German government funds holocaust memorials in Ukraine

A project funded by the German-government has built five monuments to mark mass graves where Ukrainian Jews murdered by the Nazis were buried during the Second World War. The monuments are the first of many more planned across Eastern Europe.

The dedication ceremony for the memorials was held last week, attended by an international body of politicians, religious leaders and international Jewish organizations.

The Bundestag, Germany's parliament, and the German Federal Foreign Office have funded the Berlin branch of the American Jewish Committee's (AJC) Protecting Memory initiative, since it was first launched in 2010. The initiative aims to locate and protect the sites of mass graves from the Holocaust.

1.5 million Jews were murdered in Ukraine by the Nazis during the Second World War, along with almost three million non-Jewish Ukrainians. The Nazis planned to annihilate half the Ukrainian population to make room for German repopulation part of the Nazi policy of Lebensraum, or living space. There are many memorials to Soviet soldiers killed in the war, but the Jewish mass graves have gone unmarked.

Vice president of the Bundestag, Edelgard Bulmahn, told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) at the dedication ceremony which was held last week in Lviv: "We are finally going to set up memorials to give back to those who were murdered and forgotten their identities and dignity. It was time to do that, so Germany supported this initiative very strongly. We hope we can contribute to making sure that these people are kept in the collective memory and the history of this country."

The five sites near Ukraine's border with Poland, were uncovered by Father Patrick Desbois, a French Catholic priest who founded the Paris-based NGO Yahad in Unum in 2004. The organization focuses on identifying mass execution sites throughout the former Soviet Union where Jews were murdered and buried in pits.

When Desbois first discovered the graves, the burial sites were overgrown and graves unmarked. Each of the five sites now has clearly delineated borders, designed by Ukrainian architect Anton Oliynyk, and a memorial stone has been affixed to each site in memoriam.

The existence of these types of mass graves first came to the attention of Desbois when he began searching for a POW camp in Rava Ruska, on the border with Poland, where his grandfather had been imprisoned during the war.

When looking for the camp Desbois came across a memorial to 25,000 Soviet soldiers who died at the hands of the Nazis, but he realised that the memory of the Jewish population that used to inhabit this region had been largely forgotten.

"There was a memorial for the Soviet prisoners. But there were no memorials for the mass graves of the Jews," Desbois told DW.

In 2002 Desbois dedicated himself to researching Jewish and Roma histories in the former Soviet states. He began by interviewing residents in towns like Rava Ruska to find out what happened to the Jewish population that used to live there.

Desbois began to uncover and document the stories of residents around Rava-Ruska and gradually expanded his efforts outward into the rest of Ukraine and in 2009 to Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Russia, Lithuania and Belarus, collecting video interviews with witnesses, historical records and photographs.

Working with a team which includes two interpreters, a photographer, a cameraman, a ballistics specialist, a mapping expert and a notetaker, Desbois also uses metal detectors to locate bullets which remain buried in the graves.

Speaking of the project, the Berlin director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), Deidre Berger, said it was launched in order to bring together Ukrainians, Jews and others, by remembering the atrocities together. "There was just a lot of trauma for the Ukrainians to deal with - so many gentiles were killed in addition to the Jews," Berger told DW. "But the people are ready now to deal with this past."