Yahad’s Poland – Ukraine tour begins
Between June 21, 1941, the day that Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and 1944, the Nazis killed tens of thousands of Jews, Roma and others in Eastern Europe, through extermination camps and mass shootings. A group of 25 people departs Paris today to participate in an educational tour organized by Yahad – In Unum to Poland and Ukraine to examine more closely this terrible period of history.
Led by Father Desbois, the four-day series of visits and briefings begins today in Krakow, Poland, with a visit to the city’s former Jewish quarter, the cemetery and the remains of the Jewish ghetto. Activities during the following days include briefings at the sites of the Auschwitz – Birkenau and Belzec death camps, visits to museums, a day in Lvov, Ukraine, and a presentation on the Holocaust by Bullets at Rawa Ruska, the site where Yahad’s research originally began.
An eerie Sunday spent touring the once thriving Jewish quarter of Krakow, home at one time to 70,000 Jews. A significant Jewish community had been present since the 13th century, settled for the most part into their own section of the city by King Casimir.
Our tour included stops at the city’s remaining synagogues and the Jewish cemetery, preserved from German destruction during the war by word that a rabbi had placed a curse on anyone who removed its headstones.
Under Nazi occupation, Jews were subjected to persecution, forced labor and expulsion from the city. The remaining Jewish population was ultimately concentrated in a walled ghetto. The walls design shaped to resemble tombstones was a grim indicator of what was to come.
Our day also included a visit to the Krakow Historical Museum’s impressive permanent exhibition under the Nazi occupation, housed in the former factory of Oskar Schindler. A considerable portion is devoted to recounting the dismal fate of the city’s Jewish population.
Some of the ghetto’s residents were sent to Belzec or Auschwitz-Birkenau, others to the Plaszow forced labor camp, later converted to a concentration camp. Others were executed in mass shootings. Ultimately, virtually the entire Jewish population of Krakow was annihalated. Today, Krakow’s Jewish population is estimated at around 200 people.
In the square next to the ghetto, site of mass shootings of elderly and infants unable to walk to the nearby Plaszow concentration camp, was renamed the plaza of the heros of the ghetto. On it is erected a moving memorial, the Empty Chairs monument, inspired by a ghetto survivor’s story of having witnessed schoolchildren, evicted from their school, carrying their chairs through the streets.
We ended the day with dinner at a restaurant located in the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, with a trio playing traditional Jewish music, the sounds of the violin echoing sadly, like memories in the night.
A town called Oświęcim
We stood along a rail siding that ended 100 meters further in a tangle of weeds, chilled in the early morning light.
We were alone.
“For 75 to 80 percent of the Jews who arrived at Auschwitz, the Shoah ended right here,” said our guide, holding up another photo, this one showing a column of people lined up along the same quai on which we stood. “The Judenramp.”
The place at which hundreds of thousands of Jewish families descended from their rail cars, stood in the heat, the cold, the rain, the dark or the early morning light and passed in lines through the first of Auschwitz’ inhuman human processes: “Selection.” Men and women judged fit for work were marched off to the Auschwitz camp; the rest were sent off by truck loads to the gas chambers.
Marcello Pezzetti is a historian, currently working to create Rome’s Shoah Museum and one of the world’s foremost experts on Auschwitz-Birkenau. A member of Yahad’s international Scientific Committee, he is co-hosting this weeks tour with Father Desbois, the two alternating comments as our group follows the footsteps of the victims. Father Desbois told us that Marcello played a pivotal role in piecing together the full story of what occurred at Auschwitz, beginning with visits to the site 35 years ago in a Soviet-era environment that did not encourage questions about the Holocaust. Asked how he began, Marcello ponders the question at length, finally responding with a shrug that he’s not really sure any more; he just knows that once in, there was no way to get out.
The result is that we are receiving an unusually detailed, non-stop torrent of information while viewing history from a starkly different perspective than most visitors. “Look around,” says Marcello, “we’re here at the spot where the fate of the overwhelming majority was decided and we’re the only ones here. There are 15 buses in the parking lot at Auschwitz 1 and people are crowding into the barracks but they’re missing one of the most important parts of the story.” One hour later, we were standing in front of a huge barren field, “the world’s biggest cemetery,” says Marcello. More than 250,000 victims lie buried in mass graves in the grounds surrounding the crematoria which had proven unable to keep pace with the adjacent gas chambers. Among those who perished here: virtually all of the French Jews rounded up in the Vel d’Hiver cycling velodrome and deported later from Drancy and other concentration camps.
One participant compared our visit to her previous experience on a guided tour of Auschwitz: “Three hours in the museum, a visit to the barracks and crematoria and I walked away still wondering what had happened here.”
At the end of the day, we meet with Auschwitz Museum Director, Piotr Cywinski, who shares with us some of the challenges confronting a destination that has become an iconic symbol of the Holocaust and was visited last year by 1.4 million people. Among the questions, how to ensure continued resonance with a public with no direct personal link to the site’s history: today’s youthful visitors (70% are aged 15-22) are increasingly the grandchildren of a generation born post-war.
Tomorrow: returning to Yahad’s roots
Roots: Rawa Ruska
We watched as the headlights from the jeep appeared, coming over a hill on the rutted road toward us in the deepening gloom. Our bus had just come bouncing up the road minutes before, depositing us in the midst of a Ukrainian forest on the edge of the tiny village of Borové, three kilometers from the nearest town, a town called Rawa Ruska. The jeep came to a halt in front of us and a strong-looking man with a crew cut and granite jaw descended from the driver’s side. Micha. One of the legendary figures of Yahad’s story. He helps an elderly man from the passenger side. Yaroslav, born in 1929, was a 13-year-old boy when he went to the spot nearby in the woods, a few dozen meters from where we stood, and saw the pit where the German soldiers had killed the Jews of Rawa Ruska, leaving them to be buried together in a mass grave…forgotten.
First, though, let’s return to the beginning of what proved to be not only an extremely long day, but also one filled with emotion and unusual adventure.
The wake-up call came early as the bus departed Krakow at 7:15 for the five hour trip across Poland. As we arrived in the small, economically poor towns of Eastern Poland, dotted with orthodox churches, Father Desbois remarked that here we were starting to see the same topography that rolls eastward across the border in Ukraine. He said the invading German soldiers had said that crossing the vast open plains was like being on the ocean, stretching infinitely across the horizon.
We arrived in Belzec, the small town chosen by the Nazis as the site of one of the death camps built to carry out Operation Reinhard, the extermination of Poland’s Jews. To all appearances, the town looked like every other we had passed through, betraying no indication that the lives of half a million humans had been brutally ended here. With the museum director as our guide, we toured the memorial, designed by Polish artists, each element a powerful symbol of the site’s tragic history. Quieter and more somber than Auschwitz, its effect was deeply moving, influenced not least by the solitary reflections of two of our group members remembering family members who had perished there.
Belzec also was something of an originating point for Yahad’s work; it was a site where Father Desbois and our trip co-leader, Marcello Pezzetti, conducted some of their earliest research together, interviewing the daughter of the train station manager who, as a young girl, saw the rail cars arriving day after day, disgorging their doomed human cargo. It was in Belzec that they decided that trying to extract meaning from the immense horror with which they confronted required a planned, methodical approach to interviewing witnesses, complete with professional recording equipment.
The true starting point for Father Desbois’ work and Yahad, however, lay across the Ukrainian border in the small town of Rawa Ruska. It was there that Father Desbois’ grandfather was held by the Germans during the war with other French prisoners, an experience he never spoke of, except once to his precocious grandson, Patrick, describing the terrible conditions in the camp but commenting that, “It was worse for those outside.” Years later, Patrick, by then a Catholic priest, made a personal pilgrimage to Rawa Ruska and learned the meaning behind his grandfather’s words: that he had been witness as a prisoner to the fate of the Jews, massacred and buried in mass graves. This was our ultimate destination today, the birthplace of Yahad – In Unum.
To get there, however, we had to traverse the border, an experience that Father Desbois forewarned us could be unpredictable. The crossing lived up to its build-up. After our bus had inched to the front of the line, the passport of the bus driver was discovered to have expired. After 1 ½ hours, our group finally remounted into a local bus line, that carried us into the Ukraine where we arrived in Rawa Ruska at sunset. We mounted into yet another bus and set out along the bumpy road leading to the village of Borové, where we were joined by Micha, Yaroslav and another witness a woman, who still lives in the same house, the closest to the execution site, from where she heard the sound of the machine guns firing as a 10-year old girl.
Both had been part of a group of local residents who had gathered at the killing site several years ago at the invitation of the mayor, who asked them to come to tell a visiting Frenchman, whose grandfather had been a prisoner of war in their town, what they had seen and heard in 1943. Yaroslav had been the first to speak. In the gathering dusk, with Svetlana, another Yahad legend, interpreting, as she had 10 years before, Father Desbois asked the witnesses to recall the events through a series of questions, all too familiar to those acquainted with Yahad’s work:
Father Desbois: Did the Jews arrive on foot or in carts or trucks?
Witness: On foot, they were made to walk here from Rawa Ruska.
Father Desbois: Did the men arrive separately from the women and children or were they all brought together?
Witness: They arrived together.
Father Desbois: When they were brought to the side of the pit, were they wearing their clothes or were they made to undress?
Witness: They were made to undress in the road and then walk up here to the side of the grave.
Father Desbois filled in the rest of the story to the witnesses’ responses in this mini-version of the interview: 1,500 Jews were marched to the pit, dug earlier by other Jews who already had been killed with explosives, where they were shot, their bodies layered on top of each other and covered by local youths from the village requisitioned by the Germans. And again, the all too familiar horrors to those who have watched the video testimonies of witnesses: the blood seeping from the pit a week after the shooting; the collection and removal of the victims’ clothes; the chilling words that signal that not all those buried were dead, “…and the earth moved…”
It is almost dark. Father Desbois asks the witnesses if they will show us to the execution site. It is the 77-year-old woman who leads the way through the underbrush, refusing a proffered arm and bustling up the gentle rise. We follow, arriving at a depression ringed with small hillocks. In the middle, a Star of David has been set on a concrete base, a sort of protection against looters who had previously disturbed the site. “There ought to be a memorial,” mutters Yuroslav. “There ought to be a stone-lined walkway leading up here.” The witnesses respond to a few more questions, before Father Desbois suggests a moment of silence. It is dark now. It is quiet, except for the barking of dogs in the distance. There is a sense of community among the group as we stand in the dark, of sharing the silent moment with each other and with those who are no longer here.
Gone. But not forgotten.
Postscript. Our visit to Rawa Ruska continued with a quick stop at the site of the prisoner of war camp and photos in front of the entrance of Patrick and another of the participants whose father, remarkably, was a French prisoner in the same camp. After a dinner hosted by the now former mayor, warmly introduced by Father Desbois, we stumbled onto our fourth bus of the day for our 1 ½ hour trip to Lvov, from where we will start tomorrow.
Our itinerary this week inevitably has followed a dual track – one is the history of the Holocaust by bullets; the other is the history of Yahad, as we retrace the steps of the investigative teams over the past several years, visiting sites, talking with witnesses and sharing experiences that have entered into the organization’s lore. Today, the last full day of the tour, we visited the sites of some of Yahad’s most important discoveries…but also one that is a source of great ongoing disappointment.
Each of the 1,700 witnesses interviewed by Yahad over the past several years contributes at least some small part to the historical mosaic that adds to better understanding the context and events that occurred 70 years ago in Eastern Europe. Some offer a glimpse of a single day, others recount experiences that span years and involve hundreds or even thousands of people.
We began our last full day of the tour in Lvov with a visit to Adolf, born in 1930, one of those witnesses whose testimony falls into the latter category. Our group gathered at the foot of the stoop of his house to listen as Father Desbois, Svetlana and Adolf repeated some of the questions and answers from the five separate interviews they had done together over the years. (Father Desbois said that even after all of their time together, Adolf still surprised them today with new additional details of what he had seen.)
With the help of their interviews with Adolf, Yahad’s investigators were able to piece together the answer to a puzzle: what had become of the Jews of Lvov. The answer lay in the woods not far from Adolf’s house. It was here in 2005 that he led Yahad’s research team to a ravine containing 49 mass graves, the final resting place of somewhere between 50,000 and 90,000 Jews. Contrary to the stock response that had been given up until that time, they had not all been sent to Belzec, but rather had been delivered in carts, day after day, over a two year period, to the top of the ravine, forced to descend to pre-dug pits below where they were shot and buried.
As a 12-year-old boy, Adolf had witnessed many of the shootings and his testimony helped lead investigators to additional witnesses who provided additional detail, including about Nazi efforts to perfect and carry out Operation 1005, a desperate effort to hide the traces of their crimes by exhuming and burning the corpses of their victims, an effort destined to fail due to the Nazi’s underestimation of the number of people they had killed and the faster than anticipated arrival of the Red Army.
We paused amidst the grave sites, unmarked except for the small Italian flag where some of its country’s unfortunate soldiers had found themselves suddenly behind enemy lines when Italy withdrew from its Axis partnership with Nazi Germany.
“No one comes here to remember the victims or memorialize the sites,” says Father Desbois, as we watch the white butterflies fluttering just above the grave sites, some of them showing signs of the digging of grave plunderers. “The same scene is repeated across thousands of miles,” he told the group. “This is the Holocaust by bullets and it is the textbook example for those in our world who contemplate how to commit unpunished genocide: bury the bodies in nature, because there they will be forgotten.”
It is a bleak prelude for what is to come.
In the afternoon, we arrive in the village of Busk, the scene of one of the most dramatic moments produced by Yahad’s research. In August 2006, in response to a request from the Memorial of the Shoah, Yahad provided archaeological evidence of mass graves in Busk, an irrefutable response to the claims of Holocaust deniers. Under strict rabbinical supervision, a team of archaeological experts assembled by Yahad uncovered the layers of earth down to the first layer of victims’ skeletons, careful not to disturb the sacred remains. Matched with archival records and eyewitness testimony, an accurate count was confirmed of the victims buried in 17 pits that had been dug in the ancient Jewish cemetery.
Given the sensitivity of the operation, Yahad took extraordinary measures to protect the site during the investigation and afterwards, sealing the site with concrete following the completion of the documentation process.
Today, our group met Anton, a witness to many of the killings that occurred in the cemetery who as a young boy watched with his friends from the attic of an adjacent farmhouse. The outline of the concrete covered pits, now overgrown with grass, are still visible as shallow depressions in the flats that lead off toward the river that intersects the town. The setting is peaceful and quiet with only the occasional villager passing by on the path that comes up from the river. Just like every day. And therein lies the problem. No one comes here. After the massive operation to show the existence of the grave site, the international attention, the presentations, conference and films shown throughout the world, today, no one comes to Busk. “Covered with concrete and forgotten,” in the words of Yahad Executive Director, Marco Gonzalez.
Is this then the ultimate fate of these genocide victims? Brutally murdered and buried in mass graves by killers who sought to obliterate every trace of their existence; their final resting place rediscovered through painstaking research, only to be forgotten again, their memories disappearing beneath the grass and trees?
Yahad has begun the process of turning over the locations of the mass graves to the American Jewish Committee and a coalition of religious groups with a goal of supporting their efforts to protect and memorialize the final resting place of the victims. Further details will be announced next month and reported on Yahad blog.
Tonight, our group walked through the fields to visit one more grave site in the woods an hour’s drive from Lvov, reflecting on what we had experienced together this week, the shadows lengthening in the early evening.
Next post Friday: trip wrap-up report.
Special thanks to Florent Le Duc for today’s photos
We bid farewell to Svetlana and Micha in the parking lot of our hotel in Lvov. Members of the group started to go their separate ways, some staying in Lvov, one going to Warsaw to continue looking through archives for traces of her family, Marcello heading back to Rome. Most of the goodbyes were in Paris, a great deal of warmth, camaraderie and a few tears, the connections perhaps made stronger by the intensity of the experiences and emotions we had shared together this week.
Our group was an eclectic, international mix of interests, occupations and nationalities. Lawyers, writers, retirees, educators, a psychiatrist, historians, musicians and more. Some participants had never been to Eastern Europe before. For others, the territory was well known. Henar Corbi, a member of Yahad’s Scientific Committee who directs Casa Sefarad-Israel’s Holocaust program in Madrid, said it was her 10th visit to Auschwitz but that the program offered her an opportunity not only for reflection on strengthening her own organization’s programs but also to better understand the history of the Holocaust by bullets.
In our group of 30, at least 12 different nationalities were represented; in addition to residents of Western and Eastern European countries, we were joined by North Americans and one participant who came from Australia. Our journey together carried us 300 kilometers across Poland into Ukraine, a tiny segment of the vast expanses of Eastern Europe on which the terrible events occurred. More tellingly, together we traveled back through time, walking the streets of the Krakow ghetto, listening as witnesses recalled the traumatic memories from their childhood, traipsing through fields overgrown with weeds and into forests to stand and pay silent homage to people whose daily lives nearby had been ended so quickly and tragically.
The immensity of the hopelessness and horror of Auschwitz-Birkenau contrasted with the individual nature of the Holocaust by bullets: the chilling intimacy of a single bullet cartridge found in the leaves next to a shallow depression in the woods.
Yesterday, members of the group spoke of the memories that they were taking with them: the eerie stillness of a forest, the dark and quiet dignity of the Belzec memorial, gathering at dusk before the mass grave of the Jews of Rava Ruska, the quiet recitation of the Kaddish by someone in the dark. The memory of a witness, a name, a photo, a child’s toy. We learned from what we saw, heard and felt and we learned from each other. It was one of the other participants who reminded me that white butterflies are considered a symbol of death or rebirth in many cultures as we watched them flutter over the mass graves in the Lisinitchi Forest.
I leave the last word to one of the writers. “Before this trip, I thought I was coming by chance,” she said. “After we visited the grave sites and saw that no one comes there, I knew that it wasn’t by chance.”
She returned to her notebook.