In eastern Europe, when Nazis killed Jews, a ‘carnival atmosphere’ prevailed
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Warning: graphic images'Memory survived among these people'

In eastern Europe, when Nazis killed Jews, a ‘carnival atmosphere’ prevailed

In a new, second book about ‘Holocaust by bullets,’ Father Patrick Desbois depicts in grim detail local bystanders’ culpability while Nazis implemented the Final Solution

Aftermath of the Babi Yar ravine massacre in Kiev, Ukraine, during which 33,000 Jews were murdered between Sept. 29-30, 1941. (public domain)
Aftermath of the Babi Yar ravine massacre in Kiev, Ukraine, during which 33,000 Jews were murdered between Sept. 29-30, 1941. (public domain)

For all intents and purposes, the first phase of the Holocaust was a communal undertaking, one that was jointly perpetrated by Nazi Germany and thousands of Eastern European collaborators.

When the Nazis invaded Soviet lands in 1941, the notorious death camps had not yet been constructed in occupied Poland. To enact Germany’s “war of annihilation” against the Jews, mobile killing squads — called “Einsatzgruppen” — were deployed to conduct large-scale shooting massacres. In some towns, thousands of non-Jews turned out to watch the slaughter of Jews in festive atmospheres, belying the myth of a genocide carried out in secret.

Typically, Einsatzgruppen “actions” were conducted in Jewish cemeteries or on the outskirts of town. Compared to the death camps more closely associated with the Holocaust, the mass shootings were well-documented with photographs and contemporary reports. Nearly two million Jews were murdered in these open-air massacres, comprising one-third of the genocide’s six million victims.

“Today, it is still said in the former Soviet territories that the killings were done in secret,” wrote Father Patrick Desbois in his new book, “In Broad Daylight: The Secret Procedures Behind the Holocaust by Bullets.”

Published in January, “In Broad Daylight” is the follow-up to Desbois’s 2008 book, “The Holocaust by Bullets,” based on the Roman Catholic priest’s investigations into the Einsatzgruppen massacres in Ukraine. For his new book, Desbois drew from research in seven countries where the Einsatzgruppen operated, with an emphasis on the non-German men and women who helped facilitate the shootings.

Earlier this year, the author helped conduct a seminar for tour guides at the former death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Poland, where the Nazis murdered one million Jews in gas chambers. During the week-long training in January, 130 guides learned about the “Holocaust by bullets” killings that — in a matter of months — “evolved” into the construction of six purpose-built death camps.

Jews being forced to dig their own graves in Storow, Ukraine, July 1941 (public domain)

Although Desbois has identified hundreds of Holocaust mass shooting sites in Poland, the bulk of his work has been east of that country. Since 2004, his research team has interviewed nearly 4,000 eye-witnesses to Einsatzgruppen killings, including elderly men and women who admit to having collaborated with the Nazis.

“Memory survived among these people,” Desbois has said of witnesses to the genocide, including those who were very young at the time.

“In little Soviet villages, the children didn’t watch the genocide of the Jews on television. They went to the neighboring fields in order to see for themselves,” wrote Desbois, adding that boys were sometimes assigned the role of bringing bullets to the killers during mass shootings.

“The capacity to see the mass murder of others without taking any responsibility predates mass media,” wrote the celebrated priest.

‘Stations of the Cross’

In 2004, Desbois founded the organization Yahad In-Unum (Together in One), based on his mission to locate and mark the Holocaust’s “Einsatzgruppen” killing fields. Since then, the priest and his researchers have also applied their methods in war-torn Iraq, interviewing Yazidi survivors of the Islamic State’s genocidal campaign.

Cover of ‘In Broad Daylight,’ by Father Patrick Desbois

The book “In Broad Daylight” was organized according to a “typical” Einsatzgruppen operation, beginning with “The Night Before” and ending with “The Day After.” Within that timeline, some collaborators perform seemingly mundane tasks — the cooks and clerks — whereas others unleash horrors upon their Jewish neighbors, as depicted in a chapter called “The Rapes.”

To identify potential eye-witnesses, Yahad In-Unum investigators usually began in German or Soviet archives. In hundreds of cases, testimony has led the team to determine not only where mass executions took place, but to uncover the remains of bullets in the ground.

In contrast to the relatively secretive death camps, the Einsatzgruppen massacres were “an attraction” for many communities, according to Desbois. In some localities, the Holocaust unfolded with “carnival” or quasi-religious undertones, such as the organizing of bloody, Passion-like marches through town, or forcing Jews to perform on the edge of mass graves.

“The Germans in the Eastern territories could not be unaware that the gawkers who rushed to see the Jews murdered, sometimes up to the graves’ edge, crossed themselves over and over,” wrote Desbois. “Consciously or not, they organized a tableau vivant, a living picture, of an inverted representation of the Stations of the Cross.”

Father Patrick Desbois, center, conducting a training at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, January 2018 (Yahud In-Unum)

No role played by collaborators was too small to escape the author’s interest. In the chapter, “The Layer of Planks,” Desbois pondered the use of wooden planks placed over the ditches during executions. After conducting hundreds of interviews, he at last came upon a witness who mentioned these planks.

“A board had been placed on the ditch on which the Jew had to go naked,” the witness told Desbois, referring to the 1941 massacre of 2,000 Jews in Bolekhov, Ukraine, which took place at the town’s Jewish cemetery.

“I still remember that the Jewish families held hands on the plank,” said the witness. “Then they were shot in the head from behind and then they fell into the ditch. There were a few Jews down in the ditch who had to lay the dead bodies in rows.”

‘A human slaughterhouse’

In a chapter called “The Sanitizer,” Desbois explained how the SS murder squads engaged local communities in “cleaning up” after each massacre. Before Jewish homes and belongings could be pillaged, efforts were made to erase evidence that thousands of people had been murdered.

Aftermath of the Kovno, Lithuania (or Kaunas) ‘garage’ massacre in June of 1941, perpetrated by pro-German Lithuanians (public domain)

“The personal bathtubs ripped out of Jewish houses became anonymous tubs for transporting the lime to the mass graves where the Jews had been murdered,” wrote Desbois. “For a few days, the entire village seems to have been transformed into a human slaughterhouse. A slaughterhouse needing to be sanitized after a crime.”

According to Desbois, his investigations yielded many “grave fillers,” but few people who admit to transporting Jews to execution sites in trucks or wagons. For those in town who did not witness the massacres for themselves, evidence of what took place was visible on the streets for days.

“It took a village-wide effort to get the Jewish furniture out of the houses and into the schoolyard where it was sold,” wrote Desbois. “Not only was the sale of Jewish goods not hidden or discreet, camouflaged, but it took place in broad daylight at the center of Soviet life. …In the place where everyone went to make daily purchases, the possessions of murdered Jews were sold shamelessly at auction.”

The Skede Beach massacre in Latvia, where 2,700 Jews were shot in three days, December 1941 (public domain)
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