Nazi treatment of Jews during German occupation of the former Soviet Union between June 1941 and 1944 belongs in the annals of infamy. The Gestapo handled religious leaders with extreme sadism, usually executing them after public torture. Torah scrolls were removed from synagogues and thrown onto bonfires around which congregants were forced to dance.
Himmler and Heydrich conceived the idea of the so-called Holocaust of bullets immediately before the invasion. Their policy of genocide began with the formation of Einsatzgruppen, units newly formed to perform mass murder and steal Jewish property. These death squads followed the Wehrmacht or armed forces eastwards as the invasion progressed, gunning down entire Jewish communities from Ukraine, Belorussia and the Baltic States. It is estimated that 1.5 million Jews and other 'undesirables' were killed in the Ukraine alone during these two and a half years.
Jewish men summoned to "work" details were the first to be shot, but by late summer 1941 the Nazis assembled entire communities on pretexts such as "resettlement" and massacred them outdoors. Their bodies were thrown into ditches, pits, ravines (as at Babi Yar), irrigation wells - murders doomed to obscurity, as survivors were few. No traces were left of those who perished so anonymously. Upon reflecting how all my relatives from Bausk, Riga, Kaunus and Zhagarren were obliterated, helplessness gives way to horror at the vast size and scope of the murder operation, at its lethal speed and efficiency. Now that its minutiae are also becoming known, most chilling of all are the dreadful details revealed by Gentile bystanders or collaborators.
Eyewitness accounts from elderly people in the Ukraine have recently been recorded on videotape as they help locate mass graves and unburden themselves of their memories. Fulfilling a unique role of moral and historical import is a 55-year-old French Catholic priest, Patrick Desbois. His organization, Yahad-In-Unum - founded in 2004 - aims to identify sites of mass Jewish executions. Russian regional records and Nazi archives are scanned for approximate locations and numbers of victims. In the last seven years Desbois has identified and documented 600 mass graves in the Ukraine, marking maps with GPS coordinates: "relatively small ditches with less than 1,000 victims, mid-sized ditches holding up to 10,000 victims, and large sites of extermination with over 80,000 victims." He estimates that up to 2,000 such sites remain undiscovered. To forestall plunderers, the task force excavates only a small area of the mass grave, then covers it again.
"Little is known about this terrible chapter in Jewish historyThe Einsatzgruppen wiped out whole villages in hours, entire regions in afternoons. There is little forensic or testimonial documentation other than what Father Desbois is collecting," states Aryeh Rubin of the Targum Shlishi organization.
The purpose of Desbois' organization is to "ensure that the historical record and the evidence of the Jewish genocide perpetrated by the Nazis in Ukraine becomes available to worldwide study and research, and that the countless numbers of Jewish victims who still lie buried in anonymity are properly remembered, according to their own religion." His discoveries were represented at an exhibition entitled Holocaust by Bullets at the Shoah Memorial Museum, Paris.
Desbois is high up in the hierarchy of the church, director of the Commission for Relations with Judaism of the French Bishops Conference. His personal involvement ensued from close childhood contact with his grandfather, a French P.O.W. interned by the Germans during WWII at Rawa-Ruska on the Ukrainian border. Much later, in 1991 Desbois found himself in that same area. His probing questions on what had happened to the large Jewish population there, were stonewalled repeatedly until a new deputy-mayor came on the scene and led him to a mass grave and about 100 witnesses.
The priest goes four times a year to the Ukraine, for three to four weeks each time, always in clerical garb and accompanied by a small team that includes an interpreter, cameramen, a ballistics expert and a historian. Local pastors help him track down possible witnesses who are all over 70 years old - a resource that is fast disappearing. Sometimes the team goes door-to-door asking where the Jews are buried or stops people in the street to ask if they are long time residents. Vividly etched wartime memories of the mass killings or youthful involvement in Nazi actions, sometimes under duress, spill out, as they give testimony. Desbois skillfully directs questions as he listens in a non-judgmental way.
Horses and carts were requisitioned and farmers were busied, transporting Jews to their death. Locals often had to dig ditches at least three meters deep, intended for the burial of their Jewish neighbors. Sometimes they had to trample on bodies in the mass graves to make room for more layers. Among the dead were classmates and neighbors from the village. Women sorted clothing, while children drummed on saucepans to drown out the noise of gunfire and prevent hysteria. Locals prepared and served food to the executioners so they could eat and drink next to the open graves between shifts.
Victims killed by individual bullets - the usual allotment was one per person - were not always killed outright. Numerous bystander accounts verify that it often took three days for a personto die and stop moving. Desbois confirms that, "The Germans, to save ammunition, buried people alive, especially children."
Chabad emissaries are involved with ritual aspects of mass graves, erecting appropriate memorials to mark locations and ensuring that the areas are treated with the proper respect. In August 2007, during city construction that excavated the site of the old Kharkov ghetto, Chabad was required to rebury 150 charred bodies, some with bullet marks. The victims were mainly women and children who were unable to join the 8 km forced march to Drobitsky Yar, where most of Kharkov's Jews were shot and buried in December 1941. That August, Chabad also held a memorial service in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, commemorating the murder of some 30,000 Jews 65 years ago. According to reporter Dovid Zaklikowski, "Both these atrocities had faded from memory until the breakup of the Soviet Union allowed the revelation of what exactly the Nazis perpetrated following the invasion of Soviet lands in the early 1940s."
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there has been increased openness and the fate of East European Jewry is receiving more media attention. On a visit to Israel in mid-November 2007 Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko gave President Shimon Peres hundreds of declassified documents on the burial sites.
Why did the Soviets conceal the Holocaust for so long? It was most probably because Nazi atrocities, following hard upon hasty Russian withdrawals, did not reflect well on Stalin's regime. Neither did the participation of some local militias in the Nazi annihilation program. Though survivors made valiant efforts to erect memorials after World War II, these were mostly prohibited and sabotaged by the authorities. Those few that were permitted had edited out any mention of Jews.
Though we thought we had heard it all by now, a bitter surfeit of horrors is still being uncovered in Eastern Europe. From over there, the voice of our brothers' blood cries out to us from the ground and rumbles in our ears with a silent but deafening roar.
The Holocaust by Bullets exhibit just completed its engagement in Paris. It is expected that it will be in New York by the fall of 2008 at The Museumof Jewish Heritage.
First published in The Jewish Press (Link)
In these tales, the truth and authenticity are to be found in the details that show these people were not just statistics. They were ordinary folk leading unassuming lives when the terror of the Holocaust descended upon them.
Written by Susan de la Fuente
Contact info: sdlfsusan at yahoo dot com
Written by Susan de la Fuente
Contact info: sdlfsusan at yahoo dot com