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Ukraine in WWII



[Pictures, as always, taken from]

Description: This is one of those books that follows several main protagonists. For myself, I find that this adds an extra depth and understanding that cannot be achieved with only one point of view. I’ll keep it short: Maria’s father, Ivan, has managed to survive Babi Yar, but is now a broken man. Shortly thereafter, Maria is sent to Germany as a slave worker. Luda, despite abuse from German officers, may have finally found a family and love. And, of course, there is the token arrogant German officer, here Frederick, who is really using his arrogance to cover up his true emotions.

Background: In 1922, Ukraine was unified with Russia, making it part of the Soviet Union. Then, on September 1, 1941, after Operation Barbarossa Ukraine had become a separate civil German entity. Hitler’s Plan? To exterminate, expel, or enslave most or all Slavs from their native lands so as to make living space for German settlers.

On August 14, 1941, Hitler ordered that Kiev be bombed. However, due to insufficient materials, the plan was never carried out. Instead, they decided to starve the city. That being said, Kiev was under siege from August 15 – September 19. During this time 65,000 Soviet troops were captured. [Below, Kiev burning]



With the arrival of the Germans, some Ukrainians saw their liberation from the Soviets. As a result, some 4,000 operated under the Germans, some even under a German SS unit, the Waffen-SS and the 4. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS. There was no true collaboration, however, between the Ukrainians and the Germans, since the Germans saw the Ukrainians as inferior. In fact, Göring suggested that “all Ukrainian men should be killed, and the SS men be sent in to re-populate the land with German blood” (Source).  Conversely, some 4,500,00 Ukrainians served with the Soviet army. 1,400,00 of them killed in service. Ultimately, this meant that Ukrainians were fighting and killing one another in their separate fights for liberation and freedom. 


Atrocities against the Ukrainians are thought to be some of the greatest that took place during the war. For starters, it is estimated that 3-4 million Ukrainians and non-Jews were killed, with another 850,000 to 900,000 (possibly even up to 1,000,000) Jews. Within Hitler’s Generalplan Ost, 65% of the 23.2 million Ukrainians were to be killed through genocide or ethnic cleansing. These tortures included imprisonment, mass shootings, concentration camps, ghettos, forced labor, starvation, torture, and mass kidnapping. In addition, over 2,300,000 Ukrainians were deported for slave labor camps. [A chart can be found of the total percentages of the different Slavic ethnic groups Hitler planned to eliminate here]

Considered to be “the single largest massacre in the Holocaust,” Babi Yar took place in Kiev from September 29-30, 1941 (Source). 33,771 Ukrainians were shot, most of them Jewish. Additionally, the Nikolaev Massacre took place in Mykolaiv from September 16-30, 1941. 35,782 were killed. Again, mostly Jews.

Massacres were “carried out by a mixture of SS, SD, security police, and Ukrainian Auxiliary Police” (Source). This meant, again, that Ukrainians were killing their own people. In total, there were 14 massacres on Ukrainian soil. The list can be found [here: Massacres]. Then, “when the Soviet Army approached in 1943, the Nazis tried to cover their tracks by ordering the concentration camp prisoners to dig up the corpses and burn them, after which the prisoners were killed” (Source).

Although it took place before the war officially began, the Holodomore needs to be counted amongst the atrocities the Ukrainians were forced to endure. The Holodomore or The Ukrainian Genocide of 1932-1933 was a man-made famine planned by Stalin to eliminate the Ukrainian independence movement. It included the “rejection of outside aid, confiscation of all household foodstuffs, and restriction of population movement confer intent, defining the famine as genocide” (Source). The famine killed 2.5-2.7 million Ukrainians.

From 1932-1933, Stalin murdered 7 million Ukrainians and sent 2 million more to concentration camps. “Ukraine was sealed off. All food supplies and livestock were confiscated. NKVD death squads executed ‘anti-party elements.’ Furious that insufficient Ukrainians were being shot, Kaganovitch – virtually the Soviet Union’s Adolf Eichmann – set a quota of 10,000 executions a week. Eighty percent of Ukrainian intellectuals were shot. During the bitter winter of 1932-33, 25,000 Ukrainians per day were being shot or died of starvation and cold. Cannibalism became common. Ukraine, writes historian Robert Conquest, looked like a giant version of the future Bergen-Belsen death camp. The mass murder of seven million Ukrainians, three million of them children, and deportation to the gulag of two million more (where most died) was hidden by Soviet propaganda.” (Source). Reports about Stalin’s atrocities did not start coming out until the 1990′s. More on that later.

Because of being hit from both sides as well as being occupied by two separate oppressors, after the war, Ukraine saw 700 cities and towns and 28,000 villages destroyed. However, despite their large death toll and their destruction, 2,544 Ukrainians helped save Jewish lives. [Below, the Lvov Ghetto]


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Number the Stars


Ten-year-old Annemarie Johansen lives in Nazi-occupied Denmark. She knows what a world is like with soldiers on every street corner. And she knows simple things about how to avoid detection, such as not running through the street. Nazi soldiers on every street corner is scary enough … but Nazi soldiers banging on the front door is much, much worse. See, it wasn’t until her parents took in her best friend, Ellen Rosen, that Annemarie realized just how scary Nazi soldiers could really be. But one night, they did come knocking, leaving the Johansen’s to pretend that Ellen wasn’t really Jewish, but another daughter. Then, the real danger began as the family has to risk everything to get Ellen’s family out of Nazi-occupied Denmark and into the safety of neutral Sweden.

Just as In My Hands was presented in the Polish Resistance post instead of the Poland in WWII post, so Number the Stars finds itself being presented in the Danish Resistance post. And, as mentioned in Danish Resistance post, for those of us who grew up in the 1990’s, Number the Stars was likely amongst our introduction to the horror known as the Holocaust.

But if that worries you some, don’t be. First off, this is a novel written for grade school children. And, it tells an important story about a very important period in history. Furthermore, teaching history at an early age if of supreme importance.

As touched on briefly in our One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping post, my first experience with historical fiction was way back in 1st grade, when my mom bought me a box set of the Meet book for each American Girl that was out at that time. Now, back then, American Girl/Pleasant Company was about teaching school-age girls what it was like to live in different time periods. The books were the center of the universe and the dolls just companions. Like those books, Number the Stars teaches us what it was like to be a little girl under Nazi (or Soviet in other cases) oppression.

It gave us, as young children, the understanding the Gestapo and SS – or Nazis in general – were to be feared, but there certainly was not the terror found in YA or adult novels.

Really, though, Number the Stars is a touching picture of one family who risks their lives to get a Jewish family out of Nazi-occupied Denmark and into free Sweden. It taught us that even little children can resist against oppression.

Number the Stars is a well-written novel about what it was like to live in Denmark in the 1940’s. If you want a novel about what it was like to live in Denmark without the horror you may find in books for older age groups, than Number the Stars is a good place to start.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Classification: Children’s


Featured in Danish Resistance

Goodreads: Number the Stars


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In My Hands

Set in Poland during WWII, In My Hands is the memoir of Irene Gut Opdyke, who helped rescue Jews during German occupation of Poland.

Summary: Irena Gut is a normal Polish girl in 1939. She loves her family and four sisters. And she’s pretty sure she wants to be a sister – or maybe a nurse. In fact, she’s studying to be a nurse when the Nazi bombing of Poland begins. She barely escapes with her life. But, in fact, the next 6 years of her young life, are a constant of trying to avoid brutality from both the Germans and the Russians. After being brutally abused by the Soviets, she’s locked in a Soviet hospital as a prisoner. With the help a friendly Polish doctor, she manages to escape and hide out with his aunt. Eventually, she receives the blesséd news that the Soviets are kindly letting those Polish who were separated from their families when the country was divided to be reunited. But it seems to Irena that this is just another scheme to capture and torture her again. But she manages to escape their clutches once again, only to land in the hands of the Germans. Her time working for Nazis doesn’t seem quite as bad. She works for a rather friendly German cook and, it’s during this time, that she starts hiding away Jews from the nearby ghetto. When the Nazi, Major Rügemer, asks her to keep house for him, she finds the blessing of a basement with hidden rooms. Rügemer has just provided her with the perfect place to hide away Jews. And right under the Nazis’s noses. Of course, this is hardly the end of Irena’s problems. She finds herself again and again fighting for her life and for the lives of the Jews she has promised to protect. But, she has decided, she has been called on by God to protect these people and to fight both the Germans and the Soviets for the sake of her beloved Poland.


In My Hands is truly an amazing account of a real young women – only in her early 20’s – who was actually willing to sacrifice everything for someone else. And Irena experienced it from both ends. Remember that the invasion of Poland by Germany started WWII. But a mere 17 days later, the Soviet Union also invaded Poland; this beautiful country was divided in half. And Irena was one of the poor souls who was stuck on the Soviet side, working as a slave in a hospital. Because what else do you call someone who is forced to work with no pay?

Yes, Irena got lucky time and time again. A Polish doctor helped her escape from the hospital and she stayed with his aunt for a year. And the German cook she worked for, Herr Shultz, protected her. I guess we’ll never really know whether or not he knew what she was doing. If he did, he looked the other way. Not every German would have done that. And then Major Rügemer, without realizing it, provided her with the perfect hiding place for so many Jews. Even when he [spoilers!] found out himself, he saved her.

So, yes, she got lucky time and again. But she was also captured by the Soviets on several occasions and only managed to survive because she was able to escape. But the point to focus on is that she was willing to sacrifice everything for someone else – and for her country. How many people today are willing to do the same?

So, do you want a real-life story about self-sacrifice? About someone who hid the Jews from the Germans – right under their noses? Then this is definitely a book worth checking out.

Genre: History

Classification: Adult


Featured in: Polish Resistance

Goodreads: In My Hands: Memoirs of a Holocaust Rescuer

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One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping

The second book featured in the History Series. One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping, Dear America diary by Barry Denenberg.

Summary: Julie Weiss is a Jew living in Vienna, Austria. Through her diary entries, she tells of the experiences of being one of the few Jews in her class. Her family, like so many other hard-working Jewish families, is well-off, living in a fancy apartment. But once the Nazis occupy her beloved Vienna, the changes are sweeping. Her family endures being kidnapped in the night to remove pro-Austrian signs of sidewalks. And worse. But mercifully, Julie is sent to New York to live with her aunt and uncle. But she most go alone and make a new life for herself.

When I was little, I loved the Dear America series. Back then, you could go to Barns ‘N Noble or your local library, and pursuing the shelves, you could find any number of historical novels. Today, I get excited if I can find one historical novel that I haven’t read yet (One, that is, that’s actually about the War and not just a love story).

My mom was a fan of the Revolutionary War period, but as with the American Girl books my favorites were always the Depression and WWII stories (Hence, my favorite girls were Molly & Kit).

One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping, may not have been the first WWII/Holocaust children’s literature I’d ever read, but it was probably the first . . . shocking one I’d read. This was the first one that really scared me.

Oh, I’d read simple books like Behind the Bedroom Wall or Number the Stars, but those, while still Holocaust stories, were, well, tamer.

Reading about Julie’s experience with the Nazis showed me, for the first time, the truth about Nazi oppression. And it’s much more horrid than we even learn about in our History classes.

The great thing about any Dear America story is that it’s told in diary form; that gives it a much more personal feel. You’re getting a much better feel for how the protagonist feels. And as Julie’s world crumbles around her, she shares her thoughts and fears. Actually, you feel with Julie. Especially that night when the Nazis come knocking on the flat’s door and drag away her parents. Then, we feel Julie’s complete and utter hopelessness . . .

But then, Julie’s aunt and uncle send for her and Julie suddenly finds herself able to escape Nazi occupied Austria for America. But she has to go alone. We adjust to America with Julie. We feel her helplessness vanish as she experiences the theatre and, in one of my favorite scenes, the automat.

Eventually, America and her Aunt and Uncle becomes her new home.

One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping, is to this day one of my favorite WWII children’s novels. And, like all Dear America books, it ends with a “Life In . . .” section, which contains notes, explanations, and pictures. In other words, children learn an awful lot about history through Dear America books and One Eye Laughing.

Note: There are some intense moments, as it is a Holocaust novel.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Classification: Children’s

Era: Pre-WWII (1938)

Featured in Austria in WWII

Goodreads: One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping

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Prisoner of Night and Fog & Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke


It seemed that the perfect first post would be the two books that I used in our very first history post. Prisoner of Night and Fog and Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke are companion novels by Anne Blankman.

Gretchen Muller is the darling of the Nazi party, the pet of none other an Adolf Hitler. But thanks to a young Jewish reporter, Gretchen begins to see the truth about her beloved party and the truth about her papa’s death. This information, however, sets her up as a prime target of the SA (of which her brother is apart) and the Nazis. Blankman’s stories are terrifying and mesmerizing, and better yet, thoroughly researched (each book contains a works cited page). She gives readers an inside look at not only the inner workings of the Nazi party, but also explores the psychological state of Hitler and many Nazis/SA members. Book #2 focuses largely on Hitler’s rise to power and the story behind the infamous Reichstag Fire.

If you are looking for a well-researched WWII story. This is it. Furthermore, if you are looking for a deeper understanding of the psychology of Adolf Hitler, but don’t necessarily want to bog yourself down with reports from psychology journals, than these are definitely the books for you.

You’ll learn more about the infamous SA, the group that Hitler later killed off because of their violence. You’ll get an inside view of what it’s like to be a member of the party. And from the inside view, you will learn why they were so very, very evil. You’ll learn more about the Reichstage Fire and travel with  Gretchen into the Reichstage after the fire took place. You’ll see first hand how quickly Hitler could turn on someone. But, you’ll also get to see Hitler at home; an almost pathetic-looking man, who yearned to be accepted. So, yes, you get a well-rounded picture of the man. But what better way to learn about one of the most evil men in all of history?

In my experience with historical fiction, I have actually learned more about history than any ordinary history textbook. Why? Because history textbooks are essentially propaganda. The texts are specifically written to teach us, the American People, the version of the story that they want you to learn. Forget about wether it’s true or not.

Because of this, I do read a lot of historical fiction and my favorites to read are YA because you can find a story about what really happened. The best written ones give you notes and a bibliography at the end. That’s how you know they did their research! Furthermore, if you look hard enough, you can find a story about the events, and not just yet another romance set during WWII. Forget the romance. I want the facts. I want to know what it was like to live back then. Those are the kinds of books we’ll feature here. And that is definitely what you get from Prisoner and Conspiracy. 

Disclaimer: There is some violence in this book. Gretchen, herself, gets beat up.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Classification: Young Adult (YA).

Era: Pre-WWII (1930s)

Featured in The Reichstag Fire

Goodreads: Prisoner of Night and Fog and Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke

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