‘Blood oozed through the soil at grave sites. You could see the pits move, some of them were still alive’: The secrets of Ukraine’s shameful ‘Holocaust of Bullets’ killing centre where 1.6million Jews were executed
WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT
Jews were humiliated and murdered one by one in Ukraine during WW2
Many of them were forced to stand in front of mass graves and shot dead
Women were stripped naked, beaten in the streets during ‘organised riots’
Witnesses today have broken their silence to tell of Ukraine’s killing centre
Seventy years on from the end of the Second World War the full, shocking scale of the Nazi-inspired Holocaust in Ukraine is finally being revealed – thanks to pioneering work by a French Catholic priest to research the truth of the industrial-scale killing.
Around 2,000 mass graves of Jewish victims have been located where men, women and children were shot and buried by the Germans and their collaborators.
But there maybe up to 6,000 more sites to uncover, with victims of this ‘Holocaust of bullets’ – so called because unlike in Poland and Germany where gas chambers were used as the means of slaughter – here most were summarily shot and buried nearby.
In many cases, the Jews were ordered to dig pits and then to strip naked before they were mown down by their murderers.
Some were buried in the unmarked plots while still alive.
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Blood oozed through the soil at sites of these graves, according to accounts assiduously collected by French Catholic priest, Father Patrick Desbois, who began his search by seeking to trace his grandfather’s experience as a prisoner of war held in a concentration camp by the Nazis in Ukraine during the Second World War.
He uncovered accounts of how Jews were killed by the Nazis ‘for fun’, or ‘out of anger, boredom, drunkenness’, or ‘to rape the girls’.
Yet the Soviet Union, for its own motives, obscured the full scale of the Holocaust on its own territory.
Leading historian Mikhail Tyaglyy told MailOnline the number of Jewish victims in Ukraine is between 1.4million and 1.6million, significantly higher than the oft-quoted figure of around one million.
The priest’s search took him to four sites around Rava Ruska, close to the Ukrainian border with Poland, where 15,000 Jews were slain, and also the site of a Nazi camp where his grandfather Claudius Desbois had been held as a prisoner of war.
Gradually, elderly locals who had kept quiet all their lives – mainly under Soviet rule – opened up to him, as hundreds more did in many other villages and towns in Ukraine.
One account from Rava Ruska was of a Nazi officer who spotted a young Jewish woman running out of the ghetto to buy butter at the market. He ordered her to be stripped naked, and demanded the trader smear her with the butter after which he decreed her beaten to death with sticks.
Infanticide: The beating of Jewish women in the streets of Ukraine (pictured) was a regular occurrence and one witness told how a cruel Nazi grabbed a woman’s two-year-old child and beat its head against a wall
In another case he recounted how ‘an unspeakably cruel German soldier grabbed a Jewish woman’s child from her’.
He added: ‘He was barely two years old, and he took him and banged his head repeatedly against the wall… The child died in pools of blood in front of the parent’s eyes.’
In separate testimony, an elderly witness called Yaroslav showed him to a site outside the town, and told him how he witnessed the horror of mass killing as a 13 year old boy in 1942.
A German arrived alone on a motorcycle. He rode around the village. Everyone wondered why. It turned out, he was planning the site of what would become Rava Ruska’s Jewish mass grave
Father Patrick Desbois, Catholic priest
He was the first of the elderly villagers to speak: many others followed him, here and in other locations.
Yaroslav described how the Jews arrived on foot and were forced to undress before being marched to ‘the side of a grave’ in Rava Ruska.
‘Yaroslav brought me in the forest with 50 farmers, very old people who were present at the killings,’ Father Desbois said.
‘They described one by one what happened. One person said a German arrived alone on a motorcycle.
‘He rode around the village. At the time, everyone wondered why. It turned out, he was planning the site of what would become Rava Ruska’s Jewish mass grave.’
On this occasion, some 1,500 Jews were marched to the huge pit, dug earlier by other Jews who had been killed with explosives.
The group seen by Yaroslav were then shot, their bodies layered on top of each other and covered by local youths from the village who had been requisitioned by the Germans.
Their clothes were ransacked for cash and valuables.
Organised attacks: The pogroms were a part of systematic anti-Semitic violence that included beatings and killings which led to the deaths of 4,000 Jews in Lviv (pictured) – 31 miles from of Rava Ruska.
Chilling past: An elderly witness called Yaroslav showed the priest a site outside the town of Rava Ruska (pictured today) and told him how he witnessed the horror of mass killing as a 13 year old boy in 1942
After the burial ‘the earth moved’ from the helpless last struggles for life of those wounded but buried alive in this mass grave.
A week later, blood was still seeping out from this macabre site.
Elderly Olha Havrylivna – aged 12 when she witnessed the chilling atrocity here – remembered: ‘We saw arrests, killings, executions.
They brought them to the edge of a pit and shot them. But you could see the pit move, because some of them were still alive
Olha Havrylivna, witnessed killings in
‘They brought them to the edge of a pit and shot them. But you could see the pit move, because some of them were still alive. We were young and it was hard to watch. It was a tragedy, a great tragedy.
‘The day we came to see they brought a lot of Jews here. There must have been 60 or 70. We looked on. We didn’t go too near, we stayed over there, but we children could still see everything.’
Olha told of how 15 German soldiers stood all around the pit where their captives were standing in groups.
The opened fire on the helpless Jews who dropped back-first into the pits.
Another witness, Gregory Haven, recalled how the Germans had before the killings how they ‘ordered all the Jews in the village to wear an armband on their right arm with the Star of David.
The cloth was white and the star black. The Jews had to give up the milk from their cows’.
The Nazis ‘began by shooting old people and children, they left people between the ages of 18 and 45 to make them work’.
‘Three kilometres away, they killed them, people fell like flies. I didn’t see them but I heard the shots. I saw a young Jew who brought corpses in a cart to the Jewish cemetery. It was during the winter of 1942, there was blood and the ground was red.’
After one of the mass killings, in the evening, he recalled: ‘We began to smell an odour and then, as it smelled of death, they forced people who had carts and horses to bring sand there.
Many people were requisitioned to dig the mass graves, to fill them, to bring the Jews in horse-drawn carts, to bring back their suits, to sell the suits, to put ashes on the blood
Father Patrick Desbois, Catholic priest
‘They also put chlorine, that allowed them to lower the level of the pit by one metre, and the blood stopped running’.
Locals went there ‘because the Jews had undressed there and people saw the Germans taking the civilian clothes of women and men, they came to see if they could find something – money, rings, gold watches’.
The priest’s grandfather, a French political prisoner, went home after his internment during which he survived eating dandelions and grass.
Desbois said: ‘He never spoke. He only said that outside the camp was worse than in the camp. I wanted to understand why, and I discovered that 18,000 Jews were shot in this village, Rava Ruska.’
It became clear to him that elderly Ukrainians like Yaroslav, witnesses to this horror, wanted to end their vow of silence on the terrible things they had seen in their youth.
‘People who were present at the killings wanted to speak before they die,’ he said.
‘Many people were requisitioned to dig the mass graves, to fill them, to bring the Jews in horse-drawn carts, to bring back their suits, to sell the suits, to put ashes on the blood. Fifty different jobs.’
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