Mass Murder at Kamianets-Podilskyi

Mass Murder at Kamianets-Podilskyi

Jews marched out of Kamianets-Podilskyi on their way to be murdered

Overshadowed by the massacres at Babi Yar near Kiev and Rumbula near Riga, the mass murder of Jews at Kamianets-Podilskyi is less well-known in Holocaust history. Yet, it remains one of the largest single actions carried out by the infamous Einsatzgruppen during their murderous operations in eastern Europe. In just two days, the Nazi killing squads executed over 23,600 men, women and children in cold blood.

Kamianets-Podilskyi (also spelt Kam’yanets’-Podil’s’kyy, Kamenets- Podolskii or Kamenets-Podolsk) was a Soviet city in south-western Ukraine. Following the launch of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, it was occupied by Wehrmacht forces on 11 July 1941. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, the Jewish population of the city had stood at around 13,800, and although some had fled prior to the arrival of the Germans, the majority remained. The number of Jews in Kamianets-Podilskyi, however, would dramatically increase within just a few weeks.

Hungary, allied with Germany, took steps to deport foreign Jews from the country in late June. Most of these Jews were from Poland or Russia, although some were also refugees who had more recently arrived from western Europe. Others living in Carpathian Ruthenia (also referred to as Transcarpathian), a region in eastern Czechoslovakia that had been occupied and annexed by Hungary in late 1939, were also to be included. In addition, Jews living in Hungary who were unable to prove their Hungarian citizenship would likewise face deportation.

Jews who were deported from Hungary in August 1941

Thus, by 10 August 1941 around 14,000 Jews had been loaded aboard freight cars and transported by rail to Kőrösmező near the pre-war Hungarian-Polish border. From here they crossed the border and were handed to the Germans. Later that month, a further 4,000 were similarly deported. Assembled at Kolomyja, these unfortunate Jews were then forced-marched to Kamianets-Podilskyi, where they joined the local Jews held in the city’s ghetto. All were unaware of their impending fate.

The Germans planned to murder most of the Jews in the Kamianets-Podilskyi ghetto, although some would be temporarily spared death in order to be used as a source of forced-labour. The killings would be organised by SS-Obergruppenführer Friedrich Jeckeln, the Higher SS and Police Leader (Höherer SS-und Polizeiführer or HSSPF) for the region, an Aktion he wanted completed before the region was transferred to a civil administration in September. On 25 August, the Jews deported from Hungary were instructed to make ready for transportation back to Hungary, an outright lie designed to ensure their cooperation. The local Jews, meanwhile, were told to pay 200,000 rubles in exchange of their own lives. Another lie.

On the 26th, the Hungarian Jews were assembled in Central Square and taken to the Cossack barracks near the local train station. Waiting for them were men of Jeckeln’s military staff command (Stabskompanie) HSSPF Russland Süd, Police Battalion 320, commanded by Polizeimajor Dall, and the Ukrainische Hilfspolizei (local Ukrainian auxiliary police.) It is also alleged that members of the Hungarian army were likewise present during the killings. The Jews were then shot in killing pits dug near to the Cossack barracks. The following day, around 7,000 local Jews were assemblesd in the ghetto, from where they were marched to the pits and likewise murdered.

Jews leaving Kamianets-Podilskyi shortly before their murder

Witness to the killings was Ksenia Prodanchuk, a non-Jewish local resident of Kamianets-Podilskyi: ‘In 1941 … I do not remember the exact date, but it was on a Wednesday morning, Germans from the killing unit were taking a group of 8,000 defenceless Hungarians [Jews], who came to us in Kamenets-Podolsk from Hungary. They walked in rows of four and had their children with them or carried them in their arms, heading toward the road to Dunaevtsy. These Hungarians were surrounded by a German killing unit. Soon afterwards I heard shots from automatic weapons and terrible, penetrating cries of the people that was like an inhuman roar. I did not see how the Hungarians were shot.’

Prodanchuk also described the second day of the killings, during which his curiosity to see what was going on first-hand got the better of him: ‘Thursday, once again a crowd of 18,000 peaceful inhabitants of Kamenets-Podolsk was passing our house in the direction of the road to Dunaevtsy. Among them I saw a neighbour who used to live in the same courtyard as I did, a certain Mrs. Shvartsman, her husband, their daughters Liza and Basya, and their relatives, who went arm-in-arm, silently, without uttering a sound, their heads lowered toward the ground … The old people who could not move and lagged behind were beaten to death by Germans, afterwards they were picked up by carts that followed, loading 20-30 people into each cart and transporting them, as I know, to the shooting site. I could not believe that the German monsters would shoot the civilian population, but was soon convinced that they could. Together with my neighbour, Sonia Kotlyamchuk, I hid behind the moving population and ran in the direction of Dembitsky village; we both stayed hidden in the bushes. Although this was far away, I could see how the children, women, and men were forced to undress and to jump into the grave in groups of 10. Some of them resisted since they did not want to undress. They were beaten with rifle butts, stabbed with bayonets and, dragged by their legs and arms, were pulled to the grave. The babies were snatched away from their mothers and stabbed with bayonets.’

SS-Obergruppenführer Friedrich Jeckeln, who organised the massacre at Kamianets-Podilskyi

Another witness was Ivan Chaykovskiy, a member of the Ukrainische Hilfspolizei: ‘All the “schutzmanner” [Ukrainian auxiliary police] who had arrived were placed in a cordon around the Jews to guard them and, under no circumstances, allow them to get away. We were armed with rifles. At that time the people we were guarding were forced to undress and were taken by Germans, in groups of 5-6, to a grave where two German accomplices shot them. In this way all of the people taken there were shot. Subsequently, the grave was covered by [local] people mobilized for this task and we returned to the city. The Germans took for themselves the possessions of the people who were shot.’

Klara Moskal, a Jew, incredibly survived the murders by convincing the killers she wasn’t Jewish: ‘When we were close to the pit, the Germans ordered us to undress. At some distance from the grave they ordered us to leave our shoes, as well as money, gold, and other valuables … With every minute the line got closer to the grave, accompanied by cries and by terror. Germans silenced the cries by [hitting people on the head] with their rifle butts. The abuse of the young boys and girls cannot be imagined. The Germans shouted “komsomoltsy” [Young Communists] and split their heads open with their rifle butts … When I saw such brutalities, I didn’t want to suffer them so I approached the grave on my own. When one henchman saw that I was going to the grave on my own, he approached me and hit my shoulder with his rifle but I raised my hand against him. At this time a translator approached and started to ask me what the matter was. I answered that my father was a Russian and that our house had been destroyed by a bomb and we did not have time to reach the New Town, and that I become mixed with the group of Jews when I was standing in the bread line. I asked the approaching German commandant to let me and my mother go since we were Russian. The commandant believed me and let me go, telling me to go over to a car … Standing on the car’s footboard, I saw a grave across which planks had been laid, and the Germans standing around. The people approaching the grave were forced by the Germans to run along the planks; they were beaten with sticks and rifle butts and fell alive into the grave.’

Men of the Ukrainische Hilfspolizei (Ukrainian Auxiliary Police)

The brutal killings at Kamianets-Podilskyi was the first large-scale act of mass murder of Jews following the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The 23,600 victims of 27/28 August 1941 would be followed by others over the coming months. In the summer of 1942, 800 Jewish children and elderly were similarly shot, and on 30 October another 4,000 from the ghetto would also be murdered. Even into 1943, Jews were brought to Kamianets-Podilskyi from the surrounding area and executed, many of them having previously escaped from the ghetto. In all, it is believed around 30,000 Jews were murdered near the city before its liberation by the Soviets on 27 March 1944.