Photo above: Father Desbois at the dedication ceremony of the mass grave in Rava Ruska in June 2015

March 9, 2016

There is no way to truly prepare yourself for the first time you see a mass grave site. Perhaps there’s a degree of familiarity with the layout, the overgrowth, the concept, but it’s nearly impossible to describe the feeling of looking over the edge of a mass grave 2000 people stared into in their final moments. In a damp, cold, and grey forest, it’s easier to imagine the historical scene of people forced to strip naked and run to a murderer near a pre-dug pit. But as you walk downhill along the path of so many condemned, the image is an abstraction. Even as I looked over the edge of each mass grave in that forest, it remained difficult to visualize the genocide perpetrated there. Those mass graves were in the Lisinichi Forest, poorly marked and hardly remembered.

In Rawa Ruska there’s a beautiful memorial made from stone. A plaque describes the crimes perpetrated against the Jews of Rawa Ruska, and at that site. It is translated into 3 languages. A path leads from the front of the memorial to a wall remembering the murdered. It is made from the tombstones of the destroyed Jewish cemetery, giving new life to those, dead and alive, who have been betrayed by humanity. It is rare for Ukrainian killing sites to receive such a beautiful memorial, an event that only occurs as a result of heavy outside pressure. Visitors might be rare but the insistence on remembering those slaughtered is a noble enough cause to make it all worthwhile. It would be easy to call this memorial a standard for memorials in each of the thousands of towns where massacred took place in Eastern Europe. The reality is more complex however.

Behind the beautiful wall of restored tombstones, which otherwise might’ve been used in sidewalks, walls, or home repairs, is a relatively large field. It’s bigger than the original grouping of mass graves, but lacks any sort of organization or containment until a stream and row of houses. This field is covered with shallow holes. Inside and around these holes are numerous fragments of bone and clothing. Initially, I believed the holes that covered the field to be from a burrowing animal, but a Ukrainian guide said they were from scavengers looking for gold. Some seemed to be dug within the last few days. Next to one of the model memorials for the killing fields of Ukrainian Jews is an absolutely disrespected and overlooked additional mass grave.

If there’s an element of anger, disappointment, and shock at seeing unmarked mass graves in the Lisinichi Forest, where tens of thousands of victims are barely memorialized, perhaps only pure disgust, hatred, fear, and horror can describe the feeling of seeing a piece of a child’s skull at the surface of a scavengers hole 25 feet from that which memorializes the child. The bodies of our people lay where they were murdered, forgotten. It is easy to visualize genocide when you see the bones of the victims in front of you, and even easier to see how it could happen when the victims are ignored in death to this day.

Learn more about the dedication and protection of the mass grave in Rava-Ruska, where 4,000 Jewish victims are buried. The mass grave was protected through the Protecting Memory Initiative, led by the American Jewish Committee, and was first identified by Father Desbois and the Yahad-In Unum team.

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