« Exposing Evidence of the Holocaust by Bullets » – by Michal Chojak

YAHAD – IN UNUM LED THE FIRST « HOLOCAUST BY BULLETS TRAINING FOR GUIDES » AT AUSCHWITZ BIRKENAU STATE MUSEUM

Since 2004, the researchers of Yahad – In Unum have investigated the mass shootings of Jews in Eastern Europe. In January 2018, Patrice Bensimon, Research Director of the organization, and Michał Chojak, Deputy Research Director, came to Oświęcim to conduct an extensive training program focusing on the Holocaust by Bullets for the guides of the Auschwitz Birkenau State Museum. The event was inaugurated by a lecture by Father Desbois, Founder of Yahad -In Unum.

The Yahad team led by Michal Chojak during an interview of a witness in the Bialystok area. Source: Markel redondo/Yahad – In Unum

Yahad – In Unum (YIU) combines the Hebrew word Yahad, which means “together”, with the Latin phrase In Unum, which means “in one.” Founded in 2004 by Catholic priest Father Patrick Desbois, the organization is dedicated to systematically documenting the mass executions of Jews and Roma killed by German units in Eastern Europe during World War II and identifying the execution sites of the victims. After in-depth archival research within the Soviet and German archives, YIU researchers move to the field in Eastern Europe, travelling from village to village to seek out witnesses to the Nazi atrocities, film interviews, document the events and locate mass graves of Jews and Roma people. The objective of this work is to: record and document the “Holocaust by Bullets” or the mass executions of Jews that happened outside of Nazi concentration camps; provide evidence of mass executions to negate modern-day Holocaust denial; provide dignity and respect to the victims’ burial places and enable their preservation; disseminate and educate on the universal lessons about genocide derived from the work of YIU. Yahad-In Unum’s ongoing research on crimes against the Jews and Roma in Eastern Europe during World War II has uncovered the location of more than 2,365 killing sites, which was made possible through interviews with more than 5,728 witnesses. To date, the organization conducted 135 investigation trips across 8 countries: Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Moldova, Romania, Lithuania and Republic of Macedonia. In 2015, Yahad – In Unum went to the Iraqi Kurdistan to interview Yazidi victims of Isis, who have been persecuted since the invasion of the Sinjar moutain in August 2014. A YIU team collects the testimonies of survivors to document evidence of every step of the Yazidi genocide.

The Holocaust by Bullets

More than 2 million Jews were killed by German units in the occupied territories of Soviet Union between 1941 and 1944, mostly during mass shooting operations. This criminal method of murder by special firing squads has come to be known as the “Holocaust by bullets.”  The systematic killing of Jews started throughout the former Soviet Union from June 1941, before the creation of the death camps and continued despite the existence of the gas chambers. While Auschwitz has become a symbol of the Holocaust, the stories of thousands of Jewish communities from former Soviet territories killed in mass graves remain less known. « The entire first phase of the Shoah, which took place on the occupied eastern territories of the Republic of Poland, nowadays mainly part of Belarus and Ukraine, has been for decades – especially in the Western Europe – much less known than the horrors committed in extermination centers such as Birkenau, Treblinka or Belzec. In fact, a large part of this memory survived in documents, letters and memories of Jewish communities in these areas. Memory also survived among the local people who live there – Ukrainians, Belarusians and Poles. Using this local memory for historical research has been a great undertaking of the team led by Father Patrick Desbois for many years,” explains Piotr Cywinski, the Director of Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

A methodology of investigation

The field trips led by Yahad – In Unum require a significant amount of research within the German and the Soviet archives beforehand.  The archives yield a wealth of information on the mass shootings perpetrated against Jews and on the location of the killings sites. After this documentation process, teams of 11 people (researchers, investigators, a photographer, translators and a cameraman) are sent to Eastern Europe to interview eyewitnesses to these crimes and to locate the mass graves of the victims. The work done by YIU rests upon on the assumption that the mass shootings of Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators were not done in secret. These crimes were often conducted in public, in broad daylight. The executions mainly took place in the outskirts of the towns and villages, in front of non-Jewish local inhabitants. Some of the witnesses are still alive and they have agreed to give their testimony. Those interviewed by YIU in Eastern Europe were at the time curious teenagers, neighbors, forced spectators, or requisitioned by Germans and local authorities to perform various tasks in the shooting process (digging the graves, burying the corpses, collecting the clothes of the victims…). YIU team members interview as many witnesses as they can in the framework of a police investigation, and reconstruct the different steps of the killing and the crime scene. The methodology of YIU depends on cross-referencing between archives and testimonies, and between the testimonies themselves. The majority of mass graves located by the organization have been completely forgotten, without protection or memorial. The last persons who know where the victims were buried are the eyewitnesses, of whom there are ever fewer due to their age. In their late 80s or 90s today, they are slowly passing away, the memory of the victims disappearing with them. YIU plans to lead 20 research trips to Eastern Europe in 2018.

Exposing evidence of the crime

From January 15 to January 19, 2018, YIU researchers came to Oświęcim to conduct a week long “Holocaust By Bullets Training” program specially designed for the guides of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. The event was opened by Father Desbois. “This method of killing Jewish men, women and children, village by village, and leaving them in mass graves was systematically employed by the Nazis in Eastern Europe. Each killer saw his victim, each victim saw his killer,” explains Father Desbois. “Unfortunately, this is the same method being used today in the mass crimes which continue to take lives of innocent groups of people across the world”. After the opening lecture, Patrice Bensimon, YIU Research Director, Michał Chojak, YIU Deputy Research Director, who between them have interviewed thousands of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust by Bullets, and Renata Skuńczyk, YIU educator,  provided a series of presentations and workshops focusing on the mass killings of Jews perpetrated by German mobile units in former Soviet territories after the launch of Operation Barbarossa.

During the training, the guides became familiar with the particular investigative methodology of the organization and had the opportunity to learn directly from the archival sources and the collection of testimonies recorded by Yahad teams in the field. The work around the crimes perpetrated in thousands of villages, towns and cities, was the core of the training program created by YIU. Throughout the week long program different topics were discussed, ranging from the chronology of the Holocaust by Bullets to the photographs of the genocide, from the geography of the massacres to the different steps of the crime. 130 guides of the Museum took part in Level I of the training and had the opportunity to deepen their knowledge on the mass shootings of over two million Jews by mobile Nazi death squads and their collaborators in Eastern Europe. « It is incredible that Yahad is still meeting witnesses to these crimes. I thought it would be impossible after so many years. I knew about the victims, about their point of view, about Auschwitz. But I never thought the shootings happened on such a huge scale and in such a public way. I thought these executions were done in secret. As you said, what was public came to be hidden and what was supposed to be secret here in Auschwitz, is now well known », said Wojciech, a participant. Level II and Level III of the training for the museum guides are already planned for 2019 and 2020 to go furthe.

Holocaust education and genocide prevention

With the spread of violent extremist ideologies and genocide in several parts of the world, education has become a priority for Yahad – In Unum. Over the last few years, the organization has undertaken different educational initiatives aimed at teaching the history of the Holocaust and to prevent genocide and mass violence in the future. In 2016, Yahad expanded the dissemination of its research results and education programs to Central America by opening the Holocaust Museum in Guatemala, the first of its kind in Central America. In parallel to its exhibitions, which allow the visitors to learn from the past through a series of galleries and installations, the museum hosts workshops and seminars for teachers and scholars aiming to transmit the knowledge and educational tools required for Holocaust education. In partnership with the Guatemalan Ministry of Education, YIU has started a large educational campaign in which the Holocaust by Bullets exhibition will travel throughout Guatemala providing a vital pedagogical experience to young people who would otherwise have had little access to such information. A teacher-training program will accompany each exhibit. So far, over 550 teachers participated in the workshops and 50 000 of students from public and private schools visited the exhibition.

In 2017, Yahad-In Unum signed a partnership agreement with UNESCO to strengthen cooperation between the two organizations in the field of Holocaust and genocide education. The organizations will work together, mostly in the Latin America and Caribbean regions, presenting the « The Holocaust by Bullets” exhibition, displayed for the first time at the UNESCO Headquarters in January 2015 and placed thereafter under UNESCO patronage. They will also join efforts to organize an international symposium on Holocaust education and research that will take place in May 2018 at the Holocaust Museum of Guatemala.

In October 2017, as part of its efforts to increase international awareness of the Yazidi genocide, YIU opened its exhibit “Daesh’s Crimes Against the Yazidis: The Survivors Speak” at the United Nations headquarters in New York. The photo exhibition took a deeper look at the crimes committed by ISIS against the Yazidi minority group by following the witness testimonies gathered by Yahad’s Action Yazidis initiative in refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan.

YIU has developed various educational programs across Europe, similar to the training program organized for the guides of Auschwitz Museum in January. In December 2017, in partnership with the Holocaust Memorial Center of Budapest, YIU travelled to Hungary for the first time to conduct two days of intense seminars focusing on the Holocaust by Bullets for high school teachers and Holocaust educators from Hungary, Romania and Croatia. For the last five years, YIU and the Mémorial de Caen Museum have hosted a three-day seminar for European history teachers on “The Holocaust by Bullets” and persecution of the Roma in Eastern Europe. Applications for the next seminar, that will be held in Paris and Caen in November 2018, will be soon opened online.

***

Michał Chojak has worked with Yahad – In Unum since 2010, when the organization began its research in Poland. Yahad – In Unum is the leading research organization investigating the mass executions of more than 2 million Jews and tens of thousands Roma/Gypsy people in Eastern Europe between 1941 and 1944. In the past six years, Mr. Chojak has participated in 30 research missions in Eastern Europe and interviewed hundreds of eyewitnesses of the Holocaust in Central and Eastern Europe. Deputy Director of Yahad – In Unum Research Center since 2014, he has specialized in the research of the Holocaust in Poland and Lithuania. His research interests currently focus on the mass extermination of the Jewish population from Ostrow Mazowiecka on November 11, 1939. He is also involved in Yahad – In Unum’s research projects in Guatemala and Iraq. Originally from Poland, Michał Chojak completed his studies at the Université Paris-Sorbonne, receiving a Masters in International Trade and a Masters in European affairs.

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