Return to Rivne: A Holocaust Story

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Centropa’s most unusual film to date. Shelly Weiner and Raya Kizhnerman live in Greensboro, NC. But these two kindly grandmothers were born in the bustling city of Rivne—then in Poland, now in Ukraine. In 1941 20,000 Jews lived in Rivne, but when the German Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS stormed into town, they planned on murdering every Jew they could find. How Shelly and Raya survived the massacre is a story they tell themselves, not long after they visited Rivne in 2013. With old photographs and exquisite, custom-made drawings by artist Emma Flick. Motion graphics by Wolfgang Els.

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Shelly and Raya were both born in the city of Rovno, which at that time was in Poland. Now the city is located in the Ukraine and is called "Rivne".  Learn more about the history of Poland and about the history of Rivne.

Before the war, Rivne had a population of 60,000 – of which, there were approximately 24,000 Jews.

Raya lived in Miatyn (also called My’atyn), which is located about 6km (3.75 miles) southeast of Rivne. It was in Miatyn that the family hid during the war. 

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In 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed the German-Soviet Pact, also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, in which they divided Poland – and much of Eastern Europe – between the two powers.

That September, Rivne became part of Soviet Ukraine, one of the 15 republics that made up the Soviet Union. Read more about the history of the Soviet Union. Rivne became a center for refugees as many Jews fled to Rivne from the Germans in the west. 

On 22 June 1941, Germany violated the German-Soviet Pact and invaded the Soviet Union. This date is marked in Russian history books as the start of WW2. Read more about the German invasion here. Six days later, the Germans occupied Rivne and made it the capital of the Ukrainian region. 

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In the two months following the German invasion of Rivne, about 3,000 Jews were killed in the city.

On 6 November 1941, the German occupiers took 17,500 Jews who had reported for work duty into the Sosenki Forest, located 6km (3.75 miles) from Rivne. Over the course of three days, these Jews were murdered in a mass shooting. Shelly and Raya’s family were among the victims. The massacre preceded the Final Solution, the Nazi plan to exterminate all Jews. Read more about the Rivne Massacre in this e-book.

The remaining 5,000 of Rivne’s Jews were placed into a ghetto, which was finally liquidated in July 1942. 

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Rivne was liberated by Soviet forces in February 1944. Germany eventually capitulated to the Allied Forces in May 1945.

After the war, the Soviet Union retained the territories it had annexed in 1939. Rivne once again became part of Soviet Ukraine, as Poland and the Ukraine were separated under an Allied agreement reached at the Tehran conference.

Shelly mentions that she returned to Poland because of a decree issued by Stalin in May 1945. Due to the significant change of borders in the Ukraine and Poland, many Poles were transferred westwards from eastern areas of Poland that had been annexed anew by the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union was able to establish a sphere of influence throughout much of eastern Europe. Even in Eastern European countries that were not part of the Soviet Union, the Soviets were able to install Communist governments that were friendly to the Soviet Union. Poland found itself led by such a government. Read more about postwar Eastern Europe and Communist Poland.

Shelly and her parents were later placed in a displaced persons camp. After the war, more than 250,000 European Jews lived in these camps while they awaited safe passage to other countries where they could resettle. These displaced persons were usually unable or unwilling to return to the countries from which they had been expelled during the war.

From 1957 until 1980, Raya lived in Leningrad. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the city's historical name "Saint Petersburg" was restored. Founded by Tsar Peter I of Russia in 1703, Saint Petersburg, located on the Neva River, was the capital of the Russian Empire for more than two hundred years.

Saint Petersburg is Russia's second largest city after Moscow with 4.6 million inhabitants. The "Historic Centre of Saint Petersburg and Related Groups of Monuments" constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is also home to The Hermitage, the largest art museum in the world.

In 1989 communism collapsed across Central Europe and two years later, in 1991, in the Soviet Union.

Film Details

  • Duration:
    22:00
    Countries:
    Ukraine

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