Special edition of Yahad newsletter reporting on Vinnytsia trip now available online
A special edition of Yahad – In Unum News reporting on the Vinnytsia, Ukraine, trip is now online on Yahad’s web site. The French (vf) and English (va) versions of the newsletter also can be downloaded by clicking on the links below.
Back in France – How Yahad trips are organized
I returned home this weekend and started to unpack the memories of my 10 days in Ukraine with Yahad’s research team. As I was leaving Vinnytsia Friday, I had a pleasant surprise. I had asked to stop to view the ruins of Hitler’s Eastern Front headquarters several miles north of the city. In walking across the site, I ran into Micha and Denis, who were surveying the site in anticipation of the possible arrival of the team with a witness to nearby executions who was said to also have gone inside the bunker. Micha posed next to an air vent atop the bunker ruins.
After we had walked around the grounds – but not in the woods because of the live mines still buried there – they took me to a nearby war museum where a number of Red Army vehicles were parked. Among them were U.S. military vehicles sent under the lend-lease program, including a Studebaker used as a rocket launching platform.
I bid Micha and Denis farewell again and headed to Kiev and my flight home.
The team’s detour to the bunker reflects a practical lesson about how a Yahad investigative team moves on the ground: they go where the story takes them. Early on during this trip, we set out to visit two relatively small villages. We arrived in the first and the team began to interview witnesses. Around noon, Geoffroy announced that we would be spending the entire day in the village as the witnesses were providing us with significant new information on the village, beyond what Yahad’s researchers had found in either the Soviet or German archives. The objective is not to simply check off the names of the colored village names on the map, Geoffroy explained; it is to keep mining for information when we find it, particularly if it sheds light on an area with little or no previous documentation.
We saw the results of this approach when we returned to Voronovytsia on my last day with the team (see August 19 post). The previous week, as we interviewed witnesses about the sugar factory, it emerged that there had been another execution not far away. In the adjacent town of Kolnychevka, we found Fiodora. She took us to the site of the former rock quarry and showed us the workshop behind which the Jews alongside with whom she had worked were executed and buried.
Prior to the trip, I had expected that we would spend time investigating Vinnytsia itself but we concentrated instead on the small villages along the former DG IV roadway (now the E 50 / M12 motorway) on which camps of Jews, prisoners and local inhabitants were forced to work. Geoffroy said that a lot had happened in Vinnytsia and that it was relatively well-documented. There was less documentation on the small villages and we would concentrate on filling the information gaps.
As trip leader, Geoffroy is responsible for deciding where the team will go each day and when it is time to move on. He consults frequently with Alex, who has considerable experience, speaks the local language and has previously led a research trip.
No two villages are alike yet there is a common pattern to the team’s movement, often starting in the village center where the Jewish ghetto was usually located, and moving outward to end the day at the site of the mass grave.
Geoffroy likens his role to a police commissaire, directing a team’s investigation of a crime. He joined Yahad earlier this year after having met Patrick Desbois several years ago while organizing Shoah-related projects as a student. An inveterate traveler, having backpacked through Russia and Central Asia, he enjoys organizing the travel and logistics and the ongoing challenge of keeping a team together. He calls the work “a remarkable human experience for the entire team,” a view I can fully confirm.
On this trip, he is also responsible for keeping the detailed notes from the trip as well as writing the final trip report which will be published on Yahad’s web site. He emphasizes the fact gathering nature of the investigation. “We are constantly assessing new information to determine where to shine our light and what points to highlight in our report. But, we do not perform the detailed analysis and what Father Desbois calls the “re-contextualization” of the findings; that is the job of professional historians who have access to our files, as well as many other sources of information.”
He also conducts some of the witness interviews, coached by Alex, to broaden Yahad’s capabilities as it expands and accelerates its research. With the creation of a third investigating team, Yahad will conduct 12 research trips this year. There is an undercurrent of urgency: half of Ukraine remains to be investigated. And the clock is ticking.
Partings – Day 10
I said goodbye to the team today as I’m flying back to Paris from Kiev this evening. It felt strange standing in the parking lot and not taking my usual place in the van.
The team’s long days, the experiences shared and, undoubtedly, what we have seen and heard together, have contributed to a strong esprit d’équipe. Mine is the third departure of the week, following Viktoria’s and Mendel’s. The farewells are not easy.
I have one additional article to write on the role of the team leader and on Yahad’s general process of organizing research trips. Geoffroy will send me a summary after the trip ends on the 26th so that I can post an epilogue. In addition, Yahad’s August newsletter will be dedicated to a close-up look at a research team on the ground. I will post a link to the newsletter when it goes out at the end of the month (I hope).
Searching for babushkas.
Back to Voronovytsia / forward to Nemiriv – Day 9
I’ll start this report, my last day with the team, by returning first to last evening’s haunting experience in Voronovytsia. When we were there during the first two days of our trip and heard the story of the sugar factory, we also heard references to another shooting that had taken place in the forest outside the village. Fiodora knew the story.
She was 17 when the Germans arrived. Along with local non-Jews from five neighboring villages, she had been forced to work in the rock quarry alongside Jews from the local region and elsewhere.
On a winter morning in 1944, the Jews were led behind the tractor repair workshop not far from the quarry. Fiodora said she and the other workers could hear the machine guns firing. The Jews were buried in a pit they had been forced to dig. The Germans had told them that it was to store vegetables but Fiodora said the Jews knew the true purpose of the pit.
We found the rock quarry at the end of a deeply rutted road running through the woods and across a stream that we forded in Micha’s 4×4. We then retraced our route a few hundred meters to the workshop where Fiodora led us up a hill to the site of the mass grave, overlooked by another massive Soviet-era memorial to the “victims of the fascists.”
This morning, we stopped in Nemiriv, 45 kilometers southwest of Vinnytsia on the former DG-4 roadway. The difference between arriving in the small villages where we have been up to this point and a larger town like Nemiriv was quickly apparent. The main street and marketplace were full of young people and families and the babushkas we sought were few and far between. There also is much more movement of the population in larger towns and it takes longer to find people who lived there 70 years ago.
After two hours, the team started to find witnesses and we spent the rest of the day listening to accounts of how the local Jews were put into a ghetto, forced to work on the road and executed. Later, Romanian Jews were brought to Nemiriv and were quickly executed on the same site, next to the town cemetery.
One of our witnesses was born in 1915 to parents working as domestic servants in the castle of a countess, whose family were all killed by Bolsheviks. She appeared to be an extremely alert 95-year-old, at one point going out to tell the workman downstairs that he couldn’t use his power drill while we were videotaping. After a half hour, the drilling started again and Geoffroy called a halt for the day, making a date for the team to return to finish the interview on Saturday. Maybe to reassure us that she’d be ready and waiting, she said that her great grandfather had lived to be 115.
Peering into faraway eyes
“Could you please tell us your name?” The question is repeated in Ukrainian, the witness answers, the response is repeated in French. The next question follows.
Another interview begins and we listen to its curious harmony, barely conscious of its accompanying beat: the shutter clicks of Ellenore’s camera as she moves about the room, capturing discreet moments of history being recorded.
Like me, it is Ellenore’s first time in Ukraine and her first time with Yahad. “It’s just amazing,” she says. Professionally, she loves her assignment: create a comprehensive image chronology of all witness interviews and all visits to villages and sites, following a short list of guidelines. How she accomplishes it after that is up to her. By the time the research trip has finished, she will have taken several thousand photos, of which 400-500 will be presented for selection in order to chronicle and contextualize the results of the trip. The photos will be used in Yahad exhibitions, books, presentations and educational projects.
The native of Troyes, in France’s champagne-growing region, says she finds the witnesses’ rugged physical features, their hands and their feet to be a fascinating study.
But, most compelling are their eyes. “Sometimes, as their words are being translated, you can see them looking back into their memories. It is a moment that is full of emotion; that’s what I hope my photos convey.”
Boukabiv and translating – Day 8
See today’s team profile below
After days of unrelenting heat, it rained during the night and we returned to Boukabiv under gray skies and a hint of autumn in the air. The words “Russian winter” passed fleetingly through my mind.
Last night, the team interviewed a woman who had been 22 when the Germans arrived in the village. In Boukavina, Jews from the local area as well as from other towns and countries were confined in a camp at the village school. It appears that no mass executions occurred in the village but her accounts of individual acts — a woman and son shot by a German in the woods, a Jewish tailor hiding in the the village and shot in a ravine, a laborer shot and left by the side of the road — seemed somehow more terrible in their intimacy.
Today’s witnesses said that the Germans had burned a neighboring village and shot the inhabitants as retaliation for attacks by partisans living in the woods nearby. We stopped by to see if last night’s witness would show us the sites of the killings she had seen but she said problems with her vertebrae prevented her travel.
A man who reportedly saw the finding of a body when the new school was built on the site of the camp and former school refused to speak with us and we left the village to conduct one remaining interview in Voronovytsia, where we had spent two days last week. The interview led to a remarkable road trip that lasted into the evening. As I want to get this posted before morning, I’m going to save this story until tomorrow’s post.
Conduits of memories
We said farewell today to one of our translators, Viktoria, who had filled in during the first week for one of Yahad’s regular translators, Veira, who arrived this morning from her home in Lvov. Veira takes over as the other half of the translating tandem with Sacha, who arrived with us from Paris and is spending the entire trip with the team.
Sacha and Viktoria with last evening’s witness
All three are trained translators (or, more precisely, “interpreters,” as Viktoria reminded me). Viktoria has just received her diploma in French, English and French literature and will start working on her Masters in September. She said that her week interpreting the responses of elderly witnesses for Yahad was quite a change from her past experience working business conferences. This also was her first visit to a region which had marked her own family’s history: her mother’s parents were among 40 family members executed in a village north of Vinnytsia.
Sacha became an interpreter with the encouragement of his parents and has worked for four years while continuing his studies in international trade in Paris and finding time to publish his own blog in Russian dedicated to the business and economics of cultural administration.
Viera is an instructor at the Alliance Française and is making her 10th trip with Yahad. Her aunt, Svetlana, has been one of Yahad’s and Father Desbois’ longest serving interpreters. She arrived at 6:00 this morning on the night train from Lvov and then spent the next 14 hours traveling the back roads with us and translating witness responses.
Viera translating today
Our two interpreters alternate their roles, one day posing the questions to witnesses and the next translating their responses. Both roles pose their particular challenges. The translated question needs to impart the intended meaning of the original question, asked by the interviewer in French, while remaining understandable for the witness; it requires intensive active listening to ensure that the communication lines remain open. For the response, the witness’ clarity can vary widely, words can have multiple meanings (“educating” and “hiding” is one example) and there can be local differences in dialects – in one village, the witnesses referred to the mass grave not by the generic words but by a specific name.
The question interpreter is the team’s point of direct contact with the witness and establishing a rapport at the outset is extremely important. Unlike interpreting in business or governmental settings where the goal is to be invisible in the exchange, the Yahad interpreter must not only be visible but must also form a relationship and enter into a conversation with the witness. Sacha says that he feels he has reached this level when a witness starts saying to him, “You see?” or “You understand?”
The vocabulary of the subject matter also can be specialized, such as finding the correct Ukrainian word for the French “pointage direct,” or “aiming” in English. And, after 28 witness interviews, I have started to pick out recurring Ukrainian words in the dialogue: “Ievriey” – Jew; “colonna” – column; “rozstril – shooting; “kagat” – mass grave.
Tomorrow: One more time down highway DG IV
Team profile – Micha
A resident of Lvov and father of five, Micha has been with Yahad for all of its seven years and been on every single research trip but one. In addition to finding witnesses, driving the team through gullies and streams in his 4×4 and climbing into the attics of abandoned houses to find traces of history, Micha is an expert in ballistics from his time serving with U.N. peacekeeping forces in Bosnia. He has a passion for antiques, an interest imparted by his grandmother, and particularly enjoys talking with the elderly residents of the towns and villages as Yahad’s team wends its way across Eastern Europe.
Raigorod – Darkness and Light – Day 7
Returning to Raigorod this morning, the team interviewed a witness who then led us to the former Jewish quarter in the center of the village, where we entered the houses in which the Jewish families had lived prior to the war. We visited the nearby Jewish cemetery which opens onto a bluff overlooking the Bug River, which had served as the dividing line between the German and Romanian occupied zones.
From the crest, we could see the rock quarry in which the Jews had been forced to work. Below us lay the rail station and the remains of a stone water tower built by the Germans to replace a previous tower destroyed by the retreating Red Army.
Our witness had told us that the Germans had used gravestones from the cemetery in constructing the tower and Micha scrambled down the bank to reconnoiter. Moments later, he called up to us to descend. He pulled back the branches of a tree masking one side of the tower to reveal the life and birth dates in Hebrew engraved in the stones.
We departed for the site of the mass grave with our witness and a neighbor, an elderly woman who said she had lived elsewhere when the Germans arrived in Raigorod but that knew the grave site well. We arrived in a young forest which our guides told us had been open field at the time of the war. A Soviet-era marker guarded a fenced mound at the edge of the wood, the site of a mass execution in 1942. Fifty meters deeper into the wood, our guides led us to side-by-side depressions into which victims were marched to be shot and buried together the following year.
In talking further with the neighbor, the team discovered that she had departed the village before the war began for Kiev and there had seen the column of Jews being marched toward Babi Yar, site of a notorious massacre of more than 30,000 Jews in 1941. Back went the team to the same neighborhood to videotape the woman’s description of what she had seen and her war-time experiences in Ukraine’s largest city and elsewhere.
At the end of the afternoon, we returned to the small village of Boukabiv that we had originally planned to investigate on Sunday. The team conducted a lengthy interview with a woman born in 1919. As we are returning to the village tomorrow, I will wait to include a summary of her story in tomorrow’s report.
While the focal points of the stories we hear each day are depressingly bleak, the days are regularly punctuated with lighter moments. One of today’s was the discovery by one of our witnesses that an American was sitting in her garden listening to her story. She had been sent to a forced labor camp in Germany that had been liberated by American soldiers. She insisted on kissing me and on thanking me profusely, much to the team’s merriment.
Bad stories help us to be that much more grateful for good times.
Tomorrow: Boukabiv and Micha
Raigorod, Ukraine – Lights, Camera, Memories – Day 6
Continuing down highway DG IV, we arrived this morning in the town of Raigorod, 65 kilometers from Vinnytsia and the team dispersed to search for witnesses.
The first interview was with a 78-year-old man whose memory of the events witnessed as a nine-year-old was understandably imprecise. The team next crowded into the tiny living room of a woman, much older, who recounted in detail the confinement in a virtual ghetto of the Jews of Raigorod, along with Jews from numerous other communities, some a considerable distance away. A third witness was waiting expectantly for us with chairs already laid out under his grape arbor.
The fourth witness had seemed very reluctant this morning and agreed to do the interview only after talking with her son and asking him to be present.
Together, the witnesses told us details of the forced labor, by the Jews in the rock quarry and by prisoners of war on the DG IV highway which passes through the village (the residents refer to it as “the tar,” a clearly distinguishing feature from the rest of the dusty lanes). The village’s old Jewish quarter, the Jewish cemetery and synagogue have all disappeared.
Tomorrow, we will go back to Raigorod to be shown how the village was laid out before the war by another witness and we will visit a site in the nearby forest where as many as 3,000 Jews were shot and buried in a mass grave.
Recording vanishing history
Our arrival in the small villages of rural Ukraine with our television camera typically creates a stir, if not an outright spectacle, with curious neighbors gathering to look on while the witness is interviewed. The team’s film producer, Thierry, is well-accustomed to the stares: it is his 16th trip to Eastern Europe with Yahad to videotape witnesses as they recount their stories; he estimates to have filmed between 700 and 800 interviews.
The videotaping underlines the urgency of Yahad’s mission: the race against time to tap the recollections of the aging witnesses to the Eastern Holocaust before they die. The window has opened only relatively recently following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the gradual fading of the prevailing silence with regard to the era.
Thierry is aware that his camera is often creating the sole historical recording of what has been seen through the eyes that he sees in his view finder and he has no qualms about shushing his entourage. If Geoffroy is the decision-maker for the overall trip and Alex directs the interview, it is Thierry who runs the show on the film set. He places the witness, the translators and us, the onlookers, holding up two fingers to signal silence as the camera begins to roll.
Achieving background silence in the rural Ukraine can present its own special challenges. I started a list on the second day of sources of background noise that break the precious silence which numbered 23 at the end of today. Beyond the cell phones that team members sometimes forget to extinguish, locally-flavored noises range from roosters, geese, pigs and horses to door-to-door watermelon vendors beeping their horns as they pass through the village.
Today’s entries to the list were a telephone ringing as a witness’ worried daughter called to find out what the foreign TV crew was doing in her mother’s house (Sasha was put on the line to reassure her) and a flock of peeping baby chicks that passed below the chair of the witness before being led away by their mother.
Today’s technology allows poor sound and visual quality to be corrected in the studio but for Thierry, it can mean double the normal 8-9 hours of post-production required to turn each hour of witness testimony into a useable finished DVD.
An independent producer for 17 years, based in France’s Dordogne region, he doesn’t talk about the effects from absorbing countless accounts of enormous human suffering in support of Yahad, preferring to call his work on behalf of his client, “a labor of love.”
Team profile – Mendel Samama
Our rabbi arrived last night.
Mendel Samama, appointed earlier this year as Yahad’s permanent consultant for rabbinical issues, is based out of the main office in Paris and responsible for overseeing the research on mass graves from a rabbinical perspective (see articles in Yahad – In Unum News, n°3 and n°7). In addition to liaising with rabbinical authorities regarding Yahad’s work, he counsels the team on protocols to ensure the protection of the resting places of Holocaust victims, considered saints under Jewish law and whose remains may not be disturbed. He spends a few days of each month on the ground with research teams, observing what they are finding and hearing. He also helps Yahad respond to specific issues such as intervening last month to guide the respectful restoration of remains from a Jewish cemetery discovered lying on the ground during a research trip near Dnepropetrovsk (see Yahad – In Unum News, n°8).
Today, he joined us in listening quietly as the elderly residents of Raigorod told of the fate of another Jewish community that has ceased to exist.
Zroudyntski, Ukraine – the art of the interview – Day 5
TODAY’S TEAM PROFILE – SEE BELOW
Today marks the halfway point of my ten-day trip with Yahad’s research team in the Vinnytsia region of Ukraine. In the first five days, the team has traveled to five villages, interviewed 18 witnesses to the execution of Jews and other victims by the Nazis, and visited five mass graves.
I feel like I’ve been here a year.
Today being Sunday, we might have gone to the local church to look for witnesses as they exit the morning services. Today, however, we were in the tiny village of Zroudyntski, 55 kilometers southeast of Vinnytsia, which is too small to have its own church, so we drove up and down its dirt lanes in search of the elderly.
Micha and Denis rapidly found a string of witnesses and the team conducted four interviews that provided a vivid picture of the events that occurred there. (We had planned to visit another small town today but we spent the full day in Zroudyntski and Geoffroy has re-scheduled the other town for a later date of the trip.)
The witnesses told us that there were two camps in the village, one for local Ukrainians and the other for Jews, all of whom were forced by the Germans to work on the militarily-strategic DG IV highway that runs past the village. The camp for the Jews was a schoolhouse a few hundred yards from the highway.
When the work on the section of the road was completed, the Germans shot many of the camp’s Jews and buried them in a mass grave next to the village cemetery, an area that today is overgrown with trees. The remaining Jews were shot and buried later in the nearby woods. A witness and her son took us to both sites at the end of the day. The witness, who had delivered food to the Jews held in the camp, described the functioning of the camp and the killing and burying of the Jews, ending with the horribly-familiar, “and the earth was moving.”
“What happened here when the Germans came?”
The 18 interviews conducted thus far are at the heart of Yahad’s work. Since Father Desbois founded the organization in 2004, Yahad teams have videotaped more than 1,600 interviews with witnesses in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. The interviews are a resource for researchers and are used in museum exhibitions, presentations and other educational activities. Copies of the videos also have been provided to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Seen up close, the challenges facing the interviewer appear daunting. Witnesses to events that occurred 70 years ago are, by definition, elderly and often frail or in poor health. They were children or young adults at the time that they saw the terrible atrocities that occurred in their town. A team of strangers now appears at their home, seeking to unlock their memories of these times and stirring powerful, possibly overwhelming emotions.
Conducting a successful interview is not an accident. I have heard Father Desbois and Patrice Bensimon talk about interviewing techniques and have now seen them applied by Alex, our lead interviewer on this trip.
A former competitive Tae Kwan Do practitioner, the Ukrainian native now lives in Paris, studies history at the Sorbonne and joined Yahad in 2008. Trained as an interviewer after serving for a year as a translator, he has now interviewed more than 120 witnesses.
If the golden rules of interviewing at Yahad sound like so much common sense, the sensitivity of the subject matter makes their application anything but obvious:
· Avoid the direct question: the interview is probing delicate territory involving a traumatic and possibly complicated period which may lead to unpredictable reactions on the part of the witness; the interest is in keeping the information flowing by gradually peeling the onion and not risking that the witness suddenly shuts down.
· Put yourself into the head of the witness: you may find yourself suddenly talking not to an 80-year-old man but rather to a frightened 11-year-old boy, peering through the trees by the river with his friends to see what the Germans are doing to their neighbors; “Did you catch any fish that day?,” may better encourage the flow of memory than a question which makes the witness feel fearful or defensive.
· Maintain control of the interview: the unraveling of memories can proceed in many directions and the witness may sometimes need to be nudged back onto the topic.
· Keep it simple: many of our witnesses grew up in a time and place when access to education was far from a foregone conclusion; add to this the number of memories over an 80-year span and the possibility of creating confusion with lengthy or complicated questions is all too real. A subject is often broken up into a series of short, mundane questions to accompany the witness on their step-by-step journey back through time. “Did the truck arrive in the morning or later in the day?” “Was the truck open or covered?” “Did the truck make one trip or many trips?”
“It is the 15th of August, 2010. We are in the village of Zroudyntski, Ukraine. We are with…,” and to the witness, “could you please state your name.” “When were you born?” “Where were you born.” “What did your parents do before the war?”
Alex continues to ask questions, in French, which are translated into Ukrainian by one of the translators with the witness’ response translated into French by the other. Gradually, the questions turn toward to the presence of Jews in the village before the war, then the beginning of the war, building slowly toward the question, “What happened to the Jews in the village?”
Alex reads the witness continuously, adapting the questions depending on the responses, the tone of voice, the body language. The importance is to keep the information flowing. “Were the Jews allowed to leave the ghetto?” “Did people who were old or sick have to walk or was there a cart or truck?” “Was the pit already dug?” “Was there one shooter or more than one shooter?” “Did it take many people to fill the pit in?”
When it becomes apparent that the witness has said everything that they have to say, Alex closes the interview by thanking the witness and asking permission to make the contents of the interview public. The response is invariably the same: “You can do whatever you want with it. I have told nothing but the truth about what I have seen.” Added one of our witnesses today, “I don’t have much longer to live.”
Tyvriv – reluctant witnesses – Day 4
SEE TODAY’S TEAM PROFILE BELOW
A mixed day in Tyvriv, a village 35 kilometers due south of our base in Vinnytsia. The team interviewed four witnesses today but a fifth, reported to have been an eyewitness to the shooting of the Jews in the nearby “black forest,” refused to be interviewed.
The day’s first witness, when initially approached by Micha and Denis, said she had lived in Tyvriv during the war and seen a column of Jews being marched off for execution. During the interview, however, it emerged that she had in fact lived in a village 40 kilometers away and was recounting what she had seen there.
Three other witnesses provided fuller accounts of the rounding up and killing of the Jews in the forest, close enough to Tyvriv for the shooting to be heard in the village. One of the witnesses, whose family hid a Jewish girl during the round-up and through the end of the war, was awarded Israel’s Righteous Among Nations medal when the story was published in the memoirs of a local citizen.
Witnesses who are reluctant to talk present a challenge that can be tackled from a number of approaches, including:
· reassurance that their testimony is for research purposes and use by museums and not for a television broadcast;
· finding the right person on the team who can best connect with the witness – this may sometimes be a female, at other times a young person and for others, someone who projects an image of authority;
· allowing some time for reflection and returning later – such was the case with one of today’s witnesses who agreed to an interview after talking the matter over with her son.
Some, like today’s holdout, may dig in their heels. But, as I’m learning, there’s always someone else.
As evening approached, we departed for the forest. Scrambling up a steep embankment, we found the mass grave site just 10 meters from the busy road that leads out of the town. A bulky Soviet-era memorial pays homage to the “civilian” victims buried there. Despite the proximity to the road, a place of deep silence.
Tomorrow: back on the DG IV road in Bougakiv and Zroudyntsi
Team profile: Denis
A resident of the ancient city of Polotsk, Belarus, Denis has worked for Yahad for three years and has served on nine research trips in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. A one-time boxer, he was introduced to Yahad by the members of the Jewish community in Polotsk. As Yahad teams move from town to town, Denis helps identify witnesses willing to be interviewed; he says he particularly likes the process of discovering new information through witness testimony not already reflected in the archive records. The search is not always straightforward: he recalls a 15-minute trek through knee deep snow to interview a witness, only to find them not at home. He shrugs and smiles, saying something in Belarusian that sounds a lot like, “sometimes, that’s just the way it goes.”
SEE TODAY’S TEAM PROFILE BELOW
The first page of Boris Zabarko’s book, Holocaust in the Ukraine, includes a quote from writer Vassily Grossman that begins, “There are no Jews left in Ukraine…Silence…Stillness…The people murderously killed…Everyone is killed…” The quote’s significance lies beyond a literal reading: the book itself is a collection of 86 personal testimonies from survivors. Yet, 1.5 million victims were killed in the Shoah in Ukraine, a culture and society obliterated and surviving Jews are the rare exception. Today, we heard the stories of two of them.
We spent our first hour in Gnivan this morning looking for witness leads in the marketplace and surrounding neighborhoods. By mid-morning, the team was crowded into a shaded corner of a backyard listening to 84-year-old Olga while her daughter bustled about bringing us juice, then water, fresh-picked apples, watermelon and cookies.
From Olga, we heard of the Jewish ghetto built on the Romanian side of the river, of the terrible treatment and ultimate shooting of her Jewish friends and the forced labor by prisoners of war in the rock quarry. We also heard the name of one of the local officials responsible for the killings whose name also appears in our research archives. Olga said that one of the local Jewish survivors traveled to Germany after the war to identify the man at a war crimes trial.
We next arrived at the home of Fira, a Jewish survivor who was nine when the Germans arrived in 1941. The normal order of questions was quickly broken by her unstoppable flow of memories, alternating with tears and our translator, Sasha, was left to try to summarize a string of 5-minute answers.
The few bright moments in her story were quickly followed by the terrible consequences – escaping with her father from the ghetto, only to have her mother beaten to death in interrogation for refusing to reveal his whereabouts. After an hour, we packed up to go. Fira walked us to the van, thanking us emotionally for what we were doing. We departed feeling drained.
After a stop for lunch, we arrived at the local war museum where we interviewed its curator, Ivan. Conscripted into the Soviet Army days after the German invasion at the age of 16, he avoided capture at Stalingrad, fought in Belarus, the Baltics and Poland, was wounded multiple times, including at the end of the war in Berlin. He returned home at age 20, the only survivor of the town’s 23 boys with whom he had entered the army.
After the war, Ivan moved to Gnivan as a researcher and instructor in a professional school. His responses to our questions were precise and to the point and the professorial reflexes still apparent as he gestured to photos on the museum walls with a wooden pointer as if we were students in his classroom. At times, his discourse turned political as he blasted the Americans for their nuclear hegemony in the 60’s and 70’s although he ended by saying he believes that Barack Obama is a symbol of the new peace between nations.
His research in the town included reconstructing the precise fate of its Jewish population, a story widely, if vaguely, known when he arrived but rarely discussed. We listened to the story of how the Jews were rounded up just before dawn in June 1942, herded into a building, then marched to a site in the forest where they were shot and buried in a mass grave. Forty years later, their remains would be exhumed by an Australian team operating under the authority of the International Court and reinterred in the local cemetery. Ivan would show us both sites.
Into the vehicles we went, driving down a gravel road through a forest until we came to the gates of a military installation. It was along this road that the Jews were marched to their execution, leaving a trail of their personal belongings behind them on the road. The installation had been a Soviet fueling depot, taken over by the Germans during the war and then taken back by the Soviets before becoming a Ukrainian military facility. While we were not permitted to go to the exact location of the mass grave, the base commander took us into his office to show us the official International Court documents and a photo of the exhumation by the Australians.
We then drove to the cemetery where stood a large monument marking the final resting spot of between 150 and 200 Jews from Gnivan and surrounding communities. Next to the monument was another grave for a man who had lived from 1930 to 2005, the sole survivor of the massacre. The floor was all Ivan’s. As the rounded up Jews awaited their awful fate in the building into which they had been driven, a large German stood facing them in the doorway. A young boy ran between the German’s legs and escaped. After the war, he returned to Gviwa, living until the age of 75 and it is he who is buried next to his family and other members of the town’s Jewish community.
Ivan had one more story. He had named the fateful day, “the quiet after the storm.” He told us that the night before, as if in anticipation of the next day’s terrible events, a huge windstorm had swept through Gviwan. By the time the Jews were gathered for their march to the execution site, it had become perfectly still.
We drove away as the last rays of the day’s hot sun shone on the Soviet tank that had helped liberate the town in 1944, lost in thought.
Team profile – Vitalï
A native of Lvov, Vitalii has been driving Yahad research teams down dusty back roads and through small villages in search of mass grave sites since 2006. A star striker for his local football club in his youth and today a husband and father of one child, Vitalii says that he finds the reconstruction of “crime scenes” at suspected execution sites to be the most interesting part of Yahad’s work. Driving in all seasons can produce added adventure: the whole team pushing (including Father Desbois) to try to free the van from a massive snowbank, only to all fall over into the snow bank themselves, followed by the van.