The news coming out of South Sudan is not good. Government soldiers are struggling to fight off forces loyal to the former vice president. The small African nation is now rocked by ongoing battles and brutal ethnic killings that threaten to engulf the newborn country in civil war. Amid fresh reports of violence against tribal groups, the United Nations sent a team to investigate the facts on the ground.
In the capital city of Juba, residents directed the team to the site of a mass grave where dozens of bodies were found. Two men described how government soldiers arrested them along with 250 others. They were herded into a police station and then the shooting started.
“It was horrible, because to survive you had to cover yourself with the bodies of dead people,” said one of the men, Simon, who would only give his first name for fear of reprisal.
The government has denied any connection to such activity and declared such rumors false. More recently, the UN itself has backtracked on specific claims about mass graves. However, as the violence continues, pressure is mounting to find a way to stop these alleged war crimes.
While the conflict has sparked a wave of international intervention, for the Jews of Europe no such help arrived. Nearly seventy years have passed since the end of World War II, but more evidence of atrocities continues to emerge.
Several weeks ago I spoke to Father Patrick Desbois, a French priest who has devoted his life to uncovering Nazi mass murders in the Ukraine and surrounding areas in Eastern Europe. We met in his New York headquarters, in what, interestingly enough, used to be the Vaad Hatzalah offices. Desbois shared the story of his lifelong interest in the Holocaust.
His grandfather was a French soldier imprisoned by the Nazis, and in 2002, Desbois traveled to the Ukrainian town of Rawa-Ruska to see the former prison. He knew that the town’s Jews had been massacred during the early years of the war. Yet when he asked the mayor where this had occurred, he was told that nobody knew. “How could more than 10,000 Jews be killed in the village and nobody knows?” Desbois asked.
He did not give up, and some years later a new mayor was elected. The new mayor led Desbois to a forest outside the village, where about 50 elderly residents were gathered in a semicircle. “You are standing on the graves of the last Jews of Rawa-Ruska,” he declared.
Then, as Desbois listened, the old men and women stepped forward to tell their story. One by one, they recalled in vivid detail how the Nazis had marched the Jews to the clearing, forced them to dig graves, and shot them. Children and adolescents then, the villagers recounted how the Germans requisitioned them to prevent Jews from escaping, and later to cover the corpse-filled pits. Desbois
described an old lady with a blue scarf who said that as a young girl, she had gathered branches to cover the bodies so that the next group of Jews would not realize what was happening.
To Desbois’s surprise, the villagers told him that they had never shared their story before. As he was leaving, many asked him, “Why are you coming so late? We were waiting for you.”
Desbois travels around the region, conversing with the help of translators. As a man of the cloth, he easily develops a rapport with the villagers, and they feel comfortable talking, or confessing, to him. Aged witnesses guide him across fields and through woods; then they stop and point. “There,” they say with certainty. “That’s where the Jews were shot.”
Desbois sweeps the areas with metal detectors, uncovering Nazi shell casings and jewelry (Many Jewish women tossed away their rings rather than hand them over to the Germans.) He follows the guidance of halachic authorities. When there are bones to rebury, a minyan of Jews are present to say Kaddish. Desbois used to mark the areas with marble plaques. Not only were those stolen, but the graves were desecrated by locals in search of gold. Now he uses concrete, as well as a GPS tracking system, to mark new sites. Desbois is driven in his quest to uncover more sites, spurred by the knowledge that the number of residents willing and able to talk is rapidly dwindling. A 10-year-old witness would now be 82 or 83 years old. It is a race against time.
So far, Desbois has identified close to half of the estimated 2,000 gravesites in the Ukraine, and there’s much more work to be done in Belarus, Russia, and the other countries where the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units) operated. As more victims are documented and more killing sites discovered, Desbois is certain that the iconic six-million figure will be revised upward based on the evidence.
In forests all across Eastern Europe, the silent earth covers the remains of innocent kedoshim— families and towns that were completely destroyed. They have no gravestones, no candles, no yahrtzeit. Their stories were buried along with them, but many died with Shema Yisrael on their lips, knowing there is One Who does not forget.