The Soviet Union played four roles within the context of the Holocaust:
- Crime Scene
The last role is discussed in detail in the section on the Soviet Union of the entry on propaganda, so it will not be covered here.
Anti-Bolshevism was one of the four main motives of National-Socialist enmity toward Jews. As described in the section on “Motives for National-Socialist anti-Judaism” of our entry on Motives, it was one of the major driving forces behind ruthless National-Socialist attitudes and actions toward Jews living in the Soviet Union. (See that entry for more details.)
Between late 1941 and late 1942, German authorities deported many Jews from western and central European countries to various locations in the temporarily German-occupied Soviet Union. If we follow the orthodox narrative, many if not most of them were killed there by the Einsatzgruppen and associated units. In particular the camp Maly Trostenets near Minsk (capital of Belorussia), and the prison at Fort IX near Kaunas (Lithuania) deserve to be mentioned in this context. Thousands of deported Jews are said to have been executed there. (See the entries on these topics for more details.)
While many foreign Jews deported to the east became the target of German units, Jews living inside the Soviet Union were the primary target of the Einsatzgruppen and associated units. If they were executed, this happened primarily by way of mass shootings, but poisoning in so-called gas vans is also claimed. (See that entry for more details).
Orthodox estimates of the death toll inflicted by these events range from just under a million up to three million. German wartime documents speak of some 750,000 victims, but their reliability is questionable. (For more on this, see the entry on the Einsatzgruppen.) Furthermore, this number includes the execution of Jews deported into the Soviet Union from other countries.
When war broke out between Germany and Poland on 1 September 1939, many Jews tried fleeing from the invading German army, who had the reputation of not being very kind to Jewish folks. Jewish contemporaneous sources report that between 500,000 and one million Jews fled east into the parts of Poland that were occupied by the Soviets a short while later. Unwelcome as they were, the majority of these displaced Polish Jews were promptly deported to Siberia. Jewish relief organizations reported during that time that they tried helping up to 630,000 Polish Jews in Siberian labor camps who actually made it there alive. (See Sanning 2023, pp. 37-44.)
When war broke out between Germany and the Soviet Union in June 1941, the same flight reflex set in with Soviet Jews, who anticipated the German forces to invade with the wrath and anger of counter-revolutionary radicals. The reports of the Einsatzgruppen are full of references to towns and cities across the temporarily German-occupied Soviet Union whose Jewish population had to a large degree fled or been evacuated, or rather deported, along with large parts of the population considered crucial to the war effort. Many of these fleeing, evacuated or deported individuals also ended up in mostly Siberian labor camps, where they were put to work for the overall war effort.
Estimates of the number of Jews deported during that wave range into the millions. However, the German reports on fleeing and deported Jews were not based on statistical evaluation of their own census data compared with the data the Soviets created before they left. Rather, the Germans relied to no small degree on what the local populace told them about how many Jews there were before and how many there were then. Those local collaborators may have told the Germans what they thought the Germans wanted to hear.
On 25 October 1941, Hitler said during one of his private dinners (see the entry on Adolf Hitler):
“It is good if the terror precedes us that we are exterminating Jewry.”
That reputation led to a massive flight of the Jews, which in turn saved the Germans a lot of trouble of having to deal with them one way or another. Hence, the Germans wanted to hear that the Jews were running. And so, they heard it. This is a typical case of confirmation bias. Hence, in the end, we do not know exactly how many Baltic and Soviet Jews “got away.” But close to a million or more is very well possible.
The survival rate of the Polish Jews deported to Siberia in 1939 and 1940, at a time when there was no war with Germany yet, was dismal, as for all inmates in the GULag. Some 200,000 Jews are estimated to have died en route. Some 157,500 are said to have returned to Poland after the war. If 200,000 died before arriving, 630,000 were cared for after arriving, and 157,500 returned back home, then (200,000 + 630,000 – 157,500 =) some 670,000 Polish Jews disappeared on the way to or in Siberia, because Stalin had decided so.
The fate of the Soviet Jews and other pivotal persons who fled or were deported away starting in June 1941, may have been better than the fate of the deported Polish Jews, because the former were needed for the larger war effort. However, considering the generally awful living condition in Soviet Russia during the war, the attrition rate among them will also have been considerable. (For more details, see Sanning 2023, pages 103-106.).
These losses of Jewish lives are tragic, but they are strictly speaking not victims of the National-Socialist Holocaust. They are, in a sense, the victims of Stalin’s own Holocaust.
The only orthodox study trying to determine the Soviet Union’s Jewish population losses during the Second World War concluded that almost three million Soviet Jews died in the Holocaust. This number was basically determined by subtracting the number of Jews who reported themselves as Jews during the first post-war census – some two million – from those of the last pre-war census – some five million (Benz 1991, pp. 499-560).
Hence, there were several reasons for a reduction in the official Jewish population in the Soviet Union, none of which have anything to do with “the Holocaust,” and yet they are counted as Holocaust victims anyway. These reasons include: Stalin’s various deportation victims; Jewish soldiers and partisans killed in action; victims of diseases; collateral victims of war; natural excess of deaths over births; religious conversions or simple refusal to register as a Jew; as well as any emigration during and after the war.
Already during Stalin’s reign, the Soviet Union had turned against its Jewish citizens by way of purges and mass deportations. The post-war Soviet Union became strongly opposed to Zionism and the Jewish state, taking sides with the Arab nations in both wars against Israel. Hence, it was not wise for a Jew in the radically atheistic, anti-Zionist Soviet Union to register himself as a Jew in any census. Therefore, the Jewish population figures of some two million in various Soviet post-war censuses may not have reflected reality at all.
Once the Soviet Union allowed the emigration of its Jews to Israel, and even more so after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the number of Jews presumably living in the Soviet Union suddenly rose drastically, from three to four to five million. At least this is what Jewish pressure groups claimed, who had an interest in as many Jews wanting to emigrate as possible. Moreover, many Russians may suddenly have discovered some Jewish relative, real or invented, and used them to escape. Hence, these numbers must be viewed with equal skepticism. (For more on this, see Rudolf 2019, pp. 189-193.)