La ‘Shoah’ a balazos


It is the Shoah or “Holocausto” by “balazos” or “balas” this week as Yahad comes to Madrid as co-organizer of an international conference with the Spanish Foreign Ministry’s Casa Sefarad.


The story of the Holocaust, and particularly the story of the shooting genocide of Eastern Europe, is relatively unknown in Spain compared with much of the rest of Europe.  You wouldn’t know it from the intensity in the packed auditorium last night listening to Father Desbois ask, again, “If we as Europeans are incapable of respectfully remembering our own dead, murdered in the heart of Europe, what do we have to say about genocide to Rwanda, to Cambodia, to Darfur, to Armenia?”


The first stories in the Spanish press were published overnight, including in El Mundo and Publico.

The presenters at the conference reads like a who’s who of the world’s experts on the Holocaust and the “Shoah a balazos;” in addition to Spanish government officials, other speakers include Serge Klarsfeld, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Paul Shapiro, representatives from the Auschwitz Museum, the Berlin Memorial, France’s CNRS Research Institute and distinguished historians from the U.S., Germany, Spain and France.


The audience includes teachers from Spanish schools, high school students and journalists and the sessions for the three-day conference start in the late afternoon to accommodate work schedules.  Last night, several members from the Roma community also were present and heard Father Desbois describe Yahad’s findings from the Romania trip (see posts below from November 20-28), Yahad’s first investigation undertaken at the request of a local group into the deportation of Roma to Transnistria during the War.


Father Desbois and Patrice Bensimon, Yahad’s Research Director and one of its research team leaders, also presented on results and methodologies of investigations in Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and Poland including the story of Bronnaya Gora where as many as 50,000 Jews were killed.

There is one other very unique participant at this conference.  Tonight, Father Desbois and Patrice will interview, Yosip, an 82-year old witness, who has journeyed for the first time ever from his small village in Ukraine to tell what he saw after Germans arrived at his house in 1942 and told him to come with them, “and bring your shovel.”  It is the first time that a witness has ever appeared at such a conference.  Judging from the short exchange yesterday in front of Spanish journalists, tonight’s audience is in for “una experiencia inolvidable.”

Witness to a shooting: Yosip’s story



Father Desbois interviewing Yosip, witness to a mass shooting, as Svetlana prepares to translate.


Father Desbois frequently describes the different types of witnesses to the shootings of Jews, Roma and other victims in Eastern Europe:

  • Neighbors who lived in close proximity to the shooting site and who could view the execution from their home;
  • Spectators, some willingly, some coerced, some picking up valuables left behind or cast away by the victims prior to the shooting;
  • Those requisitioned to perform some activity related to the execution.

Last night, attendees at the second day of the international conference in Madrid heard first-hand the experiences of Yosip, who as a 14-year-old Ukrainian living in the town of Bibrka, was requisitioned on three separate occasions by the Germans and their local police allies.   While Holocaust survivors have sometimes been present at other conferences, this was the first time that an audience had the opportunity to better understand the role of oral testimonies of witnesses in completing the historical record of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe.


A Yahad research team had found and interviewed Yosip in his home in the western Ukraine in January 2009.  His role as a requisitioned worker, the events he witnessed and the clarity of his testimony made him an ideal candidate when discussions turned to the possibility of bringing a witness to the Madrid conference.    The question remained of his willingness to travel — and, as with so many of Yahad’s aging witnesses, whether he was still alive and in good health.

Svetlana, who has worked as an interpreter for Father Desbois for 10 years, traveled back to Yosip’s village where she found him digging potatoes in the field.  “How would you feel about going to Spain to tell your story again at a conference,” she asked?  After consultations with his wife and other family members, 83-year-old Yosip agreed to make his first trip outside of his country.

In Madrid yesterday, word seemed to have traveled beforehand about Yosip’s appearance.  The conference already had been well-attended the first day.  For Yosip’s interview, the auditorium was packed to capacity.   A hushed audience listed as Yosip responded to the questions posed by Father Desbois, the translated words arriving over loudspeakers and headsets.


“Who came to requisition you?”

“It was the Starost’s people.  They came for my father but he wasn’t there so they told me to come and to bring my shovel.”

“To do what with your shovel?”

“To dig the pit.”

“How big was the pit?”

“It was about three meters by three meters.”

“How long did the shooting last?”

“Not very long, about one or two hours.”

Yosip was among eight villagers forced to dig the pit into which 50 Jews were then marched to be shot.  The Germans told them to go away after the pit was dug but Yosip and the others hid in the trees and witnessed the execution.


(Holocaust by Bullets historical photo)

Prior to the war, nearly 5,000 Jews lived in the town of Bibrka.  Other than the few who were able to flee before the German invasion or to escape, all were killed, mostly in a single large-scale massacre.  The shooting for which Yosip was requisitioned and witnessed was one of several smaller shootings that occurred later.

Father Desbois told the audience that Yahad has listed 39 separate occupations that requisitionees were forced to perform by the occupiers, ranging from transporting victims, to digging the pits, to preparing meals for the firing squad, to sorting victims’ clothes and belongings following the execution.   Yosip said that he was requisitioned two other times.  Before the shootings, he had to transport Jews in carts to work on repairing the road with stones taken from the cemetery.  After the shooting, he was part of a group compelled to move the furniture out of the houses in the ghetto into the synagogue.

Yospin spoke in a clear, certain voice.  For his first trip outside his country, aside from visits to neighboring Poland, he seems to me to be taking it all in stride.  Asked his impressions of Spain, he responded that it seems very beautiful.  But, he adds, I prefer home.

Witness interview – video


The history of the Holocaust by Bullets is being pieced together through the individual stories of the surviving witnesses to the shootings.  During the international conference in Madrid, Yosip, an 83-year-old Ukrainian made his first journey outside of his country to share the memories of what he had seen.  The video clip below is an extract of Yosip’s interview in Madrid with Father Patrick Desbois. 


Heroine in the house


The International conference on the Holocaust by Bullets closed last night with presentations on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Berlin Memorial, the Auschwitz Museum and a planned memorial exhibit in Warsaw, providing an interesting perspective on the differences and similarities in how the Holocaust is presented and memorialized around the world.


Adam Kerpel-Fronius of the Berlin Memorial

Presentations during the three-day international conference in Madrid covered a wide range of topics relating to the Holocaust by Bullets.  Some presenters provided the broad historical context of the events at the time, recalling the words, decisions and actions of Nazi leaders leading to the genocide.  Others focused on specific aspects:  Nazi use of existing Soviet administrative structures to implement their program of extermination; Nazi efforts to erase the traces of their crimes by digging up and burning the corpses of their victims; research findings from archives and testimony.


Father Desbois and Serge Klarsfeld

One particularly moving presentation during the conference was made by Serge Klarsfeld, the famed Nazi hunter, regarding the deportation of Jews from France and, particularly, children.   Of the 80,000 Jews deported, 11,400 were children.  While noting that 75% of the Jews in France survived the Holocaust due in many cases to the courage of the French people in protecting them, Klarsfeld pulls no punches regarding the disgraceful chapter of his country’s history.

SPAIN13The story of the children, many of whom were sent to Auschwitz alone, having been separated from their parents, stirs particularly deep emotion.  The Klarsfelds’ 1,500-page “Memorial to Jews Deported from France,” listing each victim and date and place of birth, was followed by “French Children of the Holocaust: A Memorial,” providing remembrance of each child through a photo and text, “to rescue these children from oblivion,” says Klarsfelt, “to permit them to leave a permanent mark in history as individuals and as a group.”

The works are the product of painstaking research in public administration records throughout France, complicated by the wide variations in the people and place names of Jews residing in France but with national origins in 67 different countries, even Afghanistan and China.   A revised version of the “Memorial” will be released in 2012, the 70th anniversary of the deportation.


Beate Klarsfeld listens to her husband, Serge Klarsfeld, presenting at the Madrid conference

“Klarsfelds.” Because, indeed, Serge Klarsfeld is part of a world famous husband-wife team.  And, as Serge Klarsfeld presented from the podium, there she sat in the front row, looking up at him.  Beate Klarseld, German-born, who publicly slapped the Chancellor of West Germany, a former Nazi, who brought back Klaus Barbie from Bolivia, who pursued the Drancy internment camp commander, Alois Brunner, to Damascus.  Together, they fought against indifference, hostility and denial, pushing for recognition and remedy for the children of deportees, for the official recognition of France’s responsibility in the fate of the deported Jews, for the successful prosecution of Nazi war criminals…and, for the remembering of the individual victims.

As Serge Klarsfeld proudly recognized his life partner sitting in front of him, the applause rolled through the auditorium for “the little German girl,” to whom he had written, after they met in 1960, “Make your life a poem. Lift it to the level of an inspiring experience.”