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The murder of the Soviet Jews

When the Third Reich attacked the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, all normal conventions for “proper” warfare were set aside. Just a few days after the invasion, special units from the SS, the Einsatzgruppen, began to murder Jewish men.

In the course of August and September 1941, the mass murder was expanded to include Jewish women and children.

From this point onwards, a systematic attempt was carried out to exterminate all Jews under German rule. This often happened under the cover of warfare against partisans, gangs or the like. It is estimated that between 1 and 2 million Soviet Jews perished as a result of the Nazi mass killings, although the figures are very uncertain because of lack of proper data.

> Map of the Einsatzgruppen massacres, 1941-42.

More about:
The establishing of the Einsatzgruppen
The first actions - Phase 1
From terror to extermination - Phase 2
Continuation - Phase 3
Status at the end of the war
Want to know more?


The German attack on the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, known as ‘Operation Barbarossa’, meant the beginning of a new kind of war. It was a ‘total war’ without rules, where the purpose was to break the Soviet Union with all means available. All traditional norms for “proper” warfare were thus set aside as being completely superficial.

On 3 March 1941 Hitler himself characterised the coming war as follows:

'This coming campaign is more than a fight of weapons; it is also a showdown between to worldviews. To end this war, it does not suffice to defeat enemy armies. The Judeo-Bolshevist intelligentsia, hitherto the suppressor of the People, must be conquered.’

Consequently, there was no room for pity with neither the Soviet Jews or with the civil population in general. The Soviet Union was being invaded in order to secure for the Greater German Reich the necessary Lebensraum (‘living space’) and thus its eternal existence. Thus, there were several motives for invading the Soviet Union:

  • To assure Germany the necessary supplies of raw materials and food. In this context the Nazis planned to let as many as 30 million Soviet civilians starve to death in order to secure the production of food for the German population.
  • To give the German people space, Lebensraum.
  • To exterminate the main Nazi foe: Judeo-Bolshevism.
  • Finally, to use the invasion of the Soviet Union as a tool in internal German politics. The invasion would secure the Nazi Party’s absolute dominance by radicalising the German population even more than before.
German infantry attacks in the Soviet Union.

It was made clear even before the start of Operation Barbarossa that an enormous number of people were to be murdered as part of the war against the Soviet Union. As particular targets were named communist party functionaries, Jews and gypsies. But the Soviet civilian population was also to be significantly reduced in order to secure food provisions for the Third Reich.

No one within the German military command seriously believed that defeating the Soviet Union would become a problem. The Germans’ experiences with Blietzkrieg against for instance France seemed to suggest that the Red Army would be run over by the German armoured divisions within a few weeks. Consequently, plans were developed at an early stage to prepare for the take-over of the newly conquered territories, including the question of what to do with the civilian population.

As part of the preparations for Operation Barbarossa, the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, was assigned some ‘special tasks’. He was even allowed to perform these special tasks in the area immediately behind the front. The tasks were very loosely defined:

  • The SS should secure the rear of the army and the area behind the front against enemy actions, meaning against saboteurs, partisans and terrorists.
  • The SS should also secure the occupied territories against ‘enemies of the state’.

In reality, the special tasks meant murdering all Jewish men capable of bearing arms, who by Nazi definition constituted a threat to the advancing army.


> Excerpt from Heydrich's guidelines to the heads of police in the Soviet Union

The establishing of the Einsatzgruppen

Heinrich Himmler ordered several branches of the SS to participate in the coming mass murder in the Soviet Union. The Security Police, headed by Reinhard Heydrich, was the most important of these organisations. Heydrich gave orders to establish four special units, the so-called Einsatzgruppen, consisting of men from different branches of the SS. These special units were established in the spring of 1941 and were each given a special area of operation:

  • Einsatzgruppe A (lead by Walther Stahlecker): The Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania)
  • Einsatzgruppe B (lead by Arthur Nebe): Byelorussia
  • Einsatzgruppe C (lead by Otto Rasch): Northern- and Mid Ukraine
  • Einsatzgruppe D (lead by Otto Ohlendorf): Southern Ukraine, Crimea, and eventually Caucasia.

> The structure of Einsatzgruppe A

The first actions of the Einsatzgruppen – Phase 1

The area of Einsatzgruppe A

Einsatzgruppe A was given the assignment of carrying out Himmler’s ‘special tasks’ in the Baltic area, which means the area comprising approximately present day Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The unit was thus proceeding right in the heels of the German Army Group North.

At first, Einsatzgruppe A tried hard to provoke pogroms. That is to say that the German SS-men tried to persuade the local population to “clean out their own area” by murdering the local Jews. As early as three days after the invasion had begun, the Germans succeeded in doing this in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas: From 25 to 28 June 1941 around 3,800 Jews were murdered in a joint operation between the Germans and the local Lithuanian militia.

However, beginning in July the German unit had to give up these public mass executions. The pogroms were only possible in a situation of extremes, that is to say immediately following the invasion. As soon as things were just slightly normalised, it was impossible to stir up the local population to such excesses.

Instead, Einsatzgruppe A started their own mass executions of Jewish men, although frequently in cooperation with local anti-Soviet partisans.


> Eyewitness account from the pogrom in Kaunas
> Report on the actions of Einsatzgruppe A

The area of Einsatzgruppe B

At the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, Einsatzgruppe B moved through eastern Poland – formerly occupied by the Soviets – and Lithuania, towards Byelorussia.

Many massacres on Jews took place in the wake of the unit’s advance. Apparently, no principal order existed at this point to murder all Jews because of their race, but all Jews were in effect seen as a threat against the security of the German army. This meant that many among the members of the Einsatzgruppen believed in the idea of “better killing one Jew too many than one too few”. This did indeed happen, but only as local and spontaneous initiatives.

Einsatzgruppe B was particularly active in the capital of Byelorussia, Minsk, in the course of the summer of 1941: mass executions and individual murders were the order of the day. Beginning on 19 July, all the Jews were herded together and a ghetto was set up in the city.


> Report on the actions of Einsatzgruppe B

The area of Einsatzgruppe C

Just a few days after the invasion of the Soviet Union, Einsatzgruppe C organised a massacre in the city of Lvov (German: Lemberg). Under cover of being “revenge” for some alleged anti-German action, among 7,000 Jews were murdered in the bloodiest of ways.

Children are shot in the Soviet Union, USHMM #81426.

Through the month of July 1941 units from Einsatzgruppe C carried out many similar massacres, frequently aided in their work by local Ukrainian nationalists. The massacres soon had the character of a systematic mass murder of Jewish men between 16 and 60. In other words, fewer and fewer specific reasons were given for the killings. They were a result of the fact that the victims were Jewish and not because they had done some specific deed to stand out from the rest of the population. Frequently, Ukrainian nationalists from the formerly Soviet-occupied eastern Poland took the initiative to the massacres.


> Excerpt from the diary of Einsatzgruppe member Felix Landau
> Report on the actions of Einsatzgruppe C

The area of Einsatzgruppe D

Einsatzgruppe D was deployed on the southern most part of the eastern front. In this particular area, troops from Germany as well as its allies (Romania, Italy and Hungary) were operating. The Romanians, in particular, were extremely cruel to the Soviet Jews. In the border town of Jassy, between Romania and the Soviet Union, the Romanians executed 4,000 Jews during a single massacre.

In general, the Germans were extremely annoyed at the brutality of the Romanians: Not because the Jews were harmed, but because the Romanians were seen as too unsystematic and spontaneous.


> Report on the actions of Einsatzgruppe D
> Excerpt from a German report on the actions of Romanian police forces

From terror to extermination - Phase 2

Pogrom in Kishinev (Moldavia)

During the first phase of the murder of the Soviet Jews, most killings were acts of terror. The main purpose was to secure the German army against presumed ‘Judeo-Bolshevist’ attacks, to isolate the Jews from the surrounding population, and to have them branded as the real enemy. In doing so, the Germans hoped to make the local populations participate in the murders, or at least to stay out of the way.

With time, the German acts of terror developed into systematic executions of Jewish men. The tasks of the Security Police had, in other words, been expanded. For one thing, the executions were made more effective, for another, new reasons for the killings were invented.

Beginning around August 1941 the terror ended. It was substituted with efforts of ethnic cleansing: to make whole areas or cities “free of Jews”.

The reason for this change of policy is a matter of discussion among historians. Historians have earlier believed that there existed an order to kill all the Soviet Jews at the beginning of the invasion, but this has been proved not to be the case. Instead, two important factors helped form the decision that Jewish women and children were now to be included in the murders:

  • The state of the war. The Germans had counted on a swift victory over the Soviet Union, but this did not materialise. Although the German army advanced overwhelmingly fast, the areas behind the front were not yet secured.
  • Lack of provisions. The Nazi leadership had believed that the army could “live of the land” within weeks of the start of the invasion. But this was not possible.

The combination of military problems of security and the problem of securing the necessary provisions for the army and the local population hit the Jews particularly hard. Beginning as early as 28 July 1941, the Nazis introduced a “food hierarchy”, which had the German army at the top and the Jews at the bottom. Jewish women and children, as well as Soviet POW’s, were seen as “useless eaters” (German: nutzlose Fresser) – and also as a security risk. The Nazis therefore decided that the most “rational” solution to this problem was murder. Soviet POW’s, who had been captured by the Germans in the first months of the war, were starved to death in large numbers in the POW camps.

At the same time as Jewish women and children were being murdered, the Nazis began to assemble Jews in ghettos, as had been done in Poland. This served two purposes:

  • To centralise the Jewish workforce. This was not least due to a demand from the army, which needed skilled Jewish workers in the armaments industry.
  • To make sure that the Jews did not escape to the east.

The gathering of Jews in ghettos did not preclude murdering them. The idea was only to make Jews capable of working, particularly skilled workers, work themselves to death. Fittingly, the SS named this cruel system Vernichtung durch Arbeit (‘death by work’). Jews unable to work, especially children, the elderly and the sick, were to disappear as fast as possible.

The area of Einsatzgruppe A

Jews are murdered in a ravine at Zdolbunov in the Soviet Union, 14 October, 1942, USHMM #30251.

In this area – the Baltic States – the transition from terror to extermination happened early. Starting at the end of July 1941, the Nazis began to murder Jewish women and children. The Commando 3 of Einsatzgruppe A was particularly active: it was responsible for the murder of 40,000 Jews in the month of August alone.

As early as September/October 1941 the liquidation of the newly established ghettos in the Baltic area was begun. In November, among 10,000 Jews were killed in Riga, the capital of Latvia.


> Killing report from Einsatzkommando 3
> Report on the actions of Einsatzgruppe A

The area of Einsatzgruppe B

A group of Jewish women on a beach near Liepaja (Latvia), just before they are executed by the SD, 1942, USHMM #19121.

From October 1941 Einsatzgruppe B carried out executions of Jews regardless of sex and age. Heinrich Himmler’s deputy in central Russia, Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, was the man behind these massacres in his capacity of local head of the police and SS. He initiated so-called Grossaktionen (‘large-scale operations’), where all Jews in a certain city or area – leaving out valuable workers – were shot.

Among the most important Grossaktionen were:

  1. The liquidation of the ghetto in the city of Borissow 20-21 October 1941: 6,500 Jews were murdered.
  2. “Special Operation” in the city of Bobnisk at the end of November and the beginning of December 1941: 5,281 Jews were murdered.
  3. The liquidation of the ghetto in the city of Vitebsk in December 1941: 4,900 Jews were murdered.
  4. Mass execution “for helping partisans” in Gomel in December 1941: 2,365 Jews were murdered.

Increasingly, the Einsatzgruppen received support from the ordinary police, the German civil administration, and from local auxiliary troops.


> Report on the actions of Einsatzgruppe B

The area of Einsatzgruppe C

The ravine of Babi Yar in the Soviet Union, where Einsatzgruppe C shot more than 33,000 Jews, USHMM #83716.

Like his colleague in central Russia, Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, the local head of police and SS in southern Russia, Friedrich Jeckeln, was the man responsible for the transition from terror to extermination in the area of Einsatzgruppe C.

Here as well, the SS-troops began to carry out Grossaktionen in the course of the late summer and autumn of 1941. In the up to then worst massacre – in the city of Kamenetsk-Podolsk – 23,600 Jews (men, women and children) were murdered in the course of three days in August. Members of Einsatzgruppe C did not do the killing, which was carried out by some special SS-units under the personal direction of Friedrich Jeckeln. These units were in time deployed to support the Einsatzgruppen.
The Germans were themselves surprised at how easy it was to carry out such massacres.

Monument commemorating the massacre at Babi Yar

Beginning in September 1941 Einsatzgruppe C and Friedrich Jeckeln’s own units advanced into Ukraine. This led to even more massacres. The most notorious one – perhaps one of the single most infamous events of World War II – was the execution of more than 33,000 Jews from Ukraine’s capital Kiev, at the ravine of Babi Yar on 29-30 November 1941.


> Account of the massacre at Babi Yar
> Report on the actions of Einsatzgruppe C

The area of Einsatzgruppe D

Similar to what happened in the areas of the other Einsatzgruppen, a transition from “security-related tasks” to extermination took place in the course of August/September 1941. The Romanians deported large numbers of Jews from the Romanian-occupied parts of the Soviet Union to the German-occupied parts – to great annoyance of the Germans. Einsatzgruppe D was therefore given orders to murder these deported Jews, which happened at Grossaktionen in the course of the autumn of 1941.


> Report on the actions of Einsatzgruppe D

Continuation - Phase 3

In the course of spring 1942 the Nazi Jewish policy in the Soviet Union entered a third phase. Characteristically for this phase, the murders of the Jews were now carried out in a cooperative effort between many German institutions, and not by the SS on their own.

Assisting were:

  • The German civil administration
  • The now stationary Security Police and SD (frequently the former Einsatzgruppen commandos)
  • The order police (i.e. the “regular police”)
  • Local auxiliary troops
  • Civil servants from a number of German government offices (the agriculture- and forestry service, ‘Organisation Todt’, etc.)
  • The army.

The killing of Jews often took place under cover of being actions against Soviet partisans and saboteurs.


> Report on the actions of Einsatzgruppe A
> Report from Einsatzgruppe B concerning "special treatment"

Ghettos and camps

Jewish forced labour in the Soviet Union.

As in other parts of Nazi-occupied Europe, the surviving Soviet Jews – those who had not fallen victim to the Einsatzgruppen raids – were concentrated in ghettos and concentration camps. As early as October 1941 the head of the Security Police in Latvia’s capital, Riga, suggested setting up a concentration camp in order to make better use of Jewish labour. A ghetto was already in existence in Riga at this point, but plans were surfacing to deport Jews from Germany to Riga. And where were they to be housed? A similar problem arose in Minsk, the capital of Byelorussia.

The immediate solution to the housing problem was alarmingly simple: In Riga almost 30,000 Jews were shot towards the end of November and the beginning of December 1941. In Minsk nearly 12,000 Jews were killed in the same fashion in order to make room in the local ghetto.

Jews from the ghetto in Vinnitsa are executed.

At the same time, the first transports of Jews from the German Reich arrived in the east. But since the planned concentration camp outside Riga was far from completed, the first five transports were diverted to Kaunas. Here, members of Einsatzgruppe A shot the 5,000 Jewish passengers on the spot.

While some ghettos were emptied of their Jewish residents, new ghettos were established. Most of them, however, were short-lived. The majority of ghettos in the Soviet Union had been dissolved by the end of 1943. The residents were either shot on the spot or deported westwards to the extermination camps in Poland. In the Baltic States around 50,000 Jews lived in ghettos by November 1943. Of these 50,000 Jews, only one fifth, that is: 10,000, survived the war. The rest perished.


> Order about the establishing of ghettos in the Soviet Union

“Fighting partisans” and “combating gangs”

Beginning in the autumn of 1941, many Soviet Jews were killed as part of German anti-partisan raids. The most important reason for this was probably that the Jews without further ado were seen as partisans or supporters of the partisans. There existed some Jewish partisan groups in the Soviet Union, who fought against the Germans, but not nearly as many as presumed by the Nazis. The Nazi conviction of the Jews’ natural evilness made them see all Jews as potential enemies. Killing a Jew was thus seen as a pre-emptive strike.

Not only the SS took part in this “fight against partisans” or “combating of gangs”. Units from the ordinary army and the police also participated. In October 1941 alone, the German army murdered 10,431 Soviet partisans, of which almost 6,000 were Jews.

The execution of partisans.

The local SS- and police leaders, among them Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski and Friedrich Jeckeln, were particularly fond of such actions. As part of their “combating of gangs”, 360,000 Jews were murdered in the district of Bialystok in the course of four months. This can be seen from a report submitted by Heinrich Himmler to Hitler on 29 December 1942, where the Reichsführer-SS draws up the balance of murdered Jews in the Soviet Union.

Among the most important examples of actions against gangs were:

  • ‘Operation Swamp Fever’ in September 1942, where 8,350 Jews were killed.
  • ‘Operation Hamburg’ in December 1942, where 2,658 Jews from the Slonim area were shot.
  • An anti-partisan operation in the area of Sluzk, where 3,800 Jews were killed.

> Report from the Commisioner-General for Byelorussia on the extermination of Jews and the fight against partisans
> Diary from a group of Jewish partisans

The Murder of the Soviet Jews – status at the end of the war

As the war progressed, the leadership at Security Police headquarters in Berlin gradually realised that the atrocities committed by the Einsatzgruppen had to be covered up. Thousands of Jewish victims had been only sporadically buried in mass graves, so in 1942 the head of the Gestapo, SS-Gruppenführer Heinrich Müller, decided that the bodies had to be burned. The idea was to erase all traces of the German mass murders. Later, when fortune of war had turned against Germany, this task became even more important.

This dirty work was assigned to a seasoned Einsatzgruppen veteran, Paul Blobel, who had been head of the commando responsible for the notorious massacre at Babi Yar. In June 1942, Blobel was made head of a special ‘Commando 1005’. This special commando then went around German-occupied parts of the Soviet Union and arranged for the burning of the Jewish victims. Frequently, Jewish prisoners did the work and were then shot and burned themselves.


> Testimony by Paul Blobel

The number of Soviet Holocaust victims

Because of the often very inconsistent and unreliable source material it is difficult to give a precise estimate of the number of Jewish victims of the Nazi persecution in the Soviet Union. The simplest thing would of course be to establish how many Jews that lived in the area before the war, and how many after. The difference between the two numbers – disregarding emigration – would then equal the number of victims. Unfortunately, such an undertaking is impossible. The size of the Jewish population in the Soviet Union, before as well as after the war, is unknown.

It is possible to give relatively sure estimates as to the number of Jewish victims for two of the areas concerned:

  • The Romanian-occupied parts of the Soviet Union (the districts of Bessarabia, Bukowina and Transnistria): a total of approximately 240-245,000 Jews perished.
  • The Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania): A total of approximately 210,000 Jews perished.

The by far largest parts of the Soviet Union (Russia, Belarus and Ukraine) provide no precise estimates of the number of victims due to lack of data.

However, by 2002 the estimate for all of the German-occupied parts of the Soviet Union is:

Approximately 2 million Jewish victims

Problems for the historians and the uncertainty of the sources

It is difficult for historians to say anything certain about what happened in the Soviet Union after the middle of 1942, which is after the third phase of the extermination process had begun.

In period up until the middle of 1942, historians can make use of the so-called Einsatzgruppen Reports – sent by the Einsatzgruppen to the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) in Berlin. They give specific details about how the Einsatzgruppen killed Jews, how many, and where, etc. Such consistent source material is completely lacking for the third phase of the extermination of the Soviet Jews. Sometimes it is possible to verify that an action against a group of Jews has taken place, but impossible to unravel the results of the particular action, and vice versa.

Want to know more?

> The Final Solution
> Extermination camps


A good starting point (and an introduction to the latest research into the murder of the Soviet Jews) is Ulrich Herbert, ed., National Socialist Extermination Policies: Contemporary German perspectives and Controversies (New York & Oxford, 2000). Another introduction to the subject can be found in Yitzhak Arad, ’The Holocaust of Soviet Jewry in the Occupied Territories of the USSR’, Yad Vashem Studies 21 (1991), pp. 1-47, although this article is in many ways over-simplifying the events.
For readers of German, Peter Longerich’s Politik der Vernichtung: Eine Gesamtdarstellung der nationalsozialistischen Judenverfolgung (Munich, 1998) is the best account of the Nazi Jewish policy currently available. It includes an extensive analysis of the murder of the Soviet Jews.

As far as source material is concerned, the situation is unfortunately not too good. The Einsatzgruppen Reports have been published in Yitzhak Arad et al., eds., The Einsatzgruppen Reports (New York, 1989). A number of eyewitness accounts have been published, including Martin Gilbert, ed., Surviving the Holocaust: The Kovno Ghetto Diary by Avraham Tory (Cambridge, MA & London, 1990) and Yitskhok Rudashevski, The Diary of the Vilna Ghetto (Ghetto Fighters’ House, Israel, 1973).

The best estimate of the number of Jewish victims of the Holocaust (including an extensive chapter on the Soviet Jews) can be found in Wolfgang Benz, ed., Dimension des Völkermords: Die Zahl der jüdischen Opfer des Nationalsozialismus (Munich, 1991).

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