A determined yearlong effort to establish permanent memorials at mass graves in Ukraine filled with Jews murdered during the Holocaust has encountered new hurdles since Russia’s invasion of the country 18 months ago.
“It is a challenge now to teach about World War II and crimes against humanity then, while experiencing crimes against humanity in the current war,” says Vitalii Bobrov, education director for the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies in Kyiv.
For Aleksandra Wroblewska, research associate at the Connecting Memory project in Berlin, “the Russian war in Ukraine has been a disaster for Holocaust research.” She has worked for more than a decade with Bobrov and other partner organizations in Ukraine to locate and protect mass graves of Jews murdered by the Germans and local collaborators. More than 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews perished in the war.
Collecting information from the Second World War period, even before the current conflict with Russia, was a painstaking effort that took patience, perseverance, and investigative ingenuity. The initial task, Wroblewska explains, is to secure information from archival sources, analyze them, and create a historical narrative.
To date, 21 mass grave sites have been dedicated in central and eastern Ukraine, and another four are slated to be completed in the fall.
The effort began in 2010, when the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, where Wroblewska was working, launched its Protecting Memory Project in collaboration with Father Desbois, a French Catholic priest, whose organization, Yahud-in Unum, documented hundreds of Holocaust-era mass graves sites in Ukraine and other eastern European countries. AJC Berlin secured a German government commitment to fund the initiative.
The first five sites, hidden for more than seven decades, were dedicated at Rava Ruska, Kysylyn, Ostrozehts, Bakhiv, and Prokhid in 2015. Each has clearly delineated borders, signs commemorating the Jewish men, women, and children murdered there, and information boards relating the history of the once-vibrant local Jewish communities.
Germany’s Foundation Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe assumed management of the project in 2016, and over the next three years established 16 more memorial sites and information boards, following the format of the first five.
Empowering local initiatives in commemoration and education, in many villages where dedication sites have been established or are not yet planned, has been an integral component of the initiative.
“There has been a growing interest in the Holocaust era, of what happened here, since Ukraine joined the Stockholm Declaration in 2000, and Holocaust education became the standard in Ukraine school curriculum,” says Bobrov.
Increasing Holocaust awareness, education in Ukraine
RESEARCHERS HAVE long relied on testimonials of older Ukrainians who witnessed the atrocities in their communities. Several shared their vivid memories in Wordless, an 18-minute documentary film about Turka, where Jews comprised 40% of the pre-war population of 11,000.
Produced by the Ukrainian organization After Silence, the film is a disturbing historical record of the capacity of human beings to commit atrocious, deadly acts. More than 6,000 Jews from Turka and neighboring towns were rounded up by the German occupiers. While some were shot and buried in graves that the Jewish victims were forced to dig, most were forcibly transferred to the Belzec death camp in Poland, where an estimated 500,000 Jews were murdered in less than a year.
“The grave was breathing,” recall two longtime Turka residents, a man born in 1933 and a woman born in 1936. They describe seeing Jewish residents and shopkeepers in Turka daily before the war – and then recall how the thin ground covering the mass grave in a forest near the town was moving because some of the Jews had been buried alive.
The film also is enlightening about local culpability. Not only did the sounds of the killings reverberate in the town center, some residents gathered in the forest to watch the horrific Nazi atrocities.
Expanding Holocaust awareness among Ukrainians of all ages is the essence of the Connecting Memory project’s initiative since 2020 to create a network of people who are familiar with what transpired to the Jews in their communities.
“Most people involved in the Connecting Memory project’s network were already dealing with Holocaust history, taking care of mass grave sites. But without local government support or connections with others doing similar work across Ukraine, they felt isolated,” says Wroblewska. Forty communities have joined the network, sharing information on identifying mass grave sites, cleaning up the long-neglected areas and preserving them, and developing local education programs.
Although visiting the sites now has been limited by Ukrainian military restrictions on entering forests, where many mass graves are located, “interest in and perceived need for the project has not diminished,” notes Bobrov.
“It is inspiring that our local contacts wish to continue memorial ceremonies,” even though there are fewer participants than before, he says. “When they cannot visit the site, they do something – show some photos, hold an event at school. And if there is the slightest possibility to visit the site, they do.”
Maintaining the sites, and working on protecting other mass graves, have been hindered by the current war. “Many actively involved in the project locally are fighting as soldiers or as volunteers, helping the military or other civilians, and some have been killed,” Bobrov observes.
Moreover, with one in four Ukrainians, many of them children, now internally displaced refugees, and constant Russian missile and bombing attacks, “inevitably there are thoughts of the last mass killings that took place on these lands,” he adds.
While some Ukrainians “find the Holocaust and World War II crimes more relatable,” he emphasizes that “there is no equating with, or trivialization of the Holocaust.”
STILL, ENSURING that the Holocaust will be ingrained in the consciousness of Ukrainians today and in the future is an ongoing task. “The Holocaust is not integrated into the national Ukrainian history, and understanding what happened was interrupted by the current war,” states Wroblewska.
“Ukraine has not confronted its Holocaust-era past, or acknowledged the role of local collaborators as other Central and Eastern Europe countries have done,” says Rabbi Andrew Baker, AJC director of International Jewish Affairs, who has been involved with the mass graves project since its inception.
“Yet, what two NGOs, Connecting Memory, and the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies, have achieved by engaging Ukrainians on a local level, especially schoolchildren, is remarkable. They flipped the usual process rather than waiting for a national government to mandate Holocaust education and hope it filters down.”
Looking ahead, Wroblewska says her group is “focused on keeping the network alive with the hope we can go back to our plans to preserve the mass graves and catch up.”
The writer was the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations, 1998-2023.