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The Forced Witnesses: The Russians Who Watched The Nazi Killings

Eastern Russia, September 2011

Rostov-on-Don is currently a large metropolis in Central Russia. This was the first time I had gone so deep into Russia. The city is pretty, with big boulevards, wide sidewalks, and intense traffic. In late September, a warm wind still blows over the Azov Sea.

On the day of our arrival, we were welcomed by a Lubavitch rabbi in his synagogue. The building was white, sandwiched between old two-story Russian buildings on a tiny cobblestone street. The rabbi introduced himself warmly.  With him was a small, humble man; a historian of the town of Rostov.

Early the following morning, I was taken by the historian and a representative of the Jewish community to the site of the massacre. It is a large valley just outside town, where a massive white Russian memorial honors the “Soviet” dead.

Twenty-seven thousand victims.

At the foot of the monument was an immense bed of red flowers. The historian, noticing my interest in the flowers, said softly, “The blood of the victims.”

We knew about this massacre from Soviet archives. But to be in the center of Russia and to see such proof that, far from Berlin, over a very short period of occupation, the Germans found the time to shoot 27,000 civilians, mostly Jews, is another form of knowledge.

What an obsession! I thought. To come from Munich, Hamburg, or Berlin, sometimes by train, sometimes by truck or car, in order to murder thousands of men, women, and children. The Germans went all over the world intending to track down and kill every last Jewish child.

We talk a lot about Babi Yar, for good reason. We talk a lot about Auschwitz-Birkenau, again for good reason. But who knows about all the deaths at Rostov-on-Don?

Before this silent plain, standing at the side of a heavily traveled road, I looked at the surrounding habitations. There were mostly postwar Soviet buildings. This place is surrounded by nice new houses, along with big Soviet blocs. At the time of the genocide, were there people living near the valleys of Rostov-on-Don?

Our Russian companions shook their heads, saying that the shootings took place day and night but that there were no witnesses. The archives corroborate this by telling us that the surrounding population was evacuated for the period of the murders.

I asked immediately, “How did they do it at night?” This was at once unusual and seemed technically impossible. My answer came: “They brought tractors from the kolkhoz and used the headlights.” I wondered where the tractors came from and who drove them. A Soviet tractor doesn’t move by itself. How many tractors did they need to light up this valley?

We stayed for a long time while our photographer and cameraman did their work. The site of the Rostov murders was sealed in a double silence. The silence of the Soviet monument bordered by blood-red flowers. The silence of the official absence of any witnesses.

And I daresay I believed it there. Maybe at Rostov, so far from Moscow, so close to Stalingrad, the Nazis did murder the Jews in secret. When we decided to investigate around Rostov, we knew it would be practically impossible to meet people who had seen the giant massacre.

Our work in the surrounding villages had shown us how unique the region was. Many of the peasants explained to us that they were Cossacks. Many of the merchants in the markets told us they were from Azerbaïjan. The investigation was fruitful, but we didn’t meet one single witness to Rostov itself. We returned to Paris with a burning question: did the Rostov executions take place in secret?

A month later, another team returned to Rostov. I advised them to continue their investigations in the villages first, which is how, on a market day, they found Iegorlyskaya.

Marie, a researcher and student of history, told me the story.

“We decided to stop in the small town of Iegorlyskaya. We were walking through a market, several low wooden tables covered with decorative objects, colored cloth piled up on old wax mats. The stalls were tended by babushkas sitting on low stools and by men from the Caucuses. One after the other, the women all directed us to a certain Lydia who sat behind a small display of multicolored socks. It was late October, and the weather was not warm. We got to Lydia’s table. She was sitting wrapped in an abundance of blue shawls. When she saw us, having surely been alerted beforehand by the other saleswomen, she immediately began telling us, in a feeble voice through the morning chill, that she had seen the shootings in the Rostov valley where she used to live. She seemed fragile as glass. She agreed to move with us into a less crowded corner of the market.”

I watched the interview for a long time.

Lydia had insisted on standing for it despite her shortness of breath and watering eyes. The interview lasted no more than half an hour. She kept saying she couldn’t take it anymore. She couldn’t stand to remember anymore. She was no more than a child in 1942. At the end of the interview, a neighbor had to support her as though she were in great pain. Afterward, she went back to her spot, behind her little wooden table, an anonymous salesperson in a small market in Iegorlyskaya.

As a small child, Lydia was forced to watch the murders committed by the Germans.

Her family was suspected of ties with Soviet sympathizers. Her house was requisitioned by the Germans; her family was kicked out and had to live in their barn during the entire occupation. Lydia’s story is that of many Soviet peasants who had to cohabit with the Germans in the outbuildings of their own farms. “We were chased out of our home, and we had to move into the barn. The Germans lived in our house and ate everything we had. They left us nothing.”

Their farm was part of a neighborhood of fifteen dwellings, near the valley that would become the valley of extermination. Not right next to it, though. She recalled that it was a twenty-minute walk to the ditches. Every morning of the genocide, at dawn, the German police forced them out of their houses to make them watch.

“Yes, the police came, made us go outside. They went to every house to bring people there, and before our eyes they shot old people and children.” This happened for every execution. The Russian children in particular were made to stand and watch.

“In every household, there were children, and they were sent. All of them, they were all sent… . Every time the trucks came full of victims for the shootings, they dragged out the whole neighborhood.”

And every morning, Lydia’s mother tried as best she could to hide certain children in order to protect them from seeing.

“It took us twenty minutes to get there on foot… . There was my mother. My father and my older brother were at the front. There were a lot of us, we were twelve. My mother hadn’t had time to hide all of us… . She hid some in the basement… . On the outskirts of town, there weren’t many people. Only about fifteen houses. It was quick. A team would come and get everyone outside.”

So, the forced march of the neighbors was not a one-time or improvised event. On the contrary, it was systematically organized as part of the process of execution. The Germans extracted the inhabitants from house after house and forced them to go to the extermination site. But why such organization and insistence? And why such emphasis on the children?

The neighbors and their children were not allowed to return home until the shooting was over. And all during the shootings, the police kept them close to the ditch. “They were behind us with dogs and automatic weapons. They had big black German shepherds.”

Were the Germans trying to dissuade the Russians from joining rebel forces by forcing them to watch the murder of the Jews? Maybe, but why force the neighboring children to watch every day? Why mobilize armed police with dogs in order to make it happen? I can’t help but think there was some sick pleasure derived from, on the one hand, murdering the Jews, and on the other, forcing Russian families to watch. In a sense, organizing a forced spectacle, mandatory family entertainment, children included.

It seems strange to me when I think of the thousands of children who, of their own free will, tried to find ways to see the shootings. What is the difference between a child who plays hide and seek with the guards or climbs a tree, and one who has to watch under armed threat? It seems to me that the major difference is in the perception of danger. The former knows that he runs no risk; he is on the right side of the guards. The other, because she is escorted by the police and forced to watch, is no longer a voluntary spectator. She herself is in danger.

Lydia’s testimony has me thinking. The freedom to watch, without much danger, is an essential part of the pleasure. To run no risk and to watch one’s neighbor condemned to death seems to provoke pleasure.

Last week, I was in Romania. There was terrible traffic jam on a country road. Far ahead, a trailer truck had gone off the road. I was completely unsurprised to see the drivers of the cars that were stuck in the traffic jam get out of their vehicles to go look, and to take pictures with their cell phones. One of them came up to show me his shot: a car had been hit head on by the truck. Wounded passengers were still stuck inside.

What kind of joy is there in not having had an accident, in being free to move about, to walk or run, and to go gape at those who no longer have such freedom? The murder of the Jews was no car accident. Some died, and others lived according to the brutal will of the German masters at any given time. In a village, those who were authorized to live could not often resist the pleasure of watching others die before their eyes as victims of the racial laws of the Third Reich.

Lydia was another story. Forced, constrained, part of a family under threat, for her the shootings had nothing of spectacle about them. She was standing at the scene of a murder where she herself was within the zone of risk.

The local Russians didn’t hide their enmity for the German units; they weren’t passive spectators. On the evenings of the shootings, certain adults even seem to have tried to help save people who might have survived.

“And when the Germans were gone, there was an adult who took us, the children, back home, but the other adults stayed to see if there were any survivors, and they got them out and saved them. Some lived and some did not.”

This was not the first time that a child who had been forced to watch shared memories with me. I had already heard a similar story in Lubavichi in the Russian region of Smolensk. This is the famous town where the Lubavitch family originated. Here too, families, especially rebel families with their children, were forced to watch the murders.

Lydia, deeply troubled as a child by what she had seen, said with the child’s words, “You know, it’s something you can’t talk about, a horror you’ve seen but can’t put into words, and it stays inside to this day. We focused on the people falling and not on the shooters. When they were finished, they fired into the air to disperse us and everyone was supposed to go home, but people hid and came back to see if there were survivors. It happened.”

The end of the forced spectacle was signaled by shots in the air. I couldn’t believe it. Like the end of a game or a race.

Very simply, she added, “It was so horrible that my mother hid my eyes so that I wouldn’t see.” She spoke like the child she had been, with the memory of a mother who did what she could to protect her from the sight of the murders. The mothers and children of Rostov were made to witness. The witnessing was hard, the memories of it painful. “I can’t,” she kept repeating.

Today, it is still said in the former Soviet territories that the killings were done in secret.

Excerpted with permission from ‘In Broad Daylight’ by Father Patrick Desbois. Copyright 2018, Arcade Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound.

Father Patrick Desbois is the founder and president of Yahad-In-Unum, a French organization that gives voice to the Holocaust in eastern Europe. Father Desbois and his team identify each execution site and collect the testimonies of surviving witnesses. To date, Yahad-In Unum has recorded more than 5,300 witness testimonies and identified over 2,100 execution sites. Desbois is the author of ‘The Holocaust by Bullets’.

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