On the eve of World War II, about five percent of the population of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was of Jewish descent. By the middle of 1941, there were about 2.7 million Jews in the territory of what today is the independent state of Ukraine, including the Crimean peninsula. During the German-led war against the Soviet Union between June 1941 and May 1945, some 1.5 million of these Jews died at the hands of Germans, but also Romanians, Hungarians, Ukrainians, and others. In Ukraine, only about 100,000 survived the war and the Holocaust in areas under German rule. Thus about 60 percent of Ukraine’s pre-war Jewish population was murdered—and it all was done in less than two years.

In 1941, some 900,000 Jews fled or were evacuated from Ukraine to the east in time. They had managed to escape east in larger number from the industrialized eastern Dnieper bend and the Donets Basin (Donbas); as a result, in those regions the ratio of Jewish to non-Jewish non-combat civilian deaths was much lower. In contrast, the Jewish communities of the western regions of Galicia, Volhynia, and Podolia, with cities such as Lviv (Pol. Lwów, Ger. Lemberg, Rus. Lvov), Rivne (Pol. Równe, Ger. Rowno), and Vinnytsia, were exterminated almost in full. In eastern Galicia, just a few percent of the Jews survived; in Volhynia, even less.

The death toll of 1.5 million includes about 50,000 Jewish natives of Ukraine who died in German hands beyond Ukraine, either as prisoners of war or as refugees. But the figures exclude many others. In 1941 some 20,000 Jews from the Hungarian-annexed territories were taken into Ukraine and killed there. Around 45.000 Jewish males were conscripted into the Hungarian army in Ukraine and southern Russia and killed there. Finally, two-thirds of some 150,000 Jews deported from northern Bukovina and Bessarabia died in Ukraine.

When wartime Ukraine is compared to other European regions whose Jews were murdered, several key features of the Holocaust there stand out. The vast majority of Ukraine’s Jews was murdered (1) in mass shootings; (2) close to home; and (3) within days, weeks, or at most months after the Germans arrived. The latter point—the haste with which Ukraine’s Jews were murdered, be it by Germans, Romanians, or others—is one of the Holocaust’s most perplexing aspects. The historian Alexander Kruglov has estimated that in 1941 alone, Ukraine’s average daily Jewish death toll was more than 2,600, while in 1942 it was still more than 2,000. Other historians believe the daily average in 1942 was even higher than in 1941.

Whereas in Galicia the killings and deportations to death camps went on for two years, elsewhere the Nazis and their accomplices murdered virtually all the Jews much faster—in Volhynia it took 1.5 years, in Right Bank Ukraine (west of the Dnieper) one year, and in Left Bank Ukraine, Crimean, and other southern regions, just six months.

Ukraine under Nazi, Romanian, and Hungarian Rule

A key factor in the rapid speed of Ukraine’s Jewish Holocaust was the country’s place in a broader German vision. Ukraine was very important in Nazi plans, as it was part of the “living space” the Germans supposedly needed in order to survive. The fertile lands of Ukraine would enable them to revitalize their agrarian roots and thus regenerate themselves as a Germanic “race”. Moreover, the produce from there would foster the Third Reich’s economic independence. Except for Ukraine’s ethnic Germans, not just Jews but its entire native population, sooner or later, would have to be removed from an “East” where, as the SS magazine Das Schwarze Korps put it once, ultimately should live “only people of pure German blood”. Ukrainian farmers had a useful role to play, almost immediately after the Germans arrived, but they were treated as subhumans who needed beatings. The lives of city dwellers were even more expendable. Tens of thousands of others were killed as Communists, nationalist activists, or other political enemies; or were starved to death in cities such as Kiev and Kharkiv (Rus. Kharkov). One and half million non-Jews were deported as slave laborers to the Reich and many of them died as a result.

Besides Jews and Communists, the two largest groups of victims from the Nazis and their allies were captured Red Army soldiers and Roma. At least 500,000 of the German-held Soviet prisoners of war in Ukraine were shot or starved to death, largely deliberately. Ukraine’s Roma were exterminated, for racist reasons; for various reasons, this history largely remains to be written.

At the time of the German invasion, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, part of the Soviet Union, had recently expanded, as a result of the enforced annexation from Poland of western Volhynia and eastern Galicia (in 1939), and the annexation from Romania of northern Bukovina and southern Bessarabia (in 1940). (Subcarpathian Rus, or Transcarpathia, was ruled by Hungary from 1939 and was only added to Ukraine after the war) After an initial period of German military rule, the largest territorial unit, created on 1 September 1941 by the invaders, was Reichskommissariat Ukraine. Headquartered in the Volhynian city of Rivne, it was led by Reich Commissar Erich Koch (1896–1986). By the fall of 1942, having expanded on 20 October and 15 November 1941, and again on 1 September 1942, this entity consisted of six general districts (Generalbezirke): Volhynia-Podolia, Zhytomyr (Rus. Zhitomir), Kiev, Mykolaïv (Rus. Nikolaev), Dnipropetrovsk (Rus. Dnepropetrovsk), and Crimea (with the Crimea General District ultimately only consisting of a “Partial District” of Taurida (Ger. Teilbezirk Taurien) without the Crimea proper, which during the occupation remained under German military rule). Life and death in Koch’s domain were brutal for all. For most inhabitants, conditions were worse than in the General Government, and far worse than anywhere in western Europe. Never before in the history of Ukraine, with the time of the Great Famine of 1933 as a possible exception, did so many social and ethnic groups suffer so much during one period.

Crimea remained under military rule, as did eastern cities and regions such as Kharkiv and Donetsk (renamed Iuzivka, from prewar Stalino). The Ukrainian regions in question were part of Rear Army Area (Rückwärtiges Heeresgebiet) South, commanded by Karl von Roques (1880–1949; until late October 1941, and again from June to December 1942) and Erich Friderici (1880–1964; from late October 1941 to June 1942, also from December 1942 to February 1943). No military occupation regime in European history had ever been as brutal as this one. The German armed forces in the military zone of occupation were not only responsible for mass crimes, such as the murder of prisoners of war. They often participated in mass murders of Jews and even initiated them. Before the occupation, the army seemingly had not been instructed generally how to treat Jews. But, mainly because of the fierce antisemitism among its commanders, the armed forces cooperated smoothly in what we now call the Holocaust. In Ukraine, the events in Kiev, Kharkiv, and Crimea demonstrate this well.

One region today in Ukraine experienced yet other German occupation regime. On 1 August 1941, to the dismay of Ukrainian nationalists, eastern Galicia was added to the General Government as the Galicia District, which was subdivided into counties (Kreishauptmannschaften; first seventeen, finally twelve) and one county for the city of Lviv (Stadthauptmannschaft Lemberg). Its governor in 1941 was Karl Lasch (1904–1942), succeeded by SS-Brigadeführer Otto Wächter (1901–1949).

The German occupying armies were followed by a wide range of “security” units with an unbridled license to kill: (i) commandos of Einsatzgruppe C and Einsatzgruppe D, which were two major task forces of the Security Police and Security Service; (ii) three army security divisions (213, 444, and 454); (iii) battalions of the regular German Order Police (45, 82, 303, 304, 311, 314, 315, 318, and 320), three of which (45, 303, 314) constituted Police Regiment South; and, in northern Ukraine, (iv) the Waffen SS’s 1st SS Infantry Brigade. The main SS leader in Ukraine overseeing “police” work was the Higher SS and Police Leader Russia South, Friedrich Jeckeln (1895–1946), then Hans-Adolf Prützmann (1901–1945) and, in the military zone, Gerret Korsemann (1895–1958).

Before the invasion of the Soviet Union, there still did not exist a general order to the SS and German police to kill all Jews. The idea still was that only a small proportion would be shot at once. But it had been made clear to the Germans involved that they would be allowed to do anything and everything to “secure” the area against potential threats to German rule. Soon after the invasion that began on 22 June 1941, ever greater proportions of Jews were murdered. This process included all able-bodied men except desperately needed specialists (early July); all Jews among the prisoners of war (middle of July); and then also women and children (late August). Although some individual SS officers had begun shooting Jewish women and children, the expansion of the shootings was driven from the top, mainly by Jeckeln.

Several southwestern regions of Ukraine (according to its current borders), located between the Southern Buh and Dniester rivers,including the city of Odessa, on 30 August became part of a large Romanian-ruled entity, Transnistria. Formally separate from the Romanian state, Transnistria had its own governor, Gheorghe Alexianu (1897–1946), and consisted of thirteen districts or counties (județe), in turn divided into raions and cities.  

In addition, two other Ukrainian regions were fully joined to Romania, thus reversing the Soviet annexation of June 1940. The first was the current oblast of Chernivtsi (Ger. Czernowitz, Rom. Cernăuţi), including the city of Khotyn (Rom. Hotin) that was historically Bessarabian but now joined the Romanian province (guvernamantul) of Bukovina (Rom. Bucovina). The second part was the south of the current oblast of Odessa, in the province of Bessarabia (Rom. Basarabia)—along with much of the territory of today’s Moldova. It must be mentioned that, as Hitler commented to his inner circle on 18 August 1941 (according to the diary of Joseph Goebbels), this other main invader of Ukraine from the start acted even more radically than Germany had done (see below). In little-known places in northern Bukovina and northern Bessarabia, such as Chudei (Rom. Ciudei), not only Jewish men but also women and children were shot already in early July.

Finally, as noted, Subcarpathian Rus, today Ukraine’s Transcarpathian oblast, was ruled by Hungary ever since 1939, as Subcarpathia (Hun. Kárpátalja). Jewish males were drafted into forced labor service for the frontline Hungarian army. In the summer of 1941, Hungary forced about 23,000 Jews without Hungarian citizenship into southwestern Ukraine, where they were murdered (see below). The Jews remaining in Subcarpathia were placed into ghettos by the Germans who invaded Hungary early in 1944; and in May of that year they were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where a Nazi took pictures of their selection for death that today are widely known [].

Ghettos, Camps, and Deportations to Death Camps

Ukraine’s Jewish ghettos were places where Jews were concentrated for some time (two weeks or longer), with restrictions on entry and departure, and which historical sources call Jewish ghettos or Jewish “residential areas.” (see also Unit Ghettos) Generally, the German agency initiating the placement of Soviet Jews in such ghettos was the German army. Existing predominantly in eastern Galicia and Volhynia (that is,areas occupied early on by the Germans), less so in central and eastern Ukraine, they were meant to fully isolate and then kill the inmates. When it became clear that the Security Police had begun to murder all Jews, these ghettos served as preparation for the process.

The Reichskomissariat’s general district of Volhynia-Podolia had more than one hundred ghettos, mostly founded in late 1941 or in March to May 1942. Most were surrounded by fences or barbed wire. One of them was in Volodymyr-Volynsky (Pol. Włodzimierz Wołyński), the last German-imposed ghetto in Ukraine to be “liquidated”, in December 1943. The Zhytomyr general district had more than fifty ghettos, mostly in the south, and many with neither fence nor barbed wire. Many larger ones, such as in Zhytomyr and Berdychiv (Rus. Berdichev), existed for just a few weeks. The Kiev general district had at least twenty ghettos, such as in Cherkasy, Pyriatyn, Uman, and Zvenyhorodka.

But not even twenty ghettos are known for the southern general districts of Dnipropetrovsk and Mykolaïv combined, and sources on them are sparse. Exceptional in this regard is the ghetto in Kherson, which existed for just two weeks and as such can be called a “destruction ghetto”, a type of ghetto that existed less than eight weeks (Dean, German Ghettoization, 64, 73) On 7 September 1941, Sonderkommando 11a ordered all the Jews of Kherson to move to a distant part of the city, and put them to heavy, humiliating labor. On 24 and 25 September, more than eight thousand Jews, who had been told they would be sent to Palestine, were murdered. First assembled at a factory site, they were taken in trucks to an anti-tank ditch seven kilometers outside the city, and shot in small groups.

For Crimea, ghettos are known to have existed in Dzhankoi and Yalta. But the main ghettos in other parts of Ukraine’s German military zone, in the large cities of Kharkiv and Donetsk, were both destruction ghettos. Captured on 25 October 1941, Kharkiv was administered by the Sixth Army; the very next day, it reached a concrete agreement with the Security Police. On 11 November, the army command demanded the arrest of all Jews and their handover to the Security Service. Transportation problems delayed the arrival of Sonderkommando 4a. Then, on 14 December, the city commander ordered all Jews to assemble, after which they were imprisoned in factory barracks on the outskirts, guarded by non-Jewish officials native to the Kharkiv region. The destruction ghetto ceased to exist in early January 1942, when the Sonderkommando and German police battalion 314 shot all 12,000 inmates.

Galicia had more than fifty ghettos which, compared to the Reichskommissariat and the military zone, were established late. Exceptions included some open ghettos, for instance in Rohatyn; another ghetto, holding some twenty thousand, was created in Ivano-Frankivsk, then called Stanyslaviv (Pol. Stanisławów, Ger. Stanislau), in December 1941. Other Galician ghettos appeared over the course of 1942, such as in Terebovlia (Pol. Trembowla). In November 1941, the creation of the ghetto in Lviv—ultimately one of the largest in Nazi Europe—began, but when epidemics erupted, the process was postponed until the next spring. Even so, a massive deportation by train was conducted first (in August 1942). When the Lviv ghetto was fenced in it first confined 36,000 Jews. Meanwhile, about thirty Galician ghettos formally came into existence only on 1 December 1942, purely to prepare for the mass murder of the Jews. Waves of shootings and deportations to Bełżec followed; 800 others were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau (see Unit The Nazi Camps and the Persecution and Murder of the Jews, chapter Extermination Camps). By the late summer of 1943, not a single Galician ghetto remained.

In all, about 230,000 Jews were deported from western Ukrainian regions to the Lublin District of the General Government and murdered in its death camps, mostly through gassing, and mostly in Bełżec (besides a small number in Sobibór).In addition, Jews were murdered in the Reich, in Auschwitz-Birkenau (these included some 62,000 Jews from Subcarpathia).

Besides the ghettos there were numerous forced labor camps with Jews in German-ruled Ukraine. Those camps around Transit Highway 4 first held local Jews and then Jewish deportees from Transnistria.

Regarding Transnistria, Romanian sources employ the terms ghetto, colony, labor colony and labor camp without clear distinction. Officially, the Jewish ghettos there were created on 11 November 1941. Overall, Transnistria had about two hundred ghettos and camps. Only five ghettos, such as Sharhorod (Rom. Şargorod), had more than a thousand inhabitants. Yet many other Jews in Transnistria saw no ghetto but a camp, of which there were two kinds: concentration camps (usually on former collective farms) and penal labor camps. Sometimes, Jews there who had been Romanian citizens before 1940 received some assistance, generally food shipments from the Romanian Jewish community outside Transnistra, during the second half of the occupation.

The region’s most lethal camps were in Holta (Rom. Golta) district—at Akhmechetka (Rom. Acmicetca), Bohdanivka (Rom. Bogdanovca, Rus. Bogdanovka), and, the largest one, Domanivka (Rom. Domaniovca, Rus. Domanevka). From 21 December 1941, mass shootings took place here. The murderers were Romanians, ethnic German policemen (the Volksdeutsche Selbstschutz), and Ukrainian auxiliary policemen. In marked contrast to the procedure during German-led mass shootings, the corpses were burned immediately.

Besides in shootings and gassings (in gas vans or in death camps), many other Jews in Ukraine were clubbed or burned to death (as in Odessa) or were starved to death, usually after some kind of forced displacement.

Ukrainian Nationalist Activists and the Holocaust

In 1929 the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) was founded. Based in Galicia, the underground organization engaged in terrorism against the states it saw as occupying Ukraine, Poland and the Soviet Union, and against alleged traitors. In 1940, the organization split into two factions. Older members, often abroad, tended to recognize Andrii Melnyk as their leader, whereas younger members, often in Galicia, generally recognized Stepan Bandera. The factions were thus known as OUN-M, or “Melnykites,” and OUN-B, or “Banderites.” Both groups considered the German war against the Soviet Union a great opportunity, for it was believed that the same scenario as in 1918 would unfold: independence movements would fill the gap created by falling empires, and the best-armed movements would emerge as victors. In preparation, Ukrainians had to obtain arms and practice using them, by joining the German police if possible.

The ultimate goal was a large, independent Ukrainian state without “foreigners,” who included Poles, Russians, Romanians, Hungarians, Germans, and Jews. In the very year of its founding, the OUN published an anonymous article according to which “in addition to a number of external enemies Ukraine also has an internal enemy—Jewry.” It added that “Jewry and its negative consequences for our liberation cause can be liquidated only by an organized collective effort.” (Carynnyk, Foes of Our Rebirth, 322) In the ideology and mental outlook of these nationalists, the end justified the means.

A long master plan, composed by the OUN-B in May 1941 for the moment when Germany would attack the Soviet Union, referred to “cleansing of hostile elements from the field.” At a time of chaos and confusion, it would be “permissible to liquidate undesirable Polish, Russian, and Jewish activists, especially supporters of Bolshevik-Russian imperialism.” The “national minorities” deemed hostile to the cause, “Russians, Poles, Jews,” were to be subjected to:

"Destruction in battle, particularly those who defend the regime: deportation to their homelands, principally destroy the intelligentsia, which cannot be allowed to assume any official positions, and in general make it impossible to create an intelligentsia, that is, access to schools and so forth. For example, the so-called Polish peasants are to be assimilated, given the explanation, especially at this heated and fanatical time, that they are Ukrainians of the Latin rite who have been forcibly assimilated. The leaders are to be destroyed. Jews to be isolated, eliminated from official positions in order avoid sabotage, Russians and Poles all the more so. If there should be an insurmountable need to leave a Jew in the economic administration, place one of our militiamen over him and liquidate him for the slightest offense. Administrators of various branches can only be Ukrainians, never hostile aliens. Assimilation of Jews is barred."

The new militia was supposed to set up an “internment camp” for “Jews, asocial elements, and prisoners of war.” (Carynnyk, Foes of Our Rebirth, 329–331).

Although less preserved in extant documents, the stance of the OUN-M toward Ukraine’s alleged enemies was every bit as radical. This mental outlook is part of the explanation for the at times deep involvement of OUN members and sympathizers with the Holocaust (see below). The main difference between the two factions was that the OUN-B changed course in 1943. No longer rejecting partisan activity, it created a large partisan movement, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (Ukr. Ukraïnska Povstanka Armiia), or UPA. The OUN-M, meanwhile, encouraged and supported the formation of a Waffen-SS Division with Ukrainians, called “Galicia.”

The relationship between the Germans and the Ukrainian nationalist activists deteriorated quickly. First, in the summer of 1941, the OUN-B began to be persecuted, mainly because the faction refused to annul its declaration of Ukrainian statehood, made in Lviv on the day of the German occupation. The OUN-M, which was particularly active in Kiev, was suppressed as well.

Karel Berkhoff

Next chapter: Historiography