Monday, May 18, 2009

Hitler's Volunteers

They weren't just "following orders" -- they volunteered.
A horrific page of history unfolded last Monday in Ukraine. It concerned the gruesome and untold story of a spontaneous pogrom by local villagers against hundreds of Jews in a town south of Ternopil in 1941.

Not one, but five independent witnesses recounted the tale, recalling how they rushed to a German army camp, borrowed weapons and gunned down 500 Jews inside the town's Christian cemetery. One of them remembered decapitating bodies in front of the church.

The man heading the research that led to this discovery discussed it in Israel last week; Father Patrick Desbois was in Pope Benedict XVI's entourage.

Desbois is a French Roman Catholic priest. His team has been investigating mass executions in the former Soviet Union during the Holocaust for more than six years. In 2004, he founded Yahad-In Unum, a Paris-based organization devoted to Christian-Jewish understanding.

Oral testimonies from these events in Ukraine and Belarus are but a part of Desbois' research. Using metal detectors, his team uncovers German-made cartridges and bullets as well as victims' jewelry from killing pits. The findings are transferred to an archive in Paris, where the testimonies are translated.

Earlier this year, Desbois helped start the first Holocaust masters program at the Sorbonne, focusing on the extermination in the former Soviet Union.

To Desbois, there are two holocausts: a western one and an eastern one. The western holocaust was more organized, whereas the eastern one, "the one that happened away from Berlin," was chaotic, decentralized and undocumented.

"German officers wanted to appear efficient, so they documented one mass grave and declared the place judenfrei. In reality, the killings went on for years," he says. "The only way of documenting these [other] graves is asking the locals. Time's running out, and we're the only organization on the ground there."

The Ternopil story is not unusual because of its extreme cruelty but because it's so rare for perpetrators to openly admit playing a voluntary role. Most stories Desbois hears are from people who claim that the Germans forced them to take part in executions. "[Securing testimony from five participants in] a pogrom is a historic achievement," Desbois told Haaretz.

He notes how "we couldn't have achieved this a few years ago. We didn't have the skill." He says his team's success reflects the ability to keep a poker face.

"If I react with shock, it's all over," he explains. "Often I don't react at all to what the witnesses say. I just give them an interested expression and ask very technical questions about where they stood, where the victims lay, the time of day. I keep them talking and it pours out."

Desbois' full-time, nine-member team includes a cameraman who films the testimonies, while the others listen to stories of murder and human degradation.

But sometimes the poker face cracks, he says. For instance, when one woman described how her mother would "finish off" wounded Jews with a shovel blow to the head before burying them. "My team started to react, so I kept her talking, asking in a matter-of-fact way how exactly her mother would administer the blows."

Often with local help, the Germans killed nearly 1.5 million Jews in Ukraine after their invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Most of that history has gone untold. Unlike in Poland, where Jews were killed in death camps, in the Soviet Union most were mowed down and dumped into open mass graves in woodlands.
Read the rest here.


Wherever I am, my blog turns towards Eretz Yisrael טובה הארץ מאד מאד

2 comments:

Kae Gregory said...

A lot of time is spent focusing on the people who deny the holocaust. It seems from this article, that there are still quite a few who see the institutionalized extermination of the Jews as no big deal. I really hate saying this but the more I stumble over, the more I come the think that the Pope may fit into this category.
I am lacking adjectives for the revulsion I feel at the thought of interviewing a person whose mother participated in the mass murder of Jews while the interview is taking place in the former home of a Jew whom the mother, likely as not, murdered.

Anonymous said...

I made a non-profit web page about Father Desbois and his project which I'd like to share with your readers.

It includes two short documentary-style videos (one from Israeli TV and one from NBC) and links to older news articles.

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