Defining the witness
Yahad’s research on the ground is centered on finding a particular category of actor in the framework of the mass shootings of Jews and Roma during the Second World War in Eastern Europe, that of the witness. The two principal actors of historical importance are the victims and the perpetrators.
Contrary to the industrial killings in the extermination camps, where the crime was hidden from view, the mass shootings were witnessed by local people, especially the neighbors of the victims.
Never before interviewed, these witnesses are crucial to our research, as they provide a unique insight into a crime which very few survived. Thus, the witnesses have become essential sources of the local crimes.
Their story enables us to reconstruct the events of the crime, which we then corroborate and verify with other sources, such as Soviet and German archival information.
Through our field research, we have identified four main categories of witnesses:
Those who lived in close proximity to the shooting site were likely to see or hear the shooting by chance.
Though sometimes warned by the local police or German perpetrators to remain indoors on the day of the shooting, this did not completely inhibit neighbors, especially children at the time, from seeing parts or full scenes of the shooting from their backyard, while taking animals out to graze or following a column of Jews in the center of their village.
The large majority of witnesses that Yahad encounters and interviews are those who viewed a mass shooting through a combination of chance and curiosity.
Neighbors who saw a column of Jews passing by or children who heard that an event would take place near the village were examples of such witnesses, who sought out the shooting site to see what would happen out of interest.
Their presence at the shooting site didn’t bother the killers, as long there was no interference in the killing process.
Occasionally, locals were forced by the Germans and their collaborators to become witnesses of the mass shootings of Jews. There are a few cases in which German perpetrators forced entire villages to go to the execution site and watch the mass shooting.
Though an explicit reason for forcing locals to attend mass shootings was never given, it is most likely that this form of public execution was intended to frighten the local population into submission.
They witnessed the consequences that awaited them if they were caught harboring or aiding Jews.
The final category of witness applies to all those who were forced to participate in some logistical aspect of the shooting, either by the local police or German perpetrators. Locals were requisitioned to transport Jews to the shooting site in their carts, to dig the mass graves, to sort the clothes of the Jews, to fill the mass graves, to cook for the Germans and much more. Those requisitioned were either explicitly threatened with a punishment if they failed to participate or felt the pressure to act, while others took part in aspects of the mass shooting willingly.
*Yahad – In Unum has no political affiliation and does not advocate any political, economic or military action of any country or institution.
Its mission is to shed light on genocidal acts or whatever they are perpetrated and to give a voice to victims of genocide and to those threatened by genocide.
The Guatemalan Internal Conflict
Between 1960 and 1996, Guatemala was the stage for one of the longest internal conflicts of the 20th century. The conflict was fought between Guatemalan right-wing politicians supported by the military and communist movements supported by trade unionists, peasant leaders, students, professionals. The Guatemalan government used brutal tactics and violence to repress the guerrilla uprising in the rural areas of the country, especially in the mountains inhabited by Mayan communities. The army, militias and death squads carried out crimes and kidnappings, leading to many disappearances.
Between 1981 and 1983, the conflict reached its bloodiest point when the army razed hundreds of villages and massacred whole communities of Mayan people who were supposedly supporting the guerrillas. Terrorized by the violence from both sides, hundreds of thousands of Mayan civilians fled to other regions or became refugees abroad.
Guatemala's 36-year internal conflict claimed over 250,000 lives. A UN-sponsored truth commission, the Historical Clarification Commission, created after the war ended in 1996, documented terrifying atrocities, which included murder, mutilation, rape, and torture.
With the aim of understanding the mechanism of violence and mass murders, Yahad – In Unum began investigating the armed conflict in 2012. To date, the organization has carried out 6 research trips and conducted 170 interviews in Guatemala, mostly with Mayan survivors from rural areas, but also with families of people disappeared from urban areas.
The Yazidi Genocide
Since its sweep through Northern Iraq in August 2014, ISIS has brutally targeted the Yazidi people: men have been shot, women and young girls have been sold and raped, young boys have been forcibly converted to Islam and trained to become ISIS soldiers.
Yahad - In Unum’s “Back To Life” initiative was set up to both document the crimes of ISIS against the Yazidi people and to provide humanitarian aid to Yazidi victims, predominantly children, orphaned and/or brainwashed by the terrorist organization, and women sold into sexual slavery.
Our investigative work into the Yazidis’ fate is based on the application of our field methodology to a contemporary genocide. Our team interviews victims, collects evidence of the crimes, and documents details of the genocidal machine. Father Desbois and our committed team ensure that the gathered information is shared with the world.
Our humanitarian support is provided in special aid centers created and run by Yahad’s “Back to Life” team in the IDP camps of Kadia, Kabartu and Cham Mushko. Two such centers provide educational activities and psychological support for children and young adults whose youth has been stolen by ISIS criminals. Other centers offer sewing workshops for women as well as barbershop workshops for young adults which ran for the first time in 2020.
For more information, please visit our our website dedicated to this initiative: www.backtolife.fr
PORAJMOS: the Roma genocide
Since November of 2010, Yahad - In Unum has worked on documenting the Roma genocide. The organization works on collecting testimonies on the massacres that took place on the territories of the former Soviet Union (Ukraine, Belarus, Russia,), as well as Poland, by Nazi mobile units as well as the deportations to Transnistria from Romania. It also works on the identification of mass execution sites.
Village after village, family after family, by cross-referencing survivor testimonies with Romanian, German and Soviet archives, Yahad has identified 51 execution sites of Roma in Ukraine, Poland, Belarus and Russia and interviewed over 60 witnesses to the massacres of the Roma in these countries. Five research trips in Romania and one trip in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has enabled us to collect more than 150 testimonies on Roma survivors. To this day, Yahad has collected more than 180 testimonies on the persecutions of Roma in Eastern Europe, including Romania, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, in collaboration with our partner, Roma Dignity. These testimonies have clarified the fate of the Roma as both survivors and victims. The witnesses described shootings, deportations, starvation, sicknesses, and forced labor that the Roma were subjected to by the Nazis and their allies. Yahad - In Unum works with young Roma investigators on the ground in Eastern Europe to gather testimonies from survivors.
Persecuted by the Nazis and local officials, deported or interned, shot or left to starve to death, the Roma suffered a wide range of mass violence and persecution, depending on the country.
The deportations of nomadic Roma by the Romanian authorities started on June 1, 1941 and those that were sedentary in September 1942. They were deported to Transnistria, a region in southern Ukraine, between the Dniester and Bug rivers, given by Germany to their Romanian allies. The Roma were left to die from starvation in the fields. For three years, they lived in ditches, stables or collective farms. The Ukrainian villagers were temporarily expelled from their houses and kolkhozes in order to make space for the deported Roma. The latter group were forced to enter the houses on the same day the residents were expelled. The organized distribution of food rapidly came to a halt. Death from starvation, sickness or poverty began in the first months of the deportation and multiplied rapidly.
After the Jews, the Gypsies represented the only population group in the occupied Soviet Union whose systematic eradication began during the first year of the German-Soviet war, that is to say, at the time during which the German occupants still counted on a successful campaign. The principal motivation in the case of the Gypsies was the racial ideology of the Nationalist-Socialists. As previously mentioned, on the basis of the empirical research conducted, the differentiation in certain monographs between sedentary Gypsies and “itinerant” Gypsies only existed on paper and had no influence whatsoever on the “politics of Gypsies” (“Ziguenerpolitik”) on site. Their “way of life” did not play a role for the persecutors; the Gypsies were even more so – the enormity of the extermination measures established by the CES leaves no doubt on the subject – together as a people in the line of fire of the Einsatzgruppen and the Wehrmacht. Starting from the spring of 1942, the Gypsies were “treated” like Jews in the territories behind army lines in the North, Middle and South. Starting at this time, the extermination of Soviet Gypsies in all of the studied military territories assumes a systematic character, without many variations. In terms of the Gypsy communes, the German persecutors applied the same methods that were shown to work for the executions of Jews, that is to say, execution by bullets.
A series of systematic shootings committed on the Roma community in the so-called General Government of Poland started on a mass scale in the spring of 1942. During 35 reasearch trips to Poland, conducted between 2010 and 2020, YIU’s team managed to interview 35 witnesses of the Roma genocide and locate 35 mass graves containting Roma victims. 25 of those 35 mass graves remain without memorial.
The "Holocaust by bullets" is the model on which mass violence continues in the world today. Highlighting this little-known chapter of the Holocaust is important for commemorating the forgotten victims, but it is important to know that Yahad - In Unum does not focus solely on the past. Our work work is to encourage all societies to examine the darkest chapters of their history history and to speak out against the current scourge of genocide.
How can we continue to pass on the memory and understanding of mass crimes of the past?
Now that 80 years have passed since the extermination of the Jews of Europe began, how can we fight against anti-Semitism and racism in modern societies?
There are many challenges to be met in order to keep this memory alive, especially among the younger generations.
In a worldwide context where racial prejudice, ethnic violence and the threat of mass violence remain commonplace, our organisation is fighting on several fronts:
- The Yahad - In Unum founded Holocaust Museum in Guatemala http://www.mdh.org.gt offers a Spanish-language curriculum on contemporary anti-Semitism for a Latin American audience.
Our goal is to create an educational program for teachers and high school students that will provide them with knowledge about global and local Jewish communities in Latin America as well as a necessary understanding of the origins of anti-Semitism, its past and present manifestations, its global and local contexts and its consequences.
The long-term goal is for the Holocaust Museum in Guatemala to become a reference point for the surrounding countries as a unique institution in Central America.
Through the different local ministries of education, our goal is to ensure the teaching of the Holocaust in the region through exhibitions, the provision of educational materials for schools, explaining the connection between these countries to this period of history, and linking this knowledge to today's violence and the fight against the spread of anti-Semitism in this part of the world.
- By working in collaboration with other memorials and museums in the United States and around the world.
- Developing various educational initiatives on the Holocaust by bullets and its legacy in contemporary mass crimes and genocides, in partnership with academic institutions in France and the United States, among others.
- By training more than 500 teachers a year to teach the history of the Holocaust and the history of the Holocaust by bullets to new generations.
- By creating unique educational tools dedicated to teaching. The In-Evidence map https://yahadmap.org/ shows the execution sites of Jews identified by Yahad - In Unum in Eastern Europe. It allows visitors (researchers, students, teachers, victims' families, etc.) to access concrete information on each crime at a local level. 1003 sites are currently available online with new sites being added on a weekly basis.
For each locality, a historical overview is provided, including information on the pre-war Jewish community and the events leading up to its destruction, information on post-war memorials, excerpts from the archives, as well as video excerpts from Yahad's interviews, and current photographs showing the locations of mass graves, ghettos, forced labor camps, and places of Jewish culture.
- By taking action on social networks to combat the egregious anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial that has become so commonplace online.
- By organizing a wide range of public events: symposia, conferences, seminars, etc. focused on our efforts in the areas of Holocaust education, memory and research.
What makes Yahad's work so unique is our fieldwork, we travel to the sites of massacres, collect evidence and try to understand the mechanisms of mass murder wherever we go.
Our team is made up of specialists who pass on this knowledge and transform it into educational tools to fight the spread of mass violence and hatred in our modern world.