In honour of International Holocaust Remembrance Day: 27 January 2023

Photo: The rebuilt synagogue and community centre in the Ukrainian city of Zhitomir.

520 words / 2 ½ minute read

Within five weeks of the German invasion of Russia on June 22, the number of Jews killed exceeded the total number killed in the previous eight years of Nazi rule.  The invasion of Russia had provided the Germans with an opportunity hitherto lacking:  a remote region, the cover of an advancing army, vast distances, local collaborators, and an intensified will to destroy.  The first “five-figure” massacre ended on July 31, in Kishinev, after fourteen day’s uninterrupted slaughter, in which ten thousand Jews were murdered.  Similar mass executions were taking place in every city:  in Zhitomir more than two and a half thousand had been murdered.  

…on July 31, Goering had instructed Heydrich “to carry out all the necessary preparations with regard to organisational and financial matters for bringing about a complete solution of the Jewish question in the German sphere of influence in Europe.”  This was Goering’s second reference, the first having been two months earlier, on May 20, to a “complete” or “final” solution of what the Germans chose to call “the Jewish question”.

The “preparations” to which Goering referred on July 31 were to involve a dozen countries, many of which, like Hungary and Italy, had not turned against their Jews in any murderous way; in others of which, like France, Belgium, Holland and Norway, the Jews, despite discrimination and some executions, were not being physically destroyed.  Even in German-occupied Poland, where several thousand Jews were dying of hunger each month in Warsaw and Lodz, two million and more Jews were alive, struggling to maintain their morale until Germany should be defeated.

Goering’s letter of July 31 made it clear that something drastic was in preparation, albeit at an early phase:  a “complete solution”, unexplained, yet comprehensive.  Meanwhile, in the East, there was to be no respite in the savage, daily slaughter.  “It may be safely assumed,” Heydrich informed Himmler on August 1, “that in the future there will be no more Jews in the annexed Eastern Territories ….

There was no pause in the daily killings and there was to be no pause.  On July 29 forty mental patients were seized in Lodz, and deported:  driven away in a covered truck to an unknown destination.  They were in fact shot by the Nazis in a nearby forest.  The Ghetto Chronicle noted, on July 31:  “The patients resisted in many cases.”  But the chroniclers had no idea of the fate of the deportees once they had been taken out of the ghetto.

Occasionally, a postcard from a Jew in German-occupied Poland reached the West.  But any messages other than purely personal ones had to be skilfully disguised.  On July 23 one such postcard was sent from a Jew in Radzymin to his brother in Brooklyn.  Referring to three Jewish Holy days – the solemn fast day of Yom Kippur, the festival of Purim, when Jewish children dress up in colourful costumes, and the festival of Tabernacles, or Sukkot, during which Jews build a booth of trellis and greenery, the message read:  “We are eating as on Yom Kippur, clothed as at Purim, and dwelling as at Sukkot.”

Excerpt from The Holocaust

Read: The Holocaust

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