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Before the sun rose on June 22, 1941, over four million German soldiers invaded the Soviet Union. Following the soldiers were 3,000 Einsatzgruppen – mobile killing squads. The Einsatzgruppen was charged with the elimination of enemies, namely Jews and Communists.
Working with local police and the German army, the Einsatzgruppen killed over one million Jews, Communists, and Gypsies.
In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, hundreds of thousands Holocaust victims were shot by the Einsatzgruppen and local collaborators then buried in mass graves across the region. No one knows how many mass graves exist.
Historians and archaeologists are working to identify mass graves and honor the victims.
Local villagers help identify mass graves
Father Patrick Desbois and his team have traveled across Eastern Europe talking with villagers to identify mass grave sites and place a Star of David. Through the interviews, Father Desbois and his team have uncovered chilling details, such as the mass killings were not secret but rather broadcast to villagers. Taking it a step further, in Odessa, Ukraine, children were given binoculars to see the killings from the trees.
Learn more about Father Desbois’s significant work in the keynote address given at the USC Shoah Foundation Yom HaShoah Commemoration on April 19, 2012.
Technology unearths mass graves and an escape route
Archaeologist Richard Freund is using radar and radio waves to scan beneath the ground to identify mass graves. Few escaped the mass killings, but Dr. Freund and his team recently made a remarkable discovery in Ponar, Lithuania.
In 1943, 80 Jewish prisoners were forced to exhume and burn the bodies in the mass grave at Ponar. The “Burning Brigade” knew they too would be killed after their job was finished. Over 76 days, the prisoners dug a 2 foot by 2-foot tunnel and attempted to escape on the last night of Passover, April 15, 1944. Twelve escaped that night and 11 survived World War II.
Using information from survivors’ accounts to begin the search for the tunnel, Dr. Freund and his team discovered it using electrical resistive tomography (like an MRI for the ground) and ground penetrating radar.
“If we had never discovered the tunnel, people would have thought in another 20 years it was a myth, and they would have questioned – What do we really know happened?” said Dr. Freund. “This is a great story about the way that people overcame the worst possible condition, and still had this hope that they could get out.”*
Testimony in research
Testimony played a key role in helping Dr. Freund to uncover the tunnel and story of survival. Likewise, interviews and testimony are central to Father Desbois’s efforts to identify mass graves.
ProQuest is honored to be in partnership with USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive to offer testimonies in their entirety to a broader audience and to contribute archival-quality transcripts of all of the testimonies. Learn more and see the testimonials.
*”Escape Tunnel, Dug by Hand, Is Found at Holocaust Massacre Site.” Nicholas St. Fleur, The New York Times, June 29, 2016