The dawn came quickly. A wash, a glow, a brightness, and then an explosion as the sun invaded the room. As I readied myself for the day, I felt the warmth of the sun all around me and for a second I felt back at home, in California. I walked down the stairs to the lobby where the team gathered for breakfast and debriefed. That’s when I blinked back into reality and Moldova. In my mind I went through the interviews and mass graves of the previous day, and instantly, a coldness I could not shake away possessed me.
I expected this to happen. When I signed up for this trip, I knew it would be a depressing and unforgettable experience. I knew I would learn immensely from working in the field and that I would feel the atrocities of genocide much more profoundly by looking at the landscape where hundreds of Jews were robbed of their possessions, their honor, their hope, and their lives. So far, the trip has lived up to these expectations.
However, I did not expect to feel empathy for the witnesses or the villagers living in poverty. But I do. Before coming to Europe, I saw these people as guilty bystanders and perpetrators, but when I see them face-to-face, I see people.
I see crumbling houses, worn out clothes, dirty shoes, and humanity. Although some of these people contributed to the mass killing of Jews, and I consider their actions wrong, I feel bad for them.
Today, one of our witnesses was an elderly lady. The interview was held inside her house in a room that smelled of bread. She talked about some Jewish women who were drowned in a pool by German soldiers and how these women struggled to hold up their children to keep them from the water. She also talked about housing German soldiers in her home, providing them with food, and seeing them getting drunk. This reminded me of a discussion we had in Father McManus’ pro-seminar last semester when we talked about how German officers would often abuse alcohol in order to numb their feelings. I thought maybe that was the reason these soldiers got drunk, but another possibility could be that they were celebrating.
As we drove back to the city, I saw three memorials by the road. I thought that perhaps they were in honor of people who died in car crashes. My mind drifted back to those unmarked mass graves and my heart ached because the dozens and hundreds of Jews who were buried in those isolated graves had no one to mourn for them and no memorial to commemorate them while these few people who perished on the road had flowers and a cross. I thought about the Jews who were buried alive and I tried to imagine their desperation as they tried to crawl their way out of the dirt and back to life. I saw the naked trees down the road and I thought of skeletons. The sky was gray and it felt like the world was stuck inside my throat. The sun drifted into the far away mountains. I felt abandoned and I thought maybe that’s how Jewish victims felt, like the world turned and left them there, vulnerable and alone.