Photo above: Interviewing witnesses in Sokolivka [Photo credit: Ari Goldstein]

March 8, 2016

The village of Sokolivka is said to have been completely Jewish before the Nazis arrived. Today, however, all that remains of Sokolivka’s Jewish community are a few gravestones with Hebrew lettering, pressed into the ground as pavers on a village side street. We visited the village this afternoon in search of these lifeless stones, but what we found were very human stories.

The first woman we interviewed, who appeared to be in her 80s, discussed how the former Jewish cemetery was turned into a garbage dump under Soviet rule. Today, it’s an open field on the edge of the village, just a few hundred feet away from her home. “We could put the stones back, but what would that do?” she asked.

The second woman we interviewed lives a few houses down the street, right on the edge of the field that used to be the cemetery. She recounted how her husband, who grew up in the house during the war, used to peer through a hole in their barn wall as he watched Nazis dig a mass grave in the cemetery next door. She was especially somber as she told the story of a young Jewish boy not much older than her own grandchildren, who lost both parents to the Nazis one day and spent the next several hours wandering the village streets asking for help. Instead of helping him, someone used flowers to lure him to the mass grave, and then shot him on the spot. The woman’s husband watched this, too, through the hole in his barn wall.

As we spoke with both elderly women, we attracted the attention of villagers who gathered in the streets to watch. This included several local children, for whom foreigners with cameras are surely a rarity. After about twenty minutes, we all –– Fr. Patrick Desbois and his staff, fourteen American college students, an elderly witness, and a gaggle of local children –– entered the open field, where the witness led us to the spot she remembered as the mass grave. Today, of course, it is simply a patch of grass below an old tree on the edge of another Catholic village in western Ukraine.

My first reaction was appreciation, grateful to the locals who were talking to us simply out of kindness and an understanding that something violent had happened in their village.

My next reaction was anger, furious at the elderly locals who were so complacent in the midst of this violence and at their grandchildren who continue to play and laugh at the site of a mass grave. I’m not sure which would be better –– if they understand the horrors that took place in that field and continue to play anyways, or if they know nothing at all about the dead Jews who once inhabited their homes.

My appreciation and anger both faded, however, into resigned acceptance of the fact that this is the legacy of the Holocaust in western Ukraine. Unlike the camps and museums that dot Poland and Germany, there is almost no evidence that genocide ever took place here. The Jews are gone, their graves are destroyed, their homes are rebuilt, and the few locals who remember anything about their mass extermination are elderly, silent, or both. It’s terrifying to think that, if Fr. Desbois had not taken us to Sokolivka today because of a rumor that there were gravestones paving their streets, perhaps no one would ever have known about this mass grave or the nameless Jewish boy lured to his death by flowers.

Our experiences today give even greater urgency to the work of Fr. Desbois and Yahad-In Unum, which is one of the very few organizations doing meaningful research to discover mass graves and properly memorialize still-undiscovered victims of Nazi genocide. At least now someone else knows about the vibrant life and violent end of the Jews of Sokolivka.

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