The Holocaust – not just by camps but also by bullets

People think they know what happened during the Holocaust, but there’s an aspect of it that has remained buried for decades, and has only recently garnered more public notoriety.

When people think of the Holocaust, said Hannah Rosenthal, president and CEO of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, they tend to think of concentration and death camps, and the images that have brought what happened in those places out to the rest of the world.

But in Eastern Europe, during the “Holocaust by Bullets,” whole communities that never saw the camps were slaughtered. An exhibit focusing on that aspect of the Holocaust is coming to Milwaukee this spring, along with the man responsible for the field work that has brought these stories out of the past and into the present. The Rev. Patrick Desbois, a Catholic priest from France, has spent years crossing Eastern Europe, going to small towns and interviewing the people who remember what happened as the Germans moved through during World War II.

Cover of the April edition, with Alfred O., born in Poland 1931. © Aleksy Kaszyanov Yahad-In Unum.

 

Rosenthal and several others from Wisconsin’s Jewish community joined Desbois on tours in Poland and Lithuania. They heard stories first-hand and were able to see the sites associated with the massacres.

“Father Desbois found witnesses who bring you to the ravine full of bodies,” Rosenthal said. “Standing there it’s a whole different thing. We were standing next to mass graves where no one is left to remember them. People’s entire families are in these mass graves and we were there to remember them.”

As a child of a Holocaust survivor, Nancy Kennedy Barnett said the atrocities committed weren’t new to her, but that Desbois taught her that words matter. Kennedy Barnett, a Fox Point resident who is vice chair of the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in Whitefish Bay, was on Milwaukee Jewish Federation-organized site tours in Europe.

“They were murdered,” she said. “As a child of a survivor, I knew my family was killed, but to recognize they were murdered. That’s one of the takeaways for me and why I love the man.”

Desbois, she said, talks about how it is important to pay attention to the people.

“It’s not about a building or a wall where something happened. It’s about the people. He brings it down to the individual level, talks about the lives that will never be, the families that will never be intact, the people that will never have grandchildren.”

Trip attendee Marsha Sehler said she expected the witnesses may have been unwilling to tell their stories, but instead she was left with the impression that they were glad to be able to say what they had seen.

“They were children at the time, and I think that they were glad that somebody had an interest and wanted to hear what they had witnessed and to take people to the graves,” Sehler said. “It wasn’t just meeting the witnesses, it was going to the gravesite and dedicating the gravesite and remembering.”

“Nobody had ever dedicated these gravesites. These were forgotten people killed by these bullets.”

 

Hearing witnesses’ stories, in person or in this exhibit, honors those killed.

“This was a chance to bring these people out of obscurity,” said Daniel Kerns of Bay View, who went on one of the tours. “We don’t know their names but we share a common ancestry and a common faith, and they were killed because of that faith. It was cathartic to bring them out of that obscurity and to recognize that someone is here to remember them. It was really something else.”

He said he had no idea what he would learn when he joined the tour.

“When you grow up as a Jew in the U.S. you have this idea of all the Jews getting rounded up and put on trains and sent to concentration camps and being gassed or put into ovens or shot,” he said. “You never understand – or maybe I just didn’t understand – they were taken from their homes, walked a half mile into the woods and shot and killed.”

Those stories, he said, had never really been told and no one knew about it.

“They never even got to the camps. These are families. These are kids and mothers and fathers and grandparents,” he said. “We got over there and it became so apparent so quickly that these people were just wiped off the face of the earth so quickly and so callously.”

The stories of what happened stayed within these isolated small towns, Kerns said he learned, because people thought it just happened there and was a one-time occurrence.

“They didn’t know it was happening across the continent,” he said. “They were so relieved to lift this burden off themselves and help tell the stories of these people who were, up until that point in time, forgotten.”

Kennedy Barnett said this is an exhibit everyone should attend.

“It may be tough to see, but we live in tough times,” she said. “You have to learn so it doesn’t happen again. I just came from the JCC where we had a third bomb threat today. I never thought I’d be living in this life. It’s not a history lesson. It’s today. It’s happening today. We have to make sure it doesn’t take those next steps. Make sure everybody gets involved.

“Everybody needs to lead by their actions.”

Kerns said while this exhibit has a narrow focus, it is widely applicable.

“This is about the death of the Jews,” Kerns said, “but it’s not just about Judaism. It’s about tyranny, dictatorship, genocide and the complacency of people who don’t want to stand up and do anything.

Rosenthal, who is a child of a Holocaust survivor, said there are “two profound lessons” in this for people.

“One is this can happen when there’s unchecked hatred, and two, it happened,” she said. “It isn’t a bad dream or a fiction. It happened and the world’s still trying to get its head around that.”

Like Kennedy Barnett, Sehler sees lessons for today in learning about what happened then.

“Many of the people in Lithuania were not killed by these death squads, they were killed by the neighbors, by people in these villages,” she said. “I think of all the tragedies that I think about when I think about what happened there, I think how could that have happened? That neighbors killed neighbors?”

Sehler recently toured a Holocaust exhibit in Los Angeles and saw newspapers from the mid-1930s with warnings about what was going on.

“Nobody paid enough attention, and I’m thinking, are we paying enough attention now, in this country? Are we paying enough attention?”

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How to go

Holocaust by Bullets exhibit

Where: Atrium of the Helfaer Community Service Building, 1360 N. Prospect Avenue, just outside Jewish Museum Milwaukee

When: April 20 to May 23, 2017. Monday- Thursday: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. (open until 7 p.m. on April 20 and May 18). Friday 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. Sunday 12 p.m. – 4 p.m. Saturday: Closed

Cost: Free

Appropriate for high school students and older

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Speaker: Father Patrick Desbois

Where: Atrium of the Helfaer Community Service Building, 1360 N. Prospect Avenue, just outside Jewish Museum Milwaukee

When: Wednesday, April 19, 2017. 7 p.m.

Cost: $10, tickets available at MilwaukeeJewish.org/Bullets