When did Hitler come up with the idea of the Final Solution – the physical elimination of the Jews of Europe? That has long been a matter of debate among historians; some point to the Wansee Conference in 1942 as the point at which the Final Solution was adopted as official Nazi policy, while others believe that the decision was made much earlier.
One indication that it was the latter, says Dr. Arkadi Zeltser, director of The Center for Research on the History of Soviet Jews during the Holocaust at Yad Vashem, was the growing realization by the Germans that they were not going to defeat the Soviet Union on the battlefield.
“Originally the German plan had been to conquer areas of Soviet Russia and integrate them into the Nazi empire, as 'lebensraum' – expansionism- for the elite Aryan population. The residents of the Soviet areas taken into the empire would be mostly eliminated, with some, such as farmers. allowed to remain alive to serve the Nazis,” says Dr. Zeltser.
But it was the German invasion of Russia – Operation Barabossa – that may very well have cast the die for the Final Solution, says Zeltser.
“The operation began in June 1941 and was supposed to end after three months, but it was still going on when Hitler visited the Russian front in 1941. It was already becoming clear to the Nazis that they were not going to defeat the Soviets on the ground – at which point they shelved their lebensraum plans and instead concentrated on the goal of destroying Jewry,” he posits.
The question of how the Soviet experience affected Nazi policy on the Final Solution is just one that will be explored at a conference Monday at Yad Vashem, titled Marking 70 Years Since Operation Barbarossa: The Invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany.
The conference, one of three to be held this year, will be conducted in Hebrew and Russian, and will feature rare video testimonies from the killing sites, documentary footage and other resources discussing this often underexplored aspect of the Holocaust.
Citizens of the Soviet Union were, of course, aware of the Nazis hatred for their government and their race; the Nazis made no secret of their desire to “save the world from Communism,” while the Slavic race, which many Russians were considered members of, was considered an inferior race. “There were many articles in the Soviet press, and discussions among Soviet intelligentsia, of the Germans plans for them.”
Until the invasion, the Nazis conducted a theoretical, propaganda war – but after the invasion, the war began taking on actual form, and the Nazis began trying to institute their theories into practice.
The Jews were, of course, in a category of their own as far as the Nazis were concerned, but not necessarily as far as official Soviet policy was concerned.
“Everyone was ostensibly equal in the Soviet Union; there were no longer any differences between nations,” says Zeltser. “Of course, that was never quite the feeling among Soviet citizens, but on the Soviet side of the front, things remained as they were before the war, with the usual anti-Semitism.
“But in the areas where the Nazis took over, the true feelings of the Soviet masses came out,” Zeltzser says. “Just like in Poland and Hungary, collaborators pointed out the Jews, and helped in their murder. But until the end of 1941, those killings were not organized. It was only when the Nazis began to lose hope of advancing on the Russian front that they they began organized mass murders of Jews in the areas of Ukraine they had had conquered – like at Babi Yar, where some 34,000 Jews were killed.”
However, unlike in other countries, Soviet Jews from the occupied zones could escape into the interior of Russia – where, with all the privation and anti-Semitism, they still had a chance of physical survival. This aspect of the Soviet Jewish experience in the war will be explored at the conference, as well.