Agnieszka Nieradko heard there was a woman in eastern Poland who knew about a grave. She lived in a village outside Lublin. As a girl scout after the Second World War, the woman in the village was tasked with the upkeep of a grave in a forest where, according to local lore, Jewish slave labourers were executed.
Nieradko met the woman last year. As a researcher with the Rabbinical Commission for Jewish Cemeteries, Nieradko scours Poland for forgotten mass graves from the Holocaust, hoping to mark them before creeping land developments start churning up farmland and forests in small towns. And each of those towns, Nieradko said, probably has at least one mass grave.
Nieradko met the elderly woman in the village outside Lublin. The woman brought her to the forest. The grave was no longer marked, lost in the waves of communism and anti-Semitism that beset Poland shortly after the war. But the woman remembered. It was here, she told Nieradko and her team, somewhere.
The team of researchers did not dig, abiding by Jewish law — Halacha — that forbids disturbing a grave. Instead, they used ground-penetrating radar to confirm the old woman’s story. Nieradko said they believed it was a mass grave containing the remains of 12 to 16 Jewish farm labourers who were abruptly taken to the forest and killed. But it’s difficult to confirm exactly what happened to them, or who they were, since it is now a story that has filtered down through generations of families in the village. All Nieradko and her team can do is mark the spot, by tracing the edges of the grave with decorative stones and placing a plaque and a headstone (often made of wood so they can afford the process over and over). In June this year, they held a memorial in the forest in the village outside Lublin.
“We do one by one by one,” said Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland who works with Nieradko’s research team. “If we give one more victim a grave, we’ve accomplished something.”
There are likely thousands more unmarked Holocaust graves throughout Poland and eastern Europe, hidden on roadsides, or in forests or marshes or fields. It’s a modern misconception that the destruction of the Holocaust was confined to death camps. Millions of Jews are believed to have been shot and killed by Nazi mobile killing units and their local collaborators, buried in unmarked mass graves throughout of the eastern European countryside. It’s what Rev. Patrick Desbois, a Catholic priest who is one of the most prolific searchers for unmarked Jewish graves, has called the Holocaust by Bullets. People were killed outside their houses, on the outskirts of their villages, executed on marches, burned in barns, found in their hideouts and killed by grenades.
“What we know about the murders in concentration camps is only half the knowledge of what truly took place in the Holocaust,” Avi Benlolo, president and CEO of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies in Toronto, said in an email.
Researchers have only scratched the surface in our understanding of the perhaps millions of people who lie beneath fields and ravines whom we will never know about. They are undocumented and erased from history.”
In a paper Nieradko co-authored, released earlier this year, she details the patchwork of “non-invasive” technology used to locate the graves while respecting Jewish law and leaving the graves intact. It involves comparing aerial photographs from the Second World War era with modern ones, looking for signs of disturbed soil — a lighter-coloured patch, a stretch of bare land surrounded by growth. Ground-penetrating radar can identify the presence of remains, and judging from the volume of the grave, researchers can estimate how many people were buried there.
But Nieradko said the most valuable resources are the witnesses — the only ones who can tell the searchers where to look. “For 70 years, the local communities have kept the memory about the fate that had befallen their Jewish neighbours,” reads the study, written by Nieradko and the other researchers she works with to identify the graves: Sebastian Rózycki, Jerzy Karczewski and Aleksander Schwarz.
In Rejowiec, a town in eastern Poland, Nieradko’s team found witness testimony of Nazi soldiers marching Jews from the ghetto to the train station, where they were to be sent to death camps. Those deemed unfit for the journey were killed along the way. “I saw it with my own eyes,” reads one witness account, recorded in 1976. “Germans shot Jews on the way to the train station and then ordered Poles to take the bodies to the local Jewish cemetery and bury them in previously prepared pits.”
In aerial photographs, the researchers noticed two disturbances in the soil: an oblong shape, eight metres wide and 30 metres long; another in an L-shape, 16 metres on the long side and 10 metres on the short side. Radar showed that the two shapes were actually mass graves, with evidence of remains more than 1.6 metres below ground.
With each new find, dotting the countryside with more and more tombstones, Nieradko said she believes her team is helping etch a permanent reminder into the landscape about what happened there. The Holocaust wasn’t just in the death camps, she said, so the memories needn’t be confined there either.
“We are living next to the graves,” Nieradko said. “They are everywhere.”