The Holocaust in Ukraine
A group of Jewish women at the entrance to the Brody ghetto, Ukraine. US Holocaust Memorial Museum
View of the ruins of the main synagogue in Brody, Ukraine. US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Round-up of [Jewish] men in an unidentified camp in the eastern Ukraine. Panstwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau w Oswiecimiu; Instytut Pamieci Narodowej
A large group of men seated with their hands on their heads while being forced to watch the execution of Moshe Kagan and Wolf Kieper. Zhitomir, Ukraine. US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Conflict in Ukraine during the year 2014 has demonstrated the importance of World War II and Holocaust history to the country. As the swastikas that appear in propaganda there demonstrate, the messages and symbols of the conflict that took place more than seven decades ago still resonate. Ukrainians must reckon with that painful legacy, a task scholars at the Museum will support through research and honest dialogue about the past.
Ukraine’s Complicated History
Ukraine experienced a brief independence during World War I after the collapse of Imperial Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Soon, though, it was subsumed into Poland in the west and the Soviet Union in the east. The years between the establishment of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and the German invasion in June 1941 brought their own misery. A famine caused by economic changes and forced Soviet collectivization of farms resulted in the death of millions of men, women, and children living in Ukraine, which was called “the bread basket of Europe.” Purges targeted intellectuals and Communist Party leaders, and after 1939, Soviet authorities targeted a wide range of “class enemies” in the western territories it annexed according to its agreement with Germany, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
On the eve of the invasion in 1941, Ukraine was home to the largest Jewish population in Europe. The fate of those Jews depended on many factors, including the local occupying authority and whether they were among the very few evacuated to the interior of the Soviet Union ahead of the invading forces. While scholars are still researching the scale of the Holocaust in Ukraine, they estimate at least one and a half million Jews were killed there. The Museum is in the process of gathering written records and oral testimony to fully tell the story of what happened in Ukraine during the Holocaust.
What we do know is that following the brutal invasion of the Soviet Union by the German military, special forces called Einsatzgruppen arrived with orders to kill civilians perceived to be enemies of Nazi Germany. They divided the local population in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union, identifying the Jews and recruiting local collaborators. Most Jews in Ukraine were shot to death close to where they lived, not deported to distant camps. Their executioners were German but also Ukrainian, Russian, and other local collaborators.
After the war, Soviet authorities tended to minimize the uniquely Jewish tragedy that occurred during the occupation, while in the West the inaccessibility of Soviet archives compelled scholars to write the history of the Holocaust in the East using German documents. Following Ukraine’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, scholars have begun piecing together a more complete history of the Holocaust in Ukraine.
Promoting Scholarship on Ukraine
The fates of Ukrainians, both Jews and non-Jews, during that tumultuous time remain a subject of debate, with political rhetoric relating that history to the present conflict. As historian Wendy Lower writes, “Writing the history of the Holocaust in Ukraine has been and probably will continue to be a very complicated, politically perilous endeavor.” In an effort to make facts and analysis about that period widely available, the editors of the Museum’s scholarly journal, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, have collected articles on Ukraine in a special edition, available for free for a limited time.
The special edition of the journal (published by Oxford University Press) represents more than a decade of research and writing on Ukraine by the Museum. The Museum’s archival collection includes millions of pages of materials from Ukrainian archives and from archives of the former Soviet Union. The Museum’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies has sponsored a number of programs devoted to the Holocaust in Ukraine (and, more broadly, in the former Soviet Union) and granted fellowships to scholars researching this subject, including contributors to this special issue. Just this year, the Mandel Center launched a major initiative that will continue to bring attention and new research to scholars and educators as they seek to understand the experiences of Ukrainians during the Holocaust.
We invite you to learn more about the Holocaust in Ukraine by reading the special issue of Holocaust and Genocide Studies and exploring the links to a variety of Holocaust Encyclopedia articles and other publications available below.
Holocaust and Genocide Studies
Published by Oxford University Press
Table of contents (external link)
- Introduction (external link) by Wendy Lower
- ‘Anticipatory Obedience’ and the Nazi Implementation of the Holocaust in the Ukraine: A Case Study of Central and Peripheral Forces in the Generalbezirk Zhytomyr, 1941–1944 (external link) by Wendy Lower
- A Community of Violence: The SiPo/SD and Its Role in the Nazi Terror System in Generalbezirk Kiew (external link) by Alexander V. Prusin
- Holocaust Sites in Ukraine: Pechora and the Politics of Memorialization (external link) by Rebecca L. Golbert
- Death Sentence Despite the Law: A Secret 1962 Crimes-against-Humanity Trial in Kiev (external link) by Lev Simkin
- Accomplices to Extermination: Municipal Government and the Holocaust in Kharkiv, 1941–1942 (external link) by Yuri Radchenko