29/1/2014 Shedding Light ona VastToll of Jews Killed AwayFromtheDeath Camps – NYTimes.com
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Shedding Light on a Vast Toll of Jews Killed
Away From the Death Camps
By ALISON SMALE JAN. 27, 2014
OSWIECIM, Poland — As one gazes out from the main watchtower at
the grim desert that is the crumbling chimneys and crematories,
vanished prisoners’ huts, barbed wire and ditches, it is hard to fathom
that there were corners of the Nazi realm where, collectively, more
killing occurred than in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Monday, the 69th anniversary of the day Soviet forces liberated
Auschwitz, was observed as International Holocaust Remembrance
Day. Yet a third or more of the almost six million Jews killed in the
Holocaust perished not in the industrial-scale murder of the camps, but
in executions at what historians call killing sites: thousands of villages,
quarries, forests, wells, streets and homes that dot the map of Eastern
The vast numbers killed in what some have termed a “Holocaust by
bullets” have slowly garnered greater attention in recent years as
historians sift through often sketchy and incomplete records that
became available after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“People sat down and added the numbers up,” said David
Silberklang, a senior historian at the International Institute for
Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust
As the number of Holocaust survivors gradually declines, these
documents or witness accounts — from Belarus, Ukraine, parts of
Russia and the Baltic States — have illuminated a new picture of the
Nazis’ methods.29/1/2014 Shedding Light ona VastToll of Jews Killed AwayFromtheDeath Camps – NYTimes.com
Most of this slaughter occurred in Eastern Europe after the Nazis
invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, and it mixed with the increasing
chaos of the war once the Germans failed to realize their ambition of
subduing the Soviets in just eight to 12 weeks and faced the prospect of
“The further east the Wehrmacht went, the greater the killing,”
Dieter Pohl, a professor of history at Klagenfurt University in Austria,
said at a conference on the subject this month in Krakow, Poland. The
executions and unmarked mass graves became “an element of German
rule in Eastern Europe.”
In the years after 1945, the executions were not discussed much.
The shock of the discovery of concentration camps was one factor. The
camps had survivors, found in place, who told their unimaginable tale.
By contrast, the local executions terrorized and silenced survivors in the
eastern regions. In addition, after World War II, many witnesses were
left behind the Iron Curtain, and no one was interested in their
On the ground, “news about killing in local fields spread much
more quickly than the murky rumors” about gassing at concentration
camps, Dr. Pohl said.
“Only a few survivors could testify after 1945,” he added. As a
result, “there is still no comprehensive overview of the killing sites.”
Dr. Silberklang said that “in the popular mind, this subject is far
less known than the Holocaust.” The executions became, he said, “in a
One man who has sought out testimony for 12 years is the Rev.
Patrick Desbois, a Roman Catholic priest from France who became
involved after stumbling across Rava-Ruska, the location of a World
War II prison camp in Ukraine for French soldiers where his paternal
grandfather was interned.
Father Desbois, the only one in his family curious enough to have
gotten his grandfather to discuss his memories, now has 23 full-time
employees in Paris who crisscross former Soviet territory interviewing
witnesses, 90 percent of whom had never told their tale, he said.29/1/2014 Shedding Light ona VastToll of Jews Killed AwayFromtheDeath Camps – NYTimes.com
The killing was “secret for Western countries, at a high level,” he
said. “It was ultra-public in a village.”
Father Desbois has worked with the American Jewish Committee
on five sites in Ukraine and Belarus to clear them, find their parameters
and have them marked. One difficulty, said Deidre Berger, the head of
the committee in Berlin, is that Jewish tradition prohibits exhumation.
It is painstaking work, uncovering “a tragedy of vast dimensions
that has been very little researched,” Ms. Berger said at the Krakow
conference. Yet, she noted, the work has huge significance, given that
“more Jews were killed by shooting in Ukraine” — an estimated 1.5
million — “than murdered in Auschwitz in the crematoria.”
Defining what constitutes a killing site and how to preserve them
and for whom was among the many questions the Krakow conference,
convened by the 31-nation International Holocaust Remembrance
Alliance, was devised to address.
Ms. Berger said that “the aim is to have young people take charge of
Father Desbois and German historians noted the special role played
by Jews’ determination that, if possible, the name of every person killed
in the Holocaust should live on. (Yad Vashem has compiled a list of
more than four million names, most of which hang in an Israeli exhibit
opened last year at Auschwitz with the aim of appealing to young people
who may never know a Holocaust survivor.)
Jews “made an anthropological advance by insisting on this,”
Father Desbois said.
In bringing more killing sites to light, said Thomas Lutz, who is the
head of the striking memorial in Berlin known as the Topography of
Terror, the aim should be “to give back the names of as many people as
Whether to focus more heavily on Jewish loss or to include the 1.3
million to 1.5 million non-Jews estimated by Dr. Pohl to have been
executed by the Nazis or their Axis allies is another big question.
Above all, participants at the conference said, speed is needed,
before survivors die. The quest for accuracy — in Soviet times, the29/1/2014 Shedding Light ona VastToll of Jews Killed AwayFromtheDeath Camps – NYTimes.com
several sites that were memorialized were honored only in the spirit of
Communist doctrine, with little or no reference to victims as Jews, or
regard for the exact location of executions — is also paramount.
Often, Ms. Berger said, “what we thought were facts are not facts at
“We must anticipate tomorrow,” Father Desbois added, referring to
still powerful anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, “when people will
start to say, ‘No, nothing happened here.’ ”
Correction: January 28, 2014
An earlier version of this article misstated the relationship between the
numbers of those who died in the death camps and those killed in
executions elsewhere in Eastern Europe. More people died in the
executions than in Auschwitz-Birkenau, not all of the camps combined.
A version of this article appears in print on January 28, 2014, on page A10 of the New York
edition with the headline: Shedding Light on a Vast Toll of Jews Killed Away From Death
© 2014 The New York Times Company