The Forgotten Holocaust – Western Ukraine and the Shoah Foundation

The University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation has become one of the leading research institutes in gathering video testimonies and conducting scholarly research concerning the Holocaust.  Most of the testimonies come from Jewish survivors, but there are many others, such as homosexual survivors, Jehovah’s Witness survivors, Sinti (Gypsy) survivors and war crimes trials participants, rescuers and political prisoners.

It has a particular expertise concerning the Holocaust in the Ukraine, but has done research on a number of other such occurrences, such as the Nanjing Massacre and the Rwandan Tutsi genocide.  Steven Spielberg established the Foundation in 1994 as a legacy to his film, Schindler’s List.

A notable project that is currently under development is a new book by a scholar-in-residence, Dr. Jared McBride.  Dr. McBride’s research focuses on the complexities of the various entities implicated in the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing and partisan violence which occurred in the western Ukraine in 1941 at the time of Nazi Germany’s invasion.

The extensive video archive has resulted in a much more textured and sophisticated analysis of what occurred during this period.  It pieces together a historic account that challenges the typical good-versus-evil narrative.

For western Ukraine, the Holocaust occurred way before Hitler’s much better known Final Solution.  Prior to Hitler launching Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941 which started the Eastern Front of World War II, the Soviet Union’s NKVD was active in imprisoning and killing Ukrainian nationalists.  Many such nationalists had found refuge in Nazi-occupied Europe.

With the collapse of Soviet authority, some Ukrainian nationalists sought revenge and lead pogroms against Jews.

Under German occupation, local mayors and administrators co-operated in administering the German exploitation of Ukrainian resources as well as in Nazi plans to commit genocide and ethnic cleansing against Jews.  Some 1.5 million Jews perished in this area in the early 1940’s.

The benefit of the additional evidential material is that if focuses less on government records and more on various types of eye witnesses.  To manage the logistics of such an enormous holocaust, more individuals are implicated than is commonly understood even if simply as witnesses.

For example, there are accounts from those who have given indirect evidence, such as children who could see Jews assembled and walking down the street towards their death.  Alternatively, direct witnesses have provided testimony based on what they have seen as they stood around the area and observed the killings, the USC Shoah Foundation reports.

There were many people that were required by the authorities to carry out duties. These included grave diggers, transporting prisoners, gathering and sorting personal effects, sowing and repairing confiscated clothing and many other duties that bear witness in new and vivid detail.

These events have been referred to as the “Forgotten Holocaust” as it has received much less attention than other aspects of the Nazi’s Final Solution.  The difficulty of conducting research during the Iron Curtain period has also complicated this project.

As more of the material that the Foundation has collected becomes available for research, this story is finally being told with the vigor and detail it deserves.

With the ongoing challenges in the Ukraine in its conflict with Russia and outpouring of Ukrainian nationalism, there is still much controversy concerning the explanation of this difficult history, which is making the work of the USC Shoah Foundation all the more critical.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE