At the beginning of World War II, more than 4.5 million Jews lived in Soviet Union territory in areas that are now Ukraine, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Belarus. Of these, a little bit more than three million ended up under Nazi occupation after Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Over two million Soviet Jews, representing about one-third of all the victims of the Nazis, were killed in the Holocaust. Only about 120,000 Soviet Jews trapped under Nazi occupation survived.
When the Auschwitz camp began gassing prisoners in 1941, the first prisoners to be killed were Soviet. And this included Jews from the Soviet states. In all, 1.1 million people were killed there, most of them Jews from the Soviet Union.
A study of Soviet Jews in the Holocaust written by Marina Shafran was published by Western Michigan University. She reported that Soviet Jews were particularly targeted by the Nazis:
“Based on the Nazi Marshal Erich von Mannstein’s interpretation of the Nazi ideology, the Nazis came to believe that Jews were in charge of the Soviet regime,” she wrote. “As a result, Jews residing in the occupied Soviet territories were perceived as a serious threat to the German nation. These interpretations ultimately lead to Himmler’s orders to take action and exterminate the Jews.”
According to the 1995 Yad Vashem Museum on Holocaust research study, 1.5 million Soviet Jews were murdered by the Nazis, and another 200,000 died in combat.
Ukraine was perhaps the worst case. Before the war, Ukraine was home to the largest Jewish population in Europe. An estimated 1.5 million Jews were killed by the Nazis and Ukrainian collaborators. Later, reports of the crimes committed by the Ukrainian Volunteer Police were suppressed.
About 1.5 million Jews from the Soviet states evacuated or escaped deeper into the Soviet Union. After the war, these survivors were trapped in an oppressive Soviet regime that suppressed all reports of the suffering of the Jews. Many of the Jews who returned to their homes were confronted with anger and hatred from their former neighbors. In 1946, 42 Jews were killed and more than 40 were wounded in a pogrom after returning to their homes in Kielce, Poland.
After the war, the events of the Holocaust were downplayed by the Soviet authorities and survivors were silenced. No Holocaust monuments were erected despite the large numbers of victims and survivors in the Soviet Union. While WWII is a major event in Russian society, the Holocaust and the tragedy that targeted the Jews are usually downplayed or omitted. From 1949, until Stalin’s death in 1953, the Jewish extermination was ignored. The Soviet newspapers Pravda (Truth) and Izvestia (News) described the events as “crime against the Soviet people”.
No accounts of what the Soviet Jews suffered during the Holocaust were heard until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992.
A group of philanthropists who were working to bring Jews to Israel from the former Soviet Union discovered that the new Olim were encountering grave difficulties in Israel so in 2006 they formed the Helping Hands Coalition. Luke Gasiorowski, the Executive Director of the Helping Hand Coalition, described the efforts to help these forgotten victims of the Holocaust.
“Between 1990 and 1994, there was a huge wave of immigration of almost one million Jews,” Gasiorowski said. “The founders of Helping Hands suddenly realized that the survivors that we are bringing into Israel are now in poverty. They were just about to enter their pension years but they had no pension funds from their origin countries because they forfeited their citizenship. They were fully dependent on the Israeli government and the government didn’t really know they existed, that they needed help, and that they were in such a difficult situation.”
“They fled with nothing and can’t speak Hebrew,” he highlighted.
Unlike Holocaust survivors who fled to other countries outside of Russia, Holocaust survivors from the former Soviet Union did not receive reparation payments, The Conference of Material Claims against Germany, a conference that represents Jews in an attempt to negotiate reparations for Jews who had suffered in the Holocaust, concluded that Jews who fled the Nazis beginning in June 1941 are considered Holocaust survivors and are eligible for reparations. Yet Soviet Jews did not qualify as survivors, because the Soviet government failed to recognize Jews as a unique group that suffered under the Nazis. Soviet survivors were not eligible to receive reparations from Germany while they resided in the USSR.
This injustice was finally rectified in July 2012 when the Claims Conference, the body that represents world Jewry in negotiating restitution for victims of Nazi Germany and their heirs, announced that Germany would pay $300 million to 80,000 Holocaust survivors who remained living in the former Soviet Union after the war.
“The projects we have are mostly humanitarian,” Gasiorowski said. “We have dental projects, clinics for eyeglass distribution, helping with mobility and food distribution. We have individual support on a regular basis to cover the needs of the survivors, especially those who fall in the gaps between all the bureaucracies.”
“And then we also have many, many social events and activities for Holocaust survivors,” he added, emphasizing that these activities were perhaps the most important.
“The average age of our people is 86 years old,” he said. “It’s not about money. Right now because of their age, what they need the most is they need attention; to feel loved and appreciated. And social gatherings bring them life and hope. And that’s why they’re a huge focus of what we do right now. They are at the final sprint in their life. They were born into the worst horror in the history of the planet. Our mission is to help their memories be the complete opposite. We want them to live a full and happy life, to leave this planet in love and dignity and honor.”
The Russian invasion last year reopened old wounds for the estimated 10,000 Jews Holocaust survivors living in Ukraine. This was emphasized last March when a Russian attack in Kyiv damaged the memorial to the 33,000 Jews murdered at Babi Yar over a 36-hour period in September 1941. It was the largest mass grave of the Holocaust.