1944: Russian Troops Seize Lwow From Nazis, Find the Jews Gone

Before WWII, the Polish city had as many as 220,000 Jews. About 1% would survive the war.

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Soviet soldiers taking back Lwow (also known as Lviv) from German forces in July 1944. On the left of the picture we see two helmeted soldiers lying down, with one aiming rifles at forces we cannot see. In the foreground, center and right of the picture we see soldiers running, rifles in hand, towards forces we cannot see. There is a tank in the background but it is hard to see which way it is aimed.
Soviet soldiers taking back Lwow (also known as Lviv) from German forces in July 1944.Credit: Red Army, Wikimedia Commons

On July 26, 1944, troops from the Red Army entered Lwow, freeing the Polish city of its German occupiers.

Before the start of World War II, Lwow – known also by its German name, Lemberg, and today, as part of Ukraine, as Lviv – was the city with the third-largest number of Jews in Poland, about 110,000. By the time it was occupied by the Germans, two years later, that number that had swelled to double that, to 220,000. Yet when the Soviets liberated the city in 1944, the Jews they encountered numbered only in the hundreds.

Safe in Russian hands?

Jews had lived in Lwow since the city's very beginnings, in the middle of the 13th century. Over the centuries, they had played an important role as merchants, especially in the wine trade, and as financiers and artisans. Later, it became a center of both Maskilic and Hasidic life.

During World War I, Lwow’s Jews found themselves caught between the battling Poles and Ukrainians. But when the Galician city was incorporated into an independent Poland, in 1918, it resumed being a fertile center of Jewish intellectual, religious and political life.

When World War II began, Germany and the Soviet Union, which in signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, had formed a tenuous alliance, split up Poland between them. The eastern part, which included Galicia, fell into Soviet hands.

To many Jews in the German sector in the west, being under Russian control seemed safe, which is why so many migrated eastward – only to find themselves trapped when Hitler declared war on the USSR, in June 1941. (During the Soviet occupation, hundreds of thousands of residents of the city, among them tens of thousands of Jews, were forcibly exiled deep into the USSR. Although conditions there were abominable, it was, ironically, these exiled Lwow Jews who were most likely to survive the war.)

Selection en route to the ghettoThe Germans entered Lwow on June 30, 1941. Even before they established a Jewish ghetto, they encouraged the Ukrainians in the city to attack the Jews.

During two pogroms, in July 1941, some 6,000 Jews were murdered, either by Ukrainian nationals or by German troops, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum website.

Then, on November 8, the occupiers established the Lwow ghetto, in the city’s north. The residents then living in the neighborhood designated for the ghetto were ordered to go, and the Jews given until December 15 to move in.

Even as that process was under way, the Germans carried out a selection, shooting the elderly and sick as they walked across the Peltewna Street bridge, which led to the ghetto.

At its peak, the ghetto held about 120,000 residents, whose food rations were estimated to be about 10 percent of what Germans received, and half of what local Ukrainians and Poles were allocated. For those who didn’t die natural deaths, the Germans carried out three principal Aktions, in March-April 1942, in August of that year, and in January 1943, in which Jews were either deported to the Belzec extermination camp or shot to death in Lwow.

Finally, in June 1943, the Germans liquidated what remained of the ghetto, which had been serving as a labor camp since the January massacre. They were met with a modicum of armed resistance, but the rebels succeeded in killing only a small number of policemen. The Germans, for their part, lit on fire all the buildings and bunkers where they suspected Jews of trying to hide.

When the Soviet Red Army arrived in Lwow, on July 26, 1944, there were few Jews left to meet them, certainly under one thousand. After the war, as the community began to reorganize, it counted 2,571 Jews, nearly all of whom left, to be repatriated to Poland, and then classified as displaced persons. Eventually, many of them ended up in Israel or the United States.