Visitors at the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, where research is being done on lesser-known killing fields.
In the Ukrainian town of Berdichev, Jewish women were forced to swim across a wide river until they drowned. In Telsiai, Lithuania, children were thrown alive into pits filled with their murdered parents. In Liozno, Belarus, Jews were herded into a locked barn where many froze to death.
Holocaust deniers aside, the world is not ignorant of the systematic Nazi slaughter of some six million Jews in World War II. People know of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen; many have heard of the tens of thousands shot dead in the Ukrainian ravine of Babi Yar. But little has been known about the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of smaller killing fields across the former Soviet Union where some 1.5 million Jews met their deaths.
That is now changing. Over the past few years, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and research center in Israel has been investigating those sites, comparing Soviet, German, local and Jewish accounts, crosschecking numbers and methods. The work, gathered under the title “The Untold Stories,” is far from over. But to honor Holocaust Remembrance Day, which starts Monday evening, the research is being made public on the institution’s Web site.
Jews executed in October 1941 in Serbia. One goal of the Yad Vashem project
“These are places that have been mostly neglected because they involved smaller towns and villages,” said David Bankier, head of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem. “In many cases, locals played a key role in the murders, probably by a ratio of 10 locals to every one German. We are trying to understand the man who played soccer with his Jewish neighbor one day and turned to kill him the next. This provides material for research on genocide elsewhere, like in Africa.”
For the purposes of this project, a killing field entails at least 50 people, said the project director, Lea Prais. The killing began in June 1941 with the German invasion of the Soviet Union. From the Baltic republics in the north to the Caucasus in the south, Nazi death squads combed the areas.
The first evidence for what took place was gathered right after the war by Soviet investigating committees largely focused on finding anti-Soviet collaborators.
The new research checks that evidence against German records, diaries and letters of soldiers, as well as accounts by witnesses and the few surviving Jews, some of whom climbed out of pits of corpses. Sometimes, the researchers said, the Soviets seemed to have exaggerated, and that is noted on the Web site. One goal of the project is to learn more exactly the numbers killed.
One little-known case comes from a German sailor who filmed killings in Liepaja, Latvia. The film has been on view for some years at the Yad Vashem museum. But the new Web site has a forgotten video of a 1981 interview with the sailor, Reinhard Wiener, who said he had been a bystander with a movie camera.
According to part of his account, “After the civilian guards with the yellow armbands shouted once again, I was able to identify them as Latvian home guardsmen. The Jews, whom I was able to recognize by now, were forced to jump over the sides of the truck onto the ground. Among them were crippled and weak people, who were caught by the others.
“At first, they had to line up in a row, before they were chased toward the trench. This was done by SS and Latvian home guardsmen. Then the Jews were forced to jump into the trench and to run along inside it until the end. They had to stand with their back to the firing squad. At that time, the moment they saw the trench, they probably knew what would happen to them. They must have felt it, because underneath there was already a layer of corpses, over which was spread a thin layer of sand.”
Ms. Prais said one of the discoveries that had most surprised her was the way in which Soviet Jews who survived the war made an effort to commemorate those who had perished. In distant fields and village squares they often placed a Star of David or some other memorial, despite fears of overt Jewish expression in the Soviet era.
“The silent Jews of the Soviet Union were not so silent,” she said.
The slaughter that some of them had escaped defies the imagination. One case Ms. Prais and her colleagues have cross-referenced involves what happened in the town of Krupki, Belarus, where the entire Jewish community of at least 1,000 was eliminated on Sept. 18, 1941.
A German soldier who took part in the mass killing kept a diary that was found on his body by the Allies, she said. In it, he wrote of having volunteered as one of “15 men with strong nerves” asked to eliminate the Jews of Krupki. “All these had to be shot today,” he wrote. The weather was gray and rainy, he observed.
The Jews had been told they were to be deported to work in Germany, but as they were forced into a ditch, the reality of their fate became evident. Panic ensued. The soldier wrote that the guards had a hard time controlling the crowd.
“Ten shots rang out, 10 Jews popped off,” he wrote. “This continued until all were dispatched. Only a few of them kept their countenances. The children clung to their mothers, wives to their husbands. I won’t forget this spectacle in a hurry....”