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The Vagaries of Memory


A project to memorialize five Holocaust mass grave sites in western Ukraine is helping pave the road to democracy and reexamine the country’s troubled past.


© American Jewish Committee

Six small white angels stand in a row, shivering in the crisp early evening wind, clutching glass candleholders in memory of the hundreds of children who were once shot on the spot where they are now standing. In their midst, a young boy holds up a painting he created with his grandfather of a mother and child in the fetal position. The row of children is framed by two teenagers displaying posters they made about the once-vibrant Jewish community of Ostrozhets.

The ceremony is part of a project called “Protecting Memory: Preserving and Memorializing the Holocaust Mass Graves in Eastern Europe.” “Since I became mayor, I have waited for 17 years for this moment,” said Oleh Parhomei, Mayor of Ostrozhets. Hundreds of townspeople congregated at the foot of the hillside gravesite, waiting patiently for hours for a delegation of dignitaries and visitors to arrive and dedicate the Holocaust memorial site, where approximately 800 people were murdered. “We knew it was not right to leave this mass grave untended, but what could we do? We were waiting for someone to come and create a proper burial site. What took you so long?”

In fact, there is no easy answer to this question. In the reams of books, lectures and exhibitions that have been created about the Holocaust, relatively little has been written about the horrific mass shootings of Jews committed by Nazi killing squads throughout Eastern Europe. The mayor is right to ask why. What has kept us from visiting these sites and erecting memorials to honor those whose lives were so cruelly extinguished?

Western Ukraine, formerly eastern Poland, was part of the region where the systematic murder of Jews by German occupiers, with help from local auxiliary forces, began. Following two years of harsh Soviet occupation, German forces marched into this heavily Jewish populated area in June 1941, accompanied by Nazi mobile killing squads sent to murder alleged regime opponents, chiefly Jews, Romas, Communists, and Soviet prisoners of war. In the course of the following three years, entire Jewish communities were destroyed; historians estimate that from 1941 to 1944, Nazi mobile killing squads, supported by local police units, murdered up to one and a half million Jews in the area of today’s Ukraine.

Read the complete article in the Berlin Policy Journal App – September/October 2015 issue.