The Holocaust’s forgotten massacre

The Shoah’s biggest mass shooting claimed 54,000 lives near a village in modern Ukraine — yet few have heard of it today


In December 1941, at a place called Bogdanovka in modern Ukraine, the largest shooting massacre of the Holocaust took place. Remarkably, it is an event barely known about in the English-speaking world.

Bogdanovka, which today lies in Ukraine close to the River Bug, was then part of Transnistria, the area of Soviet Ukraine between the Dniester and Bug rivers that was occupied by Romania, which invaded the USSR alongside the German Wehrmacht in June that year.

Babyn Yar, near Kyiv, is rightly famous as the site of a huge massacre carried out by the Germans on 29-30 September 1941. According to Einsatzgruppe C, the “action squad” that was responsible, 33,771 people were murdered over those two days. One of the shooters, a man named Kurt Werner, recalled later:

“It’s almost impossible to imagine what nerves of steel it took to carry out that dirty work down there. It was horrible.”

Yet at Bogdanovka, a place whose name has almost no resonance in the English-speaking world, as many as 54,000 people, mostly Ukrainian Jews, were shot by Ukrainian auxiliaries under the control of Romanian gendarmes and the local prefect, Modest Isopescu.

Isopescu had pleaded with the governor of Transnistria, Gheorghe Alexianu, not to send him another 40,000 “Yids” when he had already had to find space “for 11,000 Yids in the state farm pigsties, where there was not sufficient space for 7,000 pigs”.

Quite apart from the ritual humiliation of “housing” Jews in pigsties, the creation of overcrowded ghettos and camps in Transnistria created disease and starvation, so it made sense to the Romanians to exterminate the Jews like virus-infected farm animals.

More Jews were murdered in massacres in Transnistria than were deported from the Netherlands, yet places such as Bogdanovka, Akmecetka, Domanovka and Vapniarka remain barely known in the West.

My new book The Holocaust: An Unfinished History seeks to rectify this situation and to emphasise the extent of non-German collaboration in the Shoah.

It is perfectly clear that the events that we today call the Holocaust were driven by the leadership of the Third Reich and that most Jews were murdered by Germans (including Austrians).

Yet the case of Romania reminds us that regimes allied to Nazi Germany also participated, in that case with minimal German involvement, and for similar reasons: to rid Romania of the “threat” supposedly posed to the “Romanian race” by the Jews.

Other countries, notably France, Slovakia and Croatia, initiated persecutory laws, deportations and murders in advance of being ordered to do so by Nazi Germany; yet others, such as the Netherlands, Norway and Hungary, facilitated the Germans’ plans by supplying bureaucracies and police forces to identify and round up Jews.

The Holocaust was a Europe-wide crime, not only because the Germans occupied most of Europe but because they found willing collaborators everywhere, from states to institutions (such as police forces) to individuals. The case of Transnistria also reminds us that the Holocaust was not only a “factory-line” genocide of the sort that we associate with Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The vast majority of the Holocaust’s victims were Eastern European Jews living in Poland and the western Soviet Union (including the Baltic States), the former Pale of Settlement.
More Jews from Warsaw were murdered than from the whole of Western Europe.

The numbers are staggering but about 1.5 million Jews were shot in the autumn of 1941 and spring of 1942. The Nazis’ wiping out of whole communities in Eastern Europe means that we still do not even know the names of about one million victims.

The Jews of Poland — who in the country’s pre-war borders constituted half of the Holocaust’s victims — were killed in massacres, in ghettos (where about 500,000 starved to death), or in the Operation Reinhard death camps of Belzec, Sobibór and Treblinka.

Were it not for the deportation of the Hungarian Jews in the spring of 1944 and the dismantling of Treblinka in 1943 so that there was nothing left to see by the time the Red Army reached the site, that camp would have been responsible for more deaths than Auschwitz.

These killings, from the Einsatzgruppen shootings of autumn 1941 to the Reinhard camps in 1942-43, make clear two things: first, the Holocaust had little to do with the Nazis’ regular concentration camp system; second, that the concept of “industrial genocide” only partly captures the horror of the Holocaust.

In the English-speaking world, we still tend to associate the Holocaust with death camps; the liberation of Dachau, Buchenwald and Mauthausen by the US Army and Belsen by the British led to a confusion that lasted decades.

Jews were at those camps in the spring of 1945 because they had been marched there following the evacuation of camps further east to prevent the inmates falling into the hands of the Red Army.

These “death marches”, about which I write at length in the book, saw about a third of the 714,000 concentration camp inmates that were alive in January 1945 murdered by the end of the war in May. But camps such as Belsen were not, strictly speaking, “Holocaust camps” until the last months of the war.

Buchenwald held primarily political prisoners and so-called “asocials”; Jews were among them, but they were not sites designated specifically for the murder of the Jews.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was, in fact, an aberration in the history of the Holocaust, in the sense that most of the Jews killed were dead by the end of 1942, before the gas chambers and crematoria at Birkenau were operating fully.

Our images of “industrial genocide” stem from the spring of 1944, when with a massive collaboration with the Hungarian state, Adolf Eichmann’s commandos deported most of the Jews of Hungary, some 450,000 of them.

Getting this history right means also putting an end to the sanitising of the Holocaust. The idea of bureaucratic genocide is curiously mind-numbing, shielding us from the true horror of what took place.

The torture faced by the Eastern European victims of being rounded up and shot outside their home towns, or being driven insane by starvation in the ghettos of Nazi-occupied Poland, or waiting in line to be murdered by primitive gas chambers driven by internal combustion engines at the Reinhard camps, is missing from many accounts, both those that are scholarly and popular.

Auschwitz is rightly remembered as, in the words of one historian, the “capital of the Holocaust”.

But it was the end point of a genocidal process that had already seen millions of Jews murdered in the most brutal ways imaginable.

Today the heirs of the Red Army, in a remarkable inversion and cynical exploitation of the anti-fascist victory over the Third Reich, are bombarding Ukraine in the name of liberating that country from Nazism.

Putin’s belief that Ukraine is not a real country echoes Hitler’s views about Poland. For Holocaust historians, this manipulation of memory is nothing new but what is shocking is the way in which longstanding “memory wars” have fuelled a real war.

Nazism, the Holocaust and their legacies continue to be fought over in Europe and beyond.

We should at least be clear about the events of 80 years ago if we are to have any hope of making sense of the present.

‘The Holocaust: An Unfinished History’ by Dan Stone, is published this week by Pelican Books

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