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If one makes his way beyond the outskirts of Kiev and continues deep into the forests of the neighboring village of Radomyshl, he soon enters an unmarked clearing.
To the untrained eye, the gap in the trees would appear random and most passersby would likely admire the lush vegetation enveloping the spot before continuing along the way.
But the horrific reality rooted here, as in hundreds of other sites strewn around the Ukrainian landscape, tells a wholly tragic, often ignored chapter in the incomprehensible history of the Holocaust.
Beneath the grass and the lilies that now sprout unchecked lie the bodies of hundreds if not thousands of Jewish victims, summarily murdered during a brief span of days in early 1942. The massacre was carried out by Nazi killing squads acting alongside their local paramilitary collaborators. All too often nearby villagers joined in, welcoming the chance to translate age-old hatred of the Jews into cold-blooded murder.
Underneath these grounds are the stories of remarkable families. Families who exemplified centuries of Jewish traditions that personified the rich cultures of Eastern European Jewry.
With the crack of each killer’s bullet, lives were terminated without any chance to say goodbye.
The Nazis diabolically assumed that their Jewish victims would be quickly forgotten and that unmarked killing fields would quickly fade into the lush surrounding landscape.
Incredibly, they were right, multiplying the crime. It was not just murder of innocents, but also erasure of the crime and the memory of the victims.
Decades later, there is a growing fear that in this regard the Nazis may have succeeded. For even while historians try to document precisely how many souls were lost to the Final Solution, the reality is that if these clearings in the forest go forever unnoticed, the sacred lives lost in each spot will also vanish.
There is no disputing that a life lost in the backwoods of Ukraine or Belorussia is no less valuable than one extinguished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Every one of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis deserves to be remembered and his or her life memorialized.
There are many reasons why this effort is critical for humanity. But, undeniably, our most important motivation in accurately preserving the memories of the victims of Nazism is to ensure that humanity never ignores, forgets or diminishes the fact that these horrors occurred.
Though it may seem absurd that people could ever deny the systematic annihilation of millions of innocents, current events prove that evil-intentioned people are intent on doing just that. It is therefore incumbent upon us in the Jewish community, and indeed upon all human beings who understand the true dangers represented by hate-filled and genocidal regimes, to do everything in our power to make sure that every victim of the Holocaust is properly remembered and memorialized.
It is this very commitment that drives our current initiative to create a Ukrainian Jewish Museum. This project will provide a physical facility where guests can come, visit and learn about the remarkable centuries-old history of one of the Jewish world’s proudest communities. No less important, the museum will embrace a monumental commitment and infrastructure to identify the anonymous killing fields in the woods that would otherwise continue to be ignored.
Clearly, the clock is working against us. Admittedly, this effort should have been launched two or three decades ago. Regrettably, the political environment and other factors prohibited us from pursuing this approach at that time.
It is all the more critical for us to move as quickly as possible while the greatest resource available for understanding the Holocaust – the survivor community – remains alive. Even given the limited capacity in which we have been able to work up to now, survivors have been absolutely instrumental in identifying mass graves.
Some of these survivors were able to remain alive as small children, fleeing into the forests and literally hiding behind trees as they witnessed family members being slaughtered and thrown into the pits. While the Nazis would force Jewish laborers whom they kept alive for that purpose to cover over the bodies and disguise the unthinkable crimes taking place, those who were able to survive would eventually find their way back and reveal the truth.
We ask everyone reading this to join with us as we commit ourselves to one crucial if limited campaign: We will, God willing, identify every possible mass grave of Jewish Holocaust victims in the Ukraine – and ultimately everywhere in Europe – that today remains unmarked and dishonored. And we will do this to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Babi Yar Massacres outside Kiev that will take place in September 2011.
This effort demands, indeed compels, the full support of the global Jewish community. For the world to truly understand the breadth of the Holocaust and the massive toll it represented for humanity, all affected communities deserve to be remembered in a way that respects those who were lost but most of all ensures that their deaths – and their lives – will never be forgotten.
Oleksandr Feldman is a member of the Ukraine parliament and chairman of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee. He was appointed this month to head the parliament’s committee on commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre.
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