As the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, incorporated conquered territories into Reichskommisariat Ostland, Reichskommissariat Ukraine, and military administration, they went on to implement the Holocaust and exterminate most of the Jews in Belarus, Lithuania, and elsewhere. Already during the Soviet invasion of Poland, many Jews reportedly welcomed the invading troops, apparently expecting to be better off under the Soviet Union than under Nazi Germany. Despite Stalinist oppression and antisemitism, Jews must have been less bad off under Stalin than under Hitler.

In Western European countries, there was little time for Jews to flee to neutral or Allied countries; it took the Nazis only five days to occupy The Netherlands, for example; and the logistics of fleeing to the United Kingdom were complicated by the North Sea. But in the Soviet Union, it took the Nazis three months to take over the Baltic States, Belarus, and part of Ukraine. There would have been enough time to flee east. Why was there no massive wave of Jewish refugees, fleeing the advancing Nazi army by retreating deeper into the Soviet Union? Apparently, around 300,000 Polish Jews escaped to Soviet-occupied territories at the beginning of World War II.

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    There was no freedom of movement in the USSR. – Moishe Kohan Oct 8 '17 at 19:07
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    Logistics would be a huge problem, even if there was the greatest good will in evacuating people (which I suppose it was not the case). We can compare the evacuation of French people in 1940. There was mass flight, unorganised and hindered by the military efforts to transport troops to where they were more needed. The bulk of the French population, Jewish and "goyish" alike, remained in France; it didn't even move from Northern France to Vichy. Bottom line, moving millions of people isn't easy; it isn't easy now, and it was even more difficult in the 1940s. – Luís Henrique Oct 9 '17 at 14:00
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – T.E.D. Oct 9 '17 at 14:01

Short answer - they tried and many (although not the majority) did.

Moishe Cohen is partly right in his answer - population movement in USSR was more restricted than in contemporary Europe, and even more so - in the pre-war period. Stalin was committed to his efforts to delay german attack for as long as he could, and mass evacuation of border regions would be most certainly be taken as preparation for war. Thus, Stalin consistently rejected evacuation plans drafted in April-May 1941 as "untimely". Despite that, by different accounts, 500000 to 1500000 people were deported from occupied territories to eastern regions of USSR by the beginning of war.

When the offensive actually came, it was too late for evacuation of many regions -

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

at first, German forces were moving way too fast. As one can see, all Poland and large part of Belorussia, Ukraine and Baltic states were under German control in mere 3 weeks from the initial attack. Evacuation was even more difficult due to blitzkrieg tactics relying heavily on air strikes at the enemy logistic structures - that is, transport that could be used to move refugees. But after Soviet forces managed to somewhat contain the German push, numbers became more optimistic - for example, only 24-27% of Jews living in Belorussia managed to evacuate, but if we look at data for only Eastern Belorussia, 63% of its jewish population were evacuated.

Official evacuation effort managed to move ~7 millon people by 1942, but according to the post-war data, actual number of refugees was, by different estimates, from 12 to 17 million. This discrepancy is both due to the fact that many official refugees never managed to reach their destination, either dying or settling somewhere along the way, and thus were not accounted in the official data, and to the many people who moved of their own accord. Again, Moishe Cohen is only partly right - while moving without passport was a misdemeanor, the punishment for getting caught was only a reality if one was caught, and even then, it was preferrable to staying in a warzone - it consisted of a fine up to 100 roubles and deportation by the police. A heavy fine is better that likely death, and the deportation would likely be to a local village.

All of the above applies to all refugees, regardless of nationality. When it comes to Jews - some researchers argue that percentage of Jews amongst the refugees was disproportionally high when compared to their part in population composition of evacuated locales (for example, Швейбиш С. («Эвакуация и советские евреи в годы Катастрофы», Вестник Еврейского университета в Москве, 1995, № 2(9). С. 36–55) argues that Jews made up 24.9% of evacuated, second only to Russians), but I was not able to access the sources for these claims.

Sources (in russian):

1) Куманев Г.А., «Война и эвакуация в СССР 1941-1942 годах», Новая и новейшая история, 2006, № 6

2) Потемкина М. Н., "Эвакуация и национальные отношения в советском тылу в годы Великой Отечественной войны", Отечественная история, 2002, № 3

3) https://www.yadvashem.org/yv/ru/education/learning_environments/families/evacuation.asp


Moishe explained why the Jews could not escape.

I will try to explain why some of them would not even try.

The first hand experience most people in the Western part of the USSR had with Germans was with the German occupation administration during the WW1 was that these where the only source of order and protection from various gangs. IOW, Germans meant "Ordnung".

The rabid anti-Jewish policies of the Nazis were not yet in full swing. The mass murders started only in the Summer of 1941. The only source of information was the official Soviet propaganda, which was pretty pro-Nazi during the Molotov-Ribbentrop epoch. The refugees from Poland and Germany were few, quickly rounded up by the NKVD, and, at any rate, people tend to believe their own memories about the "good Germans of the WW1" over the rumors about the "new bad Germans".

  • Eastern part of the USSR? That would be in Asia, did you mean western? – gerrit Oct 8 '17 at 23:41
  • @gerrit: sorry, typo. I was thinking about eastern europe. fixed now – sds Oct 8 '17 at 23:50
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    Even in Germany and Austria many Jews did not try to flee, or did so when it was too late, as they felt somehow save, e.g. because they served in the German or Austria army in WW 1. For us, with hindsight, it is clear they should have fled, no matter what. However, even though the Nazis were quite explicit in their propaganda, for most people, industrial mass murder was something beyond being conceivable. – Dohn Joe Jun 27 '18 at 7:06

I do not have time to write a full-scale answer, the following is an outline:

If you are a Jew who lives, say, in Riga, in Summer of 1941 and tries to get as far East as possible away from the advancing German troops, how would you do it? Would you use a horse-drawn carriage? All horses are a State property (including the ones which technically belong to "collective farms"). Do you drive? Nobody has a car except for government officials and even their cars do not belong to them but to the State. Could you buy a train ticket? OK, you go to the train station and find that there are no train tickets to be sold: All the transport is used for "government purposes", which include:

  • Moving industrial equipment.

  • Moving troops.

  • Most importantly (for you!), moving people who have a special document allowing them to "evacuate" to the "East", which includes their preassigned destination, say, Tomsk (in Western Siberia). How would you get one? Typically, such a document is given to a person either by his work-place. Can you get one?

Well, if you are working in a place deemed "important", say, in an aircraft design bureau, chances you get one are pretty good. (But if you are not on good terms with your boss, you have a problem.) But what if you are working in a shoe-repair place? Or a collective farm? (Which means you live not in Riga but somewhere in a country-side.) Chances are very minimal. You wait and wait and wait for the life-saving evacuation document and then Germans arrive all of a sudden. (The rest you know.)

What are your other options? Say, you get your wife, kids, parents and you try to walk along a highway. In particular, you have abandoned your workplace illegally and you are also impeding the military traffic. The first NKVD patrol that sees you will declare you a "saboteur" (somebody sabotaging Soviet industry by leaving your workplace without a permission) and "paniceur" (somebody spreading panic about the danger of advancing German troops and who does not believe that the glorious red Army will soon crash the German invaders). So, you get shot on the spot (quite legally!).

Edit. I will add more when I have more time. Here is an extract from

http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/ru/education/learning_environments/families/evacuation.asp (which is in Russian):

  1. Evacuation of Jews of the USSR during the Second World War The evacuation of Soviet citizens and material resources during the Second World War is a unique phenomenon in history. Between June 22, 1941 and before the offensive near Stalingrad in 1942, about 17 million people, thousands of industrial enterprises and huge material resources were exported from the threatened areas, according to official Soviet data. According to Marshal Zhukov, it was the evacuation of industrial enterprises that allowed the Soviet Union to win the Second World War. For the Jews of the USSR, evacuation was practically the only salvation.

1.1. General policy of evacuation The first plans for the evacuation of human and material resources from the threatened territory appeared before the outbreak of the war, in April-May 1941. However, the plan presented was rejected by Stalin as untimely. Thus, at the beginning of the Nazi offensive in the USSR, there were no approved plans and no preparations were made for evacuation from the border areas. June 22, 1941 began the spontaneous flight of civilians from the border areas, and local authorities were forced to begin evacuation, without official instructions. Already on the first day of the war, 30 evacuation trains were sent from Belostok and Grodno stations. June 23, 1941 Stalin gave permission for the beginning of mass evacuation. The first to take out 14 thousand children from orphanages, sanatoriums and pioneer camps. To help the refugees, 24 aid points were opened (in Orsha, Vitebsk, Mogilev, etc.)

On June 24, the Council for Evacuation was formed, headed by the Minister of Railways Kaganovich. The main objectives of the evacuation were the export of industrial enterprises, raw materials and material assets from threatened territories. On June 27, 1941, the procedure for the removal and deployment of human resources was determined. During evacuation, preference was given to workers of exported enterprises, families of RKKA and state security commanders, families of employees of the apparatus and children under 15 years old. 

By July 2, there were 210 echelons on 29 railways on the way. However, a significant part of the refugees left on their own. The roads were crowded with people who were trying to escape from the advancing enemy. In the first weeks of the war, these people could not go far because of the rapid advance of the German army. Even before the arrival of Germans in regions such as Western Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia, local collaborators did not allow refugees to leave and returned them home, blocking the roads. Often the way was already blocked by the German landing forces and the German army. Thus, in the first period of the war, until the middle of July (the temporary stabilization of the front near Smolensk and in the Kiev direction), those who managed to catch the train had the greatest chance of salvation.

However, trains were not always saved. Thus, the export of people to the Brest-Litovsk railway began only after 10 pm on June 23, 1941, when a direct order was received from Moscow. At the stations stood by that time 10.091 car with people and cargoes. However, because of the rapid offensive of the Germans, only about half of them - 5675 wagons were sent. The formations traveled to the east under constant enemy fire. Most of them were shelled by German aircraft, the trains were killed and wounded. The same can be said about crossings across numerous rivers, and about roads blocked by refugees. Thus, far from all the evacuees reached the rear. Since July 5, 1941, evacuation points have been opened at the main railway junctions. Already by July 18 they were one hundred and twenty. These points took echelons, gave out bread and boiling water, in some of them there were dining rooms and showers. Their goal was financial support for refugees. By this time on the road were already millions of people.

Evacuation was handled by the Evacuation Department, which was subordinated to the Central Information Bureau in Buguruslan. Nevertheless, the accounting was far from complete. So, according to the data for December 10, 1941, 3.074.000 people were counted by name. In early 1942, a census was carried out, according to which there were 7.417.000 evacuees in the eastern regions. It is known, however, that up to 17 million citizens were transferred to the rear (according to earlier data, 12 million). Many were not taken into account, as they lived with relatives in the eastern territories, or moved to the rear on their own. So, according to the data for July 18, 1941 about 1 million evacuees did not reach their destination, but settled with relatives and friends on the route.

1.2. Evacuation of Soviet Jews In the last twenty years there has been a scientific dispute about the evacuation of the Jews of the USSR during the Second World War. The center of this dispute is the question of whether or not the Soviet government gave priority to Jews during evacuation. Everyone agrees that the government of the USSR already in the early stages of the war had complete information about the extermination of Jews in the occupied territories. Therefore, some historians accuse the government of non-interference, which led to the destruction of millions of people (see Leonid Smilovitsky, Yitzhak Arad). On the other hand, S. Shvebysh and many Russian historians (for example, M.N. Potemkin) indicate that the percentage of Jews among the evacuees was significantly higher than their weight in the population of threatened areas.

In the article "Evacuation and Soviet Jews in the years of the Holocaust," Shveibish called new figures of evacuated Jews in the USSR. Earlier it was assumed that about 1 million Jews (Arad) were evacuated. However, Shvebish gives completely different statistics. According to it, about 4.855.000 Jews lived in the USSR at the beginning of the war, without taking into account Jewish refugees from Poland and Romania, and taking into account the western territories annexed since September 1939. Of these, 4,095,000 resided in territories that were later occupied by the Nazis. According Shveibish, from them to the Soviet rear were removed from 1.2 to 1.4 million Jews. Moreover, according to the Central Statistical Office of the USSR on September 15, 1941, the proportion of Jews among evacuees, not including children from evacuated children's institutions, was 24.8%. Thus, the Jews were in second place after the Russians (52.9%). According to these data, the percentage of evacuated Jews was higher than their percentage in the occupied territories and above the percentage of all other groups of the population, except Russian. A document was recently found,

However, it is difficult to argue that this was not the result of the USSR's policy of saving Jews, but rather the result of the fact that the Jews understood the full danger of their situation, and rumors of what was happening to the Jews in the occupied territories forced them to flee. In addition, some Jews in the evacuated population groups were more than their share in the population as a whole. Thus, the percentage of Jewish engineers, officers of the Red Army and state security, party workers and workers was higher than their percentage in the population of the country. 

1.2.1. Western territories The number of evacuees in these or those areas directly depended on the distance of these places from the state border of the USSR and, accordingly, from the moment of occupation. An important factor was also the availability of a railway or the ability to quickly reach the railway station. One of the basic conditions for the evacuation of the Jews was the understanding of the danger that the Nazi authorities carried. However, despite the fact that the anti-Semitic policy of the Nazis was well known in the USSR, and refugees from Poland talked about Nazi policies against Jews in that country (official information was hidden by the Soviet authorities because of the peace treaty with Germany), in the early days there was no clear understanding of the danger of Nazi occupation for Jews. On newly annexed to the USSR in 1939, the territories were inhabited by about 2 million Jews. However, only 170 thousand of them managed to escape to the east, and only about 100 thousand - to reach the deep rear. In other words: 7-9% of the Jewish population tried to save themselves in these territories, which came under Nazi rule in the first days of the war, but only 5-7% were saved. [8]

1.2.2. Eastern Territories The more east the territories were, the more Jews were saved by them. Thus, in the territories of Eastern Byelorussia, occupied by the Nazis by mid-July, 105-110 thousand Jews lived before the war, of which 45-48 thousand people were saved, that is, about 43% of the Jewish population. In total, in Western and Eastern Belarus, occupied by mid-July 1941, 24-27% of Jews were saved.

It should be noted that the bulk of those evacuated through official channels were residents of Moscow and Leningrad - 56% of the total number of evacuees. A significant part of the population traveled to the east on its own. In the regions of Belarus, occupied after the middle of July, that is after the first stabilization of the front near Smolensk and Luga, 125,000 Jews lived before the war. Of these, about 80 thousand people, that is 64% of the Jewish population of these regions, were evacuated. A similar situation is observed in other regions. Thus, only 6% of Jews (about 15 thousand people) were evacuated from Lithuania, 16% from Latvia (also about 15 thousand people), and from Estonia 65% (about 3000 people). 

The percentage of Jews who escaped from major cities with significant Jewish populations, such as Kiev, Odessa, Kharkiv, was huge. Thus, in Kharkov, out of 150,000 Jews who lived there before the war, less than 20,000 remained under occupation. About 150,000 of the 200,000 pre-war Jewish population were evacuated in Kiev, and a slightly smaller percentage of Jews were evacuated in Odessa. These cities met all the conditions listed above: they were occupied at a relatively late stage, when the Jews had time to evacuate, and when it was already known what was happening under the Nazi occupation, and also were at major railway junctions. In addition, these were industrial centers, and many were evacuated with their enterprises.

Living and living conditions The first condition for the evacuation was the opportunity to use the vehicle. The most efficient transport, given the distances in question, was the train. However, in order to get on the train, it was necessary to obtain permission to evacuate. If a person or family did not belong to the categories of the population who were given priority in evacuation, it was difficult to obtain such a document, sometimes impossible. Already in the evacuation without this document it was also impossible to get food cards, without which there was practically no way to get food. [eleven]

Millions of people were evacuated without permits and documents. They actually got to the rear independently. Sometimes it was possible to get permission on the way. There is evidence of the acquisition of such permits for bribes. Many received the relevant documents already in the evacuation areas, finding work.


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    Shot on the spot? Or deported to a forced labour camp in Siberia with a survival rate of 50% (which is a lot higher than in a Nazi extermination camp)? I know there were many atrocities under Stalin but I hesitate to believe any peasant walking along a highway would be shot on the spot for being a saboteur. But I can see your point that the propaganda machine would declare there was no need to flee because the Red Army will crush the invaders. Perhaps many people believed this? – gerrit Oct 8 '17 at 21:39
  • @gerrit You say that with the benefit of hindsight. As per this question contemporaries were generally not aware of death camps until very late in the war. Sure, the anti-Jew sentiment was known outside of Germany, but it wasn't a choice between death and fleeing, it was a choice between treason and the possibility of being an "undesirable", with surviving a warzone in between (the latter being quite the motivation to migrate, of course!) – Ordous Oct 9 '17 at 17:37
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    @gerrit I think Siberian camps had much higher survival rate. Some statistics indicate the survival rate was higher than the general population (mostly because the prisoners were mostly younger). Yet during the war the mortality surged, indeed (mostly because many prisoners volunteered to the front which could reduce their prison term). – Anixx Oct 10 '17 at 2:24
  • @Anixx I got my info from Wikipedia and did not dig deeper. It was specifically for during World War II, in the context of starvation elsewhere in the Soviet Union as well. Whatever the mortality rate in the Gulag camps, it's higher than at Bełźec where mortality was 99.998%. But Ordous is right, it is plausible that most Soviet Jews citizens either did not have or believe information about extermination camps. On the other hand, civilian populations did get evacuated in e.g. the siege of Leningrad, so I am not convinced that the desire to flee would get one branded as paniceur/saboteur. – gerrit Oct 10 '17 at 10:47
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    Mortality in a Gulag higher than in an extermination camp? I doubt the underlying numbers are realistic. – jjack Dec 5 '17 at 4:24

One aspect that has not been mentioned, yet played a highly significant role in the very outcome of the war.

Stalin's purges and terror famine policies of the 1930's had scoured the people of the Ukraine, all of them. The Russian inhabitants initially looked upon the German invaders as 'rescuers' from the terror of life under Stalin. Had the German army played this role, they would have had a ready made 5th column of support and may well have beaten the Soviets.

Hitler however had personally ordered the death of every member of mongrel Slavic races and cooperation with them wasn't even considered. This resulted in turning what may well have been their key to victory instead into the implacable enemy that ultimately bled the German army white - culminating with the battle of Stalingrad and then the inevitable Soviet taking of Berlin.

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