Exhibit shows horrors of World War II killing fields

January 29th, 2009 - 11:07 am ICT by IANS  

Stockholm, Jan 29 (DPA) Piles of bullets and spent cartridges, a rusty spade, old pistols and sub-machine pistols, pieces of clothing and numerous maps and photographs.These artefacts are part of an exhibition called “Holocaust By Bullets”, that offers new insights into the genocide of Jews in Ukraine during during the Nazi-German occupation 1941-1944.

During that period, some 1.5 million Jews were killed in Ukraine, Father Patrick Desbois said, saying the findings were contributing to an “opening of the memory” and it was impossible to “build a new Europe on an open mass grave”.

It was also a message, “it tells the killer that sooner or later someone will come back,” Desbois said.

Desbois has dedicated himself to collecting accounts from people who witnessed mass executions and massacres during the World War II in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.

Along with a team including translators, cameramen, ballistic experts, mapmakers and a secretary, Desbois has in recent years visited hundreds of villages and hamlets in Ukraine to identify and chart mass execution sites.

The exhibition opens Tuesday when Sweden among other countries marks Holocaust Memorial Day. Desbois was also to give a speech.

“The Holocaust in the East was not secret,” Desbois said, standing near a screen that shows the weather-beaten faces of a couple who recount a mass execution they witnessed over 60 years ago.

Desbois, a French Roman-Catholic priest, said the quest to find witnesses did not only centre on the perpetrators or victims “but the third category of people present, those who saw everything”.

“During the past eight years the team has identified 850 execution sites and interviewed 880 witnesses,” Desbois said, comparing the project to that of detectives working on a crime scene.

His interest was initially private. In 2000 he began to investigate events concerning his grandfather who was deported to a German camp for Soviet prisoners of war in Rava-Ruska, western Ukraine, during World War II.

His grandfather - like many survivors - did not speak about events he witnessed other than confiding in Desbois that “inside the camp it was awful. Outside it was worse”.

In 2004, the Catholic-Jewish organization Yahad-in Inum was formed under the auspices of, among others, the late Jewish-born Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger and Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress.

Father Desbois is with the organisation that aims to promote understanding between Jews and Catholics.

Part of the effort to chart mass graves and execution sites is also out of respect for the victims, Desbois said.

After a mass grave has been identified and evidence secured, ritual Jewish prayers, Kaddish, are read by a rabbi and the grave is covered with cement to prevent possible looting.

The interviews with the witnesses “give back dignity” and may also help relatives of the victims discover the fate of missing relatives. But it is a race against time.

“In five years the witnesses will be gone,” Desbois said, saying 50 percent of Ukraine has been charted and the team are now to continue in Belarus and Russia.

After archive studies, drawing on both former Soviet and German sources, the team sets off to a village and starts the process of searching for surviving witnesses. The team seeks out old women and men and pose the question “were you here during the war?”

The interviews can take several hours as interview subjects often break down and cry over memories and events they witnessed. Some were only six, eight years of age at the time of the events. Statements are checked and counter-checked with other accounts.

As children, some interviewees were for instance recruited to dig pits used for the killings or shovelled sand over the bodies. Others collected clothes and personal belongings that could be sold.

Researcher Patrice Bensimon said the Soviet-era archives provided useful information in locating execution sites. The German sources were at times unreliable, partly due to the rivalry between different factions eager to proclaim that they had achieved the goal of creating a “Jew-free area” in reports back to Berlin.

The exhibition in Stockholm is showcased at the headquarters of the Swedish government agency Living History Forum.

The exhibition runs through July 27 and was produced by the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris.

The Living History Forum was set up to promote issues relating to tolerance, democracy and human rights.

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