Jewish souvenirs in Trani, Italy

Jewish souvenirs in Trani, Italy

JEWISH HERITAGE EUROPE



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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Eastern Europe -- Initiative to protect mass grave sites


Marker at the site of mass execution/mass grave in Kremenets, Ukraine. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

A international initiative to mark, document and protect sites of Holocaust mass execution and burial is under way, and at a conference in Berlin this week groups taking part urged the German government to become involved.

The American Jewish Committee news release announcing this was not very clear about just what this was about, but one of the participants said that specifically, there is an initiative to persuade the German government through its war graves commission to pay for in general memorializing mass graves and in particular sealing the mass graves opened during research carried out by the French priest Patrick Desbois. Agence France Presse, in its article about the initiative, said Desbois's group Yahad-In Unum ("together" in Hebrew and Latin) already receives about 500,000 euros ($700,000) in funding each year from the German government.

Philip Carmel, the director of Lo-Tishkach, an organization tasked with documentive Jewish cemeteries and mass grave, took part in the conference. He told me that

“There is no better way to combat Holocaust denial and to learn the tragic lessons of the past than to physically mark the last reminders in all these thousands of towns and villages across eastern Europe that they all had living and vibrant Jewish communities and that they didn’t just disappear without reason. This in some way would mark an appropriate act of closure of our direct duty to the victims of the Holocaust.”

Here's the American Jewish Committee press release:
January 20, 2010 – Berlin – An international initiative spearheaded by AJC called today on the German government to join efforts to seal and memorialize mass graves in eastern Europe. The appeal came at a news conference hosted by AJC’s Lawrence and Lee Ramer Institute on German-Jewish Relations in Berlin.

“It is time to seal the graves.  It is time to commemorate the victims. It is time to rescue wherever possible the histories and memories of those whose lives were brutally extinguished,” said Deidre Berger, Director of AJC’s Berlin Office. She added that time is running out to solve the issue before the last witnesses and survivors die. The news conference took place one week before the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.


A coalition of Jewish and non-Jewish NGO leaders outlined the incomplete level of information on Jewish mass gravesites, pointing to the lack of protection for thousands of sites in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. The difficulties of the local Jewish communities in addressing the issue were described by Rabbi Pinhas Goldschmidt, Chief Rabbi of Moscow, and Rabbi Yaacov Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Ukraine.

Rabbi Andrew Baker, AJC’s Director of International Jewish Affairs, urged the creation of a German government-led task force to survey the problem and create a comprehensive approach to seal, protect and memorialize the gravesites.
Participants at the news conference stressed the important work of Father Patrick Desbois, President of the Paris-based Yahad in Unum, in documenting the sites and bringing the issue into public focus in recent years. Father Desbois has collected testimony and documented more than 400 locations in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine where German death squads shot and killed primarily Jewish victims. Romas and Soviet communists also were victims.


Father Desbois said that a war does not end until all the dead are buried, calling it an imperative to bury the Jewish Holocaust victims in Europe. He added that it is difficult for Europeans to have credibility solving international conflicts if it can not find means to bury its own dead.


Stephan Kramer, Secretary General of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, underlined the importance of cross-national reconciliation and education in working on solutions for memorializing the mass gravesites.  In talks with Ukrainian government representatives, Kramer said they indicated a willingness to create the necessary legal framework to deal with the issue of mass graves.


The President of the German War Graves Commission, Reinhard Fuehrer, stressed the moral responsibility of Germany to address the issue of the neglected grave sites, indicating the commission will take a role if it is given funds and a mandate by the German government.


Phil Carmel, Executive Director of the Brussels-based Lo Tishkach, responsible for mapping Jewish cemeteries and grave sites in Europe, said it is urgent to address the issue before the remaining markers and clues are lost completely. The best protection against Holocaust denial, he said, is visible graves and gravesites.


At the news conference, support for the initiative also was voiced by Christian Kennedy, U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues; Jiri Cistecky, of the European Shoah Legacy Foundation; Kathrin Meyer, Executive Secretary of the International Holocaust Task Force on Education, Remembrance and Responsibility; and Paul Shapiro, Director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.


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