“Eastern Europe’s Killing Fields,” ran the subhead at the bottom of the New York Times. Underneath it, the caption read, “Many of the Jews who died in the Holocaust were killed by executioners’ bullets, historians have learned.”
It was Tuesday morning, the day after International Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorating the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. It was also the second day back at school after the end of yeshiva break. Following a week of vacation where my children stayed up every night until the wee hours playing Minecraft and Assassins Creed, they were reluctantly rolling out of bed at daybreak and trudging out into record low temperatures, waiting at frozen street corners for their school buses.
After seeing everyone off, I spread the paper out on the dining room table and flipped to page A10. “Shedding Light on a Vast Toll of Jews Killed Away From Death Camps,” blared the headline. According to the Times article, the Holocaust generally is associated with concentration camps. Historians are now learning that a million and a half Jews were executed in forests and villages across Eastern Europe, in the Ukraine, in Belarus, and in parts of Russia.
For some unfathomable reason, the Times photo editor chose to illustrate the article with a picture of the “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate at Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
There’s a certain conversation you have when you tell people that your parents are Holocaust survivors. “Really?” they say respectfully. “What camp were they in?”
“They weren’t in a camp,” you explain. “They were hiding in the forests, running from place to place.”
This is followed by what my sister calls The Look. Then some kind of variation on this statement: “Oh, so they didn’t really suffer. They had it pretty good.”
That he “had it pretty good” would be news to my dad. Usually, his war stories end with the words, “And then they took him into the forest and shot him.”
Sometimes, the “him” in the story is his 15-year-old brother, Yehuda. When their bunker – a hole tunneled into the side of a hillock – was discovered by a passing hunter, my father, my grandfather, and another brother threw themselves into the latrine pit. Understanding that there was no room for him, Yehuda shoveled dirt over his father and brothers to hide them. Then he climbed out to face the SS.
Sometimes the “him” in the story is my great-uncle Aron. Aron had a gift. He built bunkers. And his bunkers weren’t just a hole in the floor, or a space hollowed out behind a false wall; Aron engineered bunkers that could hold 50 people. He secreted one under three feet of earth in a root cellar, so that suspicious soldiers armed with shovels couldn’t find it. Aron built bunkers with electricity stolen from Gestapo headquarters; Aron built a bunker with a real working toilet; Aron built a bunker with a shower he made from a car radiator.
Uncle Aron was hiding out in the Ukrainian forests when he was captured. The German soldiers barked, “Don’t move, or we’ll shoot!” Fearing that he might be tortured, that he might reveal the locations of the bunkers he’d constructed, Aron moved.
Sometimes, the “him” in the story is Aunt Devora, who lived in the city of Drohobych, just 11 miles away from my father’s hometown, Podbuzh. Dad remembers being sent to Drohobych one summer to stay with his aunt and her wealthy merchant husband. The family consensus was that my father was too thin. Aunt Devora was assigned the task of fattening him up.
“What happened to her, Dad?” I asked him, the first time I heard this story. “Where is she now?”
“What do you think?” he replied. “They took her into the forest and shot her.
“And her husband, and her children, too.” Before the war, there were around one hundred Szapiros living in the Galitzia/Drohobych area, Dad says, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Of this hundred, four survived.
The New York Times article cited Father Patrick Desbois, a French priest who became intrigued with the “Holocaust by bullets” after his grandfather was captured and held in Rava-Ruska, a camp for French prisoners of war in Ukraine. In the camp, his grandfather told him, life was hard. But, he hinted darkly, there were others for whom it was much worse. Though he refused to talk about it, eventually Father Desbois discovered that one of his grandfather’s jobs as a prisoner was filling in mass graves for Jews.
Father Desbois made it his life’s work to discover unmarked Jewish execution sites throughout Eastern Europe. Going from town to town in the Ukrainian countryside, he began by checking in with the local priest and telling him of his mission. Invariably, someone would come forward. Aged villagers who were children when the Jews of their town were killed and buried in a patch of wasteland behind the houses (or in a storage vault in the market square, or a nearby quarry, or a scarred clearing in the forest), yearned to unburden themselves of their memories, to confess to the priest what they had witnessed before their stories died with them.
On Google, I typed in the word “Drohobych” and clicked on “Images.”
Pictures popped up. Quaint onion-domed churches. Pretty nineteenth-century architecture. Wide city streets. Charming townhouses that could be in London, or Greenwich Village. Grand, ornate structures that clearly once were synagogues and have been re-purposed into something else.
I scrolled down. More pictures swam into view. German soldiers aiming their rifles at four men standing against a wall, their hands linked for courage. Nazi officers standing above a trench cut among the trees, a trench stacked high with bodies. In a clearing, a memorial shaped like a grave marker, commemorating the Jews of Drohobych, massacred and buried in the Bronica Forest. A wooded glade, featuring hillocks and dips covered in fallen leaves. Under these hillocks and dips in the forest, the caption clarifies, are unmarked mass graves.
My father’s stories came to life. I tried to imagine a 15-year-old boy named Yehuda standing among the trees with his hands up in the air. I tried to visualize my grandfather leading the remnant of his family through these woods in the dead of night, carving a hiding place into a mound of earth.
The true horror of this story is this: In 2014, an article about “Eastern Europe’s Killing Fields” is news because the scope of the killing still is unknown. The investigation continues, 69 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, because in hundreds of towns and villages where German soldiers rounded up the local Jewish population and shot them, there were no survivors.
The number we are all familiar with is six million.
In fact, we have no idea how many Jews were really murdered. And it’s likely we never will.