The Town - Berdichev

Monastery buffered by brick walled fortress against the blue sky
Carmelite monastery and fortress
Old headstones from a Jewish cemetery, surrounded by overgrown plants and grasses along a trail.
Jewish cemetery in Berdichev

The setting for THE LAST LETTER and the hometown of novelist Vasily Grossman, the Ukrainian town of Berdichev was home to 60,000 inhabitants before World War II. About half of the town’s population was Jewish, and Berdichev had a reputation for being the “Jewish capital” of the region. The town’s Jewish residents lived in relative harmony with their Russian, Polish and Ukrainian neighbors. Berdichev’s pre-war industries included many factories, including one of the Soviet Union’s largest leather curing factories.

A map of eastern Europe, showing the location of Berdichev in the Ukraine.

On June 22, 1941, Hitler broke a non-aggression pact he had signed and launched an offensive against Soviet territory. Within months, the German army had invaded the Ukraine and Crimea, reaching Moscow and Leningrad. When the Germans entered Berdichev unexpectedly on July 7, 1941, only a third of the Jews in town had managed to escape. All of the town’s remaining Jewish residents were abruptly declared illegal, deprived of their civil rights and confined to a ghetto in the town’s poorest district. They were forbidden to take furniture with them and to leave the area. The town’s Christian clergy struggled to maintain contact with members of the educated Jewish community, such as the doctors, as exemplified in THE LAST LETTER by the character of Anna. The Germans threatened the clergy members and told them that any efforts made towards helping the Jewish residents would result in certain death. Several executions soon occurred, such as an incident in which a group of Berdichev women were forced to swim across a wide river until they all drowned. But more widespread acts of violence were to come.

On September 4, the Germans sent 1,500 Jewish youths out do “farm work” and killed them all that day, leaving behind women, children and the elderly, and removing the younger people who might have been more capable of forming a resistance. Ten days later, troops surrounded the entire Berdichev ghetto. The residents were awakened at four in the morning as the Germans began to rush into their apartments and drive them out into the neighborhood square. The old and the disabled were killed on the spot. The German army, along with an additional regiment, selected out about 400 people—doctors, skilled workmen, tailors, shoemakers, barbers, locksmiths and their families—and allowed them to stay behind. All of the others were forced to march to a field near Berdhichev’s airstrip, where they were shot down in groups of 40 people. Twelve thousand people were killed on September 14 alone, and the rest in the months following, including the doctors and professional workers, Jewish women married to Russians and children born to Jewish and Russian parents.

Only ten or 15 Berdichev Jews survived the Nazis during World War II. Today, the town is a somewhat popular destination for Jewish Americans and Europeans seeking to research their genealogy and pay homage to the historic Jewish cemeteries.


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