On 22 June 1941, Adolf Hitler abruptly broke the non?aggression pact and invaded the Soviet Union. The Soviet territories occupied by early 1942, including all of Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Moldova and most Russian territory west of the line Leningrad-Moscow-Rostov, contained about four million Jews, including hundreds of thousands who had fled Poland in 1939. Despite the chaos of the Soviet retreat, some effort was made to evacuate Jews, who were either employed in the military industries or were family members of servicemen. Of 4 million about a million succeeded in escaping further east. The remaining three million were left at the mercy of the Nazis. Despite the subservience of the Oberkommando des Heeres to Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler did not trust the Army to approve of, let alone carry out, the large-scale killings of Jews in the occupied Soviet territories. This task was assigned to SS formations called Einsatzgruppen (“task groups”), under the overall command of Reinhard Heydrich. These had been used on a limited scale in Poland in 1939, but were now organized on a much larger scale. According to Otto Ohlendorf at his trial, “the Einsatzgruppen had the mission to protect the rear of the troops by killing the Jews, gypsies, Communist functionaries, active Communists, and all persons who would endanger the security.” In practice, their victims were nearly all defenseless Jewish civilians (not a single Einsatzgruppe member was killed in action during these operations). Raul Hilberg writes that the Einsatzgruppe member were ordinary citizens; the great majority were university-educated professionals. By the end of 1941, however, the Einsatzgruppen had killed only 15 percent of the Jews in the occupied Soviet territories, and it was apparent that these methods could not be used to kill all the Jews of Europe. Even before the invasion of the Soviet Union, experiments with killing Jews in the back of vans using gas from the van’s exhaust had been carried out, and when this proved too slow, more lethal gasses were tried. For large-scale killing by gas, however, fixed sites would be needed, and it was decided—probably by Heydrich and Eichmann—that the Jews should be brought to camps specifically built for the purpose.
Although the Soviet Union was victorious in World War II, the war resulted in around 26–27 million Soviet deaths. In October 1943, 600 Jewish and Russian prisoners attempted an escape at the Sobibór extermination camp. About 60 survived and joined the Belarusian partisans. In Eastern Europe, many Jews joined the ranks of the Soviet partisans: throughout the war, they faced antisemitism and discrimination from the Soviets and some Jewish partisans were killed, but over time, many of the Jewish partisan groups were absorbed into the command structure of the much larger Soviet partisan movement. Soviet partisans were not in a position to ensure protection to the Jews in the Holocaust. The fit Jews were usually welcomed by the partisans (sometimes only if they brought their own weapons); however women, children, and the elderly were mostly unwelcome. Eventually, however, separate Jewish groups, both guerrilla units and mixed family groups of refugees (like the Bielski partisans), were subordinated to the communist partisan leadership and considered as Soviet assets. Even as some assisted the Germans, a significant number of individuals in the territories under German control also helped Jews escape death (see Righteous Among the Nations). During World War II, Léon Poliakov established the Center of Contemporary Jewish Documentation (1943) and after the war, he assisted Edgar Faure at the Nuremberg Trial. By 1944, the Germans had been pushed out of the Soviet Union onto the banks of the Vistula River, just east of Prussia. With Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov attacking from Prussia, and Marshal Konev slicing Germany in half from the south the fate of Nazi Germany was sealed. It is estimated that up to 1.4 million Jews fought in Allied armies; 40% of them in the Red Army. Following the war, the Soviet Union suppressed or downplayed the impact of the Nazi crimes on its Jewish citizens. An anti-semitic campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans” (i.e. “Zionists”) followed. On 12 August 1952, in the event known as the Night of the Murdered Poets, thirteen most prominent Yiddish writers, poets, actors and other intellectuals were executed on the orders of Joseph Stalin, among them Peretz Markish, Leib Kvitko, David Hofstein, Itzik Feffer and David Bergelson. In 2012, Yad Vashem began releasing more than a million new testimonial pages about Jews in the Soviet Union that are expected to help researchers measure the scope of persecution and extermination of Jews in the former Soviet Union.
Yad Vashem is Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. It is dedicated to preserving the memory of the dead; honouring Jews who fought against their Nazi oppressors and Gentiles who selflessly aided Jews in need; and researching the phenomenon of the Holocaust in particular and genocide in general, with the aim of avoiding such events in the future. After the Western Wall, Yad Vashem is the second-most-visited Israeli tourist site. Its curators do not charge any fee for admission, and welcome approximately one million visitors a year. Yad Vashem seeks to preserve the memory and names of the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, and the numerous Jewish communities destroyed during that time. It holds ceremonies of remembrance and commemoration; supports Holocaust research projects; develops and coordinates symposia, workshops, and international conferences; and publishes research, memoirs, documents, albums, and diaries related to the Holocaust. The Hall of Names is a memorial to the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. The main hall is composed of two cones: one ten meters high, with a reciprocal well-like cone excavated into the underground rock, its base filled with water. On the upper cone is a display featuring 600 photographs of Holocaust victims and fragments of Pages of Testimony. These are reflected in the water at the bottom of the lower cone, commemorating those victims whose names remain unknown. Surrounding the platform is the circular repository, housing the approximately 2.2 million Pages of Testimony collected to date, with empty spaces for those yet to be submitted.