Rabbi Andrew Baker Explains Mass Graves Project

Rabbi Andrew Baker, AJC Director of International Jewish Affairs

One year ago we stood here to call for a concerted and comprehensive effort to identify, protect and memorialize the mass graves of Holocaust victims throughout Eastern Europe. Today we can say this effort is now being implemented.

In the coming days Germany and many other nations will officially commemorate the Holocaust. January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, has been so designated by the United Nations and many individual states as the date for these events. It was an appropriate decision since Auschwitz, the place where the Nazis perfected the mechanized murder of the Jewish people, has become a universal symbol of the genocide of the Jewish people.

But the Holocaust did not begin at Auschwitz. In fact, seventy years ago—well before the gas chambers and crematoria were designed or constructed—the systematic murder of Europe’s Jews began as the German army swept through Poland, Ukraine and Belarus on its way East. Mobile killing units, frequently aided by regular soldiers and local collaborators, shot them where they lived and buried their bodies in hundreds of mass graves.

And there they have remained, many in graves unmarked and untended. Some of the sites are remote in forests or farmland, while others are close by towns and villages. Entire communities were wiped out and those few who by some miracle survived seldom returned. Local residents who were eyewitness to the crimes are dead or aged. Only a short time is left to collect their testimonies, which are often crucial in identifying the exact killing sites.

A year ago we drew attention to these untended mass graves. We were joined by people who were engaged in the identification efforts and bolstered by the voices of others who recognized the urgency and shared in our common call.

Today we are able to report that this concerted and comprehensive effort that we sought is now being put in place. In fact, today we are here to announce the support and involvement of individuals, organizations and governments who are now partners in this common effort.

  • Funding for the critical work of identifying the sites and beginning the long term challenge of providing physical protection and proper memorializing of the graves is being provided by the German Foreign Office.
  • Important moral and logistical support has come from our partners here in Germany, the Central Council of Jews in Germany and the German War Graves Commission.
  • Crucial documentation and exact locations of hundreds of heretofore unidentified sites are being provided by Father Patrick Desbois and his organization, Yachad in Unum.
  • The essential task of insuring that Jewish law and tradition governing such sacred sites will guide this work will be provided by the Conference of European Rabbis and the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe.
  • The coordination of work on the ground in Ukraine, where many of these mass graves are located, is being spearheaded by our partner, the Ukrainian Jewish Committee.
  • The Ukrainian Holocaust Center in Kyiv is compiling historical documentation that will provide educational and informational material for these sites as well as developing the appropriate memorial inscriptions.
  • While Ukraine has served as an initial focus of attention—and we are grateful for the support that has been voiced by the Government of Ukraine for this project—we will be working in other countries, as well. Poland’s Chief Rabbi, Michael Schudrich, and the Union of Religious Communities are part of these efforts. So too is the Jewish Community of Belarus and its long-time Chairman Leonid Levin.
  • The organization Lo Tishkach, which is tasked by the Jewish Community to document the Jewish cemeteries of Europe, will also become a depository for the information being compiled here.
  • It is also gratifying that prominent, international institutions of Holocaust research and documentation such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington continue to provide support and encouragement of this project.
We are under no illusions. This is a long-term effort that will not be accomplished easily or quickly and perhaps never completely. But we are confident that with the support of the German Government and the active engagement of the organizations and individuals herein identified, we will succeed. Seventy years later we shall properly honor the memory of these Holocaust victims; we shall see to it that their resting places are preserved and protected and their lives are remembered.