Ukraine: Rescuing places of remembrance from oblivion
The Valley of the Communities at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, is perched high atop Mount Herzl, surrounded by pine trees and silence. On this particular day, an evening breeze has cooled the heat of summer. The sun begins a slow descent over a faraway hillside as lights begin to flicker in distant homes that appear stacked one atop the other on the slopes of Jerusalem.
Walking through a maze of large blocks, also stacked high, the names of cities and villages are etched into stone in the Hebrew and Latin alphabets. Each represents a community where Jews once lived before the horrors of the Holocaust. Some names are of places I know; others are foreign. Yet their mere existence creates an overwhelming ache in the knowledge that collectively these place names represent millions of Jewish lives mercilessly destroyed during the Second World War by the Nazis and their collaborators for no other reason than they were Jews.
By the time I leave, it is almost dark. I have visited Yad Vashem on many occasions, but no other place on Mount Herzl for me is as solemn and intimate as The Valley of the Communities. I cannot fully explain why I am compelled to return here nearly every time I visit Jerusalem, but certainly, it is an act of remembrance and repentance. By being here, surrounded by names etched in stone, I am, in some modest manner, able to pay homage to those Jews who perished in the Shoah.
Many of the Jews who lived in the cities whose names are remembered in The Valley of the Communities died in gas chambers. However, a very large number – including over one million Jews who lived on the territory of modern-day Ukraine – were murdered in the Holocaust by Bullets, carried out primarily by German death squads, but also by Romanian troops and others allied with the German forces, often aided by local collaborators. Jews were forcibly removed from their homes and executed in ravines, forests, and fields in relatively close proximity to the cities and villages where generations of their ancestors had lived.
Nearly 2,000 sites of mass killings are located in Ukraine. Some of these sites I know: In western Ukraine’s Buchach, mass killings occurred in the Jewish cemetery near the city center and in a forested area on Fedir Hill. In Pidhaitsi, massacres took place in the cemetery, where the oldest Jewish headstone dates back to the fifteenth century, and in a vast field outside the town. In Lviv, the killings took place at Piaski (The Sands) near Yanivska, a still-functioning prison, located not far from the infamous Kleparov Station. It is from here that thousands of Lviv’s Jews boarded trains to certain death at the Belzec extermination camp. In Kyiv, there is Babyn Yar, which witnessed one of the great atrocities of the Holocaust – the systematic murder of nearly 34,000 Jews in a two-day period.
However, most of Ukraine’s Jewish mass graves are still unmarked, hidden in forests, ravines, and fields in villages and cities throughout the country. They remain lost to history, waiting to be rediscovered.
Certainly, in Soviet times some sites of Jewish mass killing were marked by memorials. Yet their inscriptions did not indicate the unique Jewish tragedy that took place at those sites. Instead, epitaphs were generic in nature. Here “Soviet citizens died at the hands of fascists.”
And yet, change is happening, with increased awareness in recent years about the need to remember, mark, and safeguard mass graves.
One project having an important impact is called Protecting Memory. Initiated in 2011 with German government funding, the project brings together international and Ukrainian entities around its stated goal – to protect forgotten mass graves and to transform the sites into “dignified final resting places.” A remarkable feature of the project is the extent to which it engages with local communities to identify sites, create educational materials for local and wider use, and link communities so that they become part of a broader cultural landscape.
A pilot phase was led by the American Jewish Committee with the result that five sites were memorialized in western Ukraine in 2015: Bakhiv, Kysylyn, Ostrozhets, Prokhid, and Rava-Ruska. Since 2015, the project has been under the direct auspices of the German government’s Denkmal, the Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. An additional fifteen memorial sites in twelve localities in central Ukraine’s Vinnytsia and Zhytomyr regions were dedicated in June and September 2019, widening the regional scope of the project.
Alti and Berel Rodal, co-director and board member of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, respectively, were present at several of these ceremonies. Of the experience, Mr. Rodal wrote:
“The focus was/is memory (and respect and dignity), but we witnessed at the same time historical development and, one dares hope, a view of Ukraine’s future. In each place, the dedication ceremony featured children and teachers, local archivists, civic and faith leaders, and ordinary people, young and old. They spoke of the sites and memorials as theirs, the murdered Jews not as ‘others’ but as citizens of their communities, Jewish history, and the Holocaust as Ukrainian history, Jews as integral to Ukraine’s past and future. El Maleh Rachamim (a prayer for the soul of the departed) and Kaddish was recited, along with Ukraine’s national anthem, an invocation of Ukraine’s pain today as a struggle for an inclusive and fully democratic society. In brief, [these are] models of what can be done and of what needs to be done.”
Powerful words and images. They give hope that, by honestly looking at the past, a new generation of Ukrainians will create places of remembrance and reflection that are just as powerful as The Valley of the Communities.
By Natalia A. Feduschak.
Natalia A. Feduschak is a journalist and director of communications of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, a Canadian non-profit dedicated to promoting understanding between the two peoples. The views expressed are her own.