Photo above: Students and Father Desbois at a Jewish cemetery in Busk, Ukraine
March 9, 2016
The remnants of an abhorrent kind of evil lay largely hidden in the parts of western Ukraine that we visited. Threads of neglect stretch throughout Lviv and the nearby towns, where tens of thousands of Jews were brutally massacred during what Father Patrick Desbois has coined “the Holocaust by Bullets.” Unfortunately, the Nazis seem to have succeeded in their goal of eradicating the memory of the Jews of former Eastern Galicia, as so many corpses lie underneath seemingly innocuous plots of land. It was truly unsettling to learn that mass graves of Jews have become unkept bike trails and nondescript leisure spaces, without even a slight acknowledgment of the lives that rest underneath.
Located on the other side of the Polish-Ukrainian border, is the Belzec memorial and museum, an exquisite testament to the approximately 500,000 Jews who were killed in this Polish town’s extermination camp. While the sheer magnitude of the crimes perpetrated at this camp eclipses that of any individual site we visited in Ukraine, this difference does not lessen the imperative for these unacknowledged sites to be brought into the mainstream of Holocaust history. While such a moving memorial is capable of standing for more than just the lives lost at that particular site, it is a stretch to require the Belzec memorial to commemorate all of the other lives that were lost at sites of violence since forgotten.
For more than 70 years, many people have been tempted to treat the largest sites of Nazi violence as also the most important. I believe this sets a dangerous precedent, as total neglect for the smaller sites of violence provides future perpetrators with an exportable model for effective genocide. This begs the question: if the Nazis were able to successfully disguise their eradication of the Jews by systematically creating mass graves in each village they ravaged, what is stopping any other group bent on committing genocide from using this same method, only to have such atrocities ignored by future generations?