Details Emerge About Nazi Murders of Soviet Jews

By Ofri Ilani (Haaretz)

Published April 20, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In August 1941, German sailor Reinhard Wiener saw something he was unlikely to forget. Stationed in Latvia, Wiener was walking with a fellow serviceman toward the beach, when a soldier came running toward them. “He said we shouldn’t go on because a horrible thing was happening on the beach,” Wiener recalled. “We asked what was going on, and he said yes, they’re shooting Jews down there.”

Wiener recounted the story in an interview in 1981, published on a new Yad Vashem Holocaust museum Web site documenting the annihilation of the Jews in the Nazi-occupied areas of the Soviet Union. Trained as a cameraman, Wiener carried a Kodak 8mm camera that day.

“I decided to go on anyway, so I could document it,” he said. Wiener reached a line of soldiers standing along a trench. A truck full of people soon arrived. “The guards shouted something I didn’t understand and the people in the truck started jumping out. I saw they were wearing yellow badges.”

The Jews were ordered to run to the trench and stop. “They were told to stand with their backs to the firing squad. I think at that point they understood what awaited them, because just below they could see a layer of bodies covered with sand. The firing squad was then immediately ordered to step forward and shoot.”

Wiener’s two-minute film is the only filmed evidence of one of the worst stages in the annihilation of European Jews, the murders in the Soviet Union.

Despite decades of research, this chapter of the Holocaust remains one of the least documented. The last three years have seen a vast project by Yad Vashem to shed some light on the era. The project, “Story Untold,” was sponsored by the president of the Russian Jewish Congress, Moshe Kantor. It examines 101 killing sites in 51 areas in Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, some of them previously undocumented. Jews were shot dead by Germans and local collaborators.

“The Eastern area is one of the largest gaps in our knowledge,” says Prof. David Bankier of the Hebrew University, who heads the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem.

“The project’s uniqueness is that it deals with the smaller killing sites, not the large ones like Babi Yar, of which so much has already been written. We are dealing with sites about which there is very little information. Not many eyewitnesses remain, and we even lack basic information like numbers and the conduct of Jews and the local population.”

The liberation of the region by the Soviets spurred inquiries examining the events. “As soon as an area was liberated, the NKVD [secret police] would come and investigate — what happened, who cooperated. It’s fascinating material,” Bankier said. The reports, uncovered after the fall of the Soviet Union, formed an important part of the research.

The researchers compared the NKVD reports to those made by the Germans, and mapped the sites through the GPS satellite navigation system.

Yad Vashem also looked into the composition of the killing units, organized by the Germans but including many local residents. “Our estimate is 10 locals to every German,” said Bankier.

“Sometimes we could recreate the social and political profile of the members of the killing squads. The general impression is that we’re not talking about criminals, but literally about the Jews’ neighbors — the grocer, the barber, sometimes friends of the victims. They killed voluntarily.”

“But perhaps we can also answer some questions about the Jews. How were they tricked to go to the pits? What was explained to them when they were told to take their clothes off? Did they know by this stage what would happen, or were they told they’d be getting work clothes before being sent to the east? I hope the new research will answer all those questions.”






Find us on Facebook!
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.