During the Holocaust, members of mobile killing units known as “Einsatzgruppen” (literally “operational groups”) murdered well over one million civilians, primarily in mass shootings in the Soviet Union.
During the Holocaust, members of mobile killing units known as “Einsatzgruppen” (literally “operational groups”) murdered well over one million civilians, primarily in mass shootings in the Soviet Union. These killing squads consisted of about 3,000 men, primarily German SS, Waffen-SS, and police personnel. Working with local collaborators and units of the German armed forces, these killers targeted Jews and Roma (Gypsies) regardless of age or sex, Soviet officials, and people with intellectual or physical disabilities living in institutions. These systematic massacres marked the first step of the "Final Solution," the Nazi program to murder all European Jews.
After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Einsatzgruppen, often working as “mobile killing units,” followed advancing German troops. The German army provided logistical support to these killing units, including supplies, transportation, housing, and manpower. The mobile killing squads carried out large-scale murder operations. They were often supported by local civilians and police.
In contrast to the practice in German-occupied Poland of deporting Jews to centralized killing centers, beginning in late autumn of 1941, killing units operating in the Soviet Union massacred Jews in and near their places of residence.
The Einsatzgruppen in the Soviet Union were organized into four battalions and deployed across the entire eastern front from north to south. Their responsibilities included identifying and killing, without charge or trial, Jews and other so-called racial or political enemies.
Einsatzgruppe A fanned out across Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia toward Leningrad. With assistance from local auxiliaries and German military personnel, its men massacred Jews in the communities of Kovno, Riga, and Vilna, among others.
Einsatzgruppe B started from Warsaw in German-occupied Poland, and moved across Belorussia. With help from German police battalions, Waffen-SS units, and German army personnel, this group’s members annihilated thousands of Jewish families in Grodno, Minsk, Brest-Litovsk, Slonim, and Mogilev.
Einsatzgruppe C began operations from Kraków in German-occupied Poland and deployed across western Ukraine. Along with other killing units, its members massacred Jews in communities such as Lwów, Tarnopol, Kremenets, Khar’kiv, and Zhytomyr. In just two days in late September 1941, members of Einsatzgruppe C participated in the murder of more than 33,000 Jews in a ravine at Babi Yar, near Kiev.
Einsatzgruppe D operated farthest south. Starting in Romania, its members massacred civilians in southern Ukraine and in Crimea, including the cities of Nikolayev, Simferopol, and Sevastopol.
At first, members of German mobile killing units primarily shot Jewish men, burying the bodies in mass graves. By late summer 1941, however, Nazi policy escalated to the annihilation of entire Jewish communities, including women and children.
Members of the killing squads identified Jews and took them to collection points with help from local informants and interpreters. Generally reinforced by larger units, they marched or transported their victims by truck to massacre sites, where forced laborers had dug trenches in preparation. Typically, after being forced to hand over any valuables and remove their clothing, men, women, and children were shot either standing on the edge of or lying face down in mass graves.
Beginning in late summer of 1941, the Einsatzgruppen sometimes also employed gas vans. These vans pumped carbon monoxide emissions into a sealed interior, asphyxiating the people locked inside. Gas vans were also used at Chelmno, the first killing center.
On September 21, 1941, the eve of the Jewish New Year, a mobile killing squad accompanied by local volunteers entered Ejszyszki, a small town in what is now Lithuania. The killing unit members imprisoned some 4,000 Jews in three synagogues, where they were held without food or water. Several days later these unarmed civilians were taken to nearby cemeteries, lined up in front of open pits, and shot to death. Nine hundred years of Jewish life and culture in Ejszyszki came to an end in two violent days. Today, no Jews live in Ejszyszki. It was one of thousands of Jewish communities obliterated during the Holocaust.
By the spring of 1943, members of German mobile killing units and their collaborators had murdered over one million Jews, as well as countless Soviet political commissars, partisans, Roma, and persons with disabilities.
Even as they conducted their campaign of mass murder, in occupied Poland, German SS and police authorities began construction of stationary gassing facilities at centralized killing centers in order to annihilate the Jewish population of Europe with greater efficiency.