In the winter of 1941, silence fell across the Jewish communities of Ukraine, as one by one, they were snuffed out. “This silence is more horrifying than tears and curses; it is a silence more terrifying than moans and piercing lamentations,” wrote Soviet-Jewish journalist Vassily Grossman in 1943, after the Ukraine had been liberated by the Red Army. “In Ukraine there are no Jews. Nowhere—Poltava, Kharkov, Kremenchug, Bristol, Yagotin… A people has been murdered.” In the following years the quietude would be amplified as the Soviet Union, recovering from the ravages of war, disappeared the disappeared, never acknowledging the Jewish lives taken from its lands.
When the Germans began their occupation of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, around 2.5 million Jews were trapped in the region. After the Nazi invasion, which was expedited by local collaborators, only 100,000 to 120,000 survived. But for more than 50 years, the details of this brutal tragedy remained largely unknown beyond the Iron Curtain. Little information was shared with the outside world, and inside the Soviet Union, the truth was suppressed. Instead of death by the Nazi system of concentration camps, the genocide of the Soviet Union’s Jews was committed via a barrage of bullets. Among the numerous massacre sites is Drobitsky Yar, a ravine outside the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkov where some 15,000 Jews were shot or forced into mass graves to die of exposure. The horrific murders began December 15, 1941 and continued through January 1942—all in sight of Kharkov’s non-Jewish residents.
“People died basically just outside their homes, in pits and forests,” says Izabella Tabarovsky, a scholar at the Kennan Institute, a part of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “They were killed in full view of their neighbors. If their neighbors did not directly murder them, they certainly witnessed them.”
The conditions that led to Ukrainians supporting such violent action against their countrymen began decades earlier, a tangled knot of prejudice and conspiracies. According to Tabarovsky, the legacy of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the Holodomor (a forced famine that resulted in the deaths of millions of Ukrainians in 1932-33) created enormous strife and instability. The conditions were almost like a 20th-century version of the Thirty Years’ War (a series of religious wars that spread across Europe and resulted in millions of deaths), she says.
Although Jewish residents of the Ukraine experienced long stretches of peaceful coexistence with their neighbors, they were also the most systematically oppressed minority. In 1919 alone, around 1,300 pogroms took place in the Ukrainian territories, resulting in 50,000 to 60,000 deaths and 1 million displaced people, Tabarovsky says. When the Bolsheviks instituted programs to promote minority culture and representation in government, some Jews rose out of poverty and into relatively stable careers. There were Jewish books and theater, Jews in government positions. The sudden increase in visibility led to further suspicion and unhappiness, which quickly spiraled into a Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy theory linking Jews with the communist government that enacted murderous policies including the Holodomor. By the time World War II had begun, some Ukrainians initially looked to the Germans as liberators. They welcomed the destruction of the Jews, who represented all the ills that had befallen them since the country was subsumed into the Soviet Union. By October 24, 1941, the German soldiers had crossed Ukraine and captured the eastern city of Kharkov. The Germans latched onto the Jews-as-Communists narrative, ordering the deaths of anyone who fit either of those categories.
In the occupied city of Kharkov, a decree was posted on December 14 ordering that all Jews be evacuated or shot on the spot if they resisted. Jewish citizens were identified by their neighbors, stripped of their clothing and valuables, and forced to a factory where they were held for weeks. Starting from the beginning, groups of Jews were periodically marched out to the Drobitsky Yar ravine and murdered. Men, women and children of all ages were killed.
Engineer S. S. Krivoruchko, one of the few survivors of the Drobitsky Yar massacre, described being marched to the ravine, which was “strewn with bits of rags and the remains of torn clothing… On the edge of the ravine stood a truck with machine guns. Terrible scenes erupted when people understood that they had been brought here to be slaughtered.”
Decades later, forensic experts uncovered 13 grave-pits around Kharkov. The corpses in these mass graves lay “in extreme disorder, fantastically intertwined, forming tangles of human bodies defying description.” Their work showed that the Germans had used bullets and carbon monoxide poisoning and fire to kill thousands of Jews, horrible acts of murder that would have been known to Kharkov’s residents. As historian Timothy Snyder writes, “The Judeo-Bolshevik myth separated Jews from Soviet citizens and many Soviet citizens from their own pasts. The murder of Jews and the transfer of property eliminated the sense of responsibility for the past.”
This forced distancing from the past and the truth continued even after the Ukraine was recaptured by the Soviet army. Stalin erected monuments, but only recognized the victims as peaceful Soviet citizens; their Jewish ethnicity was completely ignored. Part of this was undoubtedly due to anti-Semitism. Stalin once told Franklin D. Roosevelt that Jews were “middlemen, profiteers, and parasites.” But another part of this suppression had to do with creating the myth of a singular, national identity for all members of the Soviet Union. They needed stability and unity, or the nation would fracture.
Tabarovsky, who grew up in Russia during the Soviet period, never even learned about the Holocaust in school, though she later grew to be a scholar on the subject.
“Cities [in the Ukraine] used to be 70 percent Jewish, 80 percent Jewish,” Tabarovsky says. “You come to the remnants of a Jewish cemetery and kids wander there and have no idea what it is. That is like the memory of an entire people is erased.”
And Tabarovsky says that although modern Ukraine is very supportive of Israel, they aren’t taking the time to go back through the past and understand what it means today. Tabarovsky says the only way to heal from this history of silence and suppression is for Ukraine to revisit the past. She believes the country could look to Germany as a model for reconciliation, even though it will mean unearthing old, painful problems.
“The way you deal with the past determines what kind of society you have in the moment,” Tabarovsky says. “If you don’t address the root causes of what happened in the past, then what’s to prevent you from recreating that in the future?”