Friday, July 6, 2007

Window opens on Holocaust in Ukraine

from the AP on Yahoo! News:

By ANGELA CHARLTON, Associated Press Writer Thu Jul 5, 4:31 PM ET

PARIS - Children, stomachs empty and knees quivering, saw and heard Jews massacred by the Nazis all across the killing fields of Ukraine. Teenagers were forced to bury the victims, shoveling dirt over neighbors and playmates.

Today, these now aged men and women are unburdening themselves of wartime memories, many for the first time, in testimonies to a French priest. Their words may change history as they shed light on this poorly known chapter of the Holocaust.

The project is central to a broader reassessment of the Nazi horrors in Ukraine. Last month, a team of rabbis in another project visited a newly found grave site in the Ukrainian village of Gvozdavka-1 where thousands of Jews were killed during the occupation by Adolf Hitler's army.

That was just one site among many: Father Patrick Desbois and his mixed-faith team have been crisscrossing Ukraine for six years and have located more than 500 mass graves so far, many never before recorded.

At least 1.5 million Jews were killed on hills and in ravines across Nazi-occupied Ukraine, most slaughtered by submachine guns before gas chambers industrialized mass death. Researchers are only now peeling back layers of Soviet-era silence about what they call the "Holocaust by bullets."

Part of Desbois' work — video interviews with Ukrainian villagers, photographs of newly discovered mass graves, archival documents, bullets and shell casings — is on display for the first time in a haunting exhibit at Paris' Holocaust Memorial through Nov. 30.

"I'm not here to judge," Desbois, whose Roman Catholic grandfather survived a Nazi camp, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

He stresses that most of the people whose stories he records were children during the bloodletting. "They were poor. They were afraid."

And they stayed afraid for decades after World War II.

Soviet leaders gloried in victory over Hitler but focused on their nation's overall war losses, numbering as many as 27 million — barely mentioning the systematic slaughter of Jews.

Witnesses to the Holocaust and even survivors were considered suspect, with many accused of collaboration with the Nazis and sent to Soviet labor camps. Fear of speaking out about the Nazi occupation lingered even after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

The destruction of Ukrainian Jewry is symbolized by Babi Yar, a ravine outside the capital, Kiev, where the Nazis killed about 34,000 Jews during just two days in September 1941. But there were many other killing fields.

Desbois says his group has surveyed about a third of Ukraine so far, and the more than 500 mass graves it has uncovered is quickly approaching previous estimates that there were 726 sites in all of the country.

Paul Shapiro, director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, predicts Desbois' team will reach a higher total. He calls their work "critical" to humanity's understanding of the Holocaust.

It fulfills a "memorial purpose, a scholarly research purpose, and a public education purpose," he said. The Paris exhibit, the first time Desbois' painstaking, behind-the-scenes work has been made public, serves the third goal.

Desbois "discovered that elderly eyewitnesses who had never been asked about this, when speaking with a priest, opened up. If you are ever going to bare your thoughts, if you are a Christian, you will bare them to a priest," Shapiro said.

Given Ukraine's history of anti-Semitism, from imperial-era pogroms to modern-day vandalism of Jewish sites, some are reluctant to absolve the Ukrainian witnesses and participants of responsibility in the Holocaust.

Shapiro, however, said: "It is too late to be in a blame game. Our obligation is to understand."

Healing wounds between Jews and Christians has been central to Desbois' career. He heads a group called Yahad-In Unum — combining the Hebrew and Latin words for "together" — founded in 2004 by Paris' influential Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, whose Jewish mother died at Auschwitz, and officials at the World Jewish Congress.

Troubled by his grandfather's stories of the Rava Ruska camp in western Ukraine, Desbois visited in the 1990s and asked the mayor where the Jews were buried. The mayor said he didn't know.

A few years later, Desbois returned to find a new mayor — and 110 farmers waiting to lead him to the grassy knoll. "I was shocked. It was miserable. To see this place, and these old, weary faces," he said.

Since then, Desbois has been on a mission to fill out historical records. Some of his interview subjects have looked out on grave sites from their kitchen windows for decades.

Some even helped dig those pits, or fill them in.

Samuel Arabski, in a video testimony at the Paris exhibit, described a massacre in his village near Zhytomyr in central Ukraine in 1941, when he was 14:

"A policeman gave me a shovel. ... When I saw people still moving in the grave, I fell sick. A neighbor pushed me away so I wouldn't fall in the pit. ... Then my mother came, and asked me questions I wasn't able to answer."

A few of those bodies quivering beneath the dirt managed to survive. Executioners were generally allowed one bullet a victim, and sometimes only wounded them, Desbois said. Witnesses to numerous massacres told him of "stirring" graves and of victims who escaped only to be executed in a later massacre.

Nina Lisitsina was one of the survivors. In 1944, as a 5-year-old, she was rounded up near Simferopol in Crimea and forced along with other victims to strip off all her clothes to get ready for an execution.

"I remember a woman next to me, a child in her arms. I lost consciousness, and couldn't hear the shots. Apparently they weren't bothering to finish everyone off," she told Desbois, in testimony on display at the exhibit.

"When I regained consciousness, it was nighttime. I grabbed on to roots of a tree to get out of the ravine. I don't know how I managed."

Desbois cross-checks every statement with Soviet archives at the Holocaust museum in Washington and German records. He registers an event or new grave site only after obtaining three independent witness accounts.

Many executions were never recorded, including those of Jewish women who acted as servants and sex slaves for Nazi officers, Desbois said. Nor were those of children who were shot after failed attempts to gas them in trucks — an experimental precursor to the gas chambers.

Holocaust scholars say at least 1.5 million of Soviet Ukraine's 2.7 million Jews were killed during World War II, and Soviet anti-Semitism in later years drove more away. Today, Ukraine officially has about 100,000 Jews, though the real number is thought to be about 500,000 of its 52 million people.

Yahad-In Unum's researchers rely heavily on family members of victims or survivors. At the Paris exhibit, which is displayed in English and French, a sign near the exit asks anyone with information about someone killed by Nazis in Ukraine to leave a note in a box or to send an e-mail.

"I want to return dignity to the families," Desbois said. "Every story helps us."


Associated Press investigative researcher Randy Herschaft in New York contributed to this report.


On the Web:

Paris Holocaust Memorial:

Yahad-In Unum:

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:


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