It was seventy-five years ago this week that the Jewish world of Eastern Europe came to an end. On June 22, 1941, Adolf Hitler’s armies, accompanied by Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak and Italian troops, attacked Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, along with the Baltics, which were then occupied by the Soviet Union, and Soviet-occupied eastern Poland. The invasion front stretched from Finland on the Baltic to Romania on the Black Sea. It was the largest invasion force the world had ever seen.
Standing in their way were the millions of Jews who had been living in these lands for hundreds of years — or longer. On that Sunday, they had started the day in big cities like Lvov, Kiev, Riga, Odessa, Minsk and Vilna, and in untold hundreds of smaller towns, villages and shtetls.
The vast majority of those marked for murder would not meet their ends in the infamous gas chambers in German-occupied Poland, but in the forests and wooded ravines just outside their towns and cities. That is where they were shot, one by one by one. As is also well known, more than a few of their neighbors didn’t wait for the Waffen SS to arrive, and set upon their neighbors with a bestiality that beggars belief. In later years, more than 4,300 Christians in these lands would be given Righteous Gentile awards (this excludes Poland, which had more than 6,600 Righteous). Yes, most of those who lived in this region are now labeled as having been bystanders. But as Timothy Snyder points out in “Bloodlands” (as do others) those we labeled bystanders in this region knew they would be tomorrow’s victims. And they very often were — although almost never to the extent the Jews had been made victims.
As everyone who was alive on November 22, 1963 can tell you, they know exactly where they were when President Kennedy was shot, and we all know where we were when the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001. Of the four hundred Jews my institute interviewed in Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, every one of them recalls in vivid detail the day the German invasion, Operation Barbarossa, began.
The oral history institute I founded in 2000 with two Hungarian historians, Dora Sardi and Eszter Andor, was not created to record Holocaust testimonies. Our goal was to ask the oldest living Jews we could find (1,200 of them in fifteen European countries) to tell us stories about the entire century, as each of them lived it — from the small comedies of everyday life to the great tragedies that befell them.
We never used video in those interviews; we tried a very different approach. Sitting on those 1,200 sofas, we held up their old family pictures and documents (22,000 in all) and asked, “Can you please tell me about this picture — who are these people, when and where was it taken, is there a story you can tell me about it?” This is how we have preserved a world — not just the destruction of it. The results can be found at www.centropa.org.
In commemoration of this darkest of dates, following are excerpts from six of our interviews, all of whom remember just what they were doing that day, seventy-five years ago: two of them were growing up in small towns in Lithuania, one was a front line soldier determined to fight the Germans; another was a young girl living in Riga and she was listening to her father telling her mother they had nothing to worry about from the Germans; another was a prisoner awaiting trial as a Zionist spy in Rovno (then in Poland, now in Ukraine), and one was a teenager in Odessa who thought he was about to start university in Kiev.
All their lives were upended that day. All survived to tell their stories, and pay tribute to those in their families who didn’t.
There was a radio at home and on 22 June 1941 we found out that the war had begun and then — a bomb landed in the park right in the center of town! It was like a bolt from the blue. Just imagine: a small cozy town, Sunday, summer, people are strolling with their families, children are playing, amusements are open, people are eating ice cream… and into this lovely scene a bomb slams into our park! People started stampeding.
They threw things together and started to flee the town, which bordered on Latvia. In a couple of days retreating Soviet troops rolled through town with the heavily wounded lying on carts. Father was running about and mother was sitting by the window and sewing, while I watched the retreating Soviet army pass by our window. Then I asked mother what war was [Frieda was then nine years old].
Mother explained it to me and said that we would be leaving very soon, but I could not understand why I couldn’t go outside to see my friends Shmulik and Chone, who lived across the street, and who I played with single every day. I never saw them again. Both boys perished in the occupation.
Mother sewed and packed all night long. She put clothes and linen in large mattress covers. My sister Nina was very little, besides she had measles. Our neighbors— Lithuanians by the name of Yordi- brought us freshly baked bread and a bucket of honey.
Aldona and Sergey went with us. The truck was driven by our distant relative, the husband of my father’s cousin. We left Zagare without having an idea for how long. Of course, we hoped that Red Army would swiftly defeat the Fascists [the term used in the Soviet Union rather than Germans]. When we were going along Vilnius street I saw grandmother Chaya looking out from the window. She stretched her hand towards me. It was the last time I saw her. Grandmother and Aunt Basya had to stay, as it was impossible to transport a palsied old lady. They took them out and shot them.
Frieda Shteinene and her family survived the war in Central Asia
Early in the morning, on 22 of June 1941, Father left for Kadeinai with a cargo of ten cubic meters of freshly cut lumber. As soon as he saw the bombers overhead, he dumped the cargo on the side of the road and beat a path with his horses for home.
He told mother and grandmother to get packing. Father had not doubt; he wanted to escape from Hitler as Jews would not be spared. Father harnessed those three horses and tied two more on the side so he could change them later. Our belongings were loaded: linen, pillows, blankets, winter clothes, sacks with provisions. The four of us sat there — mother, me and my two brothers. Father took the reins. Grandfather Alter harnessed three of his horses and grandmother Haya and aunt Vera got on their cart. We were off.
We joined the flow of refugees. It was a scary scene: whole families with old people and kids were traveling on carts or on foot along the dusty road. Retreating units of Soviet army went along with us.
This Russian officer gave us a map and advised us to stay off the road and to go through the forest. We took back roads to reach Latvia. At one of the stations a Soviet officer stopped us and demanded that we give him our horses. He said horses were needed at the front and took all eight of them.
We ran to a goods train along with other refugees and we covered only one hundred kilometers before being told to get off the train. There was a barn in the middle of the field and we were told to go there.
We stayed in the barn for couple of days and then Uncle Katz and Father went to the nearest town. There they learned that the German army was three or four kilometers away. Uncle and Father came running to get us. We packed quickly and were on the road. In couple of kilometers, Grandfather Alter sat by the curb of the road and said that he could not walk any longer. Grandfather asked us not to wait for him and for us to go on. He said he would rest for a while and then he would catch up with us. The picture of my grandfather swathed in the blanket, waving goodbye to us, is burned in my memory forever. It was the last time I saw my grandfather Alter.
Samuel Birger and his family survived the war in central Asia.
Yuri Bogdanov, interviewed in Moscow in 2004 by Ella Levitskaya
A Russian Jewish soldier
On Sunday morning, 22nd June 1941, at 4:00 AM, the Germans started an artillery attack of our borders. German fighter-planes and tanks moved in. Our unit had had a calm night in our camp tents. The wake up signal was supposed to be one hour later on Sunday and so it was that early dawn. None of us knew that the war had been unleashed. Things were the way they had always been. Only by 10:00 our worried-looking commanders were called in for a meeting. That was when we heard the word ‘war.’ Right after that, there we were sitting in the back of a truck that was almost still wet — they had painted it in khaki. We sat shoulder to shoulder having backpacks with communicator devices, gas masks on our side, and a holster with cartridges and a spade. We had our short rifles across our knees. We were clad in guerrilla uniforms and wore helmets.
The highway Moscow-Minsk, familiar to us from training, was now our way to war. There were bright variegated flowers right behind the verge. Rye and flax covered the fields. I was immersed in thought. I was sure the war would last no longer than two-three months, and most likely would be over by October. I thought about my training as an aviator. But something was bothering me: I wondered why the war with tiny Finland had lasted four months. How would we be fighting the Germans, who had captured almost all of Europe? So I figured we had learned good lessons from Finland and we wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes.
Everybody keeps the memory the first hour spent in a war. It is the boundary separating him from the rest of the world. All the things that had been important were suddenly meaningless compared to the craving for life and the fear of death. Each of us had his own hour of death. For a front-line soldier it is the death of a comrade. For me it was the bombing east of Orsha. When it was over, there were dead and wounded soldiers, tens of burning and upturned trucks, dead horses and turned over carts. We had seen nothing of the kind before. It all happened in a flash.
A week passed and we had no idea what was going on. We thought that our regiment was such an unconquerable force that we could change the course of war. We were absolutely sure that our commanders let the Germans into the country so they could be surrounded and exterminated by our divisions. In the evening of 29th June we were ordered to take a defensive position south of the town of Borisov. The short June night went by very swiftly, and on 30th June we crossed the Berezina River. The next six days were the most horrible in my military career. Later there were battles full of horror but they can’t be compared to the first days of my baptism of fire — at the age of nineteen. These were the days when I turned into a soldier, a warrior, a man, and wasn’t a homesick mama’s boy any longer.
Yuri Bogdanov fought at Stalingrad, then went on to fight in Romania, Hungary and ended the war in Austria. He retired from the Soviet Army in 1971 as a colonel.
Haya Lea Detinko, interviewed in St Petersburg, 2004 by Lyudmila Liuban
Haya Lea Kats was born in Rovno, which was then in eastern Poland and is now in Ukraine. In September 1939 eastern Poland was occupied by the Soviet Union.
Without warning at three o’clock in the morning of June 5, 1941, several Russians came to arrest me. They showed the warrant. My mother understood at once what was going on and fainted. I had to use all my force to open my mother’s mouth and called for some water. When she recovered she exclaimed: “What did you save me for? They’re taking you away, I don’t want to live!”
We went on foot through the town to the prison. When I asked, “Why have I been arrested?” they would only tell me, “You’ll find out!” They took me into a big room, filled with my other friends. Later they charged us with being in Ha-Shomer Hazair, which they considered to be an anti-Soviet, Zionist organization. During the first few days I was imprisoned I received parcels from my parents, including some me warm clothes. I wondered, “What do I need those warm clothes for?” Lucky I kept all these things.
Seventeen days later, on June 22 at 4:00 in the morning there was a terrible siren. Everyone in the cell instantly understood: the war had begun.
They started to evacuate us from Rovno farther to the east into the Soviet Union and I never saw my mother, my father or my sister again. We prisoners were taken to the railway station in trucks covered with canvas and put into boxcars. I could see nothing. The railway was constantly being bombed, but we survived. We reached the city of Kamyshin in the Stalingrad region where we were placed in another prison — three women in a single bed.
I was interrogated and was accused of being a Zionist spy. But before they could try me, the front was coming nearer we were evacuated again to the east.
We were put on a barge on which we floated down a river until we reached a town with labor camp settlements all around. Over the course of four years, I was in eleven different prison camps. Finally my verdict was announced — in 1945! I was sentenced to ten years of imprisonment and five more years in exile. All I could do was stand there and whisper to myself, “Ten years! Ten years!” A security guard gave me a photo of me and said, “Here, Kats, take this to remember!” I have that photo to this day.
Haya Lea Detinko remained in Siberia until the early 1960s, married a fellow prisoner and moved to St Petersburg.
Arnold Fabrikant, interviewed in 2006 in Odessa by Nathalia Rezanova
On 18th June 1941 we had a prom at school, and on 22nd June I was supposed to go to Kiev so I could enter the Kiev Aviation College. My train was to depart in the evening, but my father called at 6:00 in the morning. Because he was a high-ranking medical officer, we were the only family around with a telephone. All my father said was: ‘Don’t send Nolia [affectionate for Arnold] away. I cannot tell you why.’ At 10:00 in the morning I went out and saw a crowd gathering around a street radio. I stopped and listened to Molotov’s speech about the beginning of the Great Patriotic War.
My father was mobilized on the very first day of war and by September, he was with his troops defending Kiev. They were retreating to the town of Pyryatin where the headquarters of the western front was encircled and its commander perished. The survivors, including my father, broke out and made their way to a deep ravine, but the Germans found them and surrounded them there. My father and a few other officers shot themselves rather than fall into German hands. The witnesses, doctors, who had been captured and managed to survive, told my mother and me about it.
The recreation center in Odessa where my mother worked a a doctor worked was modified into a hospital on the first day of the war and my mother was staying there day and night. I went to excavate trenches, reinforce the basements, and glued paper strips on the windows to prevent glass from breaking during air raids. There were actually no air raids, but there were tracer bullets flying at night. Sometimes I went to see Nadia Mayevskaya who was my friend then. We went out on the balcony and watched the flak cannons firing away.
On 3rd July the guys I knew began to receive subpoenas to the army. I also received one. On 22nd July, the day of the first bombing of Odessa, we, recruits gathered together, lined up in columns at about 4:00 in the afternoon and marched to the port. Our parents came to see us off. I took with me what was included in the list of the military office: a spoon, a pot, a pair of underwear, a towel, soap and a toothbrush. I didn’t come home until summer 1945.
Arnold Fabrikant’s mother survived the war as a doctor in the Soviet army; Arnold Fabrikant fought through four years of war, ending in Berlin in May 1945.
Ella Perlman, interviewed in Riga, Latvia by Ella Levitskaya
My father heard on the radio about the attack of Germany on the Soviet Union. Mama, having met with German refugees in Latvia who told her what they had been through, insisted that we leave immediately. She said that because Latvia had been annexed to the Soviet Union it meant we could head eastward, away from the Germans. My father was more optimistic about the situation, saying that Germans had already been in Latvia in 1915, and did no harm to the Jews. He was absolutely sure that the Germans were only going to fight the Bolsheviks and had nothing against the Latvian population. However, he never argued with Mama.
Many of our relatives shared my father’s opinion. They stayed and were telling people how good the Germans had been to Jews back in the last war. They were sure that however hard Germans had persecuted Jews in their own country, this wasn’t going to be the case in other countries.
A few days after the war started and everyone was still arguing, one night we looked through the window and saw Latvian men dressed in some sort of uniforms, pointing to houses where Jews were living. That was enough and we boarded a train east.
We left on 28th June. We had little luggage and Mama had some extra underwear and a change outfit for each of us. She also took rings and earrings she could sell. My father took his tools [he was a barber] so he could earn money wherever we went. Even on the train he had clients that wanted a shave every day but I don’t think he charged anyone.
I had never left Latvia before. When our train crossed the Russian border, and when we were already in Belarus, it was enough to look out of the window to know that we were no longer in Latvia. How different Russian villages were from Latvian ones! Those were half-ruined huts, overrun with weeds, and what huge contrast they made to tiny cottages and well-groomed farm fields in Latvia. It was very sad to leave Latvia without knowing when we were going to see it again.
Ella Perlman and her family reached Perm, around a thousand miles east of Moscow, where they worked on a collective farm until war’s end.
Edward Serotta is the director of www.centropa.org
This story "How the World Came to an End 75 Years Ago" was written by Edward Serotta.