Mass Grave of Massacred Jews Found in Ukraine

The remains of some 1,800 Jews murdered by Nazis in Ukraine were discovered two weeks ago in a pit that became their mass grave. The search for additional mass murder sites there continues.

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Hillel Fendel, | updated: 12:47

A secret mission to find 60-year-old mass Jewish graves in eastern Europe has now become public, following its first "success." The operation is being funded by the Simon Weil Holocaust Research Fund in France, the Holocaust Museums in Paris and Washington, and the Zaka Organization. It was initiated by the Catholic liaison to the Jewish community in France, historian Patrick Dubois.

The participants made contact with Christian leaders in Ukraine, asking for help in locating the sites at which thousands of Jews were butchered and/or buried. Testimony was collected on Sundays over the course of four months, leading to the formation of a list of 500 possible mass-murder sites.

Based on the collected information, the first area to be physically checked was near the city of Lvov - now in western Ukraine but then, during World War II, a part of southeastern Poland. Its Jewish population on the eve of the war was 110,000, not including another 100,000 Jews in Lvov taking refuge from other areas of German-occupied Poland.

Ukranian nationalists, encouraged by the Germans, massacred about 4,000 Lvov Jews in early July 1941, and killed another 2,000 the next month - including groups of Jews they took to the Jewish cemetery and Lunecki prison, where they shot them. All the while, the Germans were murdering and deporting other Jews. By August 1942, more than 65,000 Jews had been deported from the Lvov ghetto and murdered, and in June 1943, the Germans destroyed the ghetto, killing and deporting the remaining thousands of Jews in the process.

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav - founder of the Zaka organization for emergency rescue, identification and recovery - and his son Shimon were on hand near a forest outside Lvov's Jewish cemetery two weeks ago when the mass grave was discovered. Having received detailed Halakhic [Jewish legal] advice on how to handle and relate to the bodies, they thought they were prepared - but actually seeing the piles of bones appear under their shovels proved to be a great shock.

Using metal detectors, they began digging in a particular area, and about two meters deep, the bones began to appear - with bullets still lodged inside them. On the bullets could be read the place and time of manufacture: Germany 1939, Germany 1941. Hundreds of skulls and bones were found.

Shimon, who was in Ukraine for three weeks, later said, "The scene unfolding in front of our eyes was shocking. An area of some 500 square meters filled with hundreds of skeletons, one on top of the other, in piles some two meters high. The most horrifying was to see two adult skeletons on top of children - parents apparently trying to protect their children. We know that the Nazis killed the Jewish families all together, as opposed to the way they killed the Gypsies." This in fact was one of the additional signs that the bodies were of Jews. Some of the skeletons were found standing, apparently indicating they were buried alive.

It is estimated that 1,800 Jews were killed and buried at that particular site. Attempts will also be made to find out the names of at least some of the victims.

The digging and subsequent covering of the site with a new layer of dirt was deemed by the rabbis who were present to be a kosher burial in accordance with Jewish Law. A half-meter layer of concrete was then placed atop the entire area, and prayers were recited.

Members of the delegation plan to return next week in order to place a memorial monument atop the site, which Ukrainian authorities have agreed to recognize as a Jewish burial site.

The name of the operation is "Kaddish for Ukranian Jewry," referring to the memorial prayer said in honor of those who have died. After the upcoming holidays, work will be renewed on locating additional mass graves of Jews massacred in Ukraine.

In two weeks' time, the World Holocaust Forum and the Yad VaShem Holocaust Memorial will mark one of the most horrific documented Nazi atrocities - the brutal murder of 33,771 Jews at the Babi Yar ravine near Kiev in 1941 - with an internationally attended memorial ceremony at the site. Details to come.