Protecting Memory

Protecting Memory

Protecting And Memorialising Holocaust Mass Graves In Ukraine

Protecting And Memorialising Holocaust Mass Graves In Ukraine

During the German occupation from 1941 to 1944, over one million Jewish children, women and men were murdered in mass shooting operations and hastily buried in pits throughout the territory of present-day Ukraine. From 2010 to the end of 2019, the international project Protecting Memory transformed a total of 20 neglected and forgotten mass graves of Jews and Roma into dignified places of remembrance and information.


The »Holocaust by bullets« is still a little-known chapter in the history of the genocide of European Jews. Around two million Jewish children, women and men died between 1941 and 1945 as a result of mass shootings carried out by German SS, police and military units and their local auxiliaries. The systematic murder began with the invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. The National Socialists’ anti-semitic and anti-Bolshevist world view considered Jews to be the driving force behind the Soviet state. Special Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units) were set up and given the order to shoot Jewish men. They later targeted women and children as well. In some cases, so-called gas vans were also used to commit murder. According to current estimates, more than 1,900 Jewish communities in the occupied Soviet territories between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea were destroyed as a result of these crimes. The number of mass shooting sites was far greater. Only a small number of Jews were hidden by non-Jews and thereby able to survive. Roma, Soviet prisoners of war and patients with mental or physical disabilities were also murdered in mass shootings.

The mass graves today

There are an estimated 2,000 mass shooting sites on the territory of present-day Ukraine alone. In remote ravines and forests, in the middle of fields, in former anti-tank ditches or in sand quarries, entire Jewish communities were wiped out, often within the space of a few days. Memorials were put up at some of the murder sites during the Soviet era, but other sites faded into oblivion after the war. Today, hundreds of mass graves remain unmarked, unprotected and neglected. Desecration of the graves often lends them a desolate appearance. Many of the sites are used for agriculture.


Since this project to protect the mass graves of the Holocaust began in 2010 the situation in Ukraine has changed dramatically. A war instigated by Russia continues to rage in the east of the country. Plans to carry out work on the project in this part of the country have thus had to be abandoned.

The Project

Six decades after the end of the German occupation, the organisation Yahad-In Unum began to record the geographical location of mass graves in the former Soviet Union. The project is led by the French priest Father Patrick Desbois. His study, which is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office, is based in particular on interviews with contemporary eyewitnesses. Inspired by this project, in 2010 the American Jewish Committee Berlin launched an initiative to protect and memorialise mass graves in Ukraine. By 2015, five sites in the west of the country had been transformed into dignified memorial sites, the work again funded by the Foreign Office. Protecting Memory was originally conceived as a pilot project with the aim of establishing appropriate approaches to deal with Holocaust mass graves. From the start, the project has been accompanied by educational programmes designed for schools in the region.

Identifying The Graves

The sustained impact of the pilot phase led the Foreign Office to continue the project in 2016. Supervised by the Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Protecting Memory project entered a new phase in its work to protect and identify mass graves. In conjunction with its Ukrainian partners, the Foundation designed fifteen memorial sites, three of which are dedicated to murdered Roma.

Non-invasive methods were used to identify the boundaries of the graves in order to comply with Jewish religious law (Halacha) and so as not to disturb the graves. The graves and the immediate vicinity received administrative protection by transferring the plots concerned into communal ownership, redesignating their function as memorial sites and making corresponding changes to cadastral maps.


Archaeologists send electromagnetic (radio) pulses into the ground via a transmitter antenna. The return signal is received by a second antenna. A mass grave has different electromagnetic properties to the environment around it and can often be detected by experts. The location of the grave could not be established at two sites.

Historical Research

Historical research has been a central feature of the project from the outset. The analysis of early reports by the Soviet Extraordinary Commissions and of documentation from German court proceedings helped to establish the possible location of the mass graves before the start of the archaeological investigations. However, along with identifying and protecting the graves, Protecting Memory also aims to remember those who were murdered and the communities in which they lived as well as to provide details of the crimes. For this reason, steles have been put up at all of the memorial sites, featuring information about the victims, perpetrators and crimes. The academics involved in the project have carried out groundbreaking work in this respect as in most cases the places selected for the memorialisation of Holocaust mass graves are in small communities into which there has been little to no research to date. The lack of sources on places where Roma were murdered presents an additional challenge.


The decision over the wording of the inscriptions on the memorials involved tough negotiations with the Interdepartmental Commission. The contentious issue was the nationalities of the perpetrators – the German occupiers and the locals who assisted them. The commission initially argued that the origins of the perpetrators should be left out and that reference be made simply to »Nazi occupiers and their helpers«. Finally a consensus was reached on the wording »German occupiers and their subordinate authorities«.

Educational Activities

The results of the historical research are also used in the educational activities run in schools in the regions where the project sites are located. An educational programme has been developed with the aim of motivating teachers, pupils and students to explore their local history independently and to become ambassadors for the new memorial sites. In May 2018 students from Zhytomyr and Vinnytsia universities conducted interviews in the project localities. They wanted to find out how individuals and collectives in communities affected by the Holocaust remember what happened. With guidance from the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies, a project partner, the results are being analysed and written up for use in additional educational and historical programmes beyond the remit of the project.


In the course of the oral history project, the students were able to interview elderly eyewitnesses but found very few young people able to report on how the history of their local area has been transmitted from generation to generation. Nonetheless, the Holocaust remains part of collective memory, be it simply in the form of talk in the village about supernatural occurrences at the mass graves. Other-worldly interpretations of the persecution of the Jews and the Holocaust can also be encountered in rural Germany.

Inauguration Of Memorial Sites

The Protecting Memory project has established fifteen memorial and information sites in twelve communities. Twelve of the sites are dedicated to the murdered Jews and three to the murdered Roma. The memorial sites were inaugurated in June and September 2019. Relatives of families who used to live in the communities travelled from the US, Israel and Australia to attend. Large numbers of people from local communities and schools were also present at the deeply moving ceremonies, despite blazing heat in June and high winds and low temperatures in September. The speakers at the various sites repeatedly pointed out that Jewish history is part of Ukraine’s national history.

The Exhibition In Berdychiv

Located in central Ukraine, in the 19th century Berdychiv was a multicultural town. By around 1900 Jews made up some 80 per cent of the town’s population. Crafts and trades flourished. The town was a centre for the Hasidic religious movement. The Polish-Catholic population also played a signifcant role in the life of the town. According to the Soviet Investigation Commission some 30,000 Jews were murdered during the German occupation in mass shootings in the town and surrounding area. In conjunction with the town’s annual Holocaust commemoration, on 16 September 2019 an open-air exhibition was inaugurated at the central memorial site in Berdychiv. German and Ukrainian project partners worked closely together to produce the exhibition. Along with diplomatic representatives from Germany, Israel and the US, a large number of local residents attended the inauguration. The exhibition consists of information panels in three languages. These describe Jewish life in the town and how it was destroyed, as well as the difficult process of establishing fitting ways of commemorating the murdered Jews.


Mykhaylo Vainshelboim was born in 1928 and lived with his family in Berdychiv. In summer 1941 the family’s home was destroyed in a Wehrmacht air raid and they moved to live with an aunt in the ghetto set up by the Germans. On 15 September 1941 members of the Ukrainian auxiliary police entered the house. The German occupiers had decided to murder the vast majority of the Jewish population. Mykhaylo managed to escape. His mother and three siblings were taken to the airfeld and shot. The Germans initially spared his father as he was a skilled craftsman. On 3 November 1941 he was forced to walk to Sokulino with Mykhaylo. There they had to undress. They said their last goodbyes. The 13-year-old boy hid in tall grass, crawled away and was ultimately received help from the Savelkos, a non-Jewish family. After liberation he returned to Berdychiv.


Galina Shulyatytska was born in 1932 to Yuhim Sendler – a Jew from Berdychiv – and his Christian wife Raissa Shulyatytska. At the time of the German invasion the family was living in Belarus, where Yuhim Sendler ran a factory. He was called up to serve in the Red Army, while Raissa fled with her three children. Galina‘s two younger siblings, Violetta und Heinrich, died due to a lack of food and other essentials. Galina only narrowly escaped a mass shooting in Bobruisk. In December 1941 Raissa and Galina reached Berdychiv. It was hard for them to find anyone to take them in. They lived in constant fear of being discovered. However, they survived. Yuhim Sendler went missing during the war and is presumed to have died. After the war Galina graduated from the teacher training institute in the town and worked in a evening school.

Remembering The Murdered Roma

Roma were also victims of mass shootings between 1941 and 1944. Around 12,000 children, women and men died in German-occupied Ukraine. 139 sites of these crimes have been recorded so far. The Romanian leadership, which was allied with the German Reich, had around 25,000 Roma deported to the Romanian-controlled regions in southern Ukraine between the Dniester and Southern Bug rivers. More than 11,000 Roma perished there. To remember the crimes against Roma, in June 2019 the Protecting Memory project dedicated two memorial sites with information steles near the villages of Kalynivka and Divoshyn in northern Ukraine. In Ivanopil the project put up an information stele by the site of a grave where Roma have been reburied. The emotional inauguration ceremonies were of great significance for Roma in Ukraine, who are often subject to harassment in the society.


Roma in Ukraine are still repeatedly the targets of violence today. This mainly takes the form of arson attacks on informal settlements, often carried out by masked men. In June 2018 members of a nationalist group killed Davyd Pap, a 24-year-old Roma, in Lviv. As elsewhere in Europe, Roma are also subject to harassment by the authorities, for example through eviction orders.


In August 2019, the exhibition about the project Protecting Memory was opened in the building of the German Foreign Office in Berlin. In his moving speech, German foreign minister Heiko Maas stressed the project’s importance for the present and the need for taking action to combat anti-Semitism.

The Ukrainian Ambassador in Germany Andriy Melnyk spoke of Jewish history as an integral part of Ukrainian national history. The exhibition is also to be shown in Ukraine as a travelling exhibition.


The Protecting Memory project is run by the Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in conjunction with the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies in Kyiv. It is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office.

The Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a federal foundation, which is responsible for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime, the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Murdered under the National Socialist Regime and the Memorial and Information Point for the Victims of National Socialist »Euthanasia« Killings. The law establishing the foundation additionally requires it to contribute to »ensuring that all victims of National Socialism are remembered and honoured appropriately«.

The Foundation receives institutional funding from

on the basis of a resolution by the German parliament.

Text: Dr Ulrich Baumann, Dr Svetlana Burmistr
Editing: Uwe Neumärker
English translation: Dr Caroline Pearce
Design: Susanne Benzing
Protecting Memory project team: Aleksandra Wróblewska, Dr Svetlana Burmistr, Bozhena Kozakevych, Mariya Goncharenko-Schubert, Ray Brandon (2016 – 2018)

Unless specified, all photos are by Anna Voitenko, Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.