Yahad’s research on the ground is centered on finding a particular category of actor within the mass shootings of Jews and Roma during WWII in Eastern Europe, that of the witness. Usually one was interested for the two main actors: the victims and the perpetrators. In difference of the Holocaust in the camps where the killing was mainly hidden, there were always witnesses of the mass shootings. Those were especially the neighbours who viewed the mass shootings who were locals. Never interviewed before, these witnesses are crucial to our research as there were very few survivors of mass shootings, and therefore it is rare for Yahad to encounter survivors on the field. Thus, the witnesses have become essential sources of the local crimes. Their story enables us to reconstruct the events of the crime, which we then corroborate and verify with other sources, like Soviet and German archival information.
Through our field research, we have identified four main categories of witnesses:
Those who lived in close proximity to the shooting site were likely to see or hear the shooting by chance. Though sometimes warned by the local police or German perpetrators to remain indoors on the day of the shooting, this did not completely inhibit neighbors, especially children at the time, from seeing parts or full scenes of the shooting from their yard, while taking animals out to graze in pasture or following a column of Jews while in the center of their village.
“When all this started, I went back home and my friend, Maria, was taken to the town hall. In the yard, there were guards with submachine guns and dogs…Once there, the Jews saw the armed men with dogs and they understood everything.”
The large majority of witnesses that Yahad encounters and interviews are those who viewed a mass shooting through a combination of chance and curiosity. Neighbors who saw a column of Jews passing by or children who heard that an event would take place near the village were examples of such witnesses, who sought out the shooting site to see what would happen out of interest. Their presence at the shooting site didn’t bother the killers, as long there was no interference in the killing process.
Example from Belarus:
“It was a winter day. With my friend, we decided to go take a look at the place where they were shot. We were very curious.”
3) The Forced
On occasion, locals were forced by the Germans and their collaborators to become witnesses of the mass shootings of Jews. There are few cases in which German perpetrators forced entire villages to go to the execution site and watch the mass shooting. Though an explicit reason for forcing locals to attend mass shootings was never given, it is most likely that this form of public execution was intended to frighten the local population into submission. They witnessed the consequences that awaited them if they were caught harbouring or aiding Jews.
Example from Ukraine:
“Where were you when you saw this?”
“We were on the hill.”
“And why were you there?”
“The Germans forced all the inhabitants to come watch.”
“Did the Germans enter in your house to chase you?”
“No. A policeman entered and chased us from the house.”
“Did he enter each house?”
“Yes, in each house, in order to force us to watch all this.”
4) The Requisitioned
The final category of witness applies to all those who were obligated to participate in some logistical aspect of the shooting, either by the local police or German perpetrators. Locals were requisitioned to transport Jews to the shooting site in their carts, to dig the mass graves, to sort the clothes of the Jews, to fill the mass graves, to cook for the Germans and much more. Those requisitioned were either explicitly threatened with a punishment if they failed to participate or felt the pressure to act, while others took part in aspects of the mass shooting willingly.
Example from Romania:
“The pit was dug by a bulldozer, but there were also people requisitioned with shovels, including me."
"Who came to requisition you?"
"The legionnaires came to my house to take me to dig the pit."