Almost ten years after the publication of his award-winning study Holocaust by Bullets, Father Patrick Desbois and his international team of volunteers have documented how the mass shooting of over 2.2 million Soviet Jewish citizens by German Einsatzgruppen (SS and German Mobile Police) took place. Drawing on over 4,000 interviews, newly released Polish and Soviet archival documents, and testimonies from earlier war crime trials, Desbois, a Roman Catholic priest and professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization, shows how these murders followed the same pattern. All of the killings were done in broad daylight and deliberately involved the “non-Jewish population.”
The importance of Desbois’s new study lies in his detailed description of how hundreds of thousands of primarily poor, rural Jews were executed.Usually following the capture of a Jewish collective settlement, all men over the age of eighteen were immediately shot. The remaining Jews were herded into temporary wooden ghettos, where they remained for anywhere from two days to two weeks. Then they were transported to a nearby ravine, stripped naked, and shot in groups of five. Following the shootings, the dead, along with the severely wounded, were thrown into the ravine and covered with soil by local inhabitants, who had been specially recruited for this task by the SS.
Local, non-Jewish citizens of the USSR played a critical role in the Einsatzgruppen’s success – from building the temporary ghettos, assembling the “death marches,” digging the ditches where the Jews were buried, and providing the Germans with a steady supply of rum, vodka, and bread.
Unlike earlier studies of the Holocaust in the prewar Soviet Union, Desbois also focuses on the SS’s frequent raping of Jewish women, in spite of the 1935 Racial Act banning sexual intercourse between Germans and Jews.
Finally, Desbois shatters postwar claims of innocence (that continue to be made through the current day) by the Russian Republic, Poland, and the Ukraine as to the role played by their non-Jewish citizens in the Holocaust.
Carl J. Rheins was the executive director emeritus of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. He received his Ph.D. in Modern European History from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and taught courses on the Holocaust at several major universities.