by ELI BILETCH
OCTOBER 5, 2017 – Last April, I had the pleasure of travelling with Lisa Mulman to Paris to work as her research assistant translating Holocaust testimonies from French to English, an opportunity few high school juniors have. Lisa, an English professor and Faculty Research Coordinator at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies of Salem State University, needed assistance with her new book project, which focuses on “true” and fictional accounts of the killing of the Ukrainian Jews during WWII.
Yahad-In Unum, a French research organization, provided the perfect data for her research. The Organization’s small, dedicated team travels to the former Soviet Union to interview the locals who witnessed the executions of Jews and Roma in the early 1940s. These testimonies, usually in Ukrainian, have been translated into French, and are archived in Paris, France. The detailed explanations of these shootings provide a plethora of practical information and personal observations, raising many intriguing questions. Did the Nazis force the non-Jewish inhabitants of these Soviet villages to watch the shootings, or did the villagers watch out of interest? Were the shootings a spectacle? Is everything said in the testimonies believable? How much of what witnesses say has been exaggerated? Did the witnesses’ fellow Ukrainians voluntarily participate or helped with the murder of the Jews? These are the type of questions Lisa intended to answer in her writing.
Lisa chose me to accompany and assist her in this research because, as a student at the Waring High School in Beverly, I have taken immersive French classes. Being proficient at the language, I could help her in translating both the testimonies themselves and use my conversational skills to help her communicate with Parisians.
When Patrice Bensimon, the Research Director for Yahad-In Unum, first presented Lisa and me with the videos of the testimonies, it was a bit overwhelming. Seeing these elderly people who had been witnesses to some of the worst atrocities in history when they were children was difficult to comprehend. Moreover, most of them had kept their memories buried for over fifty years. Some of the interviewees cried, while some were totally stoic. In every case, the complexity of their experiences was written on their faces and revealed in their body language. I gained new respect for Father Desbois and Patrice, who conducted these interviews and used the information to find the mass graves, and the deeper questions of guilt and innocence raised by this archive resonated for me in a different way after exposure to the archives.
This experience is far from over. I hope to continue my work with Lisa Mulman and to further connect with Yahad. More importantly, Patrice Bensimon will be speaking at Salem State on Thursday, October 19, and at the Waring School that Friday, October 20, and I can’t wait to hear him address some of the questions that have come up for me since I last saw him, including the long term implications of his research. What, if anything, has he concluded about the responsibility of the Ukrainian villagers in the brutal executions that took place during the war, and what can we learn from these conclusions? I encourage the public to attend these events, to learn more about Yahad-In Unum, and to get involved with the Center of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Salem State. Awareness is the first step to preventing similar genocides in the future.