Holocaust By Bullets

Although I had a prior understanding of the nature of the Holocaust on the Eastern front and how much it differed from what thoughts of the death camp typically entail, I have to admit that I found Desbois’ book chilling and haunting on every level, and I was not prepared for the scale and the sadism of the Eastern Holocaust.  What was most troubling to me was how very personal the killing seemed and how close it occurred to ‘normal’ everyday life.  The book tells only a fraction of the stories of the 1.5 million Jews who were murdered just outside their former home villages, many who were forced to dig their own graves before being shot at extremely close range.[1]  Rather than the more impersonal gas chamber which is practically synonymous with holocaust imagery, these men, women and children faced their executioners and the executioners similarly faced their victims as they shot them.[2]  Meanwhile, former neighbors and friends were often close enough to witness the massacre first-hand – if not, they could almost certainly hear the shots.[3]  Holocaust studies has largely focused on the more massive extermination efforts at the infamous concentration camps – so much so that these initial mass-victims have almost dropped out of the pages of history.[4]  In a chilling sense of irony, this lack of remembrance is what the Nazi’s sought – to make these Eastern Jews disappear – almost as though they were never there at all.[5]  Although Soviet leadership was eager to chronicle the atrocities in their fight against Germany’s fascism, the records were largely sealed until the fall of the Soviet Union and Perestroika.[6]  Given the scope and horror of these atrocities, many scholars believed the records to be exaggerated until they began studying them in earnest and seeing first-hand what remained of Russia’s Jewish population after the devastation of WWII.[7]  In this grisly yet important work, Father Desbois seeks to – at least in some small part – return the humanity to these nameless, faceless victims of a vicious policy of a racist regime.

The stories that witnesses to these atrocities relay to Desbois and his team are horrific, and while decades often make memory more subjective and muddled, I find it hard to think that these events could ever be stricken from the minds of those who witnessed them or who were forced to participate.  In some areas, the killings lasted not for days or weeks, but for months on end.[8]  In one extermination site of the Ukraine, over 90,000 people were exterminated.[9]  I cannot even imagine what living so close to killings on that scale would do to those left behind with the remains and the memories.

There were undeniable heroes in the East who, despite the danger to themselves, attempted to shelter and protect the Jews in their communities – much like what was happening throughout Western Europe.[10]  Many of them suffered and died along with their Jewish neighbors as a result.[11]  There were also those who betrayed their Jewish neighbors and/or those who sheltered them to the Germans, resulting in a death sentence for Jews and their protectors alike.[12]

One of the things that struck me the most, however, was the story of the village of Sataniv.  The Jews in this village made up almost half of its population.[13]  The Germans rounded them up and walled them, alive, into the cellar of the marketplace.[14]  Witnesses recall the ground moving with those buried alive for five days after they were walled in before it was finally silent.[15]  Yet no one remaining in the village thought to open the cellar door for another 12 years, leaving their Jewish neighbors at the site of their execution and simultaneous burial for over a decade after the war was over.[16]

While it was certainly a difficult book to stomach, it gave life to the millions of Jews, almost forgotten, on the Eastern front of WWII.  Their stories most definitely deserve to be remembered, along with the millions more from the camps, and the relevance of this work bears repeating, especially given the fact that many of the survivors and remaining witnesses will soon reach the end of their lives, leaving no eyewitnesses to these historical horrors, leaving a vacuum of memory for future generations.

[1] Father Patrick Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008), vii.

[2] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, vii.

[3] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, viii.

[4] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, viii.

[5] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, ix.

[6] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, ix.

[7] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, x.

[8] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, 113.

[9] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, 116.

[10] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, 193.

[11] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, 193.

[12] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, 196.

[13] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, 204.

[14] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, 205.

[15] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, 205.

[16] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, 205.

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