Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Bones of Berdichev – June 2009

This past Sunday was Yom Hashoah -- Holocaust commemoration day. Dr. Dov-Ber Kerler writes this week's post about one of AHEYM's visits to Berdichev, Ukraine.

"The Bones of Berdichev" is the title of the 1996 book by John & Carol Garrard on the life and fate of the prominent Soviet author Vasily Grossman (1905-1964) who was compelled to re-focus on his Jewishness and on the fate of his people in the wake of the massacres of Soviet Jews by occupying Germans and their local collaborators during WW II. A native of Berdichev, Grossman was deeply shaken by the mass murder of many thousands of Berdichev Jews.

Out of the approximately 20,000 Jews that remained in the city, only 15 were found alive after Berdichev was liberated by the Red Army in January 1944. Grossman's mother was among the martyrs. A short but detailed account of the Nazi atrocities and their murderous "Aktionen" in Berdichev was compiled by Grossman on the basis of testimonies collected shortly after the liberation for his and Ilya Ehrenburg's "Black Book" (cf. the Russian original of that account).

Sometime after the liberation in 1944, the graves at the mass murder sites were opened by the authorities and the victims' remains were as much as possible recounted, and reburied. In 2003, when AHEYM visited the former airfield area near Berdichev, where most of the massacres took place, it still had the old Soviet plaque stating in Russian that the number of “peaceful Soviet citizens” who “were brutally murdered” there totaled 18,640. Two years ago, re-visiting Berdichev, the members of the 2009 expedition unexpectedly came to face some of the Jewish "Bones of Berdichev" vandalized almost 70 years after the horrendous German murder “actions” of 1941. 

The 2003 Plaque

We returned to Berdichev in June 2009 to re-interview Moyshe Vaynshlboym. Born in 1927, he escaped two mass murder actions that were described by Grossman in the “Black Book”. He fled the second one after he and his father had already undressed awaiting their execution. His father, Aron (who, as a useful specialist, was initially spared), told him then: "Moyshe, run away!" And he added: "I will stay and join your mother and your siblings. But you are still young, you can run. Perhaps you will survive the war to tell the truth." That was in late 1941. And for the next long few years 14 year old Moyshe Vaynshelboym had to flee and hide. At least three times he narrowly escaped certain death at the hands of German soldiers and Ukrainian Polizei. Against all odds he survived and returned to his native Berdichev as one of the miniscule group of 15 Jewish survivors of the once famed “Jewish capital” of Ukraine.

After the interview we asked Moyshe to take us to the site of the mass murder that he escaped. We could see it from a distance since it is located across a large inaccessible field. From afar it looked like a large elongated mound with densely planted tall trees. On the other side, across the road was the beginning of the former airfield area, which was the site of the so-called “Bloody Monday” massacre of September 15, 1941 where his mother, his small brother and two older sisters were murdered.

That site was more accessible so we went there. It consists of two mass graves; one is very large, the other one, at some distance away, is smaller. We first approached the large one. Moyshe pointed to the new plaque in Ukrainian, which does not specify the number of victims (often estimated to be close to 20,000) and, although it bears the Jewish Star, the text remains faithful to the old Soviet official style by identifying the victims merely as “peaceful Soviet citizens.” “Some 20, 30 years ago,” says Moyshe, “the mass grave was cared for. Now it’s all abandoned and desolate.” He notices that even though there is overgrown grass and bushes on the mound, its surface is suspiciously uneven. He says that at times the place is raided by marauders who keep looking for gold. 

The 2009 Plaque

We walked to the end of the first mound and proceeded to the second one. “One grave wasn’t enough for them” remarks Moyshe bitterly. By the time we were coming closer to the second site, Moyshe exclaimed: “Look! They were here again!” We came closer still and saw some scattered bones. – Something that no one of us expected to find, the bones of Berdichev, the remains of her innocent martyrs.

Moyshe pointed at a child’s skull and immediately started to cover it with earth, which he kept digging with his strong hands. “Who knows?” he kept saying, “Who knows? It could be the skull of my little brother; he was just 5 years old…”

Nearly 70 years later, the bones of Berdichev can’t be left in peace…

-- Dov-Ber Kerler

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