For many, thoughts of the Holocaust are attached to certain places: Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek.
But according to Izabella Tabarovsky, a senior associate at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, that misses an important part of the history: the genocide of Jews in Nazi-occupied Soviet territory, which stretched from the Baltic states down to Ukraine.
“There’s a real lack of understanding that, in fact, the Holocaust began in these territories. And almost half of the victims of the Holocaust died in these territories,” Tabarovsky told a crowd of nearly 100 last week at Ohev Sholom — the National Synagogue in Washington. “They died a very different death. … in forests, in ravines, outside of people’s homes.”
The talk, “Holocaust in the USSR: A Forgotten Story Asking to be Told,” was organized by The Foundation for Jewish Studies. It came days before the 76th anniversary of the massacre at Babi Yar, in which 33,771 Ukrainian Jews were murdered over two days outside of Kiev. At the time, it was the single biggest killing site of the Holocaust.
“I think that we owe it to these people and to ourselves to explore that memory and to understand what really happened there,” Tabarovsky said.
During a trip to Kiev last year, the Soviet-born Tabarovsky, realized how little she knew. After digging into the history, she was shocked by the scale of the atrocities on the war’s eastern front.
Of the Jews who remained in France during Nazi occupation, 75 percent survived, according to Tabarovsky’s research. In Amsterdam, that number was about 26 percent. And in the Soviet territories: just 4 percent. More than 2.7 million Jews were murdered in the Soviet Union, 1.5 million of those in Ukraine alone.
Part of the reason why so little of the history is known is that so few people who witnessed it lived to tell it, she said.
What is known is that these atrocities were frequently carried out with the help of local populations under the influence of anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda and weary from the brutality of Soviet rule, Tabarovsky said.
“Most of the time, they were not transported anywhere,” Tabarovsky said. “They were killed right next to their homes, with participation from their neighbors.”
Contrary to the lecture’s title, Tony Hausner, who was in attendance, said he remembers the stories well. His mother was born in eastern Galicia, near the Polish-Ukrainian border and moved to Vienna before fleeing the city after the German annexation in 1938.
Hausner has spent decades researching the fate of Jews in his mother’s birthplace, even arranging for its Yizkor, or memory, book to be translated from Yiddish to English.
“I know some of the people personally. I spent 20 years getting to know the editor of the Yizkor book,” Hausner said. “He survived in the forest and was able to tell much of the story.”
But for so many others, the story has never been fully revealed.
As soon as the war ended, the Iron Curtain came down. Aside from the work done by some Ukrainian Jews and dissidents in the 1950s and ‘60s, it wasn’t until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 that archives and other historical resources opened up. There hadn’t been much in terms of record keeping to begin with, and by then most of it was gone.