Four years ago, I went with my graduating high school class to Poland and the Czech Republic to see the concentration camps, extermination chambers, and repeat the Jewish cry of “never forget.” After saying Kaddish at Auschwitz-Birkenau and laying stones at Treblinka, I promised myself that I would continue to learn about the Holocaust.
A fall seminar at Georgetown University provided me with just such an opportunity. Attending a course co-taught by Father Desbois about the Holocaust in Eastern Europe was in many ways an eye-opening experience. My earlier education about the Holocaust almost exclusively covered the genocide in Western Europe. Upon learning about the millions of Jews who were murdered in Eastern Europe, I realized that to a large extent, I had “forgotten” millions of my own people. Not because I chose to avert my eyes, but because I was ignorant of Soviet history.
Knowing what to look for was something that would come up again and again throughout the trip. An innocuous soccer field or lush farmland was transformed in an instant after hearing a witness inform us that below our feet lay a mass grave.
Just as seeing and not seeing played prominently during our trip, so too did the interplay between past and present, often in disturbing ways. In one village, we heard a witness speak about how a right-wing Romanian party whipped up a pogrom that resulted in the Jewish section being burnt to the ground. Seventy years later, we found our approach to the Jewish cemetery of that village blocked by kids roughhousing around a bonfire. The few stones that had not been taken by the Soviets to build homes after the war lay crushed near smoldering grass. Another witness spoke about how after all her village’s Jews had been murdered, she and the townspeople went to their Jewish neighbors’ homes to loot and left a mess. Seventy years later, the village’s Judenlager (Jewish holding camp where many starved to death) was strewn with trash. The un-marked, trash-filled mass graves served as a stark contrast to the numerous well-tended, clean, and protected Christian cemeteries.
Father Desbois described these curious moments as “revivals.” Though communities in Eastern Europe never speak about their “day” of Holocaust, some sort of subconscious understanding is undoubtedly passed down in the village. The soccer field that we visited formerly served as the entrance to a Jewish shop. Then, the entire town gathered to watch the shooting of the Jews. Today, as Yahad-in-Unum takes a GPS to the exact point the witness identifies, hordes of schoolchild come outside to watch the events once more, smiling and waving.
The interviews themselves are the medium through which the past is revived. While I had seen plenty of interviews in Desbois’ class, they were presented in an almost hermetic seal. On the ground with Yahad-in-Unum, I was exposed to the soundtrack of chickens and dogs mulling about, looking curiously at the sight of a dozen foreigners in a village untouched in decades. At the end of the interview, when the witnesses are asked whether their testimony can be used for educational purposes, most answer, “of course, I have nothing to hide,” though they have kept their memories quiet for the better part of seventy years.
Despite hearing some incredibly brutal stories, I felt it extremely gratifying to come to Eastern Europe, hear the truth, see “beneath” the country-side, and in a small way, act out “never forget.” Many communities we visited had expunged their centuries-old Jewish communities in a day of hatred and violence. In all likelihood, I was probably the first Jew to come back.
Saying Kaddish at an unmarked mass grave not far from the Ukrainian border was my way of removing the veil of secrecy under which genocide thrives. It was the continuation of a personal journey integral to my Jewish identity.
I am immensely grateful to the work (really, mitzvot) that Yahad-in-Unum has done. Had they not investigated and asked questions where no-one had bothered doing so before, in another decade, the soccer fields and farmland would have stayed just that. Now the world knows. Now I know. And it is something I will never forget.