For every Jewish mass grave – a sign, a name

The time has come to identify every mass burial site where thousands of Holocaust victims lie across the Ukrainian landscape and around Europe, says Ukrainian MP.

Jews digging graves 311 (photo credit: German Federal Archive)
Jews digging graves 311
(photo credit: German Federal Archive)
If one goes beyond the outskirts of Kiev and continues deep into the forests of the neighboring village of Radomyshl, one soon enters an unmarked clearing. To the untrained eye, the gap in the trees appears random, and most passersby would likely admire the lush vegetation before continuing along the way.
The horrific reality rooted here, as in hundreds of other sites strewn around the Ukrainian landscape, tells a tragic, often ignored chapter in the incomprehensible history of the Holocaust.
Beneath the grass and lilies that now sprout unchecked lie the bodies of hundreds if not thousands of Jewish victims, summarily murdered during a brief span of days in early 1942. The massacre was carried out by Nazi killing squads acting alongside their local paramilitary collaborators. All too often, nearby villagers joined in, welcoming the chance to translate age-old hatred of the Jews into cold-blooded murder.
Beneath these grounds are the stories of remarkable families, families that exemplified centuries of Jewish traditions in the rich cultures of Eastern European Jewry.
With the crack of each killer’s bullet, lives were terminated without any chance to say good-bye.
The Nazis diabolically assumed that their Jewish victims would be quickly forgotten, and recognized that unmarked killing fields would quickly fade into the lush landscape. Incredibly, they were right, multiplying the crime.
Decades later, there is a growing fear that in this regard the Nazis may have succeeded. For even while historians try to document how many souls were lost to the Final Solution, if these clearings go forever unnoticed, the sacred lives lost in each spot will also vanish.
A life lost in the backwoods of Ukraine or Belorussia is no less valuable than one extinguished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Every one of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis deserves to be remembered. There are many reasons why this effort is critical. But undeniably our most important motivation in preserving the memories of the victims of Nazism is to ensure that humanity never ignores, forgets nor diminishes the fact that these horrors occurred.
AS ABSURD as it might seem that people could ever deny the systematic annihilation of millions of innocents, current events prove that evil people are intent on doing just that. It is therefore incumbent upon us in the Jewish community, and indeed upon all humanity who understand the danger represented by hate-filled and genocidal regimes, to do everything in our power to make sure that every victim of the Holocaust is properly remembered.
It is this very commitment that drives our current initiative to create a Ukrainian Jewish Museum. This project will provide a physical facility where guests can come, visit and learn about the remarkable centuries-old history of one of the Jewish world’s proudest communities. No less important, the museum will embrace a monumental infrastructure to identify these very types of anonymous killing fields that would otherwise continue to be ignored.
Clearly, the clock is against us; this effort should have been launched decades ago. Regrettably, the political environment and other factors prohibited us from pursuing this approach.
It is all the more critical for us to move as quickly as possible today, while the greatest resource available for understanding the Holocaust – the survivor community – remains alive. In the limited degree to which we have been able to work in identifying mass graves to date, survivors have been instrumental.
Some of these survivors were able to remain alive as small children, fleeing into the forests and literally hiding behind trees as they witnessed their family members being slaughtered and thrown into the pits. While the Nazis would force Jewish laborers (whom they kept alive for that purpose) to cover the bodies and disguise the unthinkable crimes taking place, those who were able to survive would eventually find their way back and reveal the truth.
Join with us as we commit ourselves to one crucial if limited campaign: We will, God willing, identify every possible mass grave of Jewish Holocaust victims in the Ukraine – and ultimately everywhere in Europe. And we will do this to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacres outside Kiev that will take place in September 2011.
This effort demands the full support of the global Jewish community. To truly understand the breadth of the Holocaust and the massive toll it represented for humanity, all affected communities deserve to be remembered in a way that respects those who were lost, but most of all ensures that their deaths – and their lives – will never be forgotten.

The writer is a member of the Ukraine parliament and chairman of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee. He has been appointed to head the parliament’s committee commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre.