Photo above: Father Desbois and students at a killing site of Jews in Lysynychi, Ukraine
March 7, 2016
My late great-uncle, Stanley Darer, told me he only saw his father cry once. He was 11 years old and sitting at his breakfast table when his father, having read a letter in Yiddish, slumped forward, crying into his breakfast. The letter described how his father in Ukraine was summoned by German soldiers, led to the ravine near Babi Yar, was forced to dig his own grave, and was then shot in the head.
This afternoon I stared down into a mass grave in Lisinichi Forest in Ukraine. It was a pit like this that the Einsatzgruppen made Stanley’s grandfather dig before they killed him. And while the piercing memory of the events in my family of Babi Yar continue, the 49 mass graves of Lisinichi, said to have held a total of 50,000 bodies, persist in relative anonymity.
Father Desbois pointed to the only remaining markers of the graves: a small white cross on trees nearby the mass gravesites. “This is how you commit genocide. This is how you succeed, by having nobody know what happened here.”
Of the various sites we visited today in and around Lviv, and the contrasting narrative accounts of the fate of the Jews we heard, the most pertinent observation was the absence of memorial. Lviv used to be a ‘Yiddish’ city. Of it’s 60,000 inhabitants, 45% were Jewish before the Germans arrived and began its program of pogroms. As Father Desbois remarked, the Jewish community now stands at 200, and now meekly occupies a quiet corner of the city. The Jews do not visit the forests of Lisinichi, the mass graves slowly fill up with the dead foliage of the forest, not a single stone, as is customarily placed at Jewish gravesites, sits at their mouths. Only 20 kilometers away, a manicured cemetery of 10,000 German soldiers, including the SS-unit responsible for the murder of the Jews of Lviv, proudly overlooks a valley, once populated by formerly Jewish homes, their inhabitants evicted and murdered, their property, stolen and requisitioned.
From these contrasting experiences, the question arose within me: did Nazism win here? It was only upon reflection of Father Desbois’ work that its answer unfolded – and that the battleground to be won persists to this day, not in a physical actuality but in the battleground of memory that continues to be fought. The horrific story of the massacres of the forest, witnessing the mass graves themselves struggling to be seen injected the often spoken phrase ‘We must never forget’ with a renewed, aching immediacy.