The “Holocaust by Bullets” in Ukraine

The Holocaust in Ukraine represents the first phase of the Holocaust in which an estimated 1.5 million Jews were shot to death at close range in ravines, open fields, and forests.

Top Image: Museum display with bullets and human ashes from Bikernieki Forest Holocaust site and barbed wire from Salaspils Concentration Camp. Image by Adam Jones courtesy of the Museum of Latvia’s Occupation.

Based on present-day borders, one in every four Jewish victims of the Holocaust was murdered in Ukraine. 

In the history of the Holocaust, the summer and fall of 1941 are especially significant because they represent a period of critical escalation. In a matter of months mobile Nazi killing units, which had begun shooting all adult male Jews during the invasion of the Soviet Union, expanded to include a genocide targeting women, children, and entire Jewish communities.

On January 20, 1942, top Nazi officials and representatives of the Reich authorities met in Wannsee, a suburb outside of Berlin. At this meeting, chaired by Reinhard Heydrich, the Reich Security Main Office formed the extermination plans for the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” The Wannsee Conference, as it is now called, led to the creation of a network of extermination camps designed to systematically murder the entire European Jewish population.

Before the killing centers opened at Birkenau, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, and Majdanek, more than 1.5 million Jews had already been murdered by the Germans, their Axis allies, and local collaborators in Ukraine, Belarus, and other USSR republics. These were the first victims of the Holocaust. 

They were not transported by trains to the famous killing sites in Poland, with their gas chambers and crematoria that typically characterize the Holocaust in the minds of most people. Instead, these Holocaust victims were taken from their homes, usually by foot, to the outskirts of the cities, towns, and villages where they lived and were brutally shot—face to face or in the back—often in the presence of local residents and non-Jewish neighbors.

The mass shooting of Jewish victims in the summer and fall of 1941 represents the first phase of the Holocaust, often referred to by historians as “the Holocaust by bullets.” It was during this initial phase that special German killing squads (Einsatzkommandos) coordinated the mass murder of Jews by bullets with the help of the SS, Wehrmacht troops, the Romanian military, special “operational squadrons,” order police units, and local collaborators.

Nazi Extermination Policy on the Eve of Barbarossa

Before World War II, the 1.5 million Jews living in the Soviet republic of Ukraine constituted the largest Jewish population within the Soviet Union, and one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe. Between 1939 and 1941, when Stalin occupied Galicia, western Volhynia, northern Bukovina, and southern Bessarabia (see map below), the number of Jews in the Ukrainian Soviet Republic (UkrSSR) rose to 2.45 million people, increasing the percentage of Jews from five to six percent.

Ukraine Administrative Districts

Map of present-day Ukrainian oblasts, or administrative districts. Map courtesy of the Nations Online Project.

On the eve of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Wehrmacht and German police developed what the historian Dieter Pohl terms “a graduated security system,” which in effect meant annihilating certain groups of suspected enemies. This policy was outlined by Hitler on June 6, 1941, in a directive known as the Commissar Order, and demanded the swift execution of suspected political leaders. The Commissar Order specifically stated:

”When fighting Bolshevism one can not count on the enemy acting in accordance with the principles of humanity or International Law. In particular it must be expected that the treatment of our prisoners by the political commissars of all types who are the true pillars of resistance will be cruel, inhuman, and dictated by hate…Therefore, when captured either in battle or offering resistance, they are to be shot on principle.”

Just days before the invasion, the Nazi leadership also issued a memorandum entitled “Guidelines for the Conduct of Troops of Russia,” which directly linked Jews as a racial group to the broader category of political enemies. The “Guidelines” described Bolshevism as the deadliest threat to the German people’s existence; justified the killing of Bolshevik agitators, armed insurgents, saboteurs, and Jews; and encouraged the total elimination of active or passive resistance. 

As the historian Wendy Lower argues, “the German military helped prepare for the invasion by drafting and distributing orders for the ruthless isolation or elimination of individuals broadly defined as Bolsheviks and resistors[sic] and more narrowly identified as Jews.”

Both the Commissar Order and the “Guidelines for the Conduct of Troops in Russia,” explicitly connected the threat of communism to the Jewish race, reinforcing the highly propagandized Judeo-Bolshevik myth which alleged that communism was a Jewish plot designed at the German expense. More importantly, both directives also established a security policy of terror that sanctioned the mass killing of any groups seen as a potential threat.

Carrying out the “Holocaust by Bullets” in Ukraine

Four commandos of Einsatzgruppen C, the Security Police, and Security Service followed the Wehrmacht’s armies in northern and central Ukraine. Sonderkommando 4a (Special Commando 4a or Sk 4a) swept through Volhynia while Sonderkommando 4b (Sk 4b) moved through Galicia and Podolia. Behind the army was Rear Area Army Group South under the command of General Karl von Roques.

Although prewar plans had anticipated the restriction of special commandos to the army rear areas, 6th Army High Command called Sk 4a and Sk 4b to the frontlines, leaving security measures in the rear to be split up between the Wehrmacht, SS, and police forces. The division of labor between the Sonderkommandos near the front and the Order Police battalions in Rear Area Army Group South initially worked according to plan, but when the Germans reached central Ukraine, this division began to blur.

The term “security measures,” encompassed a wide range of duties but, initially, the main focus was the murder of Soviet political functionaries and other perceived political enemies. In order to fulfill this goal, security task forces were instructed to kill all Jews occupying state and party positions and target Jewish able-bodied men who might foment serious resistance on the behalf of the Soviet state. Consequently, during the first weeks of the invasion, as German troops secured territory in Ukraine, large numbers of Jewish men were rounded up in cities and towns. Those who were deemed useful—skilled laborers, doctors, and specialists—were spared, while the rest were shot.

As large sections of the Soviet Union fell into German hands, the military assumed administrative control before a civil government could be set up. It was during this time that subsequent directives detailed the manner in which the Jewish population was to be exterminated. 

In an order dated July 11, 1941, a commander of a police regiment in Belarus recommended that Jews be shot on the outskirts of towns and villages to shield local residents from the sights and sounds of mass murder. In order to “erase the impressions of the day,” the order also called for “evenings of comradery” to follow every mass killing incident, which typically included meals prepared by local residents, music, and drinking. 

In the second half of July, orders for persecuting and murdering Jews became more extreme. 

On July 21, 1941, Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of the Security Police (or Sipo, which included the Gestapo) and Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst) began to encourage his commandos to kill all military and civilian Jewish prisoners, not just those who belonged to the Soviet Communist Party or held government positions. It was also at the end of July that Friedrich Jeckeln, the Higher SS and Police Leader Russia South and the personal representative of Heinrich Himmler, ordered his forces to kill anyone suspected of having “abetted the Bolshevik system.”

Mass Grave near Hirzenhain

View of the mass grave near Hirzenhain from which the bodies of 87 prisoners were exhumed, similar to ones found in Ukraine after the war. May 7, 1945. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Sites of Mass Murder: Kamianets-Podilsky

The massacre in the Ukrainian town of Kamianets-Podilsky was one of the first sites of mass murder during the “Holocaust by bullets.” Of the 40,000 residents of Kamianets-Podilsky, a regional administrative center located near the prewar Polish-Soviet border, Jews made up about a third of the town’s population. When German and Hungarian troops captured the town in early July, thousands of Jews fled east and approximately 12,000 remained.

Shortly after the region was captured, government officials in Budapest expelled all Jews from Carpatho-Ukraine, a region that came under Hungarian control during the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939. Carpatho-Ukraine contained not only large indigenous Jewish communities, but also thousands of Jewish refugees from the Greater German Reich and Poland.

As a result, by the end of July, more than 10,000 Jews from Carpatho-Ukraine arrived in Kamianets-Poldilsky, the nearest town across the Hungarian border. The influx of thousands of people put a strain on the already limited housing situation and meager food supply. Diplomatic efforts to return the Carpatho-Ukrainian Jews to Hungary failed. An army report from FK 183 described the quickly deteriorating situation:

“The numerous Jews were increased by the influx of Jews expelled from Hungary, of which some 3,000 have arrived in the last few days. Feeding them is proving enormously difficult; danger of epidemic also exists. Immediate order for their evacuation is urgently requested.”

On August 25, 1941, during a meeting between the High Command of the Army and the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories discussing the establishment of a civil administration in the region, Friedrich Jeckeln reportedly devised an “ominous solution” promising to “liquidate these Jews” before September 1, 1941. 

The next day, on August 26, Jeckeln personally led the Aktion against the Jews in Kamianets-Podilsky. Since Einsatzgruppen C’s commandos were farther east, Jecklen called in Police Battalion 320, which was reinforced by a company of ethnic Germans from the Baltic region. The first day, Hungarian troops and police units led 4,200 men, women, and children to an execution site where they were shot.

According to eyewitnesses, the victims had to hand over all valuables, undress, climb down into a pit, and lie down on the ground or on top of each new layer of fresh corpses where they were shot in the back of the head. Witnesses also report that Jeckeln and several Wehrmacht officers supervised the events from a nearby hill overlooking the killing site. The next day, Police Battalion 320 shot an additional 11,000 Jews.

The Aktion not only included the murder of the Jews from Carptho-Ukraine, but also two-thirds of Kamianets-Podilsky’s indigenous Jewish population. When the shooting stopped, Jeckeln proudly informed the High Command of Army Group South, the highest military authority in Ukraine, that 23,600 Jews, including 14,000 Jews from Carpatho-Ukraine, had been killed. Although not yet a common practice in occupied Ukraine, the Germans established a ghetto for the remaining 4,800 Jews after the massacre.

The mass killing of Jews at Kamianets-Podilsky represents the largest massacre of Jews in Ukraine during the summer of 1941, and signaled a decisive shift in the Holocaust from targeting certain groups of Jewish males to the indiscriminate murder of entire Jewish communities. This transformation continued throughout the fall of 1941, as tens of thousands of men, women, and children were shot to death in ravines, open fields, and forests throughout Ukraine.

The Massacre at Babi Yar

Perhaps the most famous mass shooting in Ukraine took place at Babi Yar, the site of one of the largest mass shootings of Jews in German-occupied Europe. On September 19, 1941, German forces entered the city of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.

Prior to the German invasion of the Soviet Union, an estimated 160,000 Jews resided in Kyiv, which represented close to 20 percent of the city’s population. Once the invasion was underway, however, about 100,000 Jews fled Kyiv or were conscripted into the Red Army. Those that remained in the city mostly included women, children, and the elderly.

Sculpture at Babi Yar

A memorial sculpture, dedicated to the 33,771 people murdered outside of Kyiv, depicts Jews falling into the ravine located at Babi Yar. Photo taken by the author in 2016. 

The immediate pretext for the massacre in Kyiv was a series of explosions in the Ukrainian capital caused by Soviet mines, which had been timed to explode after the Germans entered the city. These explosions destroyed German headquarters and many buildings along the main streets located in the center of the city. The blasts also killed a large number of German soldiers and officials.

In many smaller Ukrainian cities, after the Wehrmacht secured control, Nazi officials registered, isolated, and forced the local Jewish population to clear rubble, repair roads, sweep for mines, and perform other labor-intensive tasks. This usually continued for several weeks before security forces began organizing mass shootings. 

In Kyiv, however, instead of utilizing Jewish forced labor to repair the damage caused by the mine explosions, Nazi officials used the sabotage as a pretext to murder the Jews who still remained in the Ukrainian capital. Some historians contend that this decision was made in coordination with housing authorities since the fires caused by the Soviet mine explosions created an immediate housing problem.

The Wehrmacht worked closely with the SS and police forces in Kyiv. On September 29-30, 1941, under the guidance of Einsatzgruppen C, the SS, German police units and their auxiliaries rounded up a significant proportion of the Jewish population in Kyiv and transported them to a ravine called Babi Yar, located just outside the city. The victims were summoned to the site, forced to undress, and then required to enter the ravine. Sonderkommando 4a, under the command of SS-Standartenführer Paul Blobel, shot them in small groups.

A brief report summarizing the events states that on September 29 and 30 Sonderkommando 4a, in collaboration with Einsatzgruppen HQ and Police Regiment South, executed 33,771 Jews. At least 40 copies of this post-action report were distributed in Berlin, to the SS, police battalions, the Wehrmacht, and high-ranking Nazi party officials. Since reports such as these were routinely copied, read, and discussed in detail, the 1941 mass shootings being conducted in Ukraine were widely known in Nazi government and party circles.

Just days after the mass murder of Kyiv’s Jews, Hitler issued an “Order of the Day to the Eastern Front” which described the Soviet Union as a system created and controlled by Jews. Hitler’s call to troops read:

“In a country that, owing to its vastness and fertility could feed the whole world, poverty rules to such an extent that we Germans could not imagine. This is a result of a nearly 25-year Jewish rule that, as bolshevism, is basically similar to the general form of capitalism. The bearers of this system in both cases are the same: Jews and only Jews.”

A week later, General Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau, the highest-ranking army official in Ukraine, reiterated Hitler’s message in a subsequent security order for troops in the Eastern Territories, calling for all soldiers to “accept and carry out severe retribution against the subhuman species of Jewry.”

The directives by Hitler and Reichenau clearly demonstrate how the Holocaust rapidly escalated in Ukraine. Within a matter of months, orders calling for the murder of Jewish males with communist ties expanded to include the indiscriminate murder of women, children, and entire Jewish communities. The radicalization of Nazi racial policy continued throughout the war as the Germans developed new methods of extermination. 

Smaller Killing Sites

In addition to large-scale massacres such as those at Kamianets-Podilsky and Babi Yar, there were hundreds of smaller mass shootings in towns and villages throughout Ukraine, with the number of victims ranging from 100 to 3,000 in each location. After the war, the Jewish Preservation Committee of Ukraine identified 495 such sites, but a more recent estimate by the Catholic-Jewish Organization, Yahad-In Unum, puts the total number of sites at 916.

Einsatzgruppen Massacres in Ukraine

Einsatzgruppen Massacres (Mobile Killing Units) in Eastern Europe June 1941-November 1942. Map courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  

The extraordinary work by Father Patrick Desbois, who interviewed hundreds of witnesses throughout Ukraine, reveals a general pattern of how these smaller mass shootings unfolded. According to Desbois, “the way the massacres took place depended on the circumstances—topography, the presence of partisans—different facts that the Germans had to weigh to perpetrate the most rapid and efficient assassinations as possible.”

However, certain characteristics were common to all mass shootings in Ukraine. The testimony of Nikolai Olkhusky from Konstiantynivka in the Zaporijie region illustrates how these events generally unfolded:

“There were people of every age—children, old people. They had been told to gather because they were going to be taken to work somewhere and that they should take some food and their children because there would be nurseries in which they would be looked after…The Jews had a sort of armband. Then they were told to undress and they were thrown into the pits. At the end of the day I went to look; the earth was moving [since many had not died right away].”

Local policemen and German officials often requisitioned non-Jewish civilians to dig pits, fill in mass graves, collect Jewish clothing, sort through Jewish valuables, pull out teeth, or transport Jews to pits in their carts. The requisitioned were mostly young men, women, children, or adolescents who were not only present at the event, but also “had been forced to participate…depending on the task imposed on them by the Germans.” 

Rethinking the Holocaust

There are several reasons that help explain why the “Holocaust by bullets” and the study of the Holocaust in Ukraine remains a lesser-known aspect of the Holocaust. First, Holocaust Studies only established itself as a field in the 1990s. In the beginning, the field tended to focus on antisemitism within the highest decision-making levels of the Third Reich.

Secondly, “Auschwitz syndrome,” or the tendency among historians, philosophers, political scientists, and the general public to focus on the killing centers where an estimated 3 million men, women, and children were gassed and cremated in an industrialized, systematic fashion, also drove scholarship in the early stages of Holocaust Studies. In this way, according to Lower and Brandon, “Auschwitz became the central symbol of modernity derailed, the nadir of Western civilization,” which inevitably led scholars to neglect other places where the Holocaust unfolded in a different way.

Third, until 1991, scholars lacked access to the regional archives of the former Soviet Union. During the Cold War, Soviet officials sought to repress most discussions of the unique fate of Jews under Nazi rule. Instead, Soviet scholars examined the suffering of all “peaceful citizens,” which undoubtedly included the destruction of the Jewish population, but also focused on a wide range non-Jewish of victims. According to Wendy Lower and Ray Brandon, “this manifestation of Soviet antisemitism guaranteed that the archives in Ukraine [and other successor states] remained closed until the Soviet Union collapse.”

Today, the killing sites in Ukraine are practically undetectable. As Paul A. Shapiro writes, these places “offer up none of the architectural design elements that shape the iconic imagery of the Holocaust memorial sites worldwide—“Arbeit Macht Frei” encased in ironwork, the curve of the arched gateway to Auschwitz-Birkenau, or the chimney of a crematorium.” 

Many of the Jewish victims murdered by the Nazis remain invisible as well. According to the Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names kept by the Holocaust Reembrace Center in Yad Vashem, about 50 percent of the Jewish victims of “the Holocaust by bullets,” still remain to be identified.

Although there is no “architecture of destruction” at the killing sites in Ukraine, the first Jewish victims of the Holocaust did not simply disappear from the face of the earth, and “the Holocaust by bullets” is crucial to understanding how the Holocaust developed. “For every echelon of the Nazi regime,” the historian Raul Hilberg argues, “the summer months of 1941 mark a transition from uncertainty to certainty” as policies aimed toward the male Jewish population quickly expanded to include entire Jewish communities.

Moreover, it was after shooting Jewish victims en mass that the German policy towards Jews took a fateful turn. Mass murder by gunfire took a cumulative toll on German soldiers and proved inefficient in achieving goals aimed at exterminating all Jews. It was the experience and failures of “Holocaust by bullets” that eventually led to the decision to shift to an organized, systematic murder of Jews in the form of industrial extermination camps.


Jennifer Popowycz, PhD

Jennifer Popowycz, PhD is the Leventhal Research Fellow at The National WWII Museum. Her research focuses on the Eastern Front and Nazi occupation policies in Eastern Europe in World War II. 

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