OSWIECIM, Poland » Gazing out from the main watchtower at the grim desert that is the crumbling chimneys and crematories, vanished prisoners’ huts, barbed wire and ditches of Birkenau, it is hard to fathom that there were corners of the Nazi realm where, collectively, more killing occurred than in the Nazi death camps.
Monday, the 69th anniversary of the day Soviet forces liberated Auschwitz, was observed as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Yet a third or more of the almost 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust perished not in the industrial-scale murder of the camps, but in executions at what historians call killing sites: thousands of villages, quarries, forests, wells, streets and homes that dot the map of Eastern Europe.
The vast numbers killed in what some have termed a "Holocaust by bullets" have slowly garnered greater attention in recent years as historians sift through often sketchy and incomplete records that became available after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"People sat down and added the numbers up," said David Silberklang, a senior historian at the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial.
As the number of Holocaust survivors gradually declines, these documents or witness accounts — from Belarus, Ukraine and parts of Russia, and also from the Baltic States —have illuminated a new picture of the Nazis’ methods.
Most of this slaughter occurred in Eastern Europe after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, and it mixed with the increasing chaos of the war once the Germans failed to realize their ambition of subduing the Soviets in just eight to 12 weeks and faced the prospect of defeat.
"The further east the Wehrmacht went, the greater the killing," Dieter Pohl, a professor of history at Klagenfurt University in Austria, said at a conference on the subject this month in Krakow, Poland. The executions and unmarked mass graves became "an element of German rule in Eastern Europe."
In the years after 1945, the executions were not discussed much. The shock of the discovery of concentration camps was one factor. The camps had survivors, found in place, who told their unimaginable tale. By contrast, the local executions terrorized and silenced survivors in the eastern regions.
In addition, after World War II, many witnesses were left behind the Iron Curtain, and no one was interested in their memories.
On the ground, "news about killing in local fields spread much more quickly than the murky rumors" about gassing at concentration camps, Pohl said. "Only a few survivors could testify after 1945," he added. As a result, "there is still no comprehensive overview of the killing sites."
Silberklang said that "in the popular mind, this subject is far less known than the Holocaust." The executions became, he said, "in a sense, invisible."
One man who has sought out testimony for 12 years is the Rev. Patrick Desbois, a Roman Catholic priest from France who became involved after stumbling across Rava-Ruska, the location of a World War II prison camp in Ukraine for French soldiers where his paternal grandfather was interned.
Desbois, the only one in his family curious enough to have gotten his grandfather to discuss his memories, now has 23 full-time employees in Paris who crisscross former Soviet territory interviewing witnesses, 90 percent of whom have never told their tale, he said.
The killing was "secret for Western countries, at a high level," he said. "It was ultra-public in a village."
Desbois has worked with the American Jewish Committee on five sites in Ukraine and Belarus to clear them, find their parameters and have them marked.
One difficulty, said Deidre Berger, the head of the committee in Berlin, is that Jewish tradition prohibits exhumation.
It is painstaking work, uncovering "a tragedy of vast dimensions that has been very little researched," Berger said at the Krakow conference. Yet, she noted, the work has huge significance, given that "more Jews were killed by shooting in Ukraine" — an estimated 1.5 million — "than murdered in Auschwitz in the crematoria."
Defining what constitutes a killing site and how to preserve them and for whom were among the many questions the Krakow conference, convened by the 31-nation International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, was designed to address.
Berger said that "the aim is to have young people take charge of their history."
Desbois and German historians noted the special role played by Jews’ determination that, if possible, the name of every person killed in the Holocaust should live on. (Yad Vashem has compiled a list of more than 4 million names, most of which hang in an Israeli exhibit opened last year at Auschwitz with the aim of appealing to young people who may never know a Holocaust survivor).
Jews "made an anthropological advance by insisting on this," Desbois said.
In bringing more killing sites to light, said Thomas Lutz, who is the head of the striking memorial in Berlin known as the Topography of Terror, the aim should be "to give back the names of as many people as possible."
Whether to focus more heavily on Jewish loss or to include the 1.3 million to 1.5 million non-Jews estimated by Pohl to have been executed by the Nazis or their Axis allies is another big question.
Above all, participants at the conference said, speed is needed, before survivors die. The quest for accuracy — in Soviet times, the several sites that were memorialized were honored only in the spirit of Communist doctrine, with little or no reference to victims as Jews, or regard for the exact location of executions — is also paramount.
Often, Berger said, "what we thought were facts are not facts at all."
"We must anticipate tomorrow," Desbois added, referring to still powerful anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, "when people will start to say, ‘No, nothing happened here.’"
Alison Smale, New York Times