Nazi war against “ideological threats”: Communists, partisans and Jews. Army units, police and other forces, include a great many local helpers, committed murder alongside the Nazis. Men were rounded up and shot in the first weeks after the invasion. Starting early in August 1941, however, the circle of murder gradually expanded to encompass broad swaths of territory and all the Jews in those occupied areas except for a minority 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 various local gathering points. From there they were taken by foot or on trucks to a location nearby – such as a ravine, forest, castle, cemetery or vacation spot – and murdered. Often, groups of soon-to-be victims were forced to dig the killing pits themselves.
Jews were ordered to undress and hand over their valuables at some distance from the mass graves, and then they were taken to be shot. Many were buried alive. In this way, 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 (Yom Kippur Eve). In Ponary, a forest some 10 kilometers away from Vilnius, Lithuania, more than 70,000 people, the overwhelming majority of whom were Jews, were murdered starting in July 1941. During that same time, Jews were also murdered in similar operations in German-occupied Yugoslav territory and by the Ion Antonescu regime on Romanian-occupied land.
The motivation of German commanders and soldiers to murder the Jews stemmed first and foremost from their profound identification with Nazi ideology, according to which Jews were a destructive race that was undermining the very foundations of human existence. After years of persecution characterized by degrading, isolating and depriving Jews of their rights and dignity, Nazi Germany eventually developed into a large-scale killing machine, with murders committed primarily by “ordinary” men convinced they should join in the slaughter of unarmed, innocent civilians.
The German invasion of the USSR also involved pogroms committed by locals against their Jewish neighbors. Many thousands of Jews were murdered by their compatriots well before the policy of the German occupiers was clear. Additionally, local militias and organized groups across the Soviet territories collaborated with the Germans and participated in the persecution and murder of 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 toward conformity led a majority of the local populations to react to the murder of the Jews with, at best, 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 saved their lives, even though they mostly lived out the war in grim conditions, suffered acute shortages and hunger, and sometimes were forced into backbreaking labor in service to the Soviet state.
Under the dark shadow of mass murder, the Jews struggled to survive. Many fled to villages or to the woods in search of places to hide, although this rarely led to safety. Thousands joined partisan units and fought in the forests. Against all odds, underground cells tried to organize acts of resistance and rescue in countless locations. 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 stories of the atrocities and suffering for posterity.
Jewish life that had existed for centuries in Eastern Europe was practically obliterated during the Holocaust. Approximately one million Jews were murdered within the Soviet Union’s pre-war 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 in the East, 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 crystallized into a comprehensive plan that was to begin with the destruction of all the Jews of Europe: in Nazi-occupied Poland, German 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.
A MOTHER and her children before execution in Lubny, Ukraine, October 1941 (Yad Vashem Archives)A MOTHER and her children before execution in Lubny, Ukraine, October 1941 (Yad Vashem Archives)
The six survivors chosen as torchlighters for this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day opening ceremony all experienced the efforts of systematic murder by the Nazis.
• MANYA BIGUNOV (b. 1927, Teplyk, Ukraine) was sent with her mother, Frima, to forced labor. On May 27, 1942, the Germans rounded up some of the camp workers, including Manya and Frima, and began loading them onto trucks. During the commotion, Manya was slammed against a wall and lost consciousness, remaining motionless on the ground, which saved her life. The trucks were driven to the nearby forest, where all the Jews on the trucks were unloaded and shot to death, including Frima.
Manya was transferred to different labor camps, escaping from one and returning to Teplyk. There she found her father among a group of Jewish professionals who were being held by the Germans as laborers. The group paid a local man to lead Manya to the Bershad Ghetto in Transnistria, where she arrived in September 1942. In the ghetto, she had to cope with harsh living conditions, hunger and cold. In the winter, Manya fell ill with typhus.
Maya Bigunov (Courtesy)Maya Bigunov (Courtesy)
• YOSSI CHEN (b. 1936, Łachwa, Poland), was interned in the Łachwa ghetto on Passover eve 1942 together with all the Jews of the town. Many of the ghetto’s prisoners, including Yossi’s grandmother, died of starvation, overcrowding and epidemics. When the ghetto inhabitants were rounded up to be taken for execution, an uprising broke out during which the Judenrat (Jewish Council) called on the ghetto Jews to flee to the forests.
This was one of the only uprisings in the history of the Holocaust carried out by the young people of the community in full cooperation with the Judenrat. The majority of the thousand Jews who tried to flee were shot and killed. Amid the tumult of the shooting and the inferno, six-year-old Yossi fled to the forest and miraculously survived.
Yossi Cohen (Courtesy)Yossi Cohen (Courtesy)
• SARA FISHMAN (b. 1927, Neresnice/Nyéresháza, Transcarpathia region of Czechoslovakia) was sent with her two older sisters, Hinda and Rivka, to relatives in Budapest, Hungary, after tensions rose in the area, but they did not reach their destination. After a short ride, they were taken off the train and transported to the Halmeu (Halmi) Ghetto, where they were gathered at the local synagogue. From there, the members of the Jewish community were put on trains and taken to the Vinohradov (Nagyszollos) Ghetto, and later to Auschwitz. There, the sisters were reunited with their younger sister, Pnina. However, Hinda fell ill and was taken to the infirmary barracks, never to be seen again.
Sara was sent to forced labor outside Auschwitz, and then to Bergen-Belsen. After three months, she was placed in a packed wagon and transported for three weeks with no apparent destination. Occasionally, the guards removed some of the women from the wagons, shots were heard, and the women did not return. Sara and the rest of the passengers were finally taken off the train in a wooded area. Their German guards disappeared, and the prisoners realized that they were free.
Sarah Fishman (Courtesy)Sarah Fishman (Courtesy)
• HALINA FRIEDMAN (b. 1933, Lodz, Poland) fled to Warsaw after the German invasion. When the ghetto was sealed at the end of 1940, the family was confined inside, where they lived with Anna’s sister’s family in one apartment. When her parents were put to work in a factory that repaired uniforms for the German Army, Halina was placed in a kindergarten set up for the workers’ children.
One day, during the German Aktion in the summer of 1942, the children were taken out to a nearby spot and shot at by machine gun. Halina fell, but was not injured. She lay among the dozens of dead children, covered in their blood, sensing that she should not move. Only at night, after the murderers had left, did she return home. After this harrowing incident, her parents prepared a hiding place for her in their home. Later, they managed to smuggle her out of the ghetto, and she hid together with surviving family members in a camouflaged bunker at the home of Jerzy Kozminski and his stepmother Teresa Kozminska (later recognized as Righteous Among the Nations) until liberation by the Red Army in January 1944.
Halina Friedman (Courtesy)Halina Friedman (Courtesy)
• ZEHAVA GEALEL (b. 1935, The Hague, the Netherlands), her two brothers and her mother evaded deportation by claiming they had a contagious disease, but her father was deported to Auschwitz, where he was murdered. Thanks to documents sent by Zehava’s grandfather in the United States, the family members were granted Romanian citizenship, and were defined as political prisoners. At the end of 1942, Zehava, her mother and brothers were imprisoned in the Westerbork transit camp, and in May 1943 they were transferred to the Amersfoort concentration camp.
In June 1943, Zehava, her brother and her mother were returned to Westerbork, and in April 1944 they were transferred to the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany. While Jocheved worked in forced labor, Zehava took care of her three-year-old brother, Josi. Later, they were marched to Bergen-Belsen, where they were eventually liberated, starving and sick, in April 1945.
Zehava GealelZehava Gealel
• SHMUEL NAAR (b. 1924, Thessaloniki, Greece) witnessed the events of “Black Sabbath” in July 1942, during which thousands of Jewish men were taken for forced labor and hundreds of Jews were murdered. In March 1943 he was deported to Auschwitz, where he barely survived as he didn’t understand the German commands. He managed to impersonate a barber, then a locksmith, and was eventually hired as an apprentice to a German engineer. In January 1945, he was forced on a death march. He walked in rain and snow, wearing only a thin shirt. He finally arrived at Bergen-Belsen. Prisoners were not provided with food, and typhus raged. Bodies were piled up everywhere, with nowhere to bury them. In April 1945, he was liberated by the British Army.
Shmuel Naar (Courtesy)Shmuel Naar (Courtesy)
On the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yad Vashem and Tzohar invite the public to take part in the “Generations Light the Way” project by lighting memorial candles in memory of the six million victims of the Holocaust. Families are encouraged to gather for this act, and recite the traditional mourner’s prayer “El Maleh Rahamim” and/or the poem “Nizkor – Let us Remember” by Holocaust survivor Abba Kovner, and to light six memorial candles.
Join in this special commemorative tradition and impart the memory of the Holocaust to the next generation. “Generations Light the Way” thus provides a meaningful family-oriented remembrance opportunity, alongside various official commemorative ceremonies and other public activities.