The Holocaust in the Soviet Union
- LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
- LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0100
- LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
- LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0100
The phrase “Holocaust in the USSR” usually refers to the systematic persecution and mass murder of the Jewish population residing throughout the territory of the former Soviet Union between the years 1941 and 1944 by the German Nazis and their collaborators. In more comprehensive terms, this definition must also take into account other areas of research reflecting the distinctive experience of the Soviet Jewry during World War II. While not being denied as fact, the murder of Soviet Jews has been viewed and considered by Soviet historians as a part of the general history of World War II, better known as the Great Patriotic War. The official Soviet narrative of this history did not include any information about the unique experience of its Soviet Jewish population. The fate of Soviet Jewry was universalized into the general account of the sufferings and martyrdom of all Soviet people. As a result of this approach, there were no scholarly works published in the Soviet Union that specifically dealt with the Holocaust or with Jewish sufferings, either in Russian or in any of the languages of the Soviet national republics. At the same time, the mass killing of Soviet Jews during the war was not an unknown or forgotten story. A limited number of nonscholarly publications, memoirs, and literary works were published in Yiddish, Russian, Ukrainian, and other languages during the postwar period. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of previously closed Soviet archives provided post-Soviet scholarship with an opportunity to reexamine the official history of the war, as well as a chance to include previously “missing” chapters in the overall historical narrative. The unrestricted access to Soviet archives also became instrumental in furthering research on the history of the Holocaust in the USSR for Western scholars. At the beginning of World War II, in September 1939, the territory of the USSR had grown significantly as a result of the annexation of the former territories of Poland, Romania, and the independent Baltic states. The “first Soviet occupation” of these territories lasted for a relatively short period of time. While the Soviet occupation, deportations, and terror had a lasting impact on the lives of Jews and non-Jews in these regions, it did not completely alter the course of their history during that time. For this reason, the history of the Holocaust in Bessarabia or Eastern Galicia has had more in common with history of the Holocaust in Romania and Poland, rather than with the territories of Soviet Ukraine. Thus, the works and publications listed in this article focus only on the territory of the USSR within its pre-1939 borders. There are, however, exceptions to this rule. General and collected works usually cover more broad geographic areas. Another notable exception from this rule regards the territory of so-called Transnistria. Although it was located within the pre-1939 Soviet border, it was occupied and administered by Romanian authorities during WWII, and thus must be reviewed as part of the Holocaust in Romania.
To date, there is no research conducted by former Soviet and Western scholars that has produced a definitive history of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union incorporating the massive, new archival material made available with the opening of the Soviet archives. All the books in this section provide the necessary background reading for understanding Soviet and Russian Jewish history, the German occupation, Soviet history and World War II, and the overall history of the Holocaust. Arad 2009, by one of the leading historians of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, provides a good narrative of the general history of events, using a variety of primary and secondary sources. Altman 2002 is the first and only lengthy study of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union written in Russian. Gitelman 1988 gives an excellent overview of the history of the Russian and Soviet Jewry, and it also includes the Holocaust and the immediate postwar history of the Soviet Jewry. Polonsky 2012 is the most recent comprehensive history of the Jewish communities of Poland-Lithuania and Russia, and also includes a special chapter on the history of Holocaust. Hilberg 2003, still the most comprehensive and authoritative study of the Holocaust, provides necessary background on the history of Holocaust, including unique aspects of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union. Werth 2000 provides an in-depth eyewitness account of the events on the eastern front and the human tragedy experienced by the Soviet people during the war. Dallin 1957 offers outstanding analysis of the Nazi-occupation policies in the territory of the Soviet Union. Browning and Matthäus 2004 details the origins and development of the Final Solution policies. Headland 1992 focuses on the practical implementation of these policies by the Einsatzgruppen in the USSR. Weiner 2001 offers study of the war in the Soviet Union within the context of the Soviet history, and draws special attention to the role of the Great Patriotic War in the shaping of postwar Soviet society and ideology. Altshuler 1998, using materials of the 1939 Soviet census, provides social and demographic profile of the Soviet Jewish population on the eve of the Shoah.
Altman, Ilya. Zhertvy Nenavisti: Kholokost v Rossii, 1941–1945. Moscow: Foundation “Kovcheg,” 2002.
NNNThe first Russian-language monograph to provide a broad history of the Holocaust throughout the territory of the Soviet Union as well as the history of the Jewish Resistance during World War II. The book is based on the extensive usage of previously inaccessible primary sources kept in the ex-Soviet central and regional state archives.
Altshuler, Mordechai. Soviet Jewry on the Eve of the Holocaust: A Social and Demographic Profile. Jerusalem: Center for Research of East European Jewry, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1998.
NNNPresents the most comprehensive quantitative picture of the Soviet Jewish population during the period leading up to World War II.
Arad, Yitzhak. The Holocaust in the Soviet Union. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.
NNNA history of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, covering all territories of the former USSR, with good analysis of its regional differences. Copublished in Jerusalem by Yad Vashem.
Browning, Christopher, and Jürgen Matthäus. The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939–March 1942. Comprehensive History of the Holocaust. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.
NNNGroundbreaking work and comprehensive analysis of the origins of the Final Solution. Authors argue against the idea of any “long held blueprint” (p. 27), insisting on the evolutionist development of the Nazi racial policies, from persecution and “ethnic cleansing” to the Final Solution of the Holocaust.
Dallin, Alexander. German Rule in Russia, 1941–1945: A Study of Occupation Policies. London: Macmillan, 1957.
NNNAn acclaimed study published more than a half-century ago, this book remains one the best analyses of the German occupation of the Soviet Union during World War II. Of special interest to scholars of the Holocaust is an excellent overview of the Nazi ethnic policies throughout the occupied territory. Reprinted in 1980 (New York: Octagon). Second edition published 1981 (London: Macmillan; Boulder, CO: Westview).
Gitelman, Zvi. A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present. New York: Schocken, 1988.
NNNExcellent overview and introduction into the history of Jews in the late Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, including a separate chapter on the history of the Holocaust and postwar anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. Second expanded edition published in 2001 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press).
Headland, Ronald. Messages of Murder: A Study of the Reports of the Einsatzgruppen of the Security Police and the Security Service, 1941–1943. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1992.
NNNAnalysis of the Einsatzgruppen reports, with a special focus on Ereignismeldungen (situational reports) from the summer of 1941 through April of 1942, related to the mass murder of the Jewish population throughout the territory of the Soviet Union. Also published in London by the Associated University Presses.
Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.
NNNA landmark study of the history of Holocaust, first published in 1961. The book provides a history of the destruction of Jewish communities throughout Europe under Nazi rule from 1933 to 1945. The Holocaust in the territory of the Soviet Union is covered in several chapters (Vol. 1, chapter 7, pp. 295–408). The book is mandatory reading for all researchers studying the Holocaust.
Polonsky, Antony. The Jews in Poland and Russia. Vol. 3, 1914–2008. Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2012.
NNNThird volume of a synthetic history covering centuries of Jewish history in Poland and Russia. The Holocaust in the Soviet Union discussed in the second part of Volume 3.
Weiner, Amir. Making Sense of War: The Second World War and the Fate of the Bolshevik Revolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
NNNComprehensive analysis of the experience of war, Nazi occupation, liberation, and the postwar period in the Vinytsia region of Ukraine. The author argues that World War II has become a defining event in Soviet history. The work posits that war was “the purgatory of the revolution, the final cleansing of Soviet society of the remaining elusive ‘human weeds’ who intruded upon socialist harmony . . . [and] brought the polity to the brink of communism” (p. 7).
Werth, Alexander. Russia at War, 1941–1945. 2d ed. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2000.
NNNEyewitness account of the war and a behind-the-scenes look at life in the Soviet Union.
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