On January 28th, I attended an event at the United States Department of State, marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day. (In 2005 the UN designated January 27th as a day of remembrance for the 6 million Jews and millions of other victims of the Nazi’s in World War II.)
The State Department event featured the very impressive work of Father Patrick Desbois. Desbois has painstakingly documented the mass executions of 2.5 million Jews and thousands of Gypsies, perpetrated by the Nazi’s in the territory of the former Soviet Union. These executions did not occur in the gas chambers that are so often associated with the Holocaust. Rather, they involved gruesome shooting of people standing over mass graves, which the victims had been forced to dig themselves. Desbois has interviewed 3200 witnesses of these horrific events, including residents of the Ukraine, Romania and Poland. He has also exhumed mass graves, providing tangible evidence of these crimes against humanity, occurring 70 years ago. As an indication of the magnitude of the destruction involved, Desbois said that there were 700 extermination sites in the Ukraine alone.
The State Department event included the showing of a documentary produced by Desbois’ organization, Yachad in Unum. The documentary, entitled “Holocaust by Bullets” let the eye witnesses of the killing do most of the talking. These witnesses, now of advanced age, were children during the war. Some of them hid behind bushes to see the atrocities. Others were deliberately brought by adults to watch the killings, as if it were a public show. (In one town, five classes were gathered in a school assembly, and the children were instructed to go watch the killings and discuss these events in school the next day.) The witnesses who were featured in the documentary shared details which were painful to hear, such as the Nazis getting locals to walk over piles of corpses that were in the pits, in order to compact the mass sufficiently so that more of the slaughtered could fit.
Desbois said that he does his work to emphasize that “We cannot build democracies on mass graves.” In addition, he wants the perpetrators of such atrocities to know that regardless of how much time has passed we will not forget what happened and we will continue to bring their crimes to light.
Also in attendance at the event were Ambassador Michael Kozak, interim Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism; Suzanne Brown-Fleming of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; Ambassador Douglass Davidson, Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues; and Victoria Holt, Deputy Assistant Secretary for the State Department. These individuals and Father Desbois served on a panel, which discussed themes related to the documentary. Representatives from Austria, France, Greece, Israel, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Estonia and Lithuania were present.
Members of the audience directed a number of questions and comments to the panel. A representative from Estonia commented that in addition to atrocities of the Holocaust, we should not forget that the Baltic States are “soaked with the blood” of people targeted by not Nazi but Soviet forces. I found his comment troubling. While his observation was accurate and it is a tragedy that the Soviet regime repressed and murdered millions, its actions had neither the purpose nor outcome of genocide. The objective of the Soviets was to so dominate its subject states that resistance appeared impossible. The goal of Nazi genocide efforts was to dehumanize and exterminate specific ethnic groups, to murder whole target populations. To a large extent they were successful. Before the war there were 9.5 million Jews in Europe. Thus, two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe was murdered. Further, the feverish pace of extermination occurring up until the very end of the war indicated that the Nazis made their genocide efforts an utmost priority. (For more information about revisionist history trying to equate Soviet violence to Nazi genocide, see rewriting-history.org.)
These facts make the soul shudder. They should. We should be horrified. Let us support human rights for all people, but let us also educate others about the special nature and causes of genocide, so that this demonic form of hatred and destruction can be uprooted from humanity.
© January 2013 Michael Milgraum