Just because an episode in history took place long ago does not mean that we stop asking questions about it, about whose stories are told as we remember, and about what our assumptions about history mean for our lives today.
We must continue to ask questions about the past, even when doing so—especially when doing so—challenges our understanding of how something unfolded.
In my own work as a historian and author of several books on Russian history, I like to ask questions that complicate the narratives commonly told. This has included difficult moments in history such as the Holocaust. When most people think about the Holocaust, they think about the persecution and killing that took place in countries like Germany, Austria, and Poland where Jewish families were rounded up and taken to killing centers. Less often told is the story of the Holocaust in German-occupied Soviet territories—places like Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, Belorussia, and Russia itself.
Here, on the Eastern Front, Nazis murdered nearly a million Jews in the months following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. And by the time the Red Army pushed the Germans out altogether in 1944, the Nazis had succeeded in murdering around 2.5 million Jews in German-occupied Soviet territory. Decades later, we are still learning details about how the Nazis carried out mass murder in these territories—and what was required to stop them.
What follows is a look at one story from that time. In it we meet Red Army soldiers who stumble upon what turns out to be a death camp and we see the reaction that followed when news began to trickle out about the mass murder taking place on the Eastern Front.
By the summer of 1944, Red Army troops had driven the Germans out of Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, and the Baltic region. As they advanced, they came across grim evidence of mass violence, finding pits and ditches in places where the Nazis and their collaborators had carried out open air massacres, filled with the corpses of men, women, and children.
On July 23, 1944, Red Army soldiers entered the city of Lublin in eastern Poland. Unbeknownst to them, they would soon be liberating Majdanek, the very first functioning Nazi death camp the Allies discovered. When the soldiers came upon the camp, they initially could not make sense of what they saw. They noted the high walls and the large gate, the smokestacks and the barracks, and figured it was some kind of factory or industrial plant, something significant enough to warrant inspection.
Among the soldiers who entered the camp that day was Bernhard Storch, a young, battle-weary, Jewish member of the Red Army. While walking through the camp, Storch and a few of his fellow soldiers opened the doors to what they later learned was a gas chamber. At first, they did not understand what they were seeing. An officer explained what it was and how it operated. The group later came across a nearby crematorium, still warm from recent use.
With the Red Army in control of Eastern Poland, Soviet journalists, including the war correspondent Konstantin Simonov, were flown into Lublin to write about Majdanek. Simonov was the first reporter to describe a gas chamber. His articles appeared in a long, three-part series in Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), the newspaper of the Red Army, on August 10, 11, and 12, 1944.
In his article "The Death Factory Near Lublin," Simonov wrote about canisters of Zyklon gas and warehouses overflowing with enormous piles of shoes on the grounds of the camp. He imagined the agony of the victims and wrote of a room in the camp offices, "its floor literally carpeted with documents, identification papers and passports belonging to the victims." He picked up papers at random that once belonged to a range of people, including children and the elderly, and mentioned that "an immense number of Jews [were] brought to the camp to be exterminated from literally every country in Europe, from Poland to Holland."
From the outset, Simonov made clear that what he witnessed was only a small piece of the horror that had taken place.
"At some period in the future, after thorough and painstaking inquiry, the full immensity of the crime against humanity committed here by the Germans will come to light. I myself am at present in possession of only a fraction of the facts," he wrote. "I have spoken to perhaps only one-hundredth of the witnesses, and have seen maybe only one-tenth of the traces."
Despite the vivid reporting of journalists like Simonov, skepticism about reports of such mass killing was common. Even the most well-intentioned people did not grasp the full magnitude of what the Nazis were doing. William H. Lawrence was based in Moscow for the New York Times that August. He went to Majdanek and reported on what he saw on the front page of the Times on August 30. The very next day, the newspaper felt the need to issue an editorial confirming Lawrence as "a thorough and accurate correspondent," knowing that many of its readers needed reassurance that he was a reliable witness. Why the skepticism? For many readers, the scale was just too horrifying-the idea of mass extermination with industrial methods for murder too daunting to grasp.
Following the Red Army's liberation of Majdanek, and then later of Auschwitz in January 1945, the Western Allies liberated camps in the German interior, including Buchenwald, Dachau, and Mauthausen. Once they entered camps like these, Red Army units and the Western Allies not only provided food and medical support to the surviving prisoners but also gathered evidence for the war crimes trials that followed at Nuremberg between 1945 and 1948. This was a crucial step in the process of holding the Germans accountable for their crimes against humanity.
The Nazis murdered Jews across the European continent. In Western and Central Europe, they brought the victims to the killers, to extermination camps in Poland. On the Eastern Front, though, the killers descended on the victims, carrying out open air massacres and deploying mobile gas vans throughout vast stretches of Soviet territory. This was an active front as the Red Army and partisan units fought back against the Germans. Regrettably, Cold War realities made it difficult for Western scholars to document the magnitude of the Holocaust in German-occupied Soviet territory. But the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ability of survivors to share their stories now provide us with vivid and horrific details of what took place.
Help your students understand this challenging history with our seminal case study, Holocaust and Human Behavior. It uses our unique methodology to lead students through an examination of the history of the Holocaust, while fostering their skills in ethical reasoning, critical thinking, empathy, and civic engagement.