As the number of Holocaust survivors declines, witness accounts
from Belarus, Ukraine and parts of Russia are illuminating a new
picture of the Nazis' methods.
Gazing out from the main watchtower at the grim desert that is
the crumbling chimneys and crematories, vanished prisoners' huts,
barbed wire and ditches of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, it is
hard to fathom that there were corners of the Nazi realm where,
collectively, more killing occurred than here.
Yet a third or more of the approximately six million Jews killed
in the Holocaust perished not in the industrial scale murder of the
death camps but in executions at what historians call "killing
sites" -- thousands of villages, quarries, forests, wells, streets
and homes that dot especially the map of eastern Europe.
The vast number killed in what some have termed a "Holocaust by
bullets" has slowly garnered greater attention in more recent years
as historians sift through the often sketchy and incomplete records
that became available after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"People sat down and added the numbers up," said David
Silberklang, senior historian at the International Institute for
Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem.
As the number of Holocaust survivors gradually declines, these
documents or witness accounts -- from Belarus, Ukraine and parts of
Russia especially, but also in the Baltic states -- have illuminated
a new picture of the Nazis' methods. Most of this slaughter was
carried out in Eastern Europe after the Nazis invaded the Soviet
Union in June 1941, and it mixed with the increasing chaos of the
war once the Germans failed to realize their ambition of subduing
the Soviets in just 8 to 12 weeks and faced the prospect of defeat.
Monday, the day 69 years ago when Soviet forces liberated Auschwitz,
was observed as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
"The further East the Wehrmacht went, the greater the killing,"
Dieter Pohl, professor of history at the University of Klagenfurt in
Austria, told a conference on the subject this month in the nearby
city of Krakow.
The executions and unmarked mass graves, he said, became "an
element of German rule in Eastern Europe."
After 1945, the executions were not much discussed. The shock of
discovery of concentration camps was one factor. The camps had
survivors, found in place, who told their unimaginable tale. By
contrast, the local executions terrorized and silenced survivors in
the eastern regions. In addition, after World War II, many witnesses
were left behind the Soviet bloc, and no one was interested in their
memories. On the ground, "news about killing in local fields spread
much more quickly than the murky rumors" about gassing at
concentration camps, Professor Pohl said.
"Only a few survivors could testify after 1945," he added, and as
a result, "there is still no comprehensive overview of the killing
Mr. Silberklang, the Yad Vashem historian, said that "in the
popular mind, this subject is far less known than the Holocaust" and
that the executions became "in a sense, invisible. …