August 2010 Vinnytsia trip – Epilogue
Before talking about how the Vinnytsia trip ended, let me go back again to the beginning and the preparation that goes into a Yahad research trip.
One of the secrets to Yahad’s success in its ongoing race against time is its ability to focus its investigations on places where mass executions took place and where surviving witnesses are thus likely to be found.
Through the work of Yahad researchers, who comb the archived proceedings of Soviet Special Inquiry commissions and German war tribunals, the research team arrives on the ground with a list of villages and summaries of testimony about the events reported to have occurred there.
Translating the records (from Russian or German into French) is painstaking. The Soviet commission records amount to millions of microfilmed pages of handwritten accounts, sometimes barely legible. Last year, a researcher told me she had spent two days deciphering two pages of ink-splotched, torn transcripts.
But, the work is invaluable, enabling the team to make the most efficient use possible of its limited time to gather the data over the vast geographic area of Eastern Europe: Ukraine alone is about the size of the U.S. State of Texas. Along with other historical references, the archive records provide the teams with the places and context for starting their investigations. As Father Desbois says, “One cannot simply saunter nonchalantly into a Ukrainian farm without having first carried out solid historical research. It is a condition sine qua non for a successful interview with a witness, as it allows one to ask the right questions and to decipher the answers.”
Following my return to Paris on August 20, the team spent another six days in the field, continuing to work their way along DG IV southeast of Vinnytsia. In villages along the Bug River, the putative dividing line between German and Romanian occupied territories, they heard more stories of the porous and shifting border and the equally horrible fate awaiting many Jews on the Romanian side. In Bratislav, they heard of Jewish orphans massacred by Romanians who then threw the bodies into the river.
On the last day, the team moved to an area west of Vinnytsia to complete the investigation of an area that had been begun by a previous research team. In the town of Lityn, they interviewed a woman who had been requisitioned to serve on a burial detail with other Ukrainians. Over the course of three hours, she detailed having watched, on a dozen occasions, the shooting of Jews next to pre-dug pits and then having been forced to push into the pits the bodies of those who had not fallen in. More than once, she said, the victims were still alive, pleading vainly to be spared.
Some of the leads the team had been pursuing when I departed proved to be ultimately inconclusive. During a return visit to the 95-year-old witness born into the household of a countess (August 19), doubts surfaced about the accuracy of her testimony when she said that neither she nor her father had ever met her 115-year-old grandfather. Another interview, with the woman who said she had worked on the site of Hitler’s bunkered Eastern Front headquarters, proved fascinating. However, the team took with a grain of salt her statement that she had actually seen Hitler from a distance, walking across the site, surrounded by guards. Impossible to verify whether she had happened to be on the site during Hitler’s single recorded visit, her testimony is added to the wealth of data that will be weighed and sifted by historians. More memories recorded that, but for the appearance of Yahad’s team, would have soon disappeared forever.
The Vinnytsia research trip was Yahad’s 29th overall and 21st in Ukraine. During the 16 days, the team visited 12 villages, interviewed 48 witnesses and viewed a dozen mass grave sites, all in the region around Vinnytsia, following the former DG IV roadway on which the Germans had forced Jews, prisoners of war and others to work.
The names of the villages toll like a bell: Voronovytsia…Boukakiv…Raigorod…Tyvriv…Gvivan.
The sugar factory.
The rock quarry.
The fuel depot.
They are names of places where a terrible history took place. Places where the remains of victims lie, sometimes marked with a stone, other times disappearing beneath the grasses and leaves.
There are some that would seem to prefer that the places disappear forever. During the trip, the team interviewed a man who, as a teenager, had been made to guard the Jews held in the camp in his village. Described by other witnesses has having been kind to the prisoners, there was nonetheless a timeless anguish visible on his face. “What was in the past, should be left in the past,” he told us.
Patrick Desbois formed Yahad, in part, to stem the ebbing of memory. Every interview conducted by a Yahad team places another stone in the path of those who would have erased all traces of the very existence of the victims, their homes, their culture. But, it is more than a fight against Holocaust denial. It is also a fight to honor the victims and to bring a respectful dignity to their final resting place. And, it is a fight against any who would contemplate genocide in the future, warning that their crime will not remain undetected. Says Father Desbois, “As we leave a village, I’m often struck by the thought: ‘The assassins probably never imagined that 60 years later, men and women, motivated by a quest for the truth, would be here interviewing the witnesses to the killings of the Jews and Roma.’ This is the message we want to send to all who commit or want to commit genocide: sooner or later, wherever the mass murder of humans has taken place, someone will return.”
It’s been three weeks since I returned from the trip with Yahad’s research team to Vinnytsia, Ukraine, and some memories are fading. Other memories sometimes return unexpectedly.
Last night at dinner, someone was telling a story that had nothing to do with the Holocaust by bullets and, with their hand, held flat in front of them, made an up-and-down motion. It suddenly recalled the gesture made by Ukrainian witnesses as they repeated the terrible words, “…and the earth moved…,” signifying that some of the victims had been buried alive.
I had already seen and heard this in videos of witnesses (one is on the Yahad home page in a video from an Israeli TV news story) but hearing it directly had an altogether different impact. Even more so a second time. By the third, I felt a sort of dread as we waited for the translation of what had already been conveyed visually.
I saw Father Desbois last week and he asked me what had been my strongest impression from the trip. I told him it had been the recognition of the vastness of the crime, from hearing first-hand, village-by-village, the testimony of the witnesses. In discovering the history of the Holocaust by bullets by reading about it, the numbers seemed so large to me as to become almost an abstraction. But, to sit in someone’s garden in a rural Ukrainian village and hear them speak about their childhood friend, who used to come to the house to make jam together with the witness’ family, and who was one day led away with the rest of her family to be brutally murdered and thrown into a pit…well, to say it casts a different light is such understatement. The difference between reading and hearing is enormous.
The faces of the witnesses who we heard from keep coming back to me. They would look at us, sometimes dispassionately, sometimes with interest or curiosity, but they never seemed surprised to find eight foreigners sitting at their feet listening to them and clicking away with our cameras.
Sometimes, it almost seemed as though they had been waiting for us.
That they were almost always willing, even eager, to share their memories with us, how much of this is a universal reflex of elderly persons everywhere? And in the darkness of the stories they recounted, how much was an unburdening? (Father Desbois speaks of the reaction of some witnesses, “Why did it take you so long to come here?”)
Other memories come in bits and pieces. Witnesses, forewarned by Micha and Denis that we would be coming back with our cameras, dressed in their finest clothes, a string of plastic pearls, a freshly pressed shirt, bedroom slippers sticking out incongruously beneath the table. Invariably, the witnesses were gracious, hospitable, welcoming, generous. At the end of the interview, some would walk us to their gate and stand there looking after us as our van pulled away.
Moments of lightness: Thierry, our video producer, being told that the rash cream he had been sold the previous day, and had liberally applied, was actually for treating lice; Alex, showing up in the middle of a cemetery at the end of a hot, dusty day with ice cream bars for everyone; elderly neighbors arriving in the middle of an interview who would seat themselves next to the witness, listen for a while, then get up and shuffle off.
At times, the interviews would be filled with an emotional tension that felt like being inside a play. Pain, sadness, revulsion, drama and, occasionally, humor. Thierry signals that the cassette needs to be changed. A break. The team stretches. The witness watches us. We begin again.
Then, there are the eerie moments. Are they products of imagination?
- We’re in a backyard listening to a witness. Her testimony turns to the day the Germans arrived. She tells of the rounding up and execution of the Jews. There is a noise from the sky. A huge flock of black crows flies overhead. I told Patrice about it last week when I was at the office. “Yeah,” he said, “it happens a lot. That, and dogs barking.”
- Fiodora has led us to the abandoned rock quarry, two kilometers outside the town where she and other inhabitants worked alongside the Jews. The heavily rutted road passes through a forest and across a stream to end at the quarry. Our rabbi, Mendel, is with us. “This is not a good place,” he says.
- The team is in a wood. We have been brought there by two witnesses and are standing before side-by-side depressions in the earth into which Jews from the nearby village were marched to be shot. We listen, we take our photos, we drift apart. It’s completely still in the wood. A sudden gust of wind moves through the tops of the trees sending a shower of leaves fluttering to the ground.
Yahad’s work is compelling. In tapping the memories of the witnesses before they die, it is performing an irreproducible act. In tracing the footprints of the killers, from village to village, it is sending a message to those who might commit inhuman atrocities against others that, “one day, someone will come.” And, in working to identify and protect the mass graves across Eastern Europe, it is helping to preserve the memory of the victims with respect and dignity and, perhaps, restoring a bit of humanity to humankind.