- From August 1939 to June 1941, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were linked by treaties that permitted a Soviet sphere of influence in eastern Poland and Ukraine, and the occupation of the Baltic states. On the eve of World War II in September 1939, the Jewish population of the Soviet Union ranged between 3,020,000 and 3,050,000. The Soviet annexation of eastern Poland, the Baltic states, and Bessarabia and Bukovina added an additional 1,900,000 Jews under Soviet rule. An additional 250,000 to 300,000 Jews were allowed to enter the Soviet Union as refugees from German-occupied Poland. Soon after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Soviets found their country partially occupied by the Wehrmacht (German army). The Jews found themselves until 1943 either under German occupation, which included the Baltic states and all of Poland, or under the protection of the Soviet government. In the territories captured from the Soviet Union, orders were given by Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich for the extermination of the Jews. Within 12 to 18 months, the Germans exterminated the total population of Jews living on occupied Soviet soil. The extermination of the Jews within the Soviet Union’s pre-1939 borders was based on Adolf Hitler’s conviction that Jews were the main supporters of the Soviet government. Hitler’s Commissar Order implied the complete extermination of the Jewish population, inasmuch as the murder of the Jews was viewed as a strategic component of Nazi objectives in the Soviet Union. The special units known as the Einsatzgruppen accompanied the Wehrmacht into Russian territory and were primarily responsible for the killing operations against Jews.The roundup and murder of the Jews in German-occupied Soviet territory took several forms. Where possible, the Germans sought help from the local population. The Einsatzgruppen would move from town to town and gather local support for the roundup of Jews, who were then brought to ditches or ravines and shot. In other parts of the Soviet Union, the Germans concentrated Jews in ghetto-like conditions. Jews were required to wear either a white armband or a yellow Star of David badge on their clothing. The Germans placed the young and the skilled in forced labor units, but this lasted only a short time. Subsequently, all of the Jews living in the ghettos were shot to death by the Germans.Although there was no organized resistance by the Jews in the Soviet Union, individual Jews withstood the Germans in many different ways. The main form of resistance for those Jews who opposed German rule was to flee to the forests and join the partisans. A few of these partisan groups were composed mostly of Jewish fighters, but in the aggregate they were Russian. Despite acts of sabotage against the Germans, the record of the partisan movement, as a whole, was a poor one when it came to saving Jewish lives. As additional numbers of Russians fled the Nazis and joined partisan groups, they also brought with them their anti-Semitism. Jews in the partisan movement were objects of ridicule, and their willingness to fight was always questioned.During the course of the war, most Jewish men were either drafted or volunteered for the Red Army. The percentage of Jews in the military was, in fact, higher than their percentage in the population. Some 500,000 Soviet Jews fought in the Red Army, and approximately 200,000 lost their lives in battle. Close to 161,000 medals were awarded to Jews for their heroism in battle. In the Soviet Union proper, Jews suffered hardships during the war like their non-Jewish Soviet citizens. But this did not prevent the intense anti-Semitism, which was exacerbated by returning indoctrinated disabled war veterans who spread anti-Jewish Nazi propaganda. The Soviet government did little to counter anti-Semitism with its own propaganda. What Joseph Stalin’s government did do was to create the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (1943), which became the temporary representative body of Soviet Jewry. The appearance of the committee also helped to defuse the criticism that the government was indifferent to anti-Semitism.Starting in 1944, when the Soviet Union went on the offensive against Germany, the Jews who had sought refuge in Russia commenced their return home to the former German-occupied territory. What they witnessed upon their arrival was not only the full extent of the Nazi genocide but also the complicity of their neighbors in the murder of Jews and the seizure of their property. Jews found that their former apartments were occupied by those who took advantage of their absence, and they were not permitted to work in some of the occupations that they had held before the war. From Poland to the Baltic states, Nazi propaganda had succeeded in intensifying an already existing anti-Semitism.
Historical dictionary of the Holocaust. Jack R. Fischel. 2014.
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