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Tracking The Hidden Holocaust

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National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education
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Seton Hill University

A common snapshot of the horrific events of the Holocaust might traditionally focus on the death camps and gas chambers in places like Treblinka and Auschwitz, but one area group is working to uncover the stories of some lesser known victims.  Researchers at the National Catholic Center of Holocaust Education at Seton Hill University are employing new equipment to uncover and document the lives of Soviet Jews during the Holocaust.

Tim Crain, director of the center, explains that millions of Soviet Jews were led out of their towns to ravines, stripped, shot and buried in mass graves in the early stages of World War II.  He says these executions are often not discussed in history books.

“It was different for the Soviet Jews, and the significance is that you have these mass graves that remained, quite frankly, hidden up until recent, and that was due in large measure to the work of Father Patrick Desbois.”

Seton Hill University opens their exhibit on tools used to locate and identify these mass graves next week.  With access to both Soviet and German archives, as well as first-hand accounts from locals, Father Desbois has found approximately 1.5 million corpses of Soviet Jews, and expects to find a total of 2.3 million in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

Though most of these mass grave sites are documented, in Joseph Stalin’s police state, communication was curtailed, and the sites were lost and forgotten until the fall of the Soviet Union.  When the archives opened up, Father Desbois and his team began translating the documents, and have uncovered 1,744 of the gravesites.  Locals who were children at the time of World War II have been instrumental in locating these sites.

“It is almost something to get it off their chest, so to speak.  This has made the work, in terms of documentation for Father Desbois and his team all the easier.” 

Although many Soviets non-Jews witnessed the mass genocide of Soviet Jews, they refrained from reporting it in fear of punishment.  In some situations, Crain says immense guilty prevents   locals from talking about the mass graves.

“When the local population cooperated and participated, quite frankly as perpetrators in many situations, the death toll was always significantly higher.”

In places such as Poland and the former Soviet Union, death tolls for Jews were higher because of radical Anti-Semitism.

Crain explains that the center was opened in 1987 as a bridge builder between Jews and Catholics, and stresses the importance of protecting Judaism as a “sister religion”.

“Not only did we (Christians) fail to protect Judaism, at times we became its greatest persecutor.  I would argue that’s something that Christianity, though tremendous strides have been made over the past fifty years, and continue to be made, it is something that Christianity in the present is still trying to come to grips with.”

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