Extermination of Jews in the Eastern Borderlands

n the face of the overwhelming Holocaust, the Jews in the Eastern Borderlands – as their co-religionists in the General Government – adopted various “survival strategies.” Some tried to find shelter on their own, for example by setting up hideouts in the forests, while others tried to survive “on the surface,” concealing their identity. Some Jews benefited from individual help, hiding in cities, towns, and in the countryside. However, the overwhelming majority of the pre-war Jewish inhabitants of the Borderlands had been murdered by the end of 1943. Read the historical study by Dr. Martyna Grądzka-Rejak on the course of the Holocaust in the Kresy Wschodnie (Eastern Borderlands).

Table of Contents

Before World War II, the eastern provinces of the Second Polish Republic were inhabited by nearly 13 million people, 8% of whom were Jews. In 1939, these lands, called Kresy Wschodnie (Eastern Borderlands), were seized first by the Soviet Union and later occupied by Germany after the invasion of the Third Reich on the USSR in 1941. The new power balance brought with itself a change in the status of Jews. The period of Soviet repressions was followed by German atrocities perpetrated on a mass scale, the establishment of ghettos and forced labour camps, and pogroms carried out by the local population. In view of the progressing Holocaust, the Jews of the Eastern Borderlands, much like their co-religionists from the General Government, adopted various “survival strategies.” Some tried to find shelter in cities, towns or in the countryside, others decided to live “on the surface,” hiding their Jewish identity. Others still sought help from Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, or Belarusians. Jews hiding in the Eastern Borderlands feared blackmailers and shmaltsovniks.

“In June [1941 – ed.], when the people in the Eastern Borderlands and the Soviet command had no idea about the outbreak of the war between the Third Reich and the USSR, the Jews of Warsaw, especially those living near Chłodna Street, knew very well that the war with Russia is very close. We saw the power that rolled over before our eyes,” wrote Henryk Makower in his Pamiętnik z getta warszawskiego (Diary from the Warsaw Ghetto).*

What are the Borderlands? The origin and meaning of the geopolitical term

Kresy Wschodnie (Eastern Borderlands) is a term used to describe the part of the pre-war territory of the Second Polish Republic occupied by the Soviet Union in 1939. Historiography usually distinguishes between the North-Eastern Borderlands: Wilno (Vilnius) and Nowogródszczyzna, and the South-Eastern Borderlands: Eastern Galicia (Małopolska) and Volhynia. The term Kresy itself has been in use since the 17th century, referring mainly to the easternmost borderlands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, although a much more common name for those was the “Ukrainian lands.” This area was perceived as poorly integrated with the Republic – “boundless” and “wild.”

In independent Poland, Kresy referred to the eastern provinces of the Second Polish Republic (from the north): Wileńskie, Nowogródzkie, Poleskie, Wołyńskie, Tarnopolskie, and Stanisławowskie. The term Kresy Wschodnie Dalsze (Far Eastern Borderlands) was used to describe the areas beyond the rivers Zbrucz (Zbruch), Prypeć (Pripyat), and Wołma (Volma), which became part of the USSR under the 1921 Treaty of Riga.

After World War II, the term Kresy Wschodnie was removed from the official narrative of the People’s Republic of Poland. It nonetheless remained present in the consciousness of Poles. For those resettled from the area, the term came to symbolise the idyllic land of their youth, irretrievably lost, while others applied it to the lands partitioned from the country as a result of post-war political decisions. Topics related to the Borderlands returned to the Polish historical discourse after 1989. It is worth noting that representatives of other nationalities, such as Lithuanians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians, approach the issue of the Borderlands in a different way, treating the period of their existence as a time of Polish domination. Although Kresy formed part of the Soviet sphere of influence after the end of World War II, with time their residents came to establish independent states in the territory.

The Eastern Borderlands of the Second Polish Republic: a melting pot of nationalities, cultures, and religions

In the interwar period, the Borderlands were inhabited by representatives of more than twenty nationalities and ethnic groups, including Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Germans, Russians, Latvians, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Turks, Tatars, Armenians, Volhynians, Romanians, Serbs, Dutchmen, Karaites, Lemkos, Boykos, Hutsuls, Roma, and others.

The national and ethnic diversity of the region naturally went hand in hand with its religious heterogeneity. The eastern provinces of the Second Polish Republic were inhabited by Catholics (of Roman, Greek, and Armenian rites), Orthodox Christians, Jews, Karaites, Muslims, Buddhists, Protestants (Lutherans, Calvinists, Baptists, or Adventists), and Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is estimated that in 1939, just before the outbreak of the war, nearly 13 million people lived in the Eastern Borderlands of Poland. The largest group were ethnic Poles (ca. 43%), followed by Ukrainians (almost 33%), Jews (over 8%), and Belarusians (over 7%). Six per-cent of the population described themselves simply as “locals.” 

The Jewish population of the Borderlands lived mainly in cities and towns called shtetls (Yiddish for “town”). Most made a living from running small artisan workshops and stores or were engaged in other trade- and services-related activities. The majority of the local Jews were not very wealthy. The predominant group within the community were religious people living a traditional life, although the interwar period saw progressing secularization and assimilation in the Borderlands and beyond, with identity coming to be defined on the basis of origin and language rather than religion. 

The Jewish community was also diverse in terms of political views, from supporters of the Orthodox Agudath to advocates of the Bund (General Jewish Workers’ Union), Zionists, and communist parties and organisations. Jewish relations with gentile inhabitants of the Borderlands varied. Brewing conflicts at times resulted in violent outbursts, such as the wave of pogroms that swept Eastern Galicia in 1918–1919 after the creation of an independent Polish state or the anti-Semitic incidents of the 1930s.

Soviet occupation of the Eastern Borderlands (1939–1941): persecution of Jews

“After the end of the ‘campaign in Poland,’ as the Germans called ‘Der Feldzung in Polen,’ a common border of occupied German and Russian areas was established on the former territory of the Polish state. This border ran more or less along the Bug River. The German army took control of the areas to its west, while the territories to the east were seized by the Soviets. Thus the Bug, marking a border between two polar opposites in terms of political systems and between two countries which in August [1939 – editor] had only instrumentally signed a non-aggression pact under a false mask of friendship, also became a border of great importance for the Jewish population,” reported N. Koniński, a collaborator of the Oneg Shabbat group in the Warsaw ghetto.*

After the outbreak of World War II, in the first days of September 1939, approximately 250,000–300,000 Jewish refugees from western and central Poland arrived in the eastern territories of the Second Polish Republic. They were seeking refuge from the advancing German army. The wave of migration consisted in a large part in men, although there were also many Jewish families which fled together. Remembering the experiences of the Great War, it was expected that men would be in greater danger. At that stage, no one imagined that this war would become so total, also with regard to the civilian population. After the signing of the Friendship and Border Treaty between the Third Reich and the USSR on 28 September 1939, the Borderlands came under Soviet occupation. At that time, the area was inhabited by ca. 1.5 million Jews, which accounted for almost 11% of the total population.

Above (⇧) the map of the Invasion of Poland (1 September – 6 October 1939), also known as the September campaign or 1939 defensive war. Fig. POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews (the map is presented in the core exhibition). Click to enlarge the map and see details 🔎

The policy pursued by the Soviet authorities had an adverse effect on the quality of life of the Borderlands population. The abolition of private property led stripped Jews, who had mainly been involved in trade and petty crafts, of their livelihoods. Many families found themselves on the brink of poverty, and every day became a struggle for survival. Another area targeted by the Soviet authorities was religious life – the society was systemically secularised. Synagogues and houses of prayer were closed or taxed. Due to the impoverishment of the population, most Jewish communities were unable to pay the fees. Kehillot (Jewish communities) were dissolved and the use of Hebrew was banned.

The new authorities also sought to thwart Jewish political life – parties were dissolved or banned, and some of their leaders and main activists were arrested. These repressions affected in particular Bundist and Zionist activists, as well as members of the far-right Betar and Zionist youth organisations, including Hashomer Hatzair and Gordonia. Apart from political activists, the NKVD also arrested Jews attempting to illegally cross the Soviet border or those involved in anti-Soviet initiatives. It is estimated that over 23,000 Jews were arrested between 1939 and 1941. Nearly a third of them was sentenced to penal labour and deported to Gulag camps.

Jews were also among the victims of the Katyn Massacre. In the spring of 1940, on the order of Joseph Stalin, the NKVD murdered some 20,000–24,000 Polish officers imprisoned in Soviet jails. This group included at least 438 Jews. They were killed mainly in Katyn, Kharkiv, and Mednoye. Jewish people constituted about 5% of all officers murdered in the massacre. Many of them were representatives of the intellectual elite – lawyers, teachers, doctors or clerks. Jews, like other nationalities of the Eastern Borderlands, fell victim to the mass deportations of the citizens of the Second Polish Republic deep into the USSR in the years 1940–1941. In the first two deportation campaigns carried out in February and April 1940, as well as in the fourth campaign in June 1941, Jews constituted only a small percentage of the people affected. However, the third mass deportation, taking place in June 1940, was targeted primarily at the so-called bezhenets, mainly Jews. They accounted for ca. 82–84% of the 78,000 people deported under the campaign. 

The events of the war bore a visible influence on the Jewish relations with gentile inhabitants of the Borderlands. According to many accounts, the Polish-Jewish relations deteriorated immediately after the beginning of the Soviet occupation. According to witnesses, this was due to the positive attitude of some Jews towards the advancing Red Army and representatives of the communist apparatus. In this context, it was often mentioned that soldiers were welcomed by Jews with flowers and joyful chants, and even that special welcoming gates were erected in their honour.

“Because of my left-wing views from the time of my early youth, although not entirely extreme, because of the constant persecution and constant oppression under the previous [Polish] government, and above all because of the impossibility to practice my beloved profession of medicine – because of this I was really happy about the arrival of the Soviets […]. I believed in one thing for sure: that there would be no anti-Semitism and I would be able to practice my profession in peace,” wrote Baruch Milch.*

The accounts, however, did not indicate the scale of this phenomenon, only laconically stating that such actions were mostly taken by the youth and the poor. There was no mention of the attitudes and behaviour of representatives of other nationalities. Nor did the reports capture the wider context of this enthusiasm, resulting largely from the relief at the withdrawal of German troops in September 1939. Nevertheless, this subjective feeling that Jews were “traitors” was shared by a considerable part of the Polish society and influenced the relations between the two groups in the following months of the war, especially after the beginning of the German occupation of these lands.

German occupation of the Eastern Borderlands (1941–1943): crimes of the Einsatzgruppen, pogroms perpetrated by the local population, ghettos, and forced labour camps

“The Soviets left on the night of 29/30 June 1941 and three days later the Hungarians entered. The Hungarian troops had not yet reached the city when the windows of Jewish homes were already being smashed. Nobody went out into the streets. The looting of flats and houses began. […] All night long one could hear the howling of the frenzied mob and the rifle shots of the Ukrainian civic militia, which was shooting into the sky and directly inspired the events. The following day, the more serious Ukrainian citizens were ashamed of these riots, but what is done is done. Another interesting thing – Poles also took part in the riots. They, too, were apparently incited by someone, or perhaps it was a remnant of the agitation of the old Poland, embodied by Mrs Prystorowa and Father Trzeciak. […] Some of the men were herded into the former Piłsudski Square (then Lenin Square), and others to the municipal park. A statue of Lenin stood on the square. Ropes were put on the monument and the Jews were given the ends and ordered to pull it down. They were beaten with ropes, sticks, whips, and cats o' nine tails,” wrote Marceli Najder about the invasion of Kolomyia.*

On 22 June 1941, the Third Reich launched an unexpected attack on the USSR under the code name Operation Barbarossa (German: Unternehmen Barbarossa). The balance of power changed, as did the situation of the Jewish population in the Borderlands, which until then had been occupied by the Soviet Union. In the following months, the area came under the control of the Third Reich and became subject to German legislation. In the summer of 1941, following the outbreak of the German-Soviet war, Lithuania fell into the German sphere of influence and was incorporated into the Reichskommissariat Ostland as Generalbezirk Litauen with its capital in Kaunas. The territories of occupied Ukraine remained under German military administration after June 1941 and became part of the Reichskommissariat Ukraine; Eastern Galicia with Lviv was incorporated into the General Government as the fifth district.

In the summer of 1941, the German army was followed by four main units of the so-called Einsatzgruppen, i.e. special mobile squads subordinate to particular units of the Wehrmacht. Their main task was the mass killing of “professional workers of the political apparatus of the VKP(b), party and trade union activists, political officers of the Soviet Army, leading officials of state administration, leading figures of economic life, Soviet intellectuals, Jews, and all agitators or fanatical communists.”

Above (⇧) is a map of Einsatzgruppen movements from summer 1941. Fig. POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews (the map is presented in the core exhibition). Click to enlarge the map and see details 🔎

The Einsatzgruppen officers travelled from town to town and carried out systematic executions of Jewish people. They were aided by local Lithuanian or Ukrainian police units and other paramilitary formations. The Jewish victims were usually ordered to dig pits and undress, after which they were murdered indiscriminately, regardless of age or gender. The executioners and the victims would stand facing each other. The local non-Jewish population often witnessed the Germans rushing the Jews to the execution site. The event which came to symbolise this phase of the Holocaust was the Babi Yar massacre in Ukraine, with some 33,000 Jews killed over the course of two days. It is estimated that the Einsatzgruppen were responsible for the death of nearly 1.5 million Jews from an area spanning from the Baltic States to Romania, including a significant number of Jews from the Borderlands. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1941, Jews were brutally persecuted by the occupying forces, but they also fell victim to pogroms carried out by sections of the local population: Polish, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, and Belarusian. July 1941 saw anti-Jewish pogroms taking place in the Łomża Land (e.g. in Jedwabne, Wąsosz, Radziłów) and in other areas.

“It was resolved to gather all the Jews in one place and incinerate them […]. The whole town was surrounded, the rabbi and the butcher were put at the head, a red banner pushed into their hands, and they were all rushed to the barn, accompanied by chanting. They were beaten on the way there and pushed into the barn one by one. The murderers then doused the barn with petrol and set it on fire,” said Szmul Wassersztejn* in his account of the pogrom in Jedwabne.*

The most tragic pogrom took place in Lviv in the summer of 1941 (from 30 June to 2 July and from 25 to 27 July). It was partly incited by the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), which was hoping that the Germans would allow them to create an independent Ukrainian state. Smaller of larger groups of the local civilian population voluntarily participated in pogroms. They were motivated by various factors. Contemporary research does not provide clear answers as to which pogroms and other anti-Jewish incidents were inspired by the Germans, which were the result of events taking place in neighbouring towns, and which were carried out on the initiative of local residents. Even in the cases where pogroms were instigated by external forces, it is impossible to rule out additional internal motivations within local communities or the participation of anti-Semitic individuals and people seeking material gains or acting on other grounds.

“I was pushed and poked in the direction of the barracks […]. I was surrounded by wild shouts and screams, someone grabbed me by the hair, I was thrown like a ball from hand to hand, I got to the barracks gate. I remembered the stories from the times of the Khmelnitsky pogroms and then I understood that that day we were the victims of such a pogrom […]. Fainting women and old people lying on the ground almost lifeless were battered with truncheons, kicked, and dragged along the ground,” Rózia Basseches-Wagnerowa* recounted the pogrom in Lviv.*

Above (⇧) is a map of pogroms carried out by local population in the summer of 1941. Fig. POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews (the map is presented in the core exhibition). Click to enlarge the map and see details 🔎

The summer of 1941 saw the first ghettos established in the German-occupied eastern territories. Their prisoners were Jews who had not fallen victim to the Einsatzgruppen. One of the largest so-called closed quarters was the Lviv ghetto, established in the autumn of 1941 and holding a population of ca. 135,000 Jews. The area occupied by the ghetto had earlier been inhabited by some 20,000–25,000 people; on average, there were ca. 2 m2 of living space per person. Ghettos were also established in Vilnius (ca. 35,000 inhabitants), Stanislaviv (now Ivano-Frankivsk), Zolochiv, and in smaller towns. Such quarters were often severely overcrowded and undersupplied. They served to concentrate the Jewish population before further deportations. Ghetto prisoners were denied freedom of movement and their property was confiscated. They were also ordered to wear patches with the Star of David on their clothing. In some areas, their homes were marked. Forced labour regime was introduced in the ghettos.

Since 1942, portions of the Jewish population, including ghetto residents, were deported to extermination sites, such as Bełżec and Sobibór. By the autumn of 1943, most of the ghettos had been dissolved in the so-called liquidation actions. Their inhabitants were shot on the spot, and those still able to work were confined in concentration camps and forced labour camps.

Holocaust in the Eastern Borderlands: Jewish survival strategies and attitudes of Poles and other nationalities towards Jews

“It was easier under the Soviets. We would grind grain in the mill, but under the Germans we were no longer allowed to use grain, and we had to [grind it] in hiding. The conditions were difficult, because we had nothing. We had roasted barley instead of coffee. We had sugar beet syrup instead of sugar. It was difficult for all of us. I remember how my father used to take me with him when we wanted to grind some flour on the quern […]. I didn’t like it very much, because it was hard for me. I was ten or eleven years old,” Władysław Hosticzko recalls in an interview with POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. His parents, Józef and Helena née Seredzińska, rescued their Jewish acquaintance, Edwara Finkielgluz. The woman hid in their house in Palche near Rivne from January to July 1943, when the Volhynia Massacre began.

In the face of the overwhelming Holocaust, the Jews in the Eastern Borderlands – as their co-religionists in the General Government – adopted various “survival strategies.” Some tried to find shelter on their own, for example by setting up hideouts in the forests, while others tried to survive “on the surface,” concealing their identity. Some Jews benefited from individual help, hiding in cities, towns, and in the countryside. Religious institutions of various denominations also provided help to the Jewish people. A branch of the “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews operated in Lviv, but its structures were not sufficiently developed. In some parts of the Borderlands, Jews were also involved in partisan activities.

The “survival strategies” adopted by Jews also depended on their relations with other nationalities living in the same area. The reactions of the local population to the Holocaust taking place before their very eyes were often varied. Some remained passive in the face of the crime, while others, not only police units and auxiliary formations, collaborated with the Germans and took an active part in denouncing and murdering Jews. Initially, Jewish people were persecuted under the pretext of being communists or Soviet officials, but with time the repressions became more openly anti-Semitic. Nonetheless, there were also people who decided to help the Jews even though any such efforts were severely punished by the Germans, often with death. The Germans also used the local population to cover up traces of their crimes, for example ordering them to bury corpses.

“I left for Lviv, where my husband had been given shelter by a caretaker in a monastery together with three other people. This caretaker had spread a rumour that my husband had been shot to cover his traces. Once in Lviv, I managed to discover his whereabouts. I wanted to bring the children there, but my husband was afraid that it would jeopardise the other hiding people. We lived in terrible conditions. The attic was hot and stuffy, almost unbearable. […] We lived in the attic for seven months and throughout that time our men were digging a shelter under the floor of the coach house. The nuns knew nothing about it, in any case they would never have guessed that Jews were hiding inside the monastery walls,” Róża Hochberg wrote about the hiding of Jews by Franciszek Rzottky.

It has proven impossible to accurately define the extent and scale of aid given to Jews by Poles in the Eastern Borderlands. Neither is there any exact information available on the number of people who survived thanks to such initiatives. In terms of verified cases, by 2020 more than 1,300 Poles, former residents of the Borderlands, had been bestowed the title of Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem.

Overview of the Holocaust in the Eastern Borderlands: how many Jews died, how many survived?

“Acts of murder and rape were perpetrated by Lithuanians […]. A special execution corps was formed, voluntary, composed exclusively of Lithuanians. The executions took place in Ponary, in a forest where the Bolsheviks had dug a huge pit for military purposes. The area is surrounded with barbed wire, inside which the Jews, stripped of everything and naked, spent their last moments. They were lined up in rows, their hands were tied and they were shot […]. The pit was then filled with lime,” this is how an unidentified employee of the Judenrat in Vilnius described the mass murder in Ponary.*

Józef Mackiewicz wrote*: “Thousands of Jews were taken to Ponary in lorries, and then in whole railway transports, and killed. The hills echoed with single shots, short, interrupted, dense, sometimes lasting many hours, or alternately the rattling of machine guns, forming a kilometres-long circle of sound.”

By the end of 1941, some 130,000 local Jews had been executed by the Germans, aided by the Lithuanian police and auxiliary police battalions. It is estimated that ca. 9,000 Lithuanian Jews survived the war. By the autumn of 1943, the Einsatzgruppen, the German army and the Ukrainian auxiliary police had murdered most of the Jewish population of Ukraine. About 345,000 people, mainly Galician Jews, were deported and killed in German extermination camps in the General Government, mainly Bełżec and Sobibór. The process of the extermination of Jews in the District of Galicia is described in a report drawn up by senior SS and police officer Friedrich Katzmann. It is estimated that between 20,000 and 26,000 Jews survived in Eastern Galicia and about 5,000 in Volhynia. Some of the Jews given shelter by Poles fell victim to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) during the Volhynia Massacre and in the ethnic cleansing of Poles in Eastern Galicia perpetrated by the same organisation. 

Several hundred thousand Jews made their way deep into the Soviet Union and remained there until the end of the war. An unspecified number of Jews from the Eastern Borderlands survived in German labour and concentration camps, some joined local partisan units, others were rescued and given individual help. However, the overwhelming majority of the pre-war Jewish inhabitants of the Borderlands had been murdered by the end of 1943.

* * *

In January 1944, the Red Army entered the territory of pre-war Poland and was steadily advancing westward, driving out the German troops with the support of units of the Polish People’s Army. The first testimonies of liberated Polish Jews who had survived in hiding started to come from the Eastern Borderlands. At the conferences in Yalta and Potsdam in 1945, Europe was partitioned by the leaders of the “Big Three” – the Soviet Union, the United States, and Great Britain. Poland found itself in the Soviet sphere of influence. It lost its eastern territories and gained post-German territories in the west and north. The changes in state borders led to mass migrations of the local population – either voluntary or forced – including Polish Jews from the Borderlands.

Dr. Martyna Grądzka-Rejak, ed. Mateusz Szczepaniak, June 2021

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