In his new book, "In Broad Daylight: The Secret Procedures behind the Holocaust by Bullets," Father Patrick Desbois reveals how the genocide conducted by the Nazis in the occupied Soviet territories on the Eastern Front followed a pattern, a script with a timetable that was repeated from village to village. The Nazis availed themselves of local structures from Soviet life as well as local people. The neighbors were essential to the crime. His team at Yahad–In Unum has interviewed almost 5,000 neighbors, who witnessed or participated or were the children of those who did. The following extract features an extraordinary love story from one such witness.
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October 1, 2009
We are in Monastyrchchina, in the region of Smolensk, a large city on the Russian border, near Belarus.
Autumn has already robbed the trees of their leaves. Everything is dressed in gray. We are staying in Smolensk, near a big park, and each day we leave early in the morning to explore the villages of the region. The days are already short in the month of October; night falls quickly. This morning, when we left Smolensk, it was still foggy.
This is our first research trip to Russia. After five years of inquiries in Ukraine and Belarus, we have decided to begin investigations in the enormous Russian territory, or rather in the Russian territories that were occupied by the German army. The Germans made it as far as St. Petersburg to the north. To the south, they got as far as 125 miles from Baku, in Azerbaijan. The immensity of the territory to be traversed makes your head spin. Yahad consists of a small team of about fifteen employees in Paris, and it’s a real challenge to cover not only Ukraine and Belarus but now also the parts of Russia that were once under Nazi occupation.
Our initial choice for a Russian region was Smolensk because we already had the archives needed to prepare our investigations in order to gather testimony. According to these archives, the German occupiers had many victims: Jews, Gypsies, Communists, and prisoners of war, but also Russian civilians.
On this October morning, we found ourselves in the home of Alexandra. Denis, our Belarusian interviewer, had found her at the market. She was a woman of a particular stature, very strong and determined, wearing a large, dark smock, her cheeks highly colored by the morning cold. She had had a very interesting career as a police colonel.
Everything in her house suggested sobriety. There was a large, white-tiled wood-burning stove, an armchair upholstered in a gingham print. She held herself erect and held a white handkerchief in her hands. Tears came often to her serious and sometimes stony face.
She agreed to hold the interview in her heated home, which was a stroke of luck for the team. How many interviews have we conducted in glacial winds?
She sits down on a couch draped in a brightly colored woven rug of the kind often hung on walls in rural houses.
Within the small room, her discomfort is palpable. Alexandra appears focused but sad, with her gray hair in a ponytail. From her very first words, I understand that the war was not the first tragedy to strike her family.
Before the war, her parents were designated as “kulaks” and condemned by the Soviet regime for having too many possessions and refusing collectivization in the kolkhoz. They were, as they say locally, “repressed.”
“Yes, de-kulaked. It was the collectivization of the times. We were de-kulaked during the collectivization. My parents were fairly well off. . . . Life set us apart. My parents owned four horses and some livestock. They took everything from them. They wanted to send them to Siberia; my father left for Leningrad and my mother for Smolensk. As for me, they left me with my grandparents. They took everything from us: our house, all our possessions, and they forced us into the bania.”
Once the German occupation came in 1941, Alexandra’s family was dislocated. She went to live in Smolensk but couldn’t remain there, because, as with many others, her house was bombarded. “In Smolensk, the house we were living in was destroyed by a bomb. So we came running here, to Monastyrchchina. Our maternal grandmother came from Leningrad, whereas we came from Smolensk after the destruction of our house. . . . Here we lived in the center of town.”
In Monastyrchchina, thanks to a Jewish family for whom her father worked, they moved into a house that had belonged to a Jewish kolkhoz, emptied of its inhabitants by the Germans.
“My parents had a Jewish acquaintance. When they did carting, they transported this Jew’s merchandise. . . . When we arrived here in Monastyrchchina, he met my grandmother and said to her, ‘Come live with us in our house.’ They were about to be moved into the ghetto. They left us their house, their big house.”
“We arrived with nothing. . . . His [the Jew’s] wife was sick. He would have left. . . . But he couldn’t because of his wife. Some police came and took them away. At that point, we weren’t yet living in their house. He had just made us the offer to move in. We moved in later, about a week after they left. The house was open and no one was going in. At the time, people didn’t pillage. . . . If I recall their leaving, it’s because they had a son six years older than I was. I went to visit them two or three times and we became friends. His name was Ziama.”
She speaks of Ziama hesitantly, with the precaution and shyness of the ten-year-old girl she had been. One day, a policeman arrested Ziama and his family to imprison them in the ghetto. Clutching his rifle, the policeman had pushed open the house’s wooden door. He had seized Ziama by the collar and brutally dragged him outside while his parents begged for mercy. The whole family had been taken to the ghetto.
At first Alexandra tries to tell me that she hadn’t seem Ziama again after the arrest. Most likely, this is also what she once told her family.
“Did you see your friend?”
“No. We just talked through the fence.”
The translator insists, “So you saw him several times through the fence?”
“Yes, not many times; just a few times. They locked me in the house. I would say I went a dozen times. What could we have talked about? He asked me to bring him things to eat. We talked about the pieces of bread that we shared with them and brought, passed through a hole according to our private signal. The ghetto was entirely surrounded by a fence and barbed wire. The Jews put a branch between the planks. That meant that they could lift the plank at that spot and get whatever we had brought for them. In summer, it was easier. In winter, with all the snow, it got harder. We talked about a bottle of milk and the best time to bring it. I do have to say that there were some good police. They sometimes let us give food to the Jews: we went to the ghetto gate and gave the food to the Jews.”
It is my turn to insist. “Do you remember the last time you saw him? Did he have a sense that something was going to happen? Or did you not talk about that?”
“No one talked about it back then. Nobody talked about anything; everyone was scared of everything. Something happened every night: either it was the police who came or it was the resistance fighters. They all wanted something. We were afraid.”
This fear seems never to have left her. Her retelling is made all the more difficult by the insistent ringing several times of a white telephone on the table. Each time, she picks up the receiver, answers briefly, and hangs up. Then she resumes her testimony.
Finally, she admits that she was there when the Jews were arrested, on the day they were taken to their mass graves.
“It was wintertime. January, I would say. I don’t recall the exact date. I know that it was the beginning of the month of January. They were being taken in groups.”
She was there as usual to bring food and possibly to see her friend. “That day, we got to our agreed-upon spot just at the moment they were being taken out by group. They were guarded; there were Germans everywhere, and police. I saw Ziama and I wanted to go to him.”
Alexandra is reliving her life as a small Soviet girl; how could she have known that far away in Berlin, in comfortable and well-heated villas, it had been decided that her Ziama was no longer to be considered a full-fledged human being and must be eliminated from the surface of the Earth? For her, he was not primarily a Jew. He had a name. His name was Ziama.
She got so close that she was almost swept up into the column of Jews. “The policeman almost took me. But the women along the street screamed, ‘What are you doing, she’s Russian!’ They are the ones who pulled me out.” Recalling that moment, she sighs deeply, as with regret. As though she still didn’t realize, sixty years later, that she might have died on that day. Or rather, as though she still loved her Ziama.
She takes up the thread of her memories again. “They were put into rows, but some of them could walk while others needed to be helped. It was a tragedy. . . . How to describe it to you? They didn’t walk in regular columns, but there were about five people in each row. Some held others by the arm. . . . Ziama’s mother was sick. He and his father held her up as they walked. This is what I saw. Then I was pulled out of the column.”
Her words are seared into my memory. I was struck by the complete difference between her recollections and those of the vengeful anti-Semites. On that day, she did not see a Jew. . . . Her childhood love was being marched to his death. Did his murder influence her professional choice to join the police, eventually to rise to the rank of police colonel? This thought crossed my mind.
Finally, as if summing up, she remembers the punishment her mother gave her when she learned that her daughter had risked getting shot with the Jews from the ghetto. “My mother came from somewhere and hit me and brought me back to the house.”
How many Ziamas and Alexandras must there have been in Soviet lands?
How different it is to see the Shoah from an airplane or a satellite than to see it from a Belarusian farmyard!
I hazard a last question: “Did he also see you?”
“Yes [with sadness]. Yes.”
I have never forgotten my interview with this woman, this retired police colonel in Monastyrchchina. Whereas for the Germans, the Jews advancing in their column were already considered dead, for Alexandra, Ziama stayed a person to the end.
The young girl she was awakens slowly in her testimony, as her first love and her great risk come back to her. Her face lights up as she evokes her memories of Ziama. Their story could have ended there. The story of two Soviet children in a kolkhoz; one Jewish, the other not.
A fence was put up between them on the orders of people who believe in shattering the human race. Alexandra sighs again, as though she has just returned from that rupture. I am conscious of the fact that her biggest regret, even to this day, is not having stayed with Ziama. Without the intervention of her neighbors and her mother she would have been killed along with him by the Germans. She was made to live because she was not Jewish. He was not allowed to live because he was Jewish.
What the fence boards of the ghetto could not separate, bullets could.
I leave Alexandra’s house with a sadness of my own. I look at the distant fields swept by the autumn wind. Her words resonate in my head: “I barely had time to get close to him when the policeman pushed me into the column. The others started to scream and got me out. We weren’t able to exchange a single word. It was very stressful. I couldn’t understand what was happening. I was already used to all kinds of suffering. There was a punitive detachment in our area. We saw all kinds of horrors. But we never thought they were going to take all these people to be shot.”
On that day, I understood that, despite it all, despite the too numerous common graves, despite the bullets, Hitler had failed. Alexandra loved Ziama as a young girl loves a young man. The Nazis’ intended fracturing of the human race could not touch their love.