Yom HaShoah event marks 70 years since Nazi forces invaded Former Soviet Union

Lisa Mandel
Survivor Sarah Klein (right) lights a candle with her granddaughter, Hannah Klein, during the 2010 Yom HaShoah community commemoration at Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel. This year’s Yom HaShoah takes place Sunday, May 1 at Congregation Shaare Emeth. File photo: Lisa Mandel

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

In the predawn hours of Sunday, June 22, 1941 millions of German troops accompanied by thousands of tanks and armored vehicles swarmed over the Soviet frontier and in doing so launched one of the largest invasions in the history of combat. Codenamed Operation Barbarossa, the attack opened a second front in WWII, resulted in some of the bloodiest fighting of the conflict and forever altered the course of history.

As the world marks the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s ill-fated drive into Russia, the St. Louis Jewish community will look back on it as well as part of its annual Yom HaShoah observance. Set for Sunday, May 1 at Congregation Shaare Emeth, the event has the invasion as its focus. Scheduled on the agenda are a candle lighting and liturgical readings as well as a performance by a women’s choral group composed of survivors and music by Elegant Ensembles, a local group made up of members of the Braitberg family.

B’nai B’rith St. Louis will also reprise “Unto Every Person There is a Name,” in which volunteers recite the names of Holocaust victims.

Kent Hirschfelder, who will be chairing his sixth Yom HaShoah, said the event is an important one as the remaining survivors of concentration camps, ghettoes and the Nazis’ anti-Semitic reign of terror enter their 80s and 90s.

“To memorialize the Holocaust in this way is extremely meaningful to them because virtually all of them lost family members, in some cases many family members,” he said. “It’s also important to remind people by giving them the opportunity to talk about preventing other genocides.”

Among the other aspects of the remembrance will be a recognition of holy objects which survived the Nazi regime. The program is set to open with a procession of almost a dozen so-called “Holocaust Torahs.” The sacred scrolls are among about 1,500, which were stolen from gutted Eastern European synagogues by German soldiers and later found in a basement. They were restored after the war and distributed worldwide.

He also noted the focus on this year’s theme. Hirschfelder said that the Shoah in the Soviet Union is often less talked about but was no less important than the horrors, which took place further west. An estimated 1.5 million Jews are thought to have perished in Soviet territory captured by the Nazis.

“It’s obviously a very important part of WWII,” he said. “When you mention the Holocaust, people think about Poland, Germany and Austria but the Holocaust in the former Soviet Union was very significant and very tragic.”

Dan Reich, curator of the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, agreed. He recalled incidents such as that at Babi Yar, a Ukrainian ravine in which more than 30,000 Jews were slaughtered over a two-day period in September 1941, just months after Nazi forces began their advance into Soviet territory. Reich said that thousands of similar examples occurred, typically on a smaller scale. Ghettoes and labor camps were even formed on captured Soviet land.

He noted that an increasing amount of Holocaust research has focused on the Soviet experience in the past two decades.

“As the German army moved east through the Ukraine and the Baltic regions, they were followed by mobile killing squads that simply murdered people en masse in ravines and forests throughout the region,” Reich said.

Jews also fought the advancing Nazis as members of the Russian armed forces. It’s estimated that about 150,000 Soviet Jews died in combat. Some of those who survived even made their way to St. Louis during waves of immigration in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. This year’s event will include testimonies from local Russians as part of the HMLC’s Oral History Project.

“Many of them are survivors of the Holocaust or veterans and we want to honor the veterans for their role in serving and recognize the survivors,” Reich said. “Their stories tend to not be as well known because they came here later and the Soviet Union did not isolate and focus on the victims as being Jewish.”

Yom HaShoah

When: 4 p.m. Sunday

Where: Congregation Shaare Emeth, 11645 Ladue Road

How much: Free

More info: It will be preceded and followed by “Unto Every Person There is a Name.” Co-chaired by Ken Hirschfelder and Vera Emmons, it is supported by Leo and Sara Wolf through the Wolf/Najman Memorial.