Beyond longstanding controversies, ranging from the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact to anti-Zionism, the Soviet Union did grant official "equality of all citizens regardless of status, sex, race, religion, and nationality." The years before the Holocaust were an era of rapid change for Soviet Jews, leaving behind the dreadful poverty of the Pale of Settlement. 40% of the population in the former Pale left for large cities within the USSR. Emphasis on education and movement from countryside shtetls to newly industrialized cities allowed many Soviet Jews to enjoy overall advances under Joseph Stalin and to become one of the most educated population groups in the world. Due to Stalinist emphasis on its urban population, interwar migration inadvertently rescued countless Soviet Jews; Nazi Germany penetrated the entire former Jewish Pale — but were kilometers short of Leningrad and Moscow. The great wave of deportations from the areas annexed by Soviet Union according to the Nazi-Soviet pact, often seen by victims as genocide, paradoxically also saved lives of a few hundred thousand Jewish deportees. However horrible their conditions, the fate of Jews in Nazi Germany was much worse. The migration of many Jews deeper East from the part of the Jewish Pale that would become occupied by Germany saved at least forty percent of this area's Jewish population.
Map titled "Jewish Executions Carried Out by Einsatzgruppe A" from Stahlecker's report. Marked "Secret Reich Matter," the map shows the number of Jews shot, and reads at the bottom: "the estimated number of Jews still on hand is 128,000"
On 22 June 1941, Adolf Hitler abruptly broke the non−aggression pact and invaded the Soviet Union. The Soviet territories occupied by early 1942, including all of Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Moldova and most Russian territory west of the line Leningrad-Moscow-Rostov, contained about four million Jews, including hundreds of thousands who had fled Poland in 1939. Despite the chaos of the Soviet retreat, some effort was made to evacuate Jews, who were either employed in the military industries or were family members of servicemen. Of 4 million about a million succeeded in escaping further east. The remaining three million were left at the mercy of the Nazis. Despite the subservience of the Oberkommando des Heeres to Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler did not trust the Army to approve of, let alone carry out, the large-scale killings of Jews in the occupied Soviet territories. This task was assigned to SS formations called Einsatzgruppen ("task groups"), under the overall command of Reinhard Heydrich. These had been used on a limited scale in Poland in 1939, but were now organized on a much larger scale. According to Otto Ohlendorf at his trial, "the Einsatzgruppen had the mission to protect the rear of the troops by killing the Jews, gypsies, Communist functionaries, active Communists, and all persons who would endanger the security." In practice, their victims were nearly all defenseless Jewish civilians (not a single Einsatzgruppe member was killed in action during these operations). Raul Hilberg writes that the Einsatzgruppe member were ordinary citizens; the great majority were university-educated professionals. They used their skills to become efficient killers, according to Michael Berenbaum. By the end of 1941, however, the Einsatzgruppen had killed only 15 percent of the Jews in the occupied Soviet territories, and it was apparent that these methods could not be used to kill all the Jews of Europe. Even before the invasion of the Soviet Union, experiments with killing Jews in the back of vans using gas from the van's exhaust had been carried out, and when this proved too slow, more lethal gasses were tried. For large-scale killing by gas, however, fixed sites would be needed, and it was decided—probably by Heydrich and Eichmann—that the Jews should be brought to camps specifically built for the purpose.
Although the Soviet Union was victorious in World War II, the war resulted in around 26–27 million Soviet deaths (estimates vary) and had devastated the Soviet economy in the struggle. Some 1,710 towns and 70 thousand settlements were destroyed. The occupied territories suffered from the ravages of German occupation and deportations of slave labor in Germany. Thirteen million Soviet citizens became victims of a repressive policy of Germans and their allies in occupied territory, where they died because of mass murders, famine, absence of elementary medical aid and slave labor. The Nazi Genocide of the Jews carried by German Einsatzgruppen, along the local collaborators resulted in almost complete annihilation of the Jewish population over the entire territory temporary occupied by Germany and its allies. During occupation, Russia's Leningrad, now Saint Petersburg, region lost around a quarter of its population. 3.6 million Soviet prisoners of war (of 5.5 million) died in German camps.British historian Martin Gilbert used a similar approach in his Atlas of the Holocaust, but arrived at a number of 5.75 million Jewish victims, since he estimated higher numbers of Jews killed in Russia and other locations.Lucy S. Dawidowicz used pre-war census figures to estimate that 5.934 million Jews died. In October 1943, 600 Jewish and Russian prisoners attempted an escape at the Sobibór extermination camp. About 60 survived and joined the Belarusian partisans. In Eastern Europe, many Jews joined the ranks of the Soviet partisans: throughout the war, they faced antisemitism and discrimination from the Soviets and some Jewish partisans were killed, but over time, many of the Jewish partisan groups were absorbed into the command structure of the much larger Soviet partisan movement. Soviet partisans were not in a position to ensure protection to the Jews in the Holocaust. The fit Jews were usually welcomed by the partisans (sometimes only if they brought their own weapons); however women, children, and the elderly were mostly unwelcome. Eventually, however, separate Jewish groups, both guerrilla units and mixed family groups of refugees (like the Bielski partisans), were subordinated to the communist partisan leadership and considered as Soviet assets. Even as some assisted the Germans, a significant number of individuals in the territories under German control also helped Jews escape death (see Righteous Among the Nations). During World War II, Léon Poliakov established the Centre de documentation juive contemporaine (1943) and after the war, he assisted Edgar Faure at the Nuremberg Trial. By 1944, the Germans had been pushed out of the Soviet Union onto the banks of the Vistula River, just east of Prussia. With Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov attacking from Prussia, and Marshal Konev slicing Germany in half from the south the fate of Nazi Germany was sealed. It is estimated that up to 1.4 million Jews fought in Allied armies; 40% of them in the Red Army. In total, at least 142 500 Soviet soldiers of Jewish nationality lost their lives fighting against the German invadors and their alliesSalomon Smolianoff was selected for Operation Bernhard, transferred to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1944, and eventually to the Ebensee site of the Mauthausen camp network, where he was liberated by the US Army on 6 May 1945. Without changing its official anti-Zionist stance, from late 1944 until 1948 Joseph Stalin had adopted a de facto pro-Zionist foreign policy, apparently believing that the new country would be socialist and would speed the decline of British influence in the Middle East.
In 2012, Yad Vashem began releasing more than a million new testimonial pages about Jews in the Soviet Union that are expected to help researchers measure the scope of persecution and extermination of Jews in the former Soviet Union.
According to Yitzhak Arad, "In January 1942 a company of Tatar volunteers was established in Simferopol under the command of Einsatzgruppe 11. This company participated in anti-Jewish manhunts and murder actions in the rural regions."
^Hilberg, Raul cited in Berenbaum, Michael. The World Must Know. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2nd edition, 2006, p. 93.
^Berenbaum, Michael. The World Must Know. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2nd edition, 2006, p. 93.
^This is far higher than the original number of 7 million given by Stalin, and, indeed, the number has increased under various Soviet and Russian Federation leaders. See Mark Harrison, The Economics of World War II: Six Great Powers in International Comparison, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 291 (ISBN 0521785030), for more information.
^Revital Blumenfeld (11 April 2012). "'Silent Holocaust' finds its voice: Wartime documents tell story of lost Soviet community". Haaretz (Tel Aviv). Retrieved 9 April 2012. "Dr. Arkadi Zeltser, head of Yad Vashem's center for the research of Jews of the Soviet Union during the Holocaust, says the new documents should help break the silence surrounding the murder of Jews in the Soviet Union. On the eve of the war, some five million Jews lived in the Soviet Union; by the end of the war, some 2.7 million had been murdered, estimates Zeltser, one of many researchers who refer to the extermination of Jews of the former Soviet Union as the 'Holocaust that was silenced.' "
^Yitzhak Arad (2009). "The Holocaust in the Soviet Union". U of Nebraska Press, p.211, ISBN 080322270X