Onto the crying ground
In August, I have been invited to accompany a Yahad – In Unum research team that will be investigating the area around Vinnitsia in Ukraine. It will be the first time I have seen Yahad’s team in action on the ground performing their central mission: interviewing witnesses to the Nazi executions of Jews and Roma/Gypsies during World War II who can help identify the mass graves of the victims shot during a campaign described by Yahad’s founder, Father Patrick Desbois in his book, The Holocaust by Bullets.
For the past year, I have been working with Father Desbois and the Yahad team, providing support for press relations and producing a monthly e-newsletter. During that time, I have learned much about what had been a relatively unknown chapter of the Holocaust compared with the concentration camps and gas chambers recounted in books, films and history classes.
I have heard Father Desbois and Yahad team members describe how the mobile killing units of the “Einsatzgruppen” fanned out across Eastern Europe on the heels of the invading German army, moving village by village to round up Jews and Roma, march them to pre-dug pits, strip them of their clothes and belongings and shoot them. I have watched a number of their videotaped interviews of old men and women who witnessed the killings as children living in often remote, rural villages, their inhabitants hardened by years of harsh and brutal conditions under both tsars and Bolsheviks prior to the arrival of the Nazis. And, I have read the chilling accounts of what some humans are capable of doing to other humans, sometimes not even fully absorbing the horror as I translate the words of a witness telling Yahad’s investigators “what happened on that day.”
Now, I will be seeing and hearing these witnesses first-hand and visiting the crime scenes. I also will have the opportunity to observe and describe how the Yahad team moves on the ground as they perform their delicate mission of memory dredging; the planning and logistics that are involved, the challenges encountered and solutions found. And, I will see how it feels, to move closer to this story, to trace the footsteps of its actors: the victims, the killers, the witnesses. This entry marks the first in a series of reports to be posted, beginning August 10 and continuing through August 20, recounting the day-to-day experiences of a Yahad research team. Readers are invited to follow along on the journey – and to participate in this blog by sending their own comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
See you again on August 10.
– William Mengebier