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Holocaust by bullets

A race to record the untold stories of aging survivors

As a child, Esther Lupyan survived the Holocaust with her mother in what was then the Soviet Union.
Esther Lupyan
The Rev. Patrick Desbois is credited with interviewing or the first time some of the witnesses to the Holocaust in the Ukraine.
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Published 9/30/2009

For more than 50 years, Esther Lupyan kept to herself memories of the "monsters."

Monsters that imprisoned her father.

Monsters that forced her and her mother to live in a ghetto, behind barbed wire, in constant fear of death. 

Monsters that killed her 12-year-old brother.

Monsters that marched her neighbors out of town, shot them and left their bodies in mass graves. 

Monsters that led her as a 7-year-old, clinging to her mother's skirts, within yards of a portable gas chamber where her neighbors were being killed.

Living most of her life in the Cold War-era Soviet Union, it took Lupyan, now 74, decades to realize her family was part of one of the worst genocides in human history: Adolf Hitler's campaign to eliminate Jews. 

"Everybody just tried to survive. Nobody think about word — genocide," she says in accented and not-perfect English. It wasn't discussed. "Never, not in school, not where I work. In Russia. I never talk about that. Because that was the typical feeling of Jews who survived."

Now a retired chemist living in Southfield, Lupyan immigrated to Michigan in 1989. Hundreds of thousands of European Jews left the postwar upheaval mainly for the United States, Israel and Canada. Lupyan and most other survivors remaining in the Soviet Union didn't have that option. "They don't allow us to leave the country," she says.

The communist leaders who forbade emigration also kept the events of the Jewish Holocaust largely unrecognized during the 20th century, favoring a collective, nationalistic interpretation of war that denied what had happened to Jews. 

Monuments, if there were any at the sites of mass Jewish extermination, were to martyrs against fascism with no identification of the Jewish identity of victims. Most archives there were closed to most Soviet researchers and certainly to foreigners for most of the 20th century.

The remaining Jews like Lupyan lived in an atheist, nationalist state where practicing religion was forbidden and anti-Semitism continued.

"It was horrible, two monsters in West and East: Hitler monster and Stalin monster," Lupyan says.

Until the Iron Curtain parted, the Holocaust stories like Lupyan's and others' from the former Soviet republics went largely untold on the world stage. Some accounts were available in Polish archives, says Feiga Weiss, the head librarian at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, and some books from the mid-20th century provided accounts of the Soviet war experience.

But now, there is an urgency to record survivors' stories while a dwindling number still are alive to tell them, which was what brought a French researcher to interview Lupyan and a handful of others at her home last month. Such survivors' late-life willingness to share horrific memories also is helping researchers who are anxious to make them part of the complicated historical narrative of the Holocaust.

"If you think about all the Holocaust histories that you've heard and seen, try to single out the ones that are from people from the USSR. You'll have a very difficult time doing it," says Paul Shapiro, director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. 

For his "History of the Holocaust" course at Wayne State University, professor David Weinberg has had to revise his materials as more books, articles, films and photographs become available. With the inclusion of this better information from the former Soviet Union, he's able to give his students a more complete picture of the complicated era of history that still influences world politics.

"There's a great deal of confusion about the historical realities of the Holocaust," says Weinberg, also director of the Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies at Wayne State. "The nature of the death camps, concentration camps, labor camps tends to be conflated in our understanding and imagination."


Hidden Holocaust

The Nazis killed an estimated 1.5 million Jews in the western Soviet Union between the invasion of 1941 and 1944, when they were forced out by the Soviet Army. But the Jewish genocide in the Soviet Union is considered part of a more "hidden Holocaust." It was committed outside of Western Europe and away from the notorious concentration camps like Auschwitz, Dachau and Bergen-Belsen where well-known diarist Anne Frank died along with an estimated 6 million other Jews, plus millions of Poles, gypsies, homosexuals, prisoners of war and others. 

In the areas that are now Belarus and Ukraine, the systematic murders of Jews were first carried out by roving squads of German military after their army invaded. Sometimes they had help from non-Jewish villagers who betrayed their neighbors and friends as the Nazi regime uncorked long-simmering anti-Semitism in the area.

Rounded up, marched out of town and forced to dig their own graves, Jews were slaughtered by the hundreds. Bodies fell into mass graves. Many sites remain unknown. The victims' belongings and homes fell into the hands of their killers and the collaborators who helped orchestrate the slaughters.

As recently depicted in the Hollywood film Defiance, starring Daniel Craig as a resistance leader, some Jews fled to the forests and survived. Others joined the Soviet forces and fought the Germans.

Many of their stories are only recently being told, as more archives open and researchers can travel to the former Soviet republics. Guy Stern, interim director of the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, says efforts are under way in this country as well.

Like research centers elsewhere, Stern says staff at the Farmington Hills center is working to videotape survivors and make their testimonies available through museum displays and research collections.

"We're intensely aware of the fact that the firsthand testimony of survivors is a very important legacy of that horrific event. We value their testimony as one of many primary sources for what really happened," says Stern, who himself lost most of his Polish family in the Warsaw ghetto.

The Shoah Foundation Institution at the University of Southern California has been collecting oral histories for about 15 years. Of the nearly 52,000 interviews recorded, about 12,000 are from Ukrainian, Belarussian or Russian survivors, says Crispin Brooks, curator of the institutions' visual history collection. Michigan survivors number 334 in the total collection. 

At the heart of the most recent documentation of testimony of survivors from the former Soviet Union is an unlikely force: a French Catholic priest named Patrick Desbois who recently chose Detroit as his first site to interview U.S.-based survivors originally from Soviet Europe.

His work, says Shapiro at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a supporter of Desbois' work, is helping to create a better balance between what's known about the deportations from Western Europe and the concentration camps of Central Europe, on one hand, with the more Eastern European experience on the other.

"He's helping us for the very first time to have a clear picture of what happened on the ground to the first one-quarter of the 6 million Jews who were killed."


French connection

As a child in Paris, Desbois heard brief stories from his grandfather about his time as a French POW at the Rawa-Ruska forced labor camp in what is now the Ukraine. But when Desbois would ask for specifics, family members would cry and his grandfather would fall silent. "For us, the camp was difficult; there was nothing to eat, we had no water, we ate grass, dandelions. But it was worse for the others," he recalls the elderly man saying.

The "others," Desbois came to realize, were the Jews. In a 1990 visit to Poland, the country that suffered the most devastating numbers of murdered Jews during World War II, Desbois came to consider the Holocaust as his own responsibility to study.

"I have always sought to understand what happened, what the tragedy was that my grandfather had been forced to witness," Desbois writes.

During the next decade, he studied Hebrew and attended seminars in Israel about the history of anti-Semitism. He visited Holocaust sites including Auschwitz. He learned there were villagers who had witnessed the camp killings in Poland, and he wondered if there were any who had seen what happened where his grandfather had been in the Ukraine.

In 2002, he found his first witness who told him how the Germans had killed the Jews. Desbois decided there must be more and set out to both interview them and to help create memorials. The fruit of his research, The Holocaust by Bullets, was published last year and has been embraced by Jewish museums, researchers and survivors as well as the Catholic Church. 

"This is a very difficult book to read, but its stories needed to be told," a Washington Post book review reads.

These voices had been largely unheard in Holocaust studies before Desbois' work. Eyewitness accounts came from Jewish survivors, camp liberators' testimony or Nazi records. Desbois documents witnesses from the former home villages and towns of the murdered Jews. 

"To find non-Jews, to find Gentiles who really care and want to learn about what they went through, like in the work of Father Desbois, to undercover the further murdering and the terrorism that was committed, it's like there's a real sense of appreciation and love for what this man is doing," says Charles Silow, the director of the program for Holocaust survivors and families at Jewish Senior Life of Metropolitan Detroit.

In August, Desbois came to Detroit for his first interviews in the United States, another phase of his work. He gathered stories of survivors from Ukraine and Belarus over three days at Lupyan's cozy apartment. She served coffee, cakes and ice cream to Desbois and eight survivors, some telling their stories for the first time.

Lupyan helped recruit them. One woman, from Minsk like Lupyan, originally refused when asked. "She started crying. She said, ‘I don't want to. It's too hard for my heart.' I couldn't say anything because it's true," Lupyan says. "But then she called me and said, ‘OK, I decide to come.' Father Desbois talked to her."

The woman told of how her own mother gave her to a Russian peasant "and asked, ‘Make this child safe.' That was the end, when she saw her mother, the last time. This Russian peasant took her and she hides from the Germans, from the neighbors, but very soon the Red Army released this area. She remembers watching in the village. ... All Jewish were killed. Hundreds," Lupyan says.

Lupyan herself has grown more comfortable repeating her story, the one she didn't speak aloud for nearly 50 years. 

She remembers being 5 years old and living in the Minsk ghetto. "By miracle, Mom and me survived," she says. When the Germans came, her father was already at a Siberia coal mine, sent by Stalin to work there because of his political views. "He was dissident," Lupyan says. The Germans forced Lupyan's mother to work at the train station and took her 12-year-old brother to work in a shop repairing weapons. He would smuggle them out and supply them to resistance fighters — that along with smuggling food into the ghetto eventually got him killed by the Germans.

Lupyan and her mother lived in the ghetto until a day, she believes in 1944, when all the Jews were taken to the train station and lined up in front of a portable gas chamber. Her mother made a bold move.

"She said, ‘Why would I stay in line to be killed. I've lost everyone.' She took my hand, she went across the plaza, went into the station building. She opened the inner door which led to a platform and we went out. We continued to go and behind us we heard crying, commands, they pushed people to the gas chamber," Lupyan says. 

Mother and daughter lived in the forest for a year before the war ended. Somehow they reunited with Lupyan's father in Moscow. She went to school, studied chemistry and worked. She married and had two children. But leaving the Soviet Union was always on her mind, especially after a visit from a distant relative — her mother's cousin, she believes — who lived in Detroit and promised support if the family could make it to North America. But the relative died soon after her visit to Minsk, Lupyan says.

Finally, in 1989, she received permission and came — with her two children and father, leaving behind her now ex-husband — via Austria and Italy where her elderly father died en route. He is buried in Rome. She and her two children arrived in Detroit, speaking no English. At a local synagogue they experienced formal Jewish services for the first time.

Lupyan learned English, remarried, watched her children assimilate, and worked as a chemist until just a few years ago.

The day she retired, "It did not take me long to think. I just take my car and I direct it straight to the museum," she says. She started volunteering in the library at the Farmington Hills memorial center, but when staffers discovered she was a survivor, they got her story on video and suggested she become one of the roughly 40 survivors who volunteer telling their stories to museum visitors.

She balked, thinking about her limited English. But now she does a few tours a month.

"People understand me," she says. "Some with wet eyes come to me. They felt something." 

She is polite to the ones that tell her they understand, but she's skeptical about how much today's Americans can relate to her. "You're alive, you live in a nice house," she thought after one museum visitor compared being Native American to Lupyan's life. "Everybody thinks their fear is worse. Nothing compares with the Jewish genocide. Nothing compares in the history of mankind."

In a local child survivor group, Lupyan found people whose experiences were much like her own.


Local history

At its peak, Detroit's Holocaust survivor community numbered an estimated 4,000, says Silow; about 1,000 remain. And although their trauma happened nearly 60 years ago, the suffering often resurfaces, he says.

Take the recent Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year celebrated this year between sundown Sept. 18 and sundown Sept. 20. Silow noticed much depression in the monthly survivor groups he mentors. 

"It's a happy time. Families get together and that's precisely why the survivors feel so sad, so depressed. They miss their families. It was an overwhelming loss that continues to this day," he says.

In his office in a Jewish senior living center, Silow marvels at the individual stories he's encountered: the Ukrainian girl who forged her own papers and a Polish woman who hid in a farmhouse cellar, for example.

"Every survivor is unique and every survivor is special. They deserve the love and respect we give to them."

Efforts have redoubled to honor them and record their stories. Silow is organizing a photographic exhibition of Detroit-area survivors for the Memorial Center next year. About 300 are complete; he's trying for 400.

Sylvan Lake photographer Monni Must published a book this year titled Living Witnesses: Face of the Holocaust. It's a collection of remarkable, sensitive portraits of survivors posed in settings relevant to their experience: The man whose family hid its jewelry in a stone basement wall is pictured next to a similar structure, for example. Eight of the 92 subjects are from the former Soviet Union.

Among the pages is a portrait of Lupyan and her husband, Naum, who survived the Nazi assault on his Ukrainian village and fled to Kazakhstan and relatively safety until after the war. Both of them have attended monthly meetings of survivors — now in their 70s — who were children during the Holocaust. 

René Lichtman, the West Bloomfield artist and filmmaker who is the group's organizer, is himself a Holocaust survivor; his mother hid him with a couple who lived in a rural village outside of Paris where he spent almost five years. His father, who joined the French military, died fighting Germans soon after the war began. His mother worked as a seamstress before hiding herself the last two years of the war.

A filmmaker who moved to Detroit in the 1960s, Lichtman encountered the exhibit of Desbois' work at the Shoah museum in Paris two years ago. "I was blown away," he says.

He helped to organize the Desbois visit here and to coordinate interviews among local survivors from the Soviet Union. "The Russians, I think, to this day, they don't see themselves as survivors the way camp survivors do," Lichtman says. "It's really disturbing, especially when you see and hear what Desbois is talking about."

But the documenting must continue, says the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's Shapiro.

"The Holocaust is multiple stories," he says. "The umbrella is the systematic murder of the Jews of Europe. It took place and was implemented in different ways in different parts of the continent with different participants in the killing."

Efforts at the remembrance continue and sometimes come from unlikely sources.


Mysteries and markers

When Rick Stoler was a young boy, his grandfather would tell him about Bereznitz. Located in what's now northwestern Ukraine near Poland, it was the farming community where Stoler's grandfather was born. 

Like another roughly 4,000 Bereznitzer Jews, Stoler's grandfather immigrated to Detroit in the early 20th century and lived near what is now the intersection of the Davison and Lodge freeways. Like the Jewish traders and merchants who followed French and British explorers here 300 years ago, the Bereznitzer Jews came for the opportunities to sell goods and services. They opened dairies, shops, clothing stores and machine shops. Some of their descendants, like Stoler, still live here.

As Stoler, now a 62-year-old, semi-retired Bloomfield Township physician, got older, he grew more curious about the little village his grandfather described. "I would ask my father whatever happened to Bereznitz, and he would tell me it was destroyed in World War II," he says. Stoler had no reason to question his father's account. 

But about eight years ago, he began what he calls his "lark," tracing the history of Bereznitzers in Detroit. He found that his grandfather was part of the first wave of Jewish immigrants to leave the farming village in the early 20th century. Most of them moved to Detroit, although smaller groups went to Montreal and Boston.

Stoler collected photos, documents and other memorabilia related to the Bereznitzer Society, a benevolent group the immigrants formed in Detroit. Like other such groups (called landsmanshaftn) around the United States, it hosted social events, helped some members with, for example, burial expenses, and connected the old village and the new community.

It was also a connection for Bereznitz's Holocaust survivors. After the war, when Soviet and Allied troops liberated concentration camps and Jews came out of hiding, they often migrated to displaced persons camps. From there, aid agencies could help them locate relatives, emigrate and begin new lives. 

The landsmanshaftn were helpful, including the Detroit Bereznitzer group. Stoler recently received a shoebox of letters written from displaced persons camps and elsewhere to the Detroit group during the late 1940s and early 1950s. A Kentucky man found the cache in his recently deceased father's attic and gave them to Stoler. It's a mystery how the letters came to the family, since they're neither Jewish nor connected to the Ukraine, Stoler says.

He has donated them to the Holocaust Memorial Center and is having them translated. "I would like to trace the letter writers," Stoler says. "I can find a few probably but it's a lot of work."

Stoler has already traced the descendants of the original Detroit Bereznitzers and started an official network that allows them to share research and make connections.

A few years ago, he and seven Berenitzer descendants visited their ancestral village. 

"There are almost no Jews left in Bereznitz," he says, "maybe two or three. They were wiped out during the war and they didn't come back."

Stoler's group saw firsthand the Holocaust's legacy in the small village: a sports field the Germans built on top of the Jewish cemetery. "Hitler destroyed it. He took the headstones and paved the streets out of them," Stoler says. The group's guide led them on a walk in the woods where they saw a tower that remains on the site of a German army camp.

"Then all of a sudden we hit a clearing," Stoler says. A marker in Ukrainian and Yiddish tells of the Jews being marched from a nearby ghetto, forced to dig their own graves and then shot. "This is memorializing where it took place," Stoler says.

That such a marker is there at all signals the modern era of Holocaust studies, says Shapiro.

"It's new terrain and it's very exciting," he says. "It opens for the first time a real opportunity to understand in detail what happened in those thousands of places where people were murdered in their own homes and villages."

Still Lupyan remains surprised that there is interest in her story, that you're reading it at all in this paper, because she expects you "will pass it and read about bars, about entertainment, about movies."

"But we want to tell people," she says.

Research assistance was provided by intern Lorena Craighead.

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or ssvoboda@metrotimes.com.

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