'Holocaust by Bullets' Gets New Historical Review ; Fuller Picture Emerges of Nazi Methods at Sites That Dot Eastern Europe

By Smale, Alison | International New York Times, January 28, 2014 | Go to article overview

'Holocaust by Bullets' Gets New Historical Review ; Fuller Picture Emerges of Nazi Methods at Sites That Dot Eastern Europe


Smale, Alison, International New York Times


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 sites."

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. …

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