A new online exhibition commemorating 80 years since the beginning of the large-scale mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust has been created by Yad Vashem ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The exhibition, entitled “The Onset of Mass Murder – The Fate of Jewish Families in 1941,” highlights the stories of 12 Jewish families who were caught in the fury of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa in June 1941.
Following this invasion, mass shootings committed by the Einsatzgruppen, other German soldiers and police forces and local collaborators began across Eastern Europe and continued into 1943, during which some 1.5 million Jews were murdered.
Jews were also murdered in similar operations in German-occupied Yugoslav territory and by the Antonescu regime on Romanian-occupied land.
The new exhibition tells the stories of Jewish families in the wake of Operation Barbarossa and their ultimate fate in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Eastern Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania and Yugoslavia.
Personal letters, works of art, photographs, documents, testimonies and Pages of Testimony submitted to Yad Vashem are used in the 12 entries to portray the families who lived through these times and describe what happened to them.
One family highlighted is the Bernsteins from Lithuania.
Eta and Jacob Meir Bernstein, who lived in the town of Ylakiai in northwest Lithuania, had seven children. One of them, Ida, immigrated to Mandatory Palestine in 1933, and another, Rivka, married and moved to western Lithuania.
The town, which had a population of about 1,000 Jews, came under Soviet rule in 1940. It was occupied by Nazi forces soon after June 22, 1941, when Germany embarked upon Operation Barbarossa and the invasion of the Soviet Union.
Eta, Jacob, four of their children and some 300 other Jews in Ylakiai were shot and murdered by Lithuanians shortly after the Nazis reached the town.
Rivka was in the city of Reseiniai when the Nazis occupied Lithuania. Her husband, Shmuel, fled east and enlisted in the Soviet Red Amy, but Rivka remained behind since she was pregnant.
She managed to evade several Nazi campaigns in which Jews were shot outside the city in August and September 1941 but was eventually caught and sent to the Kovno Ghetto.
While there, she gave birth to a daughter, Rina, in February 1942 and after trying for months, found a Lithuanian non-Jew living outside of the ghetto to take her baby and care for her.
Rivka was murdered by the Nazis at the Ninth Fort, a mass-murder site, but Rina was well cared for by the woman, Anele Glaveckienė, who reunited Rina after the war with her father, Shmuel, who survived.
Glaveckienė was later recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations for her care for Rina.
Rina remained in Lithuania after the war, married and had two daughters, Rivka and Renata, who were born in Vilna.
In 1989, Rina and her family immigrated to the US.
Much of the testimony from these families demonstrated how suddenly millions of Jews were caught in the Nazi onslaught and how quickly their fate was sealed, said Yona Kobo, Yad Vashem’s online exhibitions coordinator and the researcher and curator of the new exhibition.
Letters, diary entries and other evidence showed that the Jewish communities trapped by the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union demonstrated how they had no idea of the danger they were in, she said.
“No one could have imaged this is what would happen,” Kobo said. “It was so sudden they had no time to leave, and their fate was sealed. Within a few days entire communities were gone.”
Illustrating this point is a letter sent in May 1941, just weeks before the Nazi invasion, by Eta and Jacob Bernstein to their daughter Ida in Tel Aviv. They expressed their concern for the safety of Ida, while her sister wrote of how pleasant things were in their hometown.
“Operation Barbarossa was a significant turning point,” Kobo said. “Until then, the anti-Jewish steps were mostly putting Jews into ghettos and concentration camps, but the invasion brought about first mass murder and then deportation to concentration camps. They murdered first men and then soon all the women, children and babies. We wanted to give these 1.5 million a name, a face and a story to personalize what happened to them.”
To access the online exhibit, click here.