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Ukrainians & the Holocaust

In response to:

Stalin and the Jews from the July 11, 1996 issue

To the Editors:

Robert Conquest’s intemperate assault on our book The Bones of Berdichev [NYR, July 11] was motivated by what he describes as our “gravest offense”—our “treatment of the behavior of Ukrainians, as a nation, in the Holocaust.” The crux of the matter for him is the identity of the Polizei, the dreaded “auxiliary police” who, at Berdichev and elsewhere in Nazi-occupied Soviet territory, forced the Jews into the ghetto and policed it; made the Jews obey draconian decrees designed to weaken and starve them; robbed and raped inside the ghetto with impunity, and finally forced the Jews into columns for the death march to prepared pits.

These members of the Polizei were armed and paid by the Germans, who also issued them special armbands and caps to mark their authority. Without the help of the Polizei, the shooting squad of some twenty-five German SS at Berdichev would never had been able to identify, round up and force the 30,000 Jews of Berdichev into a ghetto, let alone murder them in two large massacres.

Who were these mysterious Polizei? Here we have touched a nerve, for The Bones of Berdichev documents one of the ugliest secrets of World War II: these men were former Red Army soldiers. We cite a document compiled by the Wehrmacht itself, stating that in the first six months after the invasion, a total of 280, 108 Soviet POWs had been released from German captivity. The document breaks this figure down by ethnicity: fully 270,095 (that is, over 96 percent of the total) were Ukrainian. Not a single one was Russian; the document states that Russians “do not qualify” for release.

Obviously, not all Ukrainian POWs released by the Wehrmacht were re-armed and enlisted into the Polizei; some were permitted to go home to their villages, ordered to help bring in the harvest or given other tasks. But sheer weight of numbers corroborates the testimony of eyewitnesses to the Berdichev massacres that the Polizei were released Ukrainian Red Army POWs.

Conquest argues that the Polizei in Ukraine consisted of Volksdeutsche, that is, Soviet citizens of German extraction (most of whom had lived in Ukraine for generations). He cites no evidence to back up this claim. The Wehrmacht document tells us that only 1,475 Volksdeutsche were released, as opposed to 270,095 Ukrainians. Such a small number of Volksdeutsche could not have provided the manpower pool needed by the Germans not only in the occupied Soviet Union but also at the death camps in Poland.

Later, witnesses swear, Polizei at Berdichev also took part in shooting victims. However, in the September 1941 massacres, the German SS assigned them the task of filling in the pits after the shootings, then guarding the pits overnight to prevent any of the victims, who might still be alive, from escaping. According to the sworn testimony of the bystanders—some of whom were Ukrainian peasants themselves—the Polizei who smashed the skulls of the Jews trying to crawl out of the pits were Ukrainian.

The evidence we cite is from the Soviet “Extraordinary State Commission to Examine and Investigate German-Fascist Crimes Committed by the Invaders and their Accomplices on Soviet Territory.” The Commission took an enormous amount of sworn testimony during the Soviet recovery of occupied territory, but soon after the war restricted access to it.

The reason for Soviet shyness about the testimony they had themselves collected is not far to seek. The “Accomplices” of the Commission’s title turned out to be non-Jewish Soviet citizens. Their victims turned out to be Soviet Jews. What would happen to the cherished myth of the “united Soviet peoples” working together to expel the invader? And what Soviet leader wanted to open up debate into the reasons that the Wehrmacht had obtained so many prisoners in the first place? That would perforce lead to an uncomfortable discussion of failed Soviet leadership and the vast German encirclement victories which captured over four million Red Army soldiers within months of the invasion.

No, from the regime’s perspective, it would be far better to seal the testimony, and stonewall with the line “Do Not Divide the Dead” anyone attempting to note that the overwhelming number of civilian victims were Jews. Far better to erase this inconvenient Jewish ethnicity and substitute the innocuous phrase, “Peaceful Soviet citizens,” which can still be seen on numerous memorials across Ukraine and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.

We know why Stalin and his successors did not want this evidence revealed. Why does Robert Conquest ignore sworn testimony and try to discredit us for bringing it forward? It would be a terrible irony if this scholar, who in his book Harvest of Sorrow demonstrated such sympathy for the Ukrainians when they were the victims of the Soviet Union’s most heinous crimes (Stalin’s terror-famine), should now himself unwittingly follow a Soviet policy by refusing to deal with the Ukrainian role as “Accomplices” in the Holocaust.

The Soviet Union is gone; the historical truth of what happened, to whom, and who aided and abetted must be told. We do not need any more cover-ups, no more disinformation. And the innocent victims themselves deserve the truth at last.

Carol Garrard and John Garrard
Department of Russian and Slavic Languages
University of Arizona, Tucson

Robert Conquest replies:

Carol and John Garrard suggest that to expose their attribution of guilt as untenable is to show lack of sympathy for the Jews atrociously murdered by the Nazis. Non sequitur. And, of course, totally untrue. In my review of their book I raised, and refuted, several substantial claims of theirs: that the Ukrainians as a whole were implicated in the Holocaust (a point on which I was glad to see Professor Redlich of Ben Gurion University “wholeheartedly” agreeing with me; see “Letters,” NYR, October 3); that the Ukrainian church was similarly guilty (again rebutted also by Shimon Redlich); that the Galicia Division were war criminals (as against the clear verdict of the Canadian judicial commission).

The Garrards make no attempt to answer these and other substantial points, and concentrate on a single, and lesser matter—whether the “Ukraine Polizei” was solely Ukrainian or whether, as I suggested, Volksdeutsche were disproportionately represented. This seems to have varied from unit to unit. Volksdeutsche were disproportionately represented in all the actions of the occupiers (and I cited an Einsatzgruppe report, quoted by Hilberg, that they were their most reliable supporters). But this should not be read as exculpating the Ukrainian police criminals; nor did I do so.

That Soviet inquiries found that collaborators with the Nazis were [non-Jewish] Soviet citizens is hardly a discovery. Such inquiries found what they wanted, sometimes true, and sometimes abandoned when official attitudes changed. But to go on about the special veridical status of “sworn” evidence, given by Soviet citizens to Soviet investigators on Soviet territory, is absurd: just such firsthand testimony was obtained showing German guilt for Katyn….

However, the Garrards’ failure to answer the objections to their major ethnic imputations points to the main conclusion to be drawn from their letter.

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