It has now been six months since I spent a day traveling around the countryside of western Ukraine on the Golden Horseshoe castle tour. The sights and experiences of that day have stayed with me. The memories are still strong of my fellow passengers, the three castles I visited and of the gloriously ruined Roman Catholic Church of St. Joseph at Pidhirtsi. Yet it is what I cannot remember that now occupies my thoughts. This lack of memory was recently provoked by a chapter I read in The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 million Jews. The books tells the story of a French Catholic priest, Father Patrick Desbois and his years long work to locate the execution sites and mass graves of the Jews and Roma murdered by Nazi death squads during the Holocaust. This method of execution was carried out prior to the inception of industrialized murder with gas chambers. There are literally thousands of mass graves across Poland, Romania and areas in the western part of the former Soviet Union. Desbois and his teams of interpreters, photographers and researchers have managed to locate over a thousand mass graves by interviewing elderly villagers who witnessed these shootings. These interviews, along with forensic fieldwork, have led to horrifying discoveries. Over a decade after his work began, Desbois continues to find sites throughout the region.
Darkness Recovered – Holocaust by Bullets
In the book Desbois relates how he and his team developed their method of finding the mass graves. In each chapter he names different places where discoveries were made. Many of the places can be found close to villages or small towns. Mass executions also took place on the outskirts of more sizable cities, including Lviv. After reading each chapter I would look up the different places that were named on a map, trying to see if I been anywhere near these sites. Each search filled me with trepidation and ominous foreboding. I was suspicious that I might have unwittingly crossed a site while jogging in the forest that is part of Lviv’s Lychakiv district, specifically the Kaiserwald (King’s Forest) where I had come across trenches and undulations that were almost certainly manmade. I surmised that these were probably dug during World War I, but I could not easily dismiss the possibility that they were the setting of even greater horrors than an organized battle.
It turned out that shootings did take place in woods nearby, but not in the Kaiserwald. Less than a mile away, in another forested area known as Lysynchi, 90,000 Jews were executed by the Nazis over a period of months. Desbois and his team discovered these mass graves. The figure is difficult to process, until one realizes the massive scope and scale of the Holocaust By Bullets. Almost anywhere in western Ukraine is within a half hour drive of an execution site. The most frighteningly personal of these places are often found in the remoter reaches of the countryside. In serene settings where murder seems just as imaginable as the Holocaust was. One of these rural execution sites/mass graves was not far off the Golden Horseshoe route. I never would have known the proximity of this site to the tour route without having read Father Desbois’ book.
A Personal Matter – Mass Murder at Khvativ
The time it took to ride between Olesko and Pidhirtsi Castles on the Golden Horseshoe tour was just 15 minutes. The only memorable part of the ride was caused by an abrupt deterioration in road conditions after leaving the M06 highway. Just before the turn off we skirted a village by the name of Khvativ. I cannot recall anything memorable about it. Then again why would I? The village occupied one of those in between spaces of travel. This is a place between two stops, where most of a trip occurs, but is rarely worth noticing. Khvativ acts as a quintessential “wide spot in the road.” There really should be nothing of historical interest in Khvativ. If only the Holocaust By Bullets had not left lasting and deadly scars upon this otherwise mundane village. In the woods not far from Khvativ, Desbois and his team used a metal detector to find 600 German cartridges, the last remnants of mass murder. The woods in which the site was discovered were part of the panorama seen from the grounds in front of Pidhirtsi Castle. I can remember standing there, admiring the view of the surrounding forest and agricultural lowlands. Little did I know of the horrors that took place nearby, then again little did anyone know until Father Desbois made the discovery. The people who did know still lived in the village. One of them provided a story that brought home the personal nature of mass murder.
The storyteller was a 91 year old woman named Olena who was reticent to talk with Desbois. At first she would not meet with him, but Desbois waited for nearly an hour outside her home. Eventually she came out to talk. As Desbois relates: “She was a young bride on the day of the Jews’ execution. She was bringing in the harvest on top of the white mountain with a female friend; the wheat was ripe, and the weather was hot. In the far distance they caught sight of two German military trucks, filled with Jewish women, standing up. The trucks approached until they passed them. In one of the trucks she suddenly recognized a friend of her mothers who began shouting ‘Olena, Olena, save me!’ She paused for breath. The more she shouted, the more I hid myself in the wheat. I was young, and I was afraid that the Germans would kill us like they were killing the Jews. That woman shouted until they took her to the pit. Right until the last moment I heard her shouting: ‘Olena, Olena, save me!’ These words punctuated her tale again and again. It was the first time a witness had communicated to us the last words of a Jewish person executed by the Nazis.”
Resurrection – For The Sake Of Humanity
The spiritual value of Desbois’ work is that it has restored dignity to the Jews who were murdered. The Jews of western Ukraine are no longer in anonymous graves in forgotten fields. They are real people with voices that can now be heard. They are mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, neighbors and friends that have been given life, rather than having it taken from them. Olena may have been helpless to save her mother’s friend on the day of the mass murder, but through memory and with the help of a skilled interlocutor she was able to bring that person back to life. Thousands of other witnesses have found the courage to raise their voices with the help of Desbois. This process has brought a voice to the voiceless and given life to the murdered, not just for a moment, but for all time. “Olena, Olena save me.” The cry was not in vain. More humanity resides in those words then was to be found in the entire Third Reich.