Last Witnesses of the Holocaust A Priest's Search for Mass Graves in Ukraine

By John Goetz and Wiebke Hollersen

Part 2: Bones Lie Beneath the Meadows


Most of the mass graves are in western Ukraine, in the Galicia region. Galicia is also home to the village of Yaktorov, near the city of Lviv, where the Germans administered the region after they invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. The occupiers confined the Jews to a labor camp near Yaktorov. In the summer of 1943 the camp was closed and all prisoners were shot.

On the spot where the camp was located, Father Desbois is standing next to another witness and waiting for the old man to return to the present.

The priest rubs his eyes; he is exhausted. Desbois is 54 years old and constantly traveling to conduct research, attend conferences, or present the book that he has written about the project.

The old man yells disjointed words in German -- "Schweine, weg, weg" (or "get out of here you pigs") -- and holds an imaginary rifle in the air. Then he throws himself down in the grass, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he is wearing a light-colored, carefully ironed shirt. Flowers are blooming on the meadow, yellow and purple, and under the meadow lie the bones of the dead.

'Where Did the Marksmen Stand?'

A memorial stone to the murdered Jews has stood for a number of years on one edge of the former camp compound. That is inconclusive proof, as far as Desbois is concerned. The stones often stand at the wrong location.

The old man jumps up and straightens his white hair. The witnesses often slip back into the past when they return to the sites of the atrocities, says Desbois.

The man's name is Bogdan and he was eight years old when he observed a number of shootings from a distance. When they brought the Jews to the pits, a German played on his harmonica, and afterwards the earth was drenched in blood, he says.

"Where did the marksmen stand?" the priest asks him.

The old man points to the right-hand side, where the meadow gently slopes upward. It is not the side with the memorial stone.

Andrej Umansky, the student from Cologne, runs to get the team's ballistics expert -- a large, taciturn Ukrainian with a crew cut who everyone calls Misha -- and walks with him up the small hill. Misha moves a metal detector back and forth over the ground. After 30 seconds, they make their first discovery, a cartridge case. "German" Misha yells. It is possible to recognize the ammunition based on stamped numbers and letters. They find a second and a third German-made cartridge. The killers have not eliminated their traces. Then the metal detector emits another sound, indicating a lighter metal. This leads them to a clump of earth, and Umansky and Misha begin to scrape around it. In the soil they find a Star of David made of silver. It is a pendant as large as a one-euro coin.

Umansky fetches plastic bags from the bus to pack up the cartridges and pendant. Later on, he will take notes on the location of the evidence.

Andrej Umansky was born in Ukraine and came to Germany as a child with his family. He was spending a voluntary year performing social services in France when he heard that a priest was looking for interpreters for a trip to Ukraine. Umansky volunteered. His father comes from a Jewish family in Kiev that was evacuated to the non-occupied zone of the Soviet Union before the massacres.

'We Could Stop Anywhere and Find a Mass Grave'

Umansky, 26, still has a somewhat boyish appearance. He always first flips to the sports section in the newspaper. But when he talks about his work, he sounds like a veteran historian. Following his first trip, he began to research the occupation in German archives. Meanwhile his travels to Ukraine have been eclipsed in number by his trips to Ludwigsburg, Germany -- to the Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes, where he pours over the postwar investigation reports. At student parties back in Cologne he tries to avoid the issue.

Evening has fallen and the men are sitting in the bus back to Lviv. Umansky opens his backpack and pulls out his laptop where he has saved databases, records, historical maps and satellite images of Galicia.

Father Desbois gazes out the window at the flat, expansive land in the twilight, and the horse carts that the minibus passes. "It's beautiful here, isn't it?" he says. "We could stop anywhere here and find a mass grave."

Umansky looks up from his laptop and says: "Durchgangsstrasse IV." That's what the occupying Germans called the road that they are driving on. It extends from Krakow south into Ukraine. It was along this road that the Germans established camps for the Jewish forced laborers. They drove along this road to the villages to shoot the Jews. "We are taking the same trips as the perpetrators," says Desbois.

The longer he does this work, the more it weighs on him. When he returns to Paris after a trip, he often spends time alone in his apartment to gather his thoughts.

A Posthumous Victory by the Perpetrators

By now they have located hundreds of mass graves. It is difficult to give an exact figure because they have found numerous execution sites with several death pits in most of the villages. In some of them they suspect that there are hundreds of bodies, in others the remains of perhaps one family. What should happen to these sites? This question preoccupies the priest. He also reflects on the well-kept cemetery for Wehrmacht soldiers near Rava-Ruska, with its large tombstones engraved with thousands of German names. It seems to him like a posthumous victory by the perpetrators.

The bones of the Jews may not be disturbed. The Jewish faith forbids it. Only once have the researchers opened a mass grave under the supervision of a rabbi. Some graves, however, have already been plundered by robbers looking for dental gold. The Jewish mass graves must be covered with concrete and marked by memorial plaques, says Desbois. It would be a new, enormous task, "but first we have to make headway with this one."

So many villages have yet to be investigated in Ukraine. In addition, they have started to look for eyewitnesses in Belarus, where over 700,000 Jews were shot. They have just returned from their fourth visit there, and they have been to Russia once. Things will have to move quickly now.

"We have at the most five or six years before the witnesses disappear."

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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