“The garages were built on top of the pit.”
In one single day, it took me fifteen pages of writing to be able to accurately find the words for my experience. To this, add twenty more pages to re-establish the details of the program, location by location, witness by witness. Each day is rich, inevitably rich. Thursday, May 19, 8:30, we leave for Kodyma, close to the Moldovan border. Andrej, smiling and friendly as always, drives us all through these impossible roads. You have to live it to believe it. But soon enough, this doesn’t even matter, the countryside is so beautiful that it takes my full attention. This region of the Ukraine is immersed in colors: green landscapes, white and blue “cyclades” of houses, the bright yellow kerchiefs of the babushkas. The beauty is distinctly present, while the poverty is everywhere, even though we are just within reach of Europe. We get to Kodyma a little before 10:30. Two and a half hours just to cover a little over fifty kilometers.
10:41, the first witness, Vasilii, born in 1927. The interview lasts 2:10. He and his family have gone through the worst of the twentieth century: the great famine of the 1930s, Nazi and Romanian occupation, postwar Stalinist and so on. His story sounds cursed, and yet he sometimes smiles as he’s telling it, speaking with patience and dignity. He recalls his Jewish friend, Joseph; particularly, the shooting of September 1941 by the Germans in gray uniform. It took place in front of his house, a couple dozen meters away. 25 Jews, most likely from Poland or Moldova, were shot in a pit dug by other Jews. They painted a red cross on their left cheek. Some dozens of women, wearing a white Star of David, sang through the gunfire, as it was happening. I remain petrified, not quite able to imagine the massacre. After the interview, the daughter of Vasilii leads us to the location of the pit in the middle of some dilapidated Soviet buildings. In the same place, there are garages, also dilapidated, and a barn. Renata marks the GPS coordinates of the mass grave.
During the day, we see two mass graves in a former clay quarry. Two monuments commemorate the shootings of August 1941 and January 1942. Names of the victims are inscribed on the plate. We have two other witnesses. One of them leads us to the Jewish cemetery in Kodyma, a place overgrown with weeds, beautiful and tragic. Ancient tombs lie alongside those of today. The last Jews of Kodyma are buried here. The emotion tightens in my stomach. I feel myself disconnecting during the interview with the last witness. Impossible to listen, as if my brain is blocking the testimony. We return after more than two hours of driving back. It’s 9:37 p.m. We eat dinner together. Fortunately, the team is there. Human relations cushion the shock. I collapse into my bed just before midnight.