Ukrainians living in the US and Europe have made an appeal to Jewish communities to urge them to help end the looting of mass graves of Holocaust victims in Ukraine.
Dozens of incidents have been recorded in recent years in Jewish cemeteries in western Ukrainian cities with large pre-war Jewish populations like Berdichev, regarded as the Russian Empire’s Jewish capital in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and Zhitomir. The towns are in the heart of the old Pale of Settlement, where Jews were restricted to living in the Tsarist era.
Now robbers have unearthed the mass graves of Jews murdered in the Holocaust in search of gold, teeth, jewellery and even children’s skulls. The latter have been found at markets in town and cities, according to a statement released this week by the European and American forums for Russian-speaking Jews.
“Unfortunately, in the Ukraine there are many mass graves which are not sufficiently protected, where thousands of Jews were executed during the Holocaust,” said Michael Yehudanin, president of the European Forum of Russian-speaking Jews.
Dr Dimitry Shiglik, president of the American Forum of Russian-speaking Jews, called on Jewish communities and their leaders across the world to join the efforts “and take a more active role in protecting these mass Jewish graves in order to prevent their desecration, and call on the criminals to be severely punished”.
Here’s a photo of the pre-war Jewish cemetery in Berdichev, taken during my visit to Ukraine in 2005, while researching A Forgotten Land. The cemetery is vast, with acre after acre of crumbling headstones belonging to men, women and children who have long been forgotten – generations of Jews whose descendents either escaped to the West or were mown down by Nazi bullets. Now nobody is left to tend their graves. We were told that the Nazis smashed up thousands of Jewish gravestones and used them for road building.
Today Jewish cemeteries are under attack in North America too, along with a wave of bomb threats to Jewish centres and even a gunshot being fired through the window of a synagogue. Up to 100 tombstones were overturned and damaged in Philadelphia, less than a week after a similar incident at a Jewish cemetery in St Louis. In the first two months of the year, 69 bomb threats were made to 54 Jewish centres in the US and Canada, according to the JCC Association of North America.
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. As my research for a new book set in Ukraine continues, articles published here will focus on three tumultuous periods in particular: the Second World War, the Russian Civil War and the Euromaidan Revolution of 2013-14.