On this day in 1941, men of the German Wehrmacht (regular army) massacred 15,000 Jewish people in Drobitsky Yar, a ravine on the outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine. Although the circumstances of the massacre are not completely clear, the general historical consensus is that Wehrmacht units invading Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union) called the Jewish citizens of Kharkiv out into the streets, rounded them up and herded them into the ravine to be shot. The children were buried alive amongst the adults in the hopes they would freeze to death (and to save bullets) in the -15 C cold. According to some sources – notably Soviet journalist Vasily Grossman – some Ukrainians aided the Wehrmacht in identifying and killing their Jewish neighbours.
The Drobitsky Yar massacre was a part of the Holocaust. Historian Antony Beevor refers to two parts of the German attempt to eradicate European Jews: the “Shoah by gas” (undertaken in Auschwitz and other concentration camps) and the “Shoah by bullets” – a much broader and more disorganized expression of hatred that began well before the infamous 1942 Wannsee Conference and Hitler’s decision to begin gassing European Jews. The most horrific and surprising element of the Drobitsky Yar massacre is that the killings were not carried out by ultra-fascist members of the Schutzstaffel (SS) – ordinary German soldiers took part. Events like this shatter the misconception that ordinary, “non-radicalized” Germans did not take part in, or were unaware of, the events of the broader Holocaust. One of the most significant things Hitler accomplished was normalizing violence and instilling a rigid command structure that enabled ordinary German soldiers to say, “I was just following orders. If not me, then someone else.” Additionally, German propaganda regarding Slavs and Jews ensured that Wehrmacht soldiers invading the Soviet Union were constantly afraid of the populace they were attacking, and therefore much more likely to commit atrocities against them.
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