15 October 2009

Ukraine: Killing fields of Skalat

This story caught my eye as Skalat also figures in my own research. The town was in Austo-Hungary Galicia->Poland->Ukraine.

My maternal grandfather Sidney (Shaya) Fink's family lived in nearby Suchostaw and also in Skalat. While many family members came to America long before the Holocaust, as did his immediate family, many others did not. In 1930, one of his landsmen returned to Suchostaw and Skalat and filmed those who remained, trying to convince them to leave. Few did. Only a relatively few years later, there was no one left to leave.

The New York Jewish Week story by Susan J. Gordon spotlights her trip to Skalat and Father Patrick Desbois, who was the Philly 2009 keynote speaker.

‘We can’t go there,” said my guide, as we sat in his van by an open field. It was late fall in Ukraine, and the air was piercingly raw. “The ground is too muddy to drive across.”

“Can’t we walk?” I asked.

“No, I’m sorry. We would sink if we tried.”

We were on the outskirts of Skalat, one of my ancestral towns. In the distance, amid clumps of gray snow and the stubbled remains of harvested crops, was the memorial and site of the “Wailing Graves,” where more than 750 Jews were murdered in April 1943.
The all-day massacre took place before Passover. The town's Jews were shot one by one by Nazi soldiers. Gordon mentions the recollections of Rebeka, then 17, whose story was written in the name of another Skalat survivor Lucy Baras.

I've heard French Catholic priest Father Patrick Desbois speak several times, most recently at the Philly 2009 conference. His quest began as he was searching for answers concerning his own grandfather, who was sent to Rawa-Ruska labor camp. Over the course of his investigations, he has discovered some 850 mass graves and interviewed nearly 1,000 senior Ukrainians who shared what they saw as children with him. Some had never before spoken of their experiences.

His award-winning book, "The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest's Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews," is in English translation (Macmillan).

Desbois visited town after town and asked the aging residents very direct questions about what they remembered when the Germans arrived. What did they see themselves? Did they see shootings? Do you know where the graves are? Who killed them?

The answers varied, some said they watched from windows as their neighbors and friends were taken away and shot. Some said that young children were ordered to climb trees and thrown down body parts that had landed in branches after being blown up. Sometimes the children were made to serve food to the soldiers at tables alongside open graves. Their reward was to receive candies from those who were shooting the Jews.

For some of these seniors, it was the first time they had ever spoken about these traumatic experiences and Desbois says that some were relieved to finally be able to speak of the events they had witnessed.

All of us who research our families realize that our ancestors and relatives were involved in historical events, willingly or not. The Holocaust is one of those events in which nearly every family lost someone, or many someones. Every Jewish person who perished could easily be part of our own family and, as Jews, we are all interconnected.

Read Gordon's complete story at the link above. Read more about Desbois here.

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