On Evacuation: Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews: Revised and Definitive Edition, Holmes and Meier, New York, 1985
Of Hilberg's work, his publisher's promotional material states:
This landmark work, now substantially revised and expanded, is destined to remain the foremost source to which
historians and others must turn in any exploration of the most infamous crime in history.|
This definitive edition of THE DESTRUCTION OF THE EUROPEAN JEWS is the most complete,
comprehensive, and authoritative account of the Nazi Holocaust.
As well, this same promotional material cites critical acclaim for Hilberg's work in Michael R. Marrus's review in The Times Literary Supplement which ends in the words:
No single book has contributed more, even to its critics, to an understanding of Nazi genocide. In its originality,
scope, and seriousness of theme, this is one of the great historical works of our time.|
The bulk of Raul Hilberg's presentation indicates that he supports the notion of a massive withdrawal eastward of
Jews from Ukraine prior to the arrival of the Germans. Unfortunately, when it comes to comprehensive statements covering all of Ukraine, Hilberg is unable to supply the exact figures that we are looking for. Starting with the pre-invasion numbers of Jews, Hilberg informs us that:
When the Einsatzgruppen crossed the border into the USSR, five million Jews were living under the Soviet flag.
The majority of the Soviet Jews were concentrated in the western parts of the country. Four million were living in
territories later overrun by the German army.... (p. 291)|
In a table on page 292, Hilberg gives the Jewish population of that portion of Ukraine (using pre-1939 borders)
that ultimately fell under German occupation as 1,533,000. As far as I can see, Hilberg never ventures a figure of
how many of these Ukrainian Jews were evacuated. Hilberg does say that 1.5 million Jews were evacuated from
the "affected territories," but these seem to include the occupied portions of Ukraine, Russia, Crimea, the Baltics,
Poland, Bukovina, and Bessarabia:
About one and a half million Jews living in the affected territories fled before the Germans arrived. (p. 291)|
However, when it comes not to comprehensive figures for all or Ukraine, but rather to events at particular locations within Ukraine, Hilberg provides numerous statements
indicating the existence of a massive evacuation and flight of Jews:
The Einsatzkommandos that moved with the armies farther to the east encountered fewer and fewer Jews. The
victims were thinning out for two reasons. The first was geographic distribution. By October-November 1941, the
largest concentration of Jews had already been left behind. In the eastern Ukraine and beyond the White Russian
areas around Smolensk, the Jewish communities were smaller and more widely dispersed. The second reason was
the decreasing percentage of Jews who stayed behind. With increasing distance from the starting line, the Soviet
evacuation of factory and agricultural workers gained momentum. Many Jews were evacuated, and many others
fled on their own. On September 12, 1941, Einsatzgruppe C reported that "across the lines, rumors appear to have
circulated among the Jews about the fate which they can expect from us...." The Einsatzgruppe which operated in
the central and eastern Ukrainian territories found that many Jewish communities were reduced by 70 to 90
percent and some by 100 percent.|
Such reports began to multiply in the fall. In Melitopol an original Jewish population of 11,000 had dwindled to
2,000 before Einsatzgruppe D arrived. Dnepropetrovsk had a prewar Jewish community of 100,000; about 30,000
remained. In Chernigov, with a prewar Jewish population of 10,000, Sonderkommando 4a found only 309 Jews.
In Mariupol and Taganrog, Einsatzgruppe D encountered no Jews at all. On the road from Smolensk to Moscow,
Einsatzgruppe B reported that in many towns the Soviets had evacuated the entire Jewish population, while in the
frozen areas near Leningrad, Einsatzgruppe A caught only a few strayed Jewish victims. These figures are not an
accurate indication of the number of Jews who succeeded in getting away, for many of the victims fled only a short
distance and — overtaken by the German army — drifted back into the towns. Nevertheless, a comparison of the
original number of Jewish inhabitants with the total number of dead will show that upwards of 1,500,000 Jews did
succeed in eluding the grasp of the mobile killing units. (pp. 294-295).
Let us note, parenthetically, that the last sentence above is not completely logical. That is, to count the number of
dead as 1.5 million does not require any "comparison of the original number of Jewish inhabitants with the total
number of dead." But to continue with Hilberg's acknowledgment of a massive evacuation of Jews from Ukraine:
When Einsatzgruppe C approached the Dnieper, it noted that rumors of killing operations had resulted in mass
flights of Jews. Although the rumors were actually warnings that frustrated the basic strategy of the mobile killing
operations, the Einsatzgruppe went on to say: "Therein may be viewed an indirect success of the work of the
Security Police, for movement ... of hundreds of thousands of Jews free of charge — reportedly most of them go
beyond the Ural — represents a notable contribution of the solution of the Jewish question in Europe." The mass
departure of Jews had lightened the load of the mobile killing units, and the Einsatzgruppen welcomed this
development. (pp. 341-342)|
Contradiction Regarding the Number Evacuated
However, it must be noted that Raul Hilberg appears to contradict himself — sometimes saying that most Jews fled, and yet at other times that most Jews stayed. I include below Hilberg's discussion of reasons why most Jews may have stayed, which discussion does lend the hypothesis some credence:
Most Jews, however, were trapped. (p. 295)|
When we consider that the Jews were not prepared to do battle with the Germans, we might well ask why they did
not flee for their lives. We have mentioned repeatedly that many Jews had been evacuated and that many others
fled on their own, but this fact must not obscure another, no less significant phenomenon: most Jews did not leave.
They stayed. What prompted such a decision? What chained the victims to cities and towns that were already
within marching reach of the approaching German army? People do not voluntarily leave their homes for
uncertain havens unless they are driven by an acute awareness of coming disaster. In the Jewish community that
awareness was blunted and blocked by psychological obstacles.|
The first obstacle to an apprehension of the situation was a conviction that bad things came from Russia and good
things from Germany. The Jews were historically oriented away from Russia and toward Germany. Not Russia
but Germany had been their traditional place of refuge. ...
Another factor that blunted Jewish alertness was the haze with which the Soviet press and radio had shrouded
events across the border. The Jews of Russia were ignorant of the fate that had overtaken the Jews in Nazi Europe.
Soviet information media, in pursuance of a policy of appeasement, had made it their business to keep silent about
Nazi measures of destruction. The consequences of that silence were disastrous. A German intelligence official
reported from White Russia on July 12, 1941:
The Jews are remarkably ill-informed ... about our attitude toward them. They do not know how Jews are treated
in Germany, or for that matter in Warsaw, which after all is not so far away. Otherwise, their questions as to
whether we in Germany make any distinctions between Jews and other citizens would be superfluous. Even if they
do not think that under German administration they will have equal rights with the Russians, they believe,
nevertheless, that we shall leave them in peace if they mind their own business and work diligently.
We see therefore that a large number of Jews had stayed behind not merely because of the physical difficulties of
flight but also, and perhaps primarily, because they had failed to grasp the danger of remaining in their homes.
This means, of course, that precisely those Jews who did not flee were less aware of the disaster and less capable of
dealing with it than those who did. The Jews who fell into German captivity were the vulnerable element of the
Jewish community. They were the old people, the women, and the children. They were the people who at the
decisive moment had failed to listen to Russian warnings and who were now ready to listen to German
reassurances. The remaining Jews were, in short, physically and psychologically immobilized. (pp. 314-316)
How do we reconcile these two positions, both articulated by Hilberg — that most Jews were evacuated or fled, and
yet that most Jews stayed? One path to resolution might be that evacuation rates varied with geography: it may
have been most urban Jews within Ukraine that were evacuated — however, rural Jews, Jews in Poland and the
Baltics, even Jews in Western Ukraine, were less likely to have been evacuated. Also, as Hilberg points out, there
is a difference between being evacuated and fleeing. Being evacuated meant being taken a great distance, usually
described as "beyond the Urals"; fleeing on one's own initiative, however, might mean fleeing a short distance, and
thus is compatible with being captured later. The question of how many were evacuated and how many fled
relying on their own resources thus becomes relevant. Further clarification of this incongruity must await deeper
How Many Jews Were Aware of Danger?
There remains also the further question of just how many Ukrainian
Jews were aware of impending danger from the approaching Germans. Above, Raul Hilberg presents statements
both to the effect that Ukrainian Jews were aware of the danger, and that they were not. For example:
On September 12, 1941, Einsatzgruppe C reported that "across the lines, rumors appear to have circulated among
the Jews about the fate which they can expect from us...." (pp. 294-295)|
When Einsatzgruppe C approached the Dnieper, it noted that rumors of killing operations had resulted in mass flights of Jews. (p. 341)|
And yet Hilberg presents diametrically opposite statements such as the following, and considerable elaboration thereof, as we have seen above:
The Jews of Russia were ignorant of the fate that had overtaken the Jews in Nazi Europe. (pp. 315-316)|
How are we to reconcile these two seemingly contradictory positions? One can readily put forward for consideration four explanations:
(1) Jews in some locations might have had better information, and thus might have been more aware, than Jews in other locations.
(2) Jews to the west were occupied earlier, and so might have been caught more by surprise. Jews further east
would have had more time to learn of the dire events transpiring to their west.
(3) Another explanation is suggested by the actions of government officials following the explosion of the nuclear reactor at Chornobyl
which showered the surrounding regions, including the capital city of Kyiv, with radiation. The action of
government officials was to evacuate their own families, and sometimes themselves, while telling the people that
there was no cause for concern. Thus, one may infer the general principle that people aware of an impending
danger might recognize that if everyone were apprised of the danger, then the flood of those attempting to escape
might choke the avenues of escape. Thus, in Ukraine in the path of approaching German forces, perhaps it was the
case that the nomenklatura, the intelligentsia, the managers, the skilled workers — -and the many others capable of making any contribution to the war effort — knew about the danger and fled, and at the same time kept their information from
the disadvantaged, the insignificant, and the old so that the clamor of the latter to flee would not cause panic, so that their movement would not clog the channels
of flight, and so that their arrival at the target destination would not overload the target's capacity to deal with refugees. In short, certain
classes of Jews were probably aware of the danger, while other classes were possibly kept in the dark.
(4) A final explanation might be that Hilberg's evidence that Jews were unaware of danger from the Germans is
weak, and Hilberg accepts it uncritically — in other words, this explanation denies that there were, in fact, many
Jews who were blind to the danger. What is Hilberg's evidence? It seems to be the statement that some Jews acted
toward the occupying Germans as if they expected no harm from them — specifically, that a German intelligence
official reported to his superiors (the quote appears above) that the Jews were remarkably ill-informed as to the
treatment that they would receive at the hands of the Germans, and that they expected to be left in peace if they
minded their own business and worked diligently (p. 316).
However, once a Jew found himself trapped by the occupying Germans, how would we expect him to act even if he
was aware of danger? By putting on the facade of expecting no evil, by minding his own business, and by being
productive, he increased his chances of survival. To admit to the occupying Germans that he had heard of the ill
treatment of Jews might be to provoke the Germans, or might be to appear less valuable to them because frightened
or defiant, or might be to appear to be undependable because too well informed.
As our primary reason for discussing the evacuation and flight of Ukrainian Jews is to evaluate the
claim that 33,771 Jews were killed within a few days at Babyn Yar in Kyiv, we might ask what the data shows as
to the flight of Kyiv Jews. On this question, Hilberg tells us nothing. He does provide figures relevant to
estimating the Jewish population of Kyiv prior to the outbreak of war — Hilberg gives the 1926 Jewish population of
Kyiv as 140,200 (27.3%) (p. 292), and adds that "Generally, the figures, if not the percentages, had increased by
1939" (p. 291). Also, as there is some possibility that Jews killed at Babyn Yar came from regions surrounding
Kyiv, somewhat relevant is that most Ukrainian Jews were urban: "Jewish urbanization in the old USSR was 87 percent...." (p. 291).
With these figures in mind, we must conclude that Hilberg does leave us with an unresolved incongruity, which in
a nutshell is as follows. That "The Einsatzgruppe which operated in the central and eastern Ukrainian territories
found that many Jewish communities were reduced by 70 to 90 percent and some by 100 percent" (p. 295). That
Kyiv lay within a region in which we would have expected the highest level of evacuation — it does lie toward the
east within the area occupied by the Germans (which is relevant to Hilberg's statement immediately above and to
his first statement below), and it does lie on the Dnipro (Dnieper) River (which is relevant to Hilberg's second
The Einsatzkommandos that moved with the armies farther to the east encountered fewer and fewer Jews. (p. 294)|
When Einsatzgruppe C approached the Dnieper, it noted that rumors of killing operations had resulted in mass flights of Jews. (p. 341)|
Another factor arguing for a high evacuation rate in Kyiv is that Kyiv is the capital of Ukraine, and so we might expect it to have held the highest concentration of valuable personnel of the sort that would have been evacuated.
If, to use Hilberg's figures, Kyiv prior to the invasion of Ukraine held over 140,200 Jews, and if almost all of these
were evacuated, then it does not seem possible that there could have been 33,771 Jews left behind to kill.