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The Holocaust of Volhynian Jews, 1941-1944 by Shmuel Spector

By Mark Heckman

Related to: Volhynia (Province)Book Reviews

Author: Spector, Shmuel ; [translated by Jerzy Michalowicz]. Publishing information: Jerusalem : Yad Vashem : Federation of Volhynian Jews, 1990. ISBN 965-308-014-8; 383 pages.

This book describes the situation of the Jews in the western two-thirds of Volhynia before and during the Nazi conquest. The area covered is the part of Volhynia ruled by Poland between the World Wars, including the major cities and towns of Kovel, Vladimir-Volynski, Lutsk, Dubno, Rovno, and approximately 275 other towns and villages specifically mentioned in the book.

Spector has used original non-Jewish sources, including German, Soviet and Polish records, in addition to memorial books and extensive testimonies from survivors, to describe the unfriendly and sometimes harsh Polish rule, the relatively brief Soviet Occupation, and the increasingly horrible steps in the Nazi occupation that led to the final extermination Aktionen. These steps began with a series of decrees that, over the course of time, isolated the Jews as much as possible from the rest of the population, used them for forced labor, and stripped them of their posessions and livelihoods. Next, Jews were forced into ghettos.

The final step was liquidation of all the people in the ghettos. Unlike the Jews in Central Europe, the Jews of Volhynia were not shipped to extermination camps like Auschwitz. Instead, the entire ghetto population of a town would be herded from the ghetto and marched outside of town, where they would be shot and buried in mass graves. But, while the vast majority of the Jewish population died from disease, starvation, and murder, some Jews escaped to survive in the Volhynian forests. Some Jews would escape from the ghetto before it was liquidated, some would hide as long as they could in the ghetto and escape later, some even survived being shot and ran to the woods. Because the Germans had limited manpower to murder the Jews, the extermination actions took place over a period of months. Word of the exterminations at one town would spread to towns not yet liquidated, giving some people a short time to prepare their escape.

While mass escapes occurred, most attempts were organized among small groups of friends. Spector describes many plans for escape and resistance all over the region, not all of which were successful. Even more tragically, many people, including some heads of the Jewish Councils, resisted the escape plans of others, for fear that the Germans would punish the people who remained. Most of the people planning to escape or resist were young, and they had to face the real danger that their own parents, grandparents, and younger siblings would die of starvation, without anyone there to help them obtain food. As a result, escape and resistance plans were sporadic, limited in scope, and made on extremely short notice. Once someone managed to escape to the forest, they still had to contend with the problem of staying hidden while finding food.

These problems would be bad enough, but the escaped Jews also had to contend with a hostile Ukrainian population that, when it found Jews, would often either kill them immediately or turn them over to the Germans. The survival rate of escapees was abysmally low.

The relations between the different ethnic groups is one of the most interesting subjects covered by the book. Before the war, relations between Jews and Poles were far from warm. The Polish government had issued a series of laws that curtailed Jewish economic, social, and educational life. Jewish-Ukrainian relations were even worse. The Ukrainians dreamed of having their own state and hated both the Jews and the Poles. When the Soviets occupied the area in 1939, many Jews were active supporters and joined the local militias and provisional governments that disarmed and arrested Polish police and officials. Right after the Soviet retreat, and before the Germans had established strong control of the area, many Ukrainians and Poles staged pograms against the Jewish population. The German Einsatzgruppen, units whose job it was to exterminate Jews, often encouraged these pogroms. Other German military units were alarmed by these actions, as they front lines were still not very far away and the disorder caused by the pogroms could have disrupted the Wehrmacht's ability to fight. They shut down the pogroms.

There are a number of cases, early in the occupation, where the Jews actually turned to the Germans for protection from the Ukrainians. When the Germans conquered the area, they worked very closely with Ukrainian nationalists. Short of manpower, the Germans were very happy to recruit Ukrainians as police, para-military forces, and local government officials. These Ukrainians, in turn, used their new authority to harass and murder Jews and, after the Jews were gone, Poles.

Eventually, a situation existed where the Germans controlled the large towns, but armed Ukrainian partisans controlled the countryside. The large Ukrainian partisan formations would kill any Jews they found, along with Poles and Czechs. A number of Jews who escaped the extermination actions managed to find safety in Polish and Czech towns, where they helped defend against the Ukrainians. Meanwhile, Soviet partisans had established themselves in Northeast Volhynia, and were in a constant struggle with the Ukrainians. There was a situation described as "every group against every other." (There were a few "righteous Gentiles," though, who helped save individuals and small groups of Jews from the carnage, and Spector describes these people as well.) Some of the escaped Jews set up their own partisan units, which would try to defend other Jewish survivors and to punish those who attacked the Jews.

Many of the Jewish partisan units were eventually absorbed into the Soviet partisan formations. While anti-Semitism was not unknown among the Soviet partisans, the senior Soviet officers enforced a strict discipline that usually protected the Jews from serious abuse. Once the war was over, most of the surviving Jews from the region eventually went west to Poland, and from there to Israel and the United States. Most Jews now in Volhynia, Spector says, come from farther east in Ukraine and Russia. This book was adapted from Spector's doctoral dissertation, and he often spends considerable time explaining his analysis of his sources and how certain population figures, etc., were arrived at.

This sometimes makes for more "scholarly" reading than the casual reader might prefer. Overall, however, the book is an excellent and exhaustive study of a cataclysmic time in the Jewish history of Volhynia. People researching specific towns in the area will benefit from the translations and summaries from memorial books and testimonies; all references to towns are indexed. Of special interest to genealogists is the book's index of names, which includes approximately 400 names of Jews and others from the region that are mentioned in the book. I obtained this book from the University of California, Santa Barbara library, call number DS 135 R93 V63713 1990. The book is also held by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) library. -- Mark Heckman

  • Last Modified: 06-08-2012
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