Return to Rivne: A Holocaust Story

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.


Shelly and Raya were both born in the city of Rovno, then in Poland. The city is now located in the Ukraine, and is called Rivne. Before the war, Rivne had a population of 60,000, of which approximately 24,000 were Jews. Raya lived in Miatyn (also called My’atyn), which is southeast of Rivne. It was in Miatyn that the family hid during the war.

Poland had been partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria since 1772. This partition period, of almost 150 years, came to an end in 1918, the Second Polish Republic being formed in 1921. Though Poland's independence had been promised by Tsar Nicholas and Woodrow Wilson, the Republic was created by internal, Polish action. Explore this website to learn more about the history of Poland.

Marshal Pilsudski was Poland's head of state for most of the interwar period. Pilsudski is considered largely responsible for Poland regaining its independence, and led the Second Polish Republic until 1922. Following a coup d'etat, he returned to power in the spring of 1926, becoming a de facto dictator.

Find here a 1919 interview with Pilsudski.

Raya would spend her adult life in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was formed in 1922, following the 1917 October Revolution, when the Bolshevik party seized power. The 1922 declaration of state was led by Vladimir Lenin: after his death in 1924, Josef Stalin seized power and imposed a regime of terror that would continue after his death in 1953. Read more about the early Soviet Union here.

The beginning of the Second World War put an end to the Second Polish Republic. On the 1st of September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. As stipulated by the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Soviet forces invaded and occupied East-Poland two weeks later. The Polish government did not surrender but went into exile in London.


Poland was once home to the largest Jewish community in Europe, and was an important center of Jewish culture. Poland experienced a long period of tolerance: from the sixteenth century, around 80% of the world's Jewish population lived in Poland, where the community prospered. Read a historical overview of Jewish life in Poland, and find an article on Jewish-Polish relations here.

Before World War II about 3.3 million Jewish people lived in Poland, ten percent of the total population. For them, the German invasion means the start of a time of repression, isolation, and eventually annihilation. After the invasion, many Jewish refugees fled from the advancing German army to the east of Poland and eventually ended up in Soviet-occupied Poland. Read more about their fate here. Additionally, this article discusses Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust.

Zionism flourished throughout Europe in the nineteenth century, popularised in Theodor Herzl's influential text Der Judenstaadt (in English, The Jewish State). Find the ebook here. Zionism called for the return of Jewish people to their ancient homeland in Israel: the Jewish Virtual Library offers a detailed definition.


The Second World War began with the invasion of Poland. On the 1st of September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. As per the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Germany, Soviet forces invaded and occupied East-Poland two weeks later. Read about Jewish refugees in Soviet-occupied Poland here.

Following the invasion and partition, the Polish government went into exile in London, where they were central in exposing the atrocities at Auschwitz to the rest of the world. More information on the Polish government-in-exile can be found here.

In June 1941, Nazi Germany violated the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and attacked the Soviet Union. The Axis invasion of the Soviet Union was destructive and brutal: millions of soldiers and civillians died, food stores were burned, and infrastructure destroyed. Read an article on the Soviet-German War (1941-1945) or take a look at pictures of what Russians refer to as the Great Patriotic War. It was during this time that Germans occupied Rivne and made it the capital of the Ukrainian region.

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 Rivne Jews who had reported for work duty into the Sosenki Forest. 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. Flip through this ebook for more information on wartime Rivne (focus on the second chapter, "Aktion: The Holocaust in Rovno", to learn about the Rovno Massacre).

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

Soviet forces beseiged and captured Berlin in April 1945, effectively ending the Second World War. In narratives of this event, the experiences of soldiers, civilians, and the military high commands differ significantly between Western and Soviet perspectives. Read a Soviet and an Allied account of the Seige of Berlin, and consider their similarities and differences.

Read here about Poland at the end of the war, and the political situation in Europe.


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

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 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. 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.

Raya lived in Leningrad until 1980. 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. After the 1917 Revolution and 1922 formation of the Soviet Union, the Russian capital was moved to Moscow.

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. Read about the dissolution of the Soviet Union in this article.

A timeline of Soviet history, from 1917-1989, can be found here.


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