Sunday, July 8, 2007

Window Opens on Holocaust in Ukraine

New York Times:
PARIS (AP) -- Children, stomachs empty and knees quivering, saw and heard Jews massacred by the Nazis all across the killing fields of Ukraine. Teenagers were forced to bury the victims, shoveling dirt over neighbors and playmates.

Today, these now aged men and women are unburdening themselves of wartime memories, many for the first time, in testimonies to a French priest. Their words may change history as they shed light on this poorly known chapter of the Holocaust.

The project is central to a broader reassessment of the Nazi horrors in Ukraine. Last month, a team of rabbis in another project visited a newly found grave site in the Ukrainian village of Gvozdavka-1 where thousands of Jews were killed during the occupation by Adolf Hitler's army.

That was just one site among many: Father Patrick Desbois and his mixed-faith team have been crisscrossing Ukraine for six years and have located more than 500 mass graves so far, many never before recorded. ...

Desbois ''discovered that elderly eyewitnesses who had never been asked about this, when speaking with a priest, opened up. If you are ever going to bare your thoughts, if you are a Christian, you will bare them to a priest,'' Shapiro said.

Given Ukraine's history of anti-Semitism, from imperial-era pogroms to modern-day vandalism of Jewish sites, some are reluctant to absolve the Ukrainian witnesses and participants of responsibility in the Holocaust.

Shapiro, however, said: ''It is too late to be in a blame game. Our obligation is to understand.''

Healing wounds between Jews and Christians has been central to Desbois' career. He heads a group called Yahad-In Unum -- combining the Hebrew and Latin words for ''together'' -- founded in 2004 by Paris' influential Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, whose Jewish mother died at Auschwitz, and officials at the World Jewish Congress. ...

Yahad-In Unum's researchers rely heavily on family members of victims or survivors. At the Paris exhibit, which is displayed in English and French, a sign near the exit asks anyone with information about someone killed by Nazis in Ukraine to leave a note in a box or to send an e-mail.

''I want to return dignity to the families,'' Desbois said. ''Every story helps us.''

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