Eighty years ago this year, on 22 June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa). In Part One of this blog post, Katherine Quinlan-Flatter talked about the key events in the opening weeks of the campaign, which aimed to win Lebensraum ('living space') in the East. Operation Barbarossa was to be a ‘war of annihilation’ targeting Jews and Roma - by the end of 1942, at least 1.1 million Jewish men, women and children had been murdered in mass shootings. Sometimes known as the ‘Holocaust by bullets’, this is a pivotal point in IWM’s new Holocaust galleries as it reflects the radicalisation of German anti-Jewish policy into wide-scale state-sponsored murder, in the heart of twentieth century Europe.
The section of the galleries that looks at this subject is dominated by 3 large screens that show 5 sites where mass shootings took place, as they look today – Šķēde beach in Latvia; Lubny in Ukraine; Chișinău in Moldova; Babyn Yar in Ukraine and Ponary in Lithuania. Accompanying these screens are images of these same sites as they were at the time, alongside photographs taken of the ‘actions’ that took place there. These photos show various aspects of the shootings and are some of the only surviving imagery – though from the gaze of the perpetrator -- of the atrocities committed by the Einsatzgruppen and their collaborators.
Most of the time, we do not know the names of those in the photos or anything about them. But they do show individuals – individuals who had friends and family and who lived ordinary lives before the Nazis brutally interrupted this and wiped out their entire communities. In this space, we are fortunate to be able to tell the personal experiences of four individuals – whose names might otherwise be lost to history.
Two of these stories are Rivka Abramovitz and her three-year-old son, Zvi-Dov. They both lived in Raseiniai, Lithuania with Rivka’s beloved husband, Moshe. Rivka’s parents, Mordechai and Tova, her sister, Sara, and one brother, Vellevalle or Ze’ev. Her other brother, Gershon, had emigrated to Palestine (modern day Israel) in 1935.
The family were there when the Germans entered the town on 23 June 1941, a day after the start of Operation Barbarossa. With the rest of the town’s Jews, and some Jews from nearby towns, they were forced into a small, overcrowded, improvised ‘ghetto’ in a monastery building near to the town.
As was custom in the first weeks of the campaign, the town’s Jewish men were targeted first – especially those in positions of power. In part, this was because Hitler saw this campaign as a war of two ideologies (fascism and Bolshevism) and, to the Nazis, Jews were synonymous with Bolshevism. To exterminate Jews, therefore, would result in the destruction of Soviet leadership, removing the threat of Bolshevism. Rivka’s husband, Moshe, and brother Ze’ev were possibly among the 254 Jewish men murdered on the morning of 29 July on a farm in the nearby village of Kalnujai. Or they may have been among the 213 men and 66 women shot on 5 August 1941.
From early August, Heinrich Himmler ordered the Einsatzgruppen to murder all Jews – including women, children and the elderly. Rivka and Zvi-Dov were most likely murdered a month later, on 29 August, with the town’s remaining 843 Jews. 415 of these were children.
Rivka’s family is just one family killed by Einsatzgruppe A. By the end of the war, over 90% of Lithuania’s Jews had been murdered. This particularly high number was because many non-Jewish Lithuanians assisted the Germans in the humiliation, denouncement and murder of Lithuanian Jews.
The perpetrators were ordinary in most ways – they had children, friends, and social lives. But they also knowingly killed. This ordinariness is something we want to portray in the galleries.
One way we do this is by looking at individual perpetrators, in this instance Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski. Bach- Zelewski features as a personal story alongside his Eastern Front Medal – a new acquisition for these galleries. The Eastern Front Medal was awarded for service during the brutal first winter campaign in the Soviet Union. During this winter, Bach-Zelewski oversaw Einsatzgruppe B and personally attended some of these shootings. But he was also a devoted family man, with a wife and six children at home in Germany.
Not all of those who participated in the mass shootings were Nazis. These shootings relied on hundreds of thousands of individuals, many of whom were part of the local populations. As mentioned above, the number of locals involved in the mass shootings was particularly high in Lithuania.
One item we are displaying to demonstrate this is a jacket worn by an officer in charge of a Schutzmannschaft unit, or auxiliary police unit. By the end of 1941, there were over 30,000 men in these unit; by the end of 1942 there were 300,000. Many of these men were volunteers, who joined for nationalistic, anti-Soviet or antisemitic reasons. Others joined for the steady pay and bonuses, and others to avoid being sent to Germany for forced labour. Whatever their motive, nearly all adapted to rounding up and killing innocent men, women and children when called upon to do so – and they were frequently.
Another item we are displaying is a pistol, of the type used by the Ordnungspolizei or uniformed police. By the end of 1941, 26 of these police battalions had followed the German army as they advanced eastwards. In peace time, these police took part in normal police duties; in the Soviet Union they took part in mass shootings. Sometimes this was alongside the Einsatzgruppen, but sometimes they initiated them. Crucially – and unlike the murder in the death camps -- the killers could not hide behind the walls of the gas chambers. Instead, they were forced to confront their victims as they shot their victims at close range. The gun is also a reminder that the majority of eastern European Jews were not sent to the death camps to be murdered, or murdered in concentration camps, but they were murdered by bullets, on sites not far from their homes.
IWM’s new permanent Holocaust Galleries open on 20 October 2021, together with the new permanent Second World War Galleries. Find out more here.