7 Jul 2007
ANGELA CHARLTON IN PARIS
CHILDREN, stomachs empty and knees quivering, watched as Nazis massacred Jews in the killing fields of Ukraine. Teenagers were forced to bury the victims, shovelling dirt over neighbours and playmates.
Today, these witnesses - now aged men and women - are unburdening themselves of wartime memories, many for the first time, in testimonies to a French priest.
Their words may change history, as they shed light on this poorly known chapter of the Second World War, known as the "Holocaust of the Bullets".
At least 1.5 million Jews were killed on hills and in ravines across German-occupied Ukraine, most slaughtered by submachine guns before the gas chambers became machines of mass killing.
Part of Father Patrick Desbois' work so far - video interviews with Ukrainian villagers, photographs of newly discovered mass graves and archival documents - is on public display for the first time in a haunting exhibit at Paris's Holocaust Memorial.
Executioners were generally allowed one bullet per victim, but sometimes only managed to wound, not kill. Witnesses to numerous massacres told the priest of "stirring" graves.
Samuel Arabski, in video evidence at the Paris exhibit, described a massacre in his village near Zhytomyr in central Ukraine in 1941, when he was 14.
"A policeman gave me a shovel. When I saw people still moving in the grave, I felt sick," he said. "A neighbour pushed me away so I wouldn't fall in the pit. Then my mother came and asked me questions I wasn't able to answer."
Nina Lisitsina was one of the survivors. Five years old, in 1944, she was rounded up near Simferopol in Crimea and forced along with other victims to strip off all her clothes to get ready for an execution."I remember a woman next to me, a child in her arms. I lost consciousness and couldn't hear the shots. Apparently they weren't bothering to finish everyone off," she said. "When I regained consciousness, it was night. I grabbed on to the roots of a tree to get out of the ravine. I don't know how I managed."
The project is central to a broader reassessment of the Nazi horrors in Ukraine that followed the June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union.
Fr Desbois and his mixed-faith team have located more than 500 mass graves, many never before recorded. "I'm not here to judge," Fr Desbois, whose Catholic grandfather survived a Nazi camp, said. The people whose stories he records, he stresses, were "children, adolescents, they were poor, they were afraid".
The destruction of Ukrainian Jewry is symbolised by Babi Yar, a ravine outside the capital, Kiev, where the Nazis killed about 34,000 Jews in two days in September 1941.
Given Ukraine's long history of anti-Semitism, some are reluctant to absolve these witnesses and participants of responsibility in the Holocaust. But Paul Shapiro, director of the Centre for Advanced Holocaust Studies at a Holocaust museum in Washington, said: "It is too late to be in a blame game. Our obligation is to understand."
FAITH RENEWED AND VICTIMS RECOVERED
HEALING wounds between Jews and Christians has been central to Father Patrick Desbois' career.
He heads a group called Yahad-In Unum, which combines the Hebrew and Latin words for "together", founded in 2004 by Paris's influential Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, whose Jewish mother died at Auschwitz, and Rabbi Israel Singer. Troubled by his grandfather's stories of the Rava Ruska camp in western Ukraine, Fr Desbois visited in the 1990s and asked the mayor where the Jews were buried. The mayor said he did not know.
One year later , Fr Desbois returned to find a new mayor and 110 farmers waiting to lead him to the grassy knoll.
"I was shocked. It was miserable. To see this place and these old, weary faces," the priest said.
Since then, Fr Desbois has been on a mission to fill out historical records. Some of his interview subjects have looked out on grave sites from their kitchen windows for decades. Some even helped dig those pits or fill them in.
Yahad in-Unum's researchers rely heavily on family members of victims or survivors. At the Paris exhibit, a sign near the exit asks anyone with information about someone killed by Nazis in Ukraine to leave a note or to send an e-mail.
"I want to return dignity to the families," Fr Desbois said. "Every story helps us."