UKRAINE'S ORANGE BLUES - TWO MASS GRAVES: UKRAINIANS AND JEWS

18.07.15


WORLD AFFAIRS.  I discovered two mass graves in the forest near my mother’s home town in western Ukraine, Peremyshlyany, located 47 kilometers east-southeast of Lviv.

The former Przemyślany is also a former shtetl. Its prewar population was about 5,000; its current official population is 7,000–8,000, though, given the large number of residents working abroad, it’s probably closer to the prewar level. The composition of the town has changed dramatically. The Jews and Poles, who comprised about 45 percent apiece of the prewar population, are gone: killed, expelled, or fled. About 90 percent of the prewar Ukrainian population had also been killed or expelled, or had fled. Most of the town’s current Ukrainian inhabitants have no roots in Peremyshlyany, being the progeny of villagers who settled there after World War II.

In Peremyshlyany, as in most of western Ukraine’s towns, there is little living historical memory—as opposed to a few monuments and plaques—because its bearers, whether Poles, Ukrainians, or Jews, are all dead. Ironically, I suspect that I, a native New Yorker, know more about the town’s past than the vast majority of its inhabitants. I don’t blame them. Peremyshlyany is dreadfully depressed and seems as far away from any possible socioeconomic revival as one can imagine. (Visit some of the unremittingly gray former coal towns in eastern Pennsylvania for a sense of what it’s like.) The past may look like a needless luxury when the sidewalks are cracked, the roads are crumbling, and most buildings haven’t been plastered or painted in decades.

I had heard that there was a Jewish grave site somewhere in the forest behind the town hospital. It was another bit of the town’s forgotten tragic past and an implicit connection to my mother’s best friend, Fania Lacher, a Jewish girl who survived the Holocaust and became a Greek Catholic nun.

I climbed a steep slope and entered a shady wood populated by tall, straight pine trees. Several hundred yards into the forest, I came upon grassy flat terrain. An ideal killing field, I thought: close enough, but well out of earshot.

I was right. There, straight ahead, was the Jewish gravestone. The inscription, in English, read as follows:

THIS MONUMENT IS DEDICATED TO THE
SACRED MEMORY OF THE 385 JEWISH
MARTYRS WHO PERISHED HERE AT THE
HANDS OF THE NAZIS ON:
NOVEMBER 5TH, 1941
BLESSED BE THEIR MEMORY!
THE KIRSCHNER FAMILY, ISRAEL
THE ROHR FAMILY, U.S.A.
AND OTHERS.

Some 50 feet to the site’s left, I came upon a surprising sight: another grave, this one adorned with a huge white cross. The faded (Ukrainian-language) inscription on the gravestone read as follows:

To the fighters for Ukraine’s freedom
who died at the hands of the
Muscovite-Bolshevik occupiers
1939–1950
The plaque attached to the cross behind the gravestone is only half legible:
On this place
[by?] Bolshevik [illegible]
executioners [illegible]
130[0?]
Ukrainians [illegible]
[their?] remains [illegible]
were reburied [illegible]
year in the local
ce[metery] [illegible]
May their memory be eternal!

So the clearing had been a mass grave for Ukrainian and Jewish victims of the 20th century’s two totalitarian dictatorships—Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

The Soviet secret police presumably started dumping the bodies of its Ukrainian opponents immediately after helping the Nazis dismember Poland in September 1939. The Nazis presumably decided that the Soviet mass grave was too conveniently located to ignore and used it to dump the bodies of Jews. After the Soviets returned to the region in 1944, they picked up where they had left off in 1939–1941 and used the area as a killing field until 1950, when the Ukrainian resistance movement was pretty much destroyed.

How fitting, I thought, for Ukrainians and Jews, who have needlessly hated, oppressed, exploited, and killed each other for centuries, to lie together, victims of two genocidal regimes.

Alexander J. Motyl's blog



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