Reading 2

Mobile Killing Units

The German war for “race and space” intensified in 1941 after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, breaking the nonaggression pact between the two countries (see reading, The Invasion of the Soviet Union). Nearly 4 million German soldiers advanced through Soviet-occupied territory from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and into the Soviet Union itself. The German army was followed by Einsatzgruppen A, B, C, and D—four special mobile killing units, each made up of about a thousand men from the security police and the German intelligence service. 

In a document issued on July 2, 1941, Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the security police, instructed the Einsatzgruppen units to execute Communist officials, Jews employed by the Soviet government, and “other radical elements (saboteurs, propagandists, snipers, assassins, inciters, etc.).”1 Historian Richard Evans notes that despite these official instructions, “German forces treated all Jewish men as Communists, partisans, saboteurs, looters, dangerous members of the intelligentsia, or merely ‘suspicious elements’, and acted accordingly.”2 By late July, mass murders by Einsatzgruppen had expanded to include thousands of Jewish women and children.3

When possible, Einsatzgruppen leaders attempted to incite pogroms—organized massacres of Jews—by local communities in the Baltic states so that widespread murders of Jews could be blamed on the local populations instead of German units. Existing antisemitism among Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians was exacerbated by the belief of many who had been persecuted during the Soviet occupation that Jews had supported the Soviets. Even when the Nazis failed to incite pogroms, they often tried to make it appear as if the murders of Jews were the result of spontaneous uprisings by local people.4


A member of Einsatzgruppe D, a mobile killing unit, about to shoot a man kneeling by a mass grave in Vinnytsia, Ukraine, in 1942.

Lithuanian physician Y. Kutorgene, who was not Jewish, witnessed the German invasion of the Baltic nations. She wrote in her diary, “Thousands of people humiliated, without any protection, worse than animals, and that because they have ‘other blood.’” On October 30, 1941, Dr. Kutorgene wrote about what had happened in Kovno the previous day:

On [October 29] there was an announcement that everybody [every Jew] must come at six in the morning to the big square in the ghetto and line up in rows, except workers with the documents which were recently distributed to specialists and foremen. . . . The square was surrounded by guards with machine guns. It was freezing. The people stood on their feet all through that long day, hungry and with empty hands. Small children cried in their mothers’ arms. Nobody suspected the bitter fate that awaited them. They thought that they were being moved to other apartments. . . . [There] was a rumor that at the Ninth Fort . . . prisoners had been digging deep ditches, and when the people were taken there, it was already clear to everybody that this was death. They broke out crying, wailed, screamed. Some tried to escape on the way there but they were shot dead. . . . At the Fort the condemned were stripped of their clothes, and in groups of 300 they were forced into the ditches. First they threw in the children. The women were shot at the edge of the ditch, after that it was the turn of the men. . . . All the men doing the shooting were drunk. I was told all this by an acquaintance who heard it from a German soldier, an eyewitness, who wrote to his Catholic wife: “Yesterday I became convinced that there is no God. If there were, He would not allow such things to happen.”5

Mass shootings like the one the doctor described took place throughout the territory Germany conquered from the Soviet Union. Although she did not know it, the largest massacre had already occurred at Babi Yar, a ravine two miles from the center of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, on September 29, 1941—just a month earlier. A few days after the Germans captured Kiev, they ordered that all Jews gather near the Jewish cemetery and warned that “failure to appear is punishable by death.” Fritz Hoefer, a German who later testified at the Einsatzgruppen war crimes trials, described what happened next:

One day I was ordered to drive my truck out of town. I had a Ukrainian with me. . . . On our way, we passed Jews marching in columns in the same direction we were going. They were carrying their belongings. There were whole families. The farther we drove away from the town, the more people we saw in the columns. There were piles of clothes in a wide open field. My job was to fetch them.

I stopped the engine nearby, and the Ukrainians standing around started loading the car with this stuff. From where I was, I saw other Ukrainians meeting the Jews who arrived, men, women and children, and directing them to the place where, one after another, they were supposed to remove their belongings, coats, shoes, outer garments and even their underwear.

. . . Everything happened very quickly. . . .

I did not watch for long. When I approached the edge, I was so frightened of what I saw that I could not look at it for a long time. . . .

Apart from . . . two machine gunners, there were two other [policemen] standing near each passage into the ravine. They made each victim lie down on the corpses, so that the machine gunner could shoot while he walked by. When victims descended into the ravine and saw this terrible scene at the last moment, they let out a cry of terror. But they were grabbed by the waiting [police] right away and hurled down onto the others. . . .

The Ukrainians paid no attention to the noise and just kept forcing people through the passages into the ravine.6

The German executioners reported to officials in Berlin that they had “liquidated”—murdered—33,771 children, women, and men at Babi Yar in two days (September 29 and 30, 1941). In the months that followed, the Germans killed thousands more there, including not only Jews but also Roma, Communists, and Soviet prisoners of war. The total number buried there will never be known, but estimates range as high as 100,000.7


  • 1 : Yitzhak Arad, Yisrael Gutman, and Abraham Margaliot, eds., Documents on the Holocaust: Selected Sources on the Destruction of the Jews of Germany and Austria, Poland, and the Soviet Union (Jerusalem and Oxford: Yad Vashem and Pergamon Press, 1987), 376–78.
  • 2 : Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich at War (New York: Penguin Press, 2009), 219.
  • 3 : Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich at War (New York: Penguin Press, 2009), 226–27.
  • 4 : Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich at War (New York: Penguin Press, 2009), 218.
  • 5 : Y. Kutorgene, “Kaunaski Dnievnik (Kovno Diary) 1941–1942,” Druzhba Narodov (“Amity of Nations”), VIII, 1968, 210–11, in Yitzhak Arad, Israel Gutman, and Abraham Margaliot, eds., Documents on the Holocaust: Selected Sources on the Destruction of the Jews of Germany and Austria, Poland, and the Soviet Union, trans. Lea Ben Dor (Lincoln and Jerusalem: University of Nebraska Press and Yad Vashem, 1999), 405–06.
  • 6 : “Babi Yar: Witness and Survivor Accounts of the Mass Murder in Kiev,” Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team, last modified 2008, accessed May 16, 2016.
  • 7 : Karel C. Berkhoff, “Babi Yar: Site of Mass Murder, Ravine of Oblivion” lecture, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC, February 9, 2011, last modified 2012, accessed April 22, 2016.

Connection Questions

  1. Who carried out the massacres of Jews described in these sources? What role was played by Germans? By local people? Why did the Germans want to hide their role in inciting these massacres?
  2. How did Dr. Kutorgene find out about the massacre in Kovno? What does this suggest about who knew about such supposedly secret massacres and how people may have learned of them?
  3. What happened at Babi Yar? Who were the victims? Who were the perpetrators? Why might the perpetrators have participated in the horrific murders of so many people?
  4. Accounts like those in this reading are disturbing and painful to read. They prompt us to ask many questions, some of which may be unanswerable. What questions do these accounts raise for you about history and human behavior? 
  5. A German eyewitness to the massacre in Kovno wrote, “Yesterday I became convinced that there is no God. If there were, He would not allow such things to happen.” Why might this event have made people doubt the existence of God?  

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