The “Holocaust by Bullets” – Historical Background

There are many Holocaust mass graves, each bearing silent witness to what happened. On the territory of contemporary Ukraine alone, there are an estimated 2,000 such graves at former mass shooting sites. In remote ravines and forests, in the middle of fields, in former tank traps and sand quarries, Wehrmacht, SS, and police units, supported by local auxiliary police, wiped out entire Jewish communities — often over the course of just a few days. In many cases the victims were forced to dig the pits themselves and to undress. Men were usually shot first, then women and children.

The mass shootings began as early as autumn 1939. SS murder squads in the rear of the advancing Wehrmacht killed tens of thousands of civilians in occupied Poland, including Jews. With the attack on the Soviet Union in summer 1941, the murderers adopted a more systematic approach. On 24 June 1941, two days after the start of the campaign in Russia, police and Gestapo units carried out the first mass shooting on this territory in Garsden (Lithuania), directly on the border with East Prussia. They reported that 200 Jewish men and one Jewish woman had been shot. In the months and years that followed, SS-Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing squads), actively assisted by local auxiliaries, descended on countless villages behind the Eastern front, above all in Ukraine and Belorussia. By 1944/45 they had shot a total of around two million Jewish children, women, and men. In the Ukrainian village of Kamianets-Podilskyi alone, 23,600 Jews were shot between 26 and 28 August 1941. Around 12,000 Jews were shot in Berdychiv on 15 September 1941, and more than 33,700 in the Babi Yar ravine near Kyiv on 30 September 1941. In 1942, German units shot around 50,000 Jews in the village of Bronnaya Gora in Belorussia and 2,000 Jews in Smolensk in Russia. In the former Polish administrative districts of Polesia and Volhynia, more than 360,000 “useless eaters” perished in a shooting carried out by the SS, while around 18,000 Jewish inmates of Majdanek camp near Lublin were shot during “Operation Harvest Festival” on 5 November 1943. In Belorussia, the German occupiers destroyed more than 600 villages in 1943/44 and murdered their residents. In January 1945, at least 5,000 Jewish women from Poland and Hungary perished during a death march and a subsequent mass shooting in Palmnicken (in what is now the Russian territory of Kaliningrad). Tens of thousands of Roma, patients from psychiatric institutions, prisoners of war, and resistance fighters were also victims of the National Socialist extermination policy.

Many of these murder sites faded into oblivion after the war. For the few survivors, remembrance of murdered family members, friends, and acquaintances had to remain private. Official Soviet historiography did not specify any distinct groups of victims of World War Two. In cases where Jewish survivors or returnees were allowed to lay modest memorial stones, these had to be dedicated to “peaceful Soviet citizens”.

It was not until the 1990s that memorial stones stating the Jewish origins of the victims were erected in many parts of the now independent states of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. However, hundreds of mass graves remain unmarked, unprotected, and neglected. The plots are used for agriculture or built on. Traces of desecration give the mass graves a desolate impression. Most of them are not dignified sites of mourning, commemoration, and remembrance providing information about the Jewish life lost.