Jumping on a plane to Moldova is not the first place one would envision spending spring break. But after being captivated by Fr. Debois’ Holocaust by Bullets class at Georgetown, it was an experience I could not possibly turn down.
Admittedly, I went into the adventure with minimal expectations as, to be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. After landing in Chisinau, we were quickly whisked off to the Moldovan countryside to meet a gentleman who had witnessed the burning of his village by the Romanian right wing party, who had been complicit with the Nazi party, to rid the Jewish population. There is no point sugar-coating the condition of the villages we visited: they were ramshackle, without running water and electricity and fairly far removed from the Europe we think of today. The gentleman, like most of the witnesses we interviewed, was utterly undeterred by having a group of 20 people in his backyard, some yielding large cameras which were perched right in front of his nose.
The candidness of the witnesses, too, was noticeable. They spoke of atrocious events with an extraordinary ability for recollection, remembering the tiniest and most gruesome of details; some, too, had not spoken since the 1940s of what happened. Whether this was out of fear, shame or complete oblivion to the seriousness of the events (after all, media does not penetrate these areas) is uncertain.
The testimonies followed a similar thread: the witnesses were eased into the interrogation by first being asked about their age, family history, before going onto their accounts of Jewish and Roma extermination in their villages. The extermination techniques varied: from being drowned in a mill, to being shot upon being herded into a house – all were equally shocking and unfathomable. Some showed a human side: one lady and her family brought bread and food to the Jews in the labour camps. Others showed a less human side: one man became very twitchy and reluctant to speak, possibly signifying his ulterior involvement in what happened and his reluctance to therefore speak about it.
We visited some of the Jewish cemeteries, labour camps and mass graves. Whether it was by sheer coincidence or intentional misdemeanour, it was very sad to see rubbish strewn and children lighting fires and playing football; given their location quite some way outside the village, it would point to the latter.
The two highlights were, firstly, meeting the sole living survivor of the death train who recounted his miracle story of how he is still alive today: not only did he survive a Nazi shooting in his village, but he managed to withstand the stifling heat after being thrown on a death train with no ventilation (whilst wearing a thick winter jacket, as the occupants thought that they were being sent to Siberia) and 200 fellow people being crammed into the same carriage, and then withstand a stint at a labour camp. He was courageous, inspiring and unbelievably modest: he did not want to be painted as a hero by any means. The second highlight was a visit to a Roma village. Aside from the insightful testimony, it was fascinating to see life inside a Gypsy village (especially coming from England, which is home to a large new Gypsy population, who do not have the most stellar of reputations). We were greeted as only I can imagine Martians landing from Mars would: commotion, excitement and incredulity.
I left Romania feeling extremely grateful to have had an insight into such an undocumented (until now) part of the Holocaust. Fr. Debois and his devoted team of investigators, helpers and translators are remarkable people. They are writing history and I hope they will continue to do so for both the Holocaust and other genocides around the world.