The non-Jewish memory of the Holocaust

The Jewish cemetery in Turka.

In Ukraine's Internet space, it is difficult to come across any publication about the Holocaust that has not elicited comments along the lines of "When will people finally start talking about Ukrainians?" Even in the academic milieu, one can hear that the Holocaust is essentially Jewish history. Hence, the constant questions directed at researchers about their ethnic origins. Can anyone, besides Jews, be engaged in this?

The Holocaust in Ukraine could be seen literally from the window of one's house

However, speaking about the Holocaust also means talking about Ukrainians in particular and gentiles in general — and not just because Ukraine was one of its epicenters. The point is that here, unlike in Western Europe, the Nazis did not even attempt to conceal their crimes from the local non-Jewish population. They carried out their crimes in broad daylight, often in ravines or pits located several hundred meters away from populated areas. The Holocaust in Ukraine could be seen literally from the window of one's house. "And the people saw…," as Mykola Bazhan wrote in his poem "Yar" (The Ravine). That is why every gentile during the Holocaust came face to face with a difficult choice: how to react to what s/he was seeing? Most often, we prefer to recall those Ukrainians, Poles, Czechs, Crimean Tatars and others who, despite the mortal danger, rescued persecuted people. Far from all of them are officially recognized as the Righteous Among the Nations, like the textbook example of Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, although their numbers are growing with every passing year. Furthermore, gentiles were also victims of the Holocaust, for how else does one call those people who paid with their lives for helping to rescue their Jewish neighbors? There are dozens, at the very least, of such gentile victims.

In the public sphere, there is much less discussion about those who helped the Nazis persecute Jews and, on occasion, did this on their own initiative either because of their antisemitic convictions, because they had old accounts to settle, or they thirsted for other people's property. The German historian Dieter Pohl has attempted to estimate the number of gentiles in occupied Ukraine who, bearing arms, helped the Nazis execute the Holocaust. According to his findings, the number stands at between thirty and forty thousand people. Obviously, like those recognized as the Righteous Among the Nations, there were more of those because some people did it without weapons: They issued antisemitic publications, wrote denunciations, and looted Jewish property. Often in these uncertain circumstances, yesterday's persecutor helped victims or did the opposite: The rescuer either betrayed them or killed those whom he had hidden earlier. Roles could change even over the course of a single day.

Most local gentiles were not rescuers, but neither were they persecutors. However, their indifference was a deceptive choice. Living in Ukraine during the Holocaust era and not becoming an eyewitness of it was, in fact, impossible. The French priest Patrick Desbois realized this when he was searching for traces of his grandfather, a former prisoner of the POW camp in Rava-Ruska. In 2004 Desbois founded the organization Yahad-In Unum, whose main task is to document non-Jewish testimonies about the Holocaust. Since then, the Yahad-In Unum team has managed to document nearly seven thousand testimonies in eight countries, a considerable proportion of them in Ukraine. Desbois drew attention to a special group of Holocaust eyewitnesses whom the Nazis forced to carry out various jobs that were directly connected to the mass killing process. He estimated that there were two dozen such jobs, including digging and covering mass burial sites with earth, transporting Jews to execution sites, collecting and burying the bodies of those who had been killed elsewhere, sorting, repairing, and selling clothing and other belongings left by the victims. The demonic machinery of the Holocaust had the banal need for working hands. No one has attempted to count the number of these "mobilized" individuals, and it is unlikely that researchers are able to do this. Desbois regards the discovery of this group of eyewitnesses Yahad-In Unum's main achievement, all the more so as, in his words, they "are not mentioned in any written documents."

This is not entirely the case. Following the arrival of Red Army troops in one populated area or another, special commissions to investigate Nazi crimes began to function. The Soviet Union was amassing a documentary basis for a future trial, and for that reason, these commissions uncovered and exhumed mass burial sites, compiled lists of victims, and questioned eyewitnesses. Among the latter were many individuals who had been "mobilized." In other words, their testimonies began to be documented sixty years before Desbois launched his activities.

In January 1945, several eyewitnesses were questioned in the Carpathian town of Turka in the Lviv region. Jews began to settle here in the eighteenth century. Before the Second World War broke out, they were already the largest ethnic group in the town, comprising 40 percent of the total population. A total of 10,790 Jews lived in Turka County. Out of nearly a hundred villages within the county limits, there were only three without a single Jewish inhabitant. It is not known exactly how many survived the Holocaust, but at least thirty did. All the others were killed in the Bełżec gas chambers or shot in Sambir, Stryi, Drohobych, and in Turka. One of the mass killing sites was the Jewish cemetery, situated on a hill overlooking the central part of Turka. At the end of 1942, at least three groups of Jews were shot here.

Among those who were questioned in January 1945 was Omelian Matkivsky. He was an illiterate 45-year-old Ukrainian. During the Nazi occupation, he worked as a caretaker. Other eyewitnesses called him the most knowledgeable about what was going on at the Jewish cemetery. He testified: "In the winter of 1942, I saw Jews digging a pit at the Jewish cemetery. I saw this three times. At the time, I was sweeping the street, and I had a good view. And after they finished digging the pit, the Germans and policemen ordered them to strip naked and jump into the pit, one after the other. And the Germans shoot at them into the pit." After each of these shootings, a group of local men was mobilized to cover the mass burial site with earth, and each time Matkivsky was among them: "I went to bury them three times." He became an eyewitness of gruesome scenes: "I saw a mother who had been killed, but her little child survived and was crawling around the pit. A German shot it."

Desbois says that buriers like Matkivsky comprise the largest group of "mobilized people" that the Yahad-In Unum team came across. He also noted that it was most difficult for them to talk about their experience, and over time he realized why. Not all victims died at once. In the shooting pits were wounded people or small children, for whom bullets were begrudged, as well as those pretending to be dead in an attempt to save their lives. So, covering the mass burial sites with earth means depriving them of their last chance to survive. "Their shovels, piled with earth, were truly fatal," writes Desbois. Matkivsky's statements corroborate his observation: "When I came to the pit, I saw a horrific scene there. Many people who were still alive were crawling inside the pit. The Germans are shooting at them and ordering that they be buried alive." Among those killed were men, women, and children. At least one of them turned out to be an acquaintance of Matkivsky's: "In the pit, I recognized one by the name of Nechesny, but it was difficult to recognize others because they had been shot mostly in the head."

With the support of Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and within the framework of the Connecting Memory program, the team of the "Wordless" documentary project visited Turka in December 2020. [The author heads the civic organization Pislia tyshy, one of the film's initiators; with English subtitles, Ed.] It is quite easy for them to locate the Jewish cemetery. Unfortunately, like many other places, it is half-ruined. Most of the matzevahs (gravestones) that remain are tilted over from the weight of the soil. However, on many of them, you can still see Jewish ritual ornaments: crowns, candelabras, lions, birds, and deer. To see some of them, you have to tear away a thick layer of moss.

In the 1990s, a memorial was installed here with funds provided by the UK-based Schreiber family: "In memory of those who were killed in the Sambir ghetto, in the Bełżec death camp, and of those ended their lives in places unknown." In December 2020, it was damaged by vandals, who tore off the brick pathway paving the area of the memorial. Its remnants were piled alongside in neat piles, in obvious preparation for being carted away. They even sawed off the metal cemetery gate.

From the Jewish cemetery, we head downhill to the town in order to find the relatives of Omelian Matkivsky, thanks to whose testimonies we learned about the tragic history of this place. This proved to be a difficult task. Darkness has already fallen when we come across a group of women curious to know whom we are looking for, and they direct us to Mrs. Olia: "She will tell you everything."

Olia with a photograph of her father-in-law, Omelian Matkivsky.

The woman greets us cordially. She is of the generation that was traumatized by the Second World War. Her parents got married right before the war broke out. In 1942 they were deported to Nazi Germany as forced laborers. They worked for a farmer. Two years later, Olia was born in Friedeberg. When she was just a baby, she developed pneumonia, the consequences of which she has felt her entire life. "I have a souvenir from Germany to this very day," she complains.

Since the farmer valued her father as an excellent worker, he proposed that he be evacuated together with them before the Red Army offensive. However, he refused: "Why should I go with you, Krauts? I am going back to my own people." Halfway home, her father was mobilized into the Red Army. So, Olia reached Turka only with her mother, who was then pregnant with her little brother.

For many people, their own traumatic experiences have erased from their memories everything that concerns other peoples' tragedies. This explains their unwillingness to talk about something other than what pains them. For Olia, even though she was born far from Turka, the tragedy that befell the local Jews is part of her family history. It turns out that during the Holocaust, her father's older sister rescued a Jew: "He was called Tses, but he wrote his name as Puk or Pik; I don't remember exactly." After the war, they got married and moved to Poland and had three children together. "My aunt and uncle died. Only the children live there: Eva, Adas, and Tsesko."

The Omelian Matkivsky whom we were searching for was her father-in-law. He was born and lived in Turka, in a house located on a street that the locals called the Hill. It is close to the Jewish cemetery. He died in 1984. We learn that he had five children: four sons and one daughter. All of them died: the two oldest and Mrs. Olia's husband died a year before we showed up. For some time, they had lived under the same roof, so she heard about the events of which Matkivsky had become an eyewitness. "Father recounted a lot of things. But you know, I was young and didn't bother my head with this." Nevertheless, she remembers some things. "At the time, he was working as a caretaker, as people call it nowadays. He simply kept Turka clean, he helped pick up the bodies of Jews, he chopped wood for poor women who had no husbands," Mrs. Olia lists off calmly. This became a routine task performed by the town caretaker during the Holocaust era. We ask her to be more specific: "He said that Jews were driven like cattle. He says that they did not even resist; everyone went, they went with their children. If someone resisted or something, they shot him. And left him there. Because the Germans did not clean up after themselves." Where were they driven to? To that Jewish cemetery: "We call it the Trench."

Olia heard about the Holocaust in Turka not just from her father-in-law but also her husband, who was ten years old by the time the war broke out. This was not a taboo topic, and it cropped up in due course in postwar conversations in the family circle and with neighbors. These are stories about local rescuers and persecutors, even though their names are unknown to this day: "Some lucky person hid in a crowd and was saved. There are people here who hid, who helped them. But there were those who betrayed them to the Germans. They promised that they would hide them, they took their gold, they took everything, but in fact, they sold them out. There was a house nearby, and they hid in that small house. Well, I won't say who because I didn't see. But people say that they were betrayed. They were shot there; the Germans took those Jews and killed them."

Finally, Olia assures us that no one has held onto photographs better than she has. We look at her family photo albums for a long time, a kind of visual corroboration of what we had been talking about earlier. A portrait of her parents taken before they were deported to forced labor. The Puk or Pik family: her parents and three children. Neighborhood children from the Ukrainian–Jewish Ilnytsky family before their move to Poland, with the caption: "A long and unforgettable souvenir for Olia." Finally, we find a picture of Omelian Matkivsky. He is a thin man in a plaid shirt; behind him is a Christmas tree with decorations. He is looking straight at the camera and looks a bit alarmed.

The Holocaust is the stories of the "mobilized," people who were forced to cover with earth the mass burial sites filled with the bodies of their Jewish acquaintances; of those who placed their thirst for enrichment above human life; of the families that were created by rescuers and the rescued; and of those who were prepared to share their memories about all of them and to document them.

The Holocaust is also non-Jewish history and non-Jewish memory.

Andriy Usach
Historian, doctoral student at the Ukrainian Catholic University, and head of the civic organization Pislia tyshi (After the Silence). His research specialty is the Holocaust in Ukraine, especially the question of local collaboration. He also works in the field of oral history. This lens allows us to examine the memory of violence more closely and animate it for a deeper understanding of the motives and experiences of the various actors in those merciless wartime events.

This article was published as part of a project supported by the Canadian non-profit charitable organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

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