For several weeks each year, the Ukrainian city of Uman resembles Israel’s Bnei Brak. Even the nation’s president is Jewish. But Ukraine remains a land soaked in Jewish blood.
Nearly 80 years after the Holocaust, Ukraine has refused to come to grips with its past. Outside of Romania, Ukraine was more aligned with Hitler than anywhere else in Europe. Tens of thousands served the “Final Solution,” whether as guards in death camps, police in Jewish ghettos or mobile murder squads in Ukraine and Poland. Thousands of Ukrainians fought with the Wehrmacht until the end of the war.
Germany has never been a stranger to Ukraine. Berlin had conquered much of the area in World War I. Kaiser Wilhelm II, in a gesture that recognized their support in 1914, installed Zionist activists to rule the Ukrainians and Poles. When Germany withdrew and lost the war in 1918, the Poles and Ukrainians launched a massive pogrom, joined by soldiers of the new and short-lived Ukrainian state, that left more than 100,000 Jews dead.
When the Soviet Union conquered Ukraine in 1920 many of the commissars were of Jewish origin. The fear by the Jews and their supporters abroad was that the Jewish communities of Ukraine and Poland would be wiped out by the gentiles in retaliation. Hundreds of thousands of Jews fled west, many of them to Germany.
Ukrainians played a major role in the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. German intelligence organized Ukrainians to destroy the Jewish community and identify the communists. Within weeks of the German takeover, the SS armed and directed Ukrainian militiamen to attack the Jews throughout Poland in the guise of a popular backlash.
On Sept. 12, Hitler was given the plan for the destruction of the Jews. Presented by Foreign Minister Joachim Ribbentrop, the German extermination called for up to 1,000 Ukrainian nationalists to launch an uprising in Galicia that would target the Poles and Jews. A participant at the meeting, Maj. Gen. Erwin Lahousen, a senior Abwehr officer and member of the military high command, testified at Nuremberg that Ribbentrop ordered that the “uprising should be so staged that all farms and dwellings of the Poles should go up in flames and all Jews be killed.” During the next month, mass shootings of Jews by the SS were reported throughout German-occupied Poland.
In 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and was welcomed with open arms in much of Ukraine. For many Ukrainians, this marked their opportunity for revenge and genocide. Much of the rage was directed against Jewish communities known to support Zionism. The Ukrainians largely ignored those gentiles who had cooperated with the communists under Stalin. It was the Jews they wanted.
The Germans exploited the Jew-hatred in Ukraine. In a June 29, 1941 message, Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Reich Security Main Office, ordered the Einsatzgruppe to facilitate the genocide prepared by Ukrainian militias, most of which supported an independent state.
“The attempts by local anti-Communist or anti-Jewish circles to engage in cleansing activities within the territories now to be occupied should not be hindered in any way,” Heydrich said. “On the contrary, they must be implemented, and intensified when necessary, though without leaving a trace, and directed onto the right path. But this should be done in such a manner that the local ‘self-defense circles’ cannot later refer to orders or any political assurances given.”
The greatest Nazi bloodbath in the Soviet Union was in Ukraine. The Jewish population fell from 2.7 million when the Germans invaded in mid-1941 to 100,000 by the end of the war. At least 1.5 million Jews were killed in less than two years.
Rozia Wagner survived the 1941 pogroms in Lvov. Four years later, she testified on the brutality of the Ukrainians, who delighted in the orgy of violence against the Jews, many of whom were beaten to death. The German soldiers took photographs of the Jewish women, stripped naked, saying this would appear in the Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer.
“The wild horde sought new sensations,” Wagner recalled. “They tore clothes off the wounded and bruised bodies, making no difference between men and women. We, who have already passed through this purgatory and were eagerly sweeping the sand in the courtyard with our hands, watched these scenes with horror, and the blood froze in our veins. And when the insatiable persecutors had stripped a woman completely naked and kept battering her with sticks, German soldiers walking in the courtyard, whom we begged to intervene, answered in a tone of approval, ‘It’s the vengeance of the Ukrainians.'”
From that point on, mass extermination was easy. On Aug. 26-27, 1941, some 23,600 Jews were shot dead in Kamenets-Podolskii, a Ukrainian town near the pre-war border with Poland. This marked the biggest German massacre so far. Ukrainian militiamen were used to torture the Jews before death. They guarded 90 Jewish infants and babies, later killed by the Sonderkommando and the SS.
About a month later, Ukrainian police ordered all the Jews of Kiev and the surrounding area to report to Laherna St. at 8 a.m. with documents and money. On Sept. 29-30, more than 33,700 Jews were marched to the nearby forest of Babi Yar, beaten, ordered to undress and shot dead. Ukrainians helped the Sonderkommando and Wehrmacht in the genocide. Weeks later, the Germans brought 10 foreign correspondents to Kiev and boasted that the city was Jew-free. The Germans did not disclose the fate of the Jews.
Dina Mironovna Pronicheva was one of the few who survived Babi Yar. The Germans formed two lines and forced the Jews to pass through. The Germans beat their victims with rubber truncheons and heavy sticks. Attack dogs bit the stragglers.
“If anyone fell, he was set upon by a dog, which tore his clothes and flesh,” Pronicheva recalled. “The person would willy-nilly get up and run down, where he would be seized by policemen who stripped people naked, beating them terribly wherever they liked with whatever was at hand: their hands or their feet. Some policemen were wearing knuckledusters on their hands. People walked towards the executions completely bloodied.”
The killing continued until the summer of 1943. Throughout, the Germans were aided by a Ukrainian administration that identified the Jews, established the ghettos, supplied Jewish slave labor and seized Jewish property.
Ivan Dereiko, a prominent Ukrainian historian, estimated that 80,000 of his countrymen served as police auxiliaries, four times the number of Germans. The Ukrainians, many of them ardent nationalists, served everywhere — in death and POW camps as well as ghettos. They were also deployed by German SD units to capture Jews. In some areas, such as Bila Tserkva, the Ukrainians were used to kill Jewish children.
By August, the Germans were preparing to retreat and wanted to cover up their crimes. For six weeks, they forced hundreds of Jewish prisoners to exhume and burn the bodies in Babi Yar.
For decades, the Holocaust was ignored in Ukraine, even after its independence in 1991. Until at least 2014, no Ukrainian government supported Holocaust studies; the country was not a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Kiev failed to pass a law for the restitution of confiscated, communal or private real property. In Babi Yar, there are few statues that remind Ukrainians of the extermination.
“Writing the history of the Holocaust in Ukraine has been and probably will continue to be a very complicated, politically perilous endeavor,” Wendy Lower, a Holocaust historian, said.