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USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive: Russia

Established in 1994 to preserve the audio-visual histories of survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust, the USC Shoah Foundation maintains one of the largest video digital libraries in the world: the Visual History Archive (VHA).


In Russia, the Holocaust reached its easternmost point in Europe and extended across a vast expanse of land. From historic Pushkin on the outskirts of Leningrad in the north to Nal′chik and Mozdok in the Caucasus Mountains in the south, the total area of Russia that the Germans came to control was virtually as big as both Ukraine and Belorussia put together.

Unlike lands further west, the Russian territories were always close to the front lines and, as a result, were exclusively under German military, rather than civilian, administration for the entirety of the occupation. Here, Jews were not deported but were killed on the spot—in mass shootings or occasionally in hermetically sealed “gas vans”. Ghettos and a few camps were established. Remarkably, some areas that were occupied for only a very short period of time—occasionally as little as two months—were left Judenrein by the time the Red Army had retaken control.

Conversely, various factors meant that the Jewish population of Russia was decimated somewhat less than elsewhere. Because they resided in the easternmost region the Germans were to reach, Russian Jews had perhaps the greatest opportunity to learn of Nazi atrocities as well as the shortest distances to flee to safety; furthermore, Moscow and Leningrad, the cities with the largest Jewish populations in the USSR, were never captured. Those who survived the German occupation in Russia were usually those who could pass as non-Jews. As such they endured the “normal” treatment meted out by the Germans to the local population: starvation, forced labor, and deportation—whether as prisoners-of-war or as Ostarbeiters. Despite the size of the region affected and the numbers of people killed (between 119,000 and 140,000), the Holocaust in Russia has received relatively little scholarly attention and is not well known by the public.

The testimonies of the USC Shoah Foundation's Visual History Archive contain references to 28 ghettos in occupied Russia—both the better known examples in northern and central regions (e.g. Kaluga, Il'ino, Smolensk, and Usviaty) as well as virtually unknown ghetto-like facilities in rural areas of southern Russia and the Caucasus region. In addition, interviewees discuss at least 20 concentration camps and 32 prisoner of war camps in Russia.

The experiences of Jewish ethnicities are also represented: the Mountain Jews in and around the city of Nal’chik and the Krymchaks and Karaites in the Crimea.

A large number of these relate to the experiences of Polish Jews deported to Siberia after the Soviets annexed Eastern Poland in 1939; they describe exile in remote areas of Russia (Komi ASSR, Arkhangel’sk Oblast, Siberia).

The USC Shoah Foundation collected 677 interviews in the Russian Federation.

See also: USSR

Visual History Archive Curator

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Crispin Brooks