Speakers at the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance conference “As Mass Murder Began: Identifying and Remembering the Killing Sites of Summer-Fall 1941” stressed the importance of reflecting the full scope of experiences of those murdered during the Holocaust as well as the need for thoughtful and accurate marking, identification and commemoration of killing sites.
As Polish IHRA Delegate Piotr Trojanksi, interim Chair of the IHRA committee on killing sites, stated in his opening remarks: “remembrance of the Holocaust often focuses on the concentration camps but this was not the majority experience. We have a responsibility to capture the nuances of the history of the Holocaust, which includes mass shootings, and to contribute to changing the perception that the Holocaust began and ended in the camps. This is our responsibility to the victims.”
From 22-23 March over 100 participants from 20 countries attended the opening of the conference, including the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania, Darius Skusevicius, the US Ambassador, Anne Hall, the German Ambassador, Jutta Schmitz, and the Latvian Ambassador, Einars Semanis. The Polish, Ukranian, Romanian and Belarussian embassies were also represented. Several IHRA Delegates were in attendance including the Head of the Estonian Delegation, the Deputy Head of the Lithuanian Delegation and the former Head of the Luxembourg Delegation.
The conference was opened by Markas Zingeris, Director of the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum, Lithuania, and IHRA Delegate, Francois Wisard, who was representing the IHRA Chair, Ambassador Benno Baettig.
The conference comprised a series of presentations and discussions around the central themes of identification, marking and commemoration of sites as well as practical workshops focusing on the process of finding and identifying killing sites, topics related to research, archives, interviews, databases, preservation, and maintenance. The geographical focus of the conference was on the Baltic States, Belarus, Ukraine and Romania. During the panels, speakers touched on challenges ranging from dealing with privately owned sites, ensuring the implementation of existing laws and what type of information is needed on-site to best support pedagogical efforts.
The IHRA has had a long-standing focus on the topic of killing sites since 2012 and held a conference in Krakow in 2014, followed by a publication entitled “Killing Sites. Research and Remembrance”. The topic is part of IHRA’s efforts to fulfil its mandate – outlined in the Stockholm Declaration – to throw light on the still obscured shadows of the Holocaust and ensure a dignified commemoration of victims.
The key-note lecture on the opening day was held by Dr Christoph Dieckmann of the Fritz Bauer Institut, Germany, and focused on history and memory in the summer of 1941, with a particular focus on Lithuania. Dr Dieckmann argued that the summer of 1941 marked a huge turning point in the history of the Holocaust and that the radical increase in the number of killings by shooting - rising from 100,000 in 1939 to over 12 million by the end of the war - was due to the sense of impending failure among the German Nazi leadership.
Dr Dieckmann also reflected on the potential contribution an international organization such as the IHRA could make to the narrative on killing sites:
“It is both a problem and an opportunity that memory is not static. It changes as we learn. The task we have is to talk to each other and to find common grounds to best support this learning process. This is why an organization like IHRA is so fascinating – because it presents a platform for countries to reflect together. No one country has the definitive truth.”
Neringa Latvytė-Gustaitienė and Saulius Sarcevičius, Lithuanian Institute of History, held a presentation on the preservation of Paneriai, focusing on the use of 3D scanning and modern archaeological methods. It is hoped that a visitor centre will be opened on the site by 2020.
On the second day Dr Paul Shapiro, Director of International Affairs and Director Emeritus of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, held a key-note speech on the liquidation of the Ghetto in Chisinau. The workshops held on the second day gave participants to come together in small groups to reflect on challenges and opportunities around indentification, marking and commemoration of killing sites.
On 24 March participants were offered the chance to visit the mass killing site at Paneriai and Naujaneriai.
The IHRA’s role in killing sites is focused on uniting practitioners in the field. David Silberklang, a member of the Israeli Delegation to the IHRA and a the IHRA committee on killing sites, underlined that the IHRA itself was not doing the work of marking or identifying sites but was rather acting as a facilitator - a neutral, international platform to bring the various actors together.
“At the first conference that we held on this topic in Krakow in 2014 there was a huge number of presentations about what people were doing. The feedback we received was that participants wanted and needed more time to talk to one another about the challenges and the opportunities they share. This conference is the result – with an emphasis on interactive workshops, networking, and on sharing best practices," Dr Silberklang explained.
“It is our hope that the projects profiled at the conference and the IHRA efforts to strengthen and advance these projects through sharing best practices may help to anker they topic of killing sites in public consciousness and in the wider historical narrative of the Holocaust.”
The IHRA unites governments and experts to strengthen, advance and promote Holocaust education, remembrance and research and to uphold the commitments of the 2000 Stockholm Declaration.