World leaders, Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans gathered at Auschwitz on Wednesday to mark the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp. Poland has long shouldered responsibility for preserving this tragic site, which has become a virtual synonym for the Holocaust. Its gas chambers and crematoria, rail platforms and endless rows of wooden barracks were evidence of the systematic and mechanized murder of European Jews that the Nazis had perfected. The ashes of over a million victims are in its soil.
But the situation was different for over a million victims in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. In countless towns and villages, Jews were rounded up by Nazis and their local collaborators, and then shot one by one. Frequently, they were forced to dig their own graves — sometimes at the edge of town, sometimes by a Jewish cemetery, sometimes in a nearby forest.
Patrick Desbois, a French cleric who has led teams searching for these graves, has described these mass killings as a “Holocaust by bullets.” Elderly eyewitnesses who will not share their secrets with Jewish researchers have been willing to tell in excruciating detail what they saw to this visiting Frenchman in a clerical collar. Over the past few years Desbois’ teams have researched and identified hundreds of mass graves in Ukraine and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. Most are unmarked, unkempt and neglected. They have been ravaged by nature and, worse, by scavengers who think they will find something of value by digging up these human remains.
Entire Jewish communities were destroyed in the Holocaust. No Jews remain today even to care for the overgrown cemeteries, let alone the mass graves. Local governments, already overburdened, have little interest in taking on the responsibility. Surviving relatives in the United States or Israel may contribute money to erect a monument or memorial marker. But more often than drawing mourners, that thoughtful gesture draws grave robbers.
The German government seems poised to play a lead role in resolving this issue. A decade ago several members of the German Bundestag researched the fate of Jewish residents of their districts. That investigation led the legislators to Latvia, where these victims were deported to provide slave labor, and ended on the outskirts of Riga, the capital city, where the Jews were buried in Bikernieki Forest with other Nazi victims.
The parliamentarians turned to the German War Graves Commission, an agency supported by private and public funds and devoted to identifying and caring for the graves of German soldiers abroad. They argued successfully that German Jews buried in a mass grave also were “German war victims” and deserved similar attention. The mass graves of Bikernieki Forest were sealed and protected, and a memorial was erected.
On Jan. 20, the president of the German War Graves Commission joined Jewish leaders and foreign diplomats in Berlin to call for similarly protecting and memorializing the hundreds of mass graves so far identified. He offered the commission’s support and its willingness to undertake the work if German funds are allocated. The European Shoah Legacy Institute, established by the 46 countries attending the Prague Holocaust-Era Assets Conference last summer, has agreed to make this one of its first initiatives.
In the past 15 years, since Polish President Lech Walesa first presided over international ceremonies marking the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, many countries have taken on responsibility for preserving Holocaust-era memories and related issues. Germany, France and Austria have provided compensation to Holocaust victims and their heirs. Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and other Eastern European countries established their own educational programs and commemorative events.
Today, even a child survivor of Auschwitz is well into retirement, and the day when no eyewitnesses will be left is coming soon. As we remember the Holocaust and all its victims, let us recommit to collecting their scattered bones and protecting their mass graves.
Sixty-five years later, the least we can do is provide a proper burial.
Andrew Baker, a rabbi, director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee