ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia – The elderly man in a black suit and wide-brimmed hat painstakingly opens his bulging stack of files that threaten to slip off his knees. Vladimir Raksha fervently recites the names on his documents like prayers learned over years of study at synagogue.
Bunya Barkina, 40 years old.
Esfir Barkina, 9 years old.
Larisa Belitskaya, 12 years old.
Raisa Alperovich, 57 years old.
The Nazis executed an estimated 27,000 Jews, prisoners of war and others in Rostov-on-Don during their occupation, mowing down most of them in unmarked graves in an area in the western outskirts of town called Zmievskaya Balka (Snake Ravine) in August 1942.
Since 1975, a hulking monument has stood on the lonely grassy hillside to commemorate what is considered the worst Holocaust-era crime in Russia. To activists, the statue is cold and inhuman, as it offers visitors no insight into the individuals murdered nearby. Indeed, no signs mark the mass graves where they died, and many of the names of those exterminated have been lost to history.
Raksha is the self-described archivist of Rostov’s Jewish community. His congregation from Rostov’s Soldier Synagogue, along with the Russian Jewish Congress, has been working for years to compile a full list of the Rostov Holocaust victims so they could add them to the Soviet-era memorial already in place. So far, they have confirmed only around 6,000 names, mostly of Jewish victims, and have raised money to pay for a new plaque to display them.
But the quest to commemorate the dead has run into a wall of unsympathetic authorities. Rostov’s city administration, which oversees the memorial, says it has denied permission for the plaque of victims because the activists have not had their list of names properly attested and verified by the Russian State Archive.
Yury Dombrovsky of the Russian Jewish Congress says this is an impossible bureaucratic feat because the State Archive doesn’t have a list of victims – which is why the activists are working to complete the task on their own.
To outsiders, it may seem inexplicable that Russian officials would stand in the way of a chance to mark the crimes of a Western country upon their own citizens – especially given the current political climate in Moscow. Activists believe the real motivation behind the authorities’ intransigence is because their work to remember the dead raises troubling questions about how history is remembered and taught in today’s Russia.
The memorial site was already the scene of controversy earlier this decade when the local government replaced a 2004 plaque – which referred to “more than 27,000 Jews” being murdered by the Nazis – with one that called the victims “peaceful citizens of Rostov-on-Don and Soviet prisoners-of-war. ” Following complaints from the Jewish community, a compromise plaque was installed in 2014, which recognizes Zmievskaya Balka as the site of the largest mass killing of Jews by Nazis in Russian territory.
The extermination of Rostov’s Jews occurred due to widespread collaboration with the Nazis, a history that has been whitewashed out of the state-sponsored narrative of World War II. The Rostov massacre also raises key questions in modern Russia about the value of individual lives in a political culture that values loyalty and social unity. And it underscores feelings among many local Jews that anti-Semitism is still alive and well in their country.
“The cult of informing was always around in Soviet times. But now no one speaks about this or talks about it in schoolbooks or on television,” Raksha said in a recent interview.
Rostov’s massacre is one of the least understood chapters of the Holocaust, in large part because of the fickle attitudes that the Soviet, and now Russian, authorities have had toward their citizens. Some 26.6 million Russians died during World War II (based on a Russian Federation estimate published in the 1990s) – many in battle, others from starvation and some from the Soviet regime.
In 1943, after the liberation of Rostov, the Soviet government established a special commission to investigate the Nazi atrocities and executions. The report, filed away by the Soviet secret police, was briefly made public by a Russian documentarian in the mid-1990s but is no longer in the public domain.
Soviet authorities erected a monument to the victims in the 1970s and, in line with the ideology of the time, the plaque at the site emphasized communal suffering and ignored the names, ethnic and religious backgrounds of those killed. The same thing happened at Babi Yar in Ukraine, where over 100,000 residents of Kiev, mostly Jews, were killed by the Nazis.
Disputing basic facts
In Rostov, this whitewashing of history means that even some of the most basic facts of Holocaust-era crimes are in dispute today. Dombrovsky, who is also affiliated to the Rostov Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, says 27,000 people were killed, and around half of the victims were Jews (the numbers apparently taken from the Soviet archival statistics). According to Yad Vashem – the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, 15,000-16,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis in Rostov-on-Don from August 1942 to February 1943. It does not state statistics for other ethnicities or nationalities.
In the early years of the Soviet Union, Rostov was home to a diverse and thriving Jewish community, and in 1939 Jews made up 5.4 percent of the city’s population. Yet more is known about those responsible for the killing due to the reports made by Soviet investigators after the Red Army liberated the area from the Germans, rather than the victims.
Rostov’s extermination of Jews was supervised in a chillingly organized campaign by Kurt Christmann, a 35-year-old Obersturmbannführer (equivalent to lieutenant colonel), according to German archives.
On Tuesday August 11, 1942, an announcement published in the name of Rostov’s Jewish Council of Elders, a Nazi-approved organization, ordered the city’s Jews to leave their homes so they could be moved to safer locations after a series of crimes had been committed against Jewish individuals. In reality, the order was a pretext for mobilizing the city’s Jews for their deaths.
Individual members of the elders’ council were responsible for gathering the families living in various Jewish districts of town. On the prescribed morning, fathers carried suitcases to the central meeting point. Mothers held their children’s hands. Schoolteachers helped assemble children.
From there, people were separated into two groups. Families were loaded onto trucks and driven toward Zmievskaya Balka, while men aged between 16 and 55 were taken to Zoological Street, located in another part of town. The men were presumed to have been killed in the same mass graves as the others.
On the outskirts of town, the trucks unloaded their unwitting passengers. Local Rostov men joined German army soldiers in pushing families toward two large pits dug toward the edge of the ravine. When the soldiers opened fire, the force and violence of the bullets hurled the victims’ corpses directly into the deep holes.
After the city had been “cleansed” of Jews, Jewish Council of Elders members were also executed in Zmievskaya Balka.
Once the war ended, the KGB arrested 20 men for collaborating with the Nazis in Rostov. They were convicted and executed for treason.
The victims’ names have never been published in schoolbooks or by the state. For now, they only remain alive in an archive run by Raksha.
The local campaign to memorialize the victims takes on greater urgency as the years pass and fewer Rostov residents remain alive to remember those days of terror.
With local authorities’ animosity toward the project running high, for now the tales of loss and local betrayals live on as oral histories told by the city’s elderly residents.
Valentina Barkina, 67, remembers the exact address from where her aunt and cousin were taken away to Zmievskaya Balka: 46 Bratsky Lane. She was always told that their neighbors betrayed them to the Nazis. “After the war, the Soviet authorities would only put ‘passed away’ in the victims’ death certificates, not ‘shot,’” said Barkina. “That’s why today we can’t prove that our relatives were executed.”
A short drive away on Pushkin Street, Natalia Petrova says her great-grandmother hid with her daughter in the basement of the building, hoping to escape the Nazi patrols. Both were also killed in the ravine after their neighbors informed on them. “I used to play with the kids of these two traitors and I never knew what they had done,” Petrova said. “It was only decades later that my relatives told me about the tragedy.”
On the other side of the building, a former police investigator, Erem Nazayan, 84, recalled two sisters in his building rumored to have worked in what had been euphemistically called an “officers’ club” – which everyone understood was a brothel for German soldiers during the occupation.
Dombrovsky says local media outlets as well as officials never discuss these local memories of collaboration and killing. Instead, whenever they raise the subject of the Holocaust massacre, they emphasize the fact that some Jews of Rostov collaborated with the Nazis – notably Gregory Lourie, who led the elders’ council.
These days, when driving through Zmievskaya Balka, visitors pass the crumbling remains of a Soviet summer home used by the KGB, a gas station and car wash. There is no sign of the mass graves.
Resurrecting the identities of those killed here is a moral imperative, said Raksha.
“Not a single individual should be lost to history, which has continued to erase names of people as if they never existed,” he said.
This story was originally published in Coda Story.