Ukrainians visit Nazi atrocity sites as taboo ends

By David Stern
BBC News, western Ukraine

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media captionLudwika Schein is one of the survivors

Ukrainians are never far from painful episodes in their history, such as the mass state-enforced famine in Soviet times that killed millions.

And now Ukrainians are beginning to explore another difficult chapter - the destruction of Jewish communities that were a fixture of Ukrainian life before World War Two.

The last time Ludwika Schein saw Rava-Ruska in western Ukraine, where she was born, she was just a young girl.

But the village she remembers does not exist anymore.

"It was a very Jewish town," she remembers, full of observant men with black hats and long beards, and a wide array of Jewish schools, political groups and civic organisations.

Of a population of around 12,000, more than half were Jews.

Community wiped out

Today, however, none of that Jewish life is left in Rava-Ruska. The cemeteries are parks where children play football.

The buildings - the synagogues, ritual baths and religious schools, all signs of a community that thrived here for more than 400 years - were destroyed without a trace.

image copyrightBBC (provided free by AJC Berlin)
image captionA view of pre-World War Two Rava-Ruska, which had a very Jewish character

"They've all disappeared," says Ms Schein, who was born Sarah Leah Weiler.

When she was 11, Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union, of which Rava-Ruska had become a part two years earlier.

In 1941 the Germans forced the Jews from the town and outlying areas into a ghetto and then a work camp, not far from the centre.

image captionVisitors lit candles to honour the Jewish dead at one of the Nazi killing fields near Rava-Ruska

The Jews were shot over open pits or transported to Belzec, an extermination camp nearby, where more than 400,000 Jews were gassed. Ms Schein and her two sisters were hidden by a local family.

She remembers how the Nazis shot her mother, father and two brothers at the work camp in Rava-Ruska, which she saw from a distance.

"There were sand dunes, and the Nazis were behind them with guns, waiting," she says.

"The bullets were flying, I had to lie flat, not to be shot. And they killed everybody - my parents, my brothers, the whole camp was eliminated."

Now, more than seven decades after that horrific event, she has returned for the first time to the place where it happened, to finally put her loved-ones to rest.

image captionJewish gravestones were combined to form a memorial wall

A memorial has been erected, marking the camp and mass grave where the remains of about 3,000 Jews, including her family, lie.

Ms Schein travelled there for the dedication of the memorial, constructed out of Jewish gravestones. It lies at the end of a road full of potholes just beyond the main market. As a rabbi sang a lament for the dead, she wept.

Local secrets

Four other memorials have also been created in villages near Rava-Ruska, marking where thousands of Jews were similarly gunned down over open pits.

These mass shootings are one of the least-discussed aspects of the Nazi eradication of Europe's Jews, a "forgotten Holocaust".

Historians believe that perhaps 1.5 million people were killed in this way, often in or near town centres, in countless villages and cities across eastern Europe.

In Ukraine alone, some experts believe there could be as many as 1,100 such mass graves.

Ground zero for this genocide was to a large degree western Ukraine. In Galicia, the region where Rava-Ruska and the villages are located, the killing rate was more than 90%.

However, although the Holocaust is officially recognised and taught in schools, what actually happened in individual communities is very rarely discussed.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionHistorians believe as many as 1.5 million Jews were murdered in such mass shootings across eastern Europe
image copyrightyad vashem
image captionHundreds of communities were destroyed by the SS in western Ukraine in 1941

New awareness

A silence about the Holocaust descended over the Soviet Union after the war, putting people off talking about what happened to the Jews. Instead the focus was on how "Soviet citizens" suffered.

This silence led to a general forgetting, as new generations appeared, and no one wanted to speak.

When Ukraine became independent, the population - especially the intellectual class - was more focused on recovering the ethnic Ukrainian past.

Now, with the creation of the memorials, interest is growing. Teachers and students in Rava-Ruska have been inspired to investigate what actually happened to their former Jewish neighbours.

image captionThe Rava-Ruska memorial inspired an exhibition by teachers and pupils in the town
image captionLocal children learn about the Holocaust - whereas many Soviet children knew little or nothing about it

"We hope that this will trigger some rethinking in Ukraine," said Deidre Berger of the American Jewish Committee, which sponsored the monuments, along with the German government and Ukrainian organisations.

"There was nothing here, two years ago, absolutely nothing. It was as if this Jewish history in Rava-Ruska didn't exist," she continued. "And because of this project, it prompted teachers and students to start looking at it."

"This will change thinking and change minds, and the understanding that this is part of Ukrainian history," she said.

Nazi collaborators

Some of their discoveries may be difficult. The local population, as was often the case throughout Europe, was directly involved, either voluntarily or against their will.

In Rava-Ruska local police, recruited by the Germans, helped extensively in the killings - by combing through and brutally clearing the ghetto, for instance.

The memorial project is based on the work of Father Patrick Desbois, a French Catholic priest, whose Yahad-In Unum organisation is documenting all killing sites across eastern Europe and interviewing witnesses still living in the villages.

In his book, Holocaust By Bullets, he describes how many regular people were forced, sometimes under threat of death, into assisting: feeding the Germans, collecting valuables, digging and then filling in the pits, many of which still contained living people.

"The ground moved for days afterward," he was told repeatedly.

These shootings were a more intimate form of extermination than the killing factories of Auschwitz and Treblinka. Virtually everyone in the communities was touched in some way.

"One day we woke up and we were all wearing Jewish clothes," he quotes one villager as saying.

image copyrightBBC (provided free by AJC Berlin)
image captionHassidic Jews in prayer shawls in pre-World War Two Rava-Ruska
image copyrightBBC (provided free by AJC Berlin)
image captionA Zionist youth ensemble in Rava-Ruska before the war

Many in Rava-Ruska are still unaware of what exactly happened. The process will most likely be slow, and some people resist acknowledging the local population's participation. Others express interest in finding out, no matter how uncomfortable this may be.

"It's a tragic history, a sad history - but it's history and I want to know more," said Ihor, who preferred only to give his first name, standing in a park where the town's main Jewish cemetery once stood.

"We don't want to repeat such bad examples in life."

Large crowds of villagers showed up at the ceremonies besides that in Rava-Ruska, indicating that this process is striking an emotional chord.

"This is also essential at a time that Ukraine is striving for democracy," said Ms Berger.

"Historical memory has been neglected for various reasons, and we think this is a major contribution, so that Ukraine can move into the future as a country."

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