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The Holocaust in the Soviet Union

September 29-30th marks the 80th anniversary of the largest massacre during the Holocaust committed by mobile killing units in the German-occupied Soviet Union Territories (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Bessarabia, North Bukovina, and Soviet Union), with over 33,771 Jews murdered in two days. The massacre at Babi Yar, outside of Kiev, Ukraine, is among the thousands of mass graves still being uncovered throughout these areas. The Holocaust in the Soviet Union is one of the most barbaric moments in history with the murder of at least 2 million Soviet Jews at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. Most of the stories of victims and survivors have never been heard. Virtually every Russian Jewish family in the Chicago community has a connection to these losses and a story to tell. The time is overdue to recognize and commemorate those victims and the many more who experienced the atrocities in this area.

Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, which began on June 22, 1941, brought a wave of destruction to 4 million Jews residing in the Soviet territories. Approximately, 1.5 million were able to evacuate or escape deeper into the Soviet Union, leaving around 2.5 million Jews under German-occupation. The Nazis and their collaborators murdered the majority of those left behind. Mobile killing units (Einsatzgruppen) followed the German Army, murdering Soviet civilians and Jews one bullet at a time. It is largely unknown that one out of three Jews killed in the Holocaust were murdered by bullets, not in gas chambers.

After the first six months of Operation Barbarossa, those who survived the mobile killing units were put into ghettos and Nazi camps, where they experienced harsh treatment, starvation, illness, and cruel roundups at night. One such story is of the late Matus Stolov, Holocaust Survivor and member of the Illinois Holocaust Museum’s Speakers’ Bureau. Stolov was imprisoned in the Minsk Ghetto in Belarus from July 1941 until he escaped in 1942. He spoke about the constant fear of death and the many hiding places in the ghetto, called Malinas, that helped him survive the Einsatzgruppen mass murders. Stolov’s experience is amongst many accounts of survival in the Soviet Union that were subsequently suppressed after war.

For decades, these stories of murder, persecution, and displacement of Jews in the Soviet Union at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators sat behind an iron curtain of silence. The Soviet Regime instead promoted a revisionist history that Soviet Jews were victims of the “Great Patriotic War.” Now, 80 years later and 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, we are still uncovering the true history. Through scholars, researchers, and more recently the work of Father Patrick Desbois and others, there is a modern understanding of the breadth and scope of the Holocaust and it must include the cross-section of experiences in the Soviet Union, comprised of “Holocaust by Bullets”, along with the stories of ghettos and camps, resistance, hiding, evacuation, and escape – from Minsk to Riga to Kishinev. However, there are only approximately 50 major memorial sites out of at least 2,000 uncovered mass graves, Nazi camps, and ghettos, to remember the crimes committed by the Nazis in the Former Soviet Union. 

Today, around 85% of Survivors living in Chicago are from the Former Soviet Union. Many spent years in silence under the Soviet Regime and since settling in the United States still find it difficult to talk about their experiences, or to have their survival acknowledged as part of Holocaust history. But as hatred, bigotry and antisemitism are on the rise, including Holocaust distortion and denial, and as the Survivor population dwindles, it is ever more important to share the narrative and teach the enormity of the Nazi crimes in the Soviet Union and how vast geographically the Holocaust reached beyond Europe’s borders.

Survivor Matus Stolov worked the last years of his life advocating for this history to be told by collecting the personal artifacts, photographs, and testimonies from Holocaust Survivors from the Former Soviet Union. He wrote, “My goal was to help Illinois Holocaust Museum create a permanent exhibition about the ‘forgotten’ Holocaust in German-occupied Soviet Territories.” Our mission at the Illinois Holocaust Museum is “remember the past, transform the future.” With our new Holocaust in the Soviet Union galleries now open, we can properly honor the 2 million Jews who were victims and those who survived, and make Matus proud the Museum is telling his story to hundreds of thousands of visitors to create a better understanding of the history and lessons of the Holocaust for future generations.

Jessica Hulten, Assistant Manager of Education

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