Tales of atrocity from the grave
May 17, 2006
This is an edited version of a May 11 speech at the Sydney Jewish Museum, Darlinghurst, for the opening of the permanent exhibition Serniki: Unearthing the Holocaust.
BOSNIAN writer Mesa Selimovic opens his book The Fortress with a paragraph on remembering atrocity. “I can’t tell you what it was like, not because I don’t remember but because I will not; best to forget,” Selimovic writes. “Let people’s memory of all that’s ugly die, so children may not sing songs of vengeance.”
Well, yes and no. If we remember in such a fashion that revenge regenerates mass killing, then yes, I agree with the forgetting. But if we are supposed to leave buried all traces of atrocious killings, then I say no.
We should look at the material evidence of the bodies.
A US colonel from the Kalesija camp in eastern Bosnia came to me in 1998. He wanted his peacekeeping soldiers to see the bodies in one of the Srebrenica graves, to see the civilian clothes, the blindfolds, the wrists ligatured behind backs. “Now my soldiers will know why they are in Bosnia,” he said.
Without the material evidence of the Holocaust, the deniers of the Holocaust can set up a contest where we argue over the meaning of lines of text in historical documents and argue over the integrity of people’s memories. Of course scholarship and memories are critical. But we also need to look at the powerful evidence of the bodies.
They are there, somebody shot them. They demand an explanation. And explanations must come through the eyes of unbiased forensic professionals.
Now forensic professionals keep their emotions hidden. But this is an occasion for me to open a gap in the curtain or perhaps a gap in the back of the wardrobe now that Narnia is in fashion.
So I shall start by pre-empting a question: How can I bring myself to do this sort of work? The question is often coupled with the bemused comment that I look quite a normal person. Well, I have to unravel into two strands: How do I feel about uncovering the dead and the evil context in which they lie and how do I feel about the living relatives of the dead that I uncover?
My answer to the first question may sound callous. My answer is that the work is often dangerous and disgusting but, frankly, it is not distressing; not emotionally distressing in a way that would keep a psychological counsellor in business.
Indeed, counsellors can be a disruptive nuisance when managers inflict them on professionals in my line of work. Their presence implies that we have undergone some sort of appalling stress. In fact we haven’t undergone stress.
And there’s the rub, as Hamlet says, because maybe I should feel guilty because I haven’t felt upset. Maybe I should feel guilty because I have found the work interesting. Maybe I should feel guilty because I have enjoyed camaraderie with others in my team. Maybe I should feel guilty about the occasional black humour.
So please save teams such as mine from counsellors and let counsellors apply their efforts to those who have had sudden and unexpected emotional trauma. We have not had sudden and unexpected emotional trauma. We start each job slowly, prepared for the worst.
Stress for me as a forensic archeologist comes long before the bodies are uncovered. Stress comes at the start of the field work: Am I going to find the grave? Am I going to let down the waiting team? Am I going to let down the case investigators who have invested months of work looking into the background to the killing.? Am I going to let down the people at head office in Sydney or The Hague?
That’s where stress comes to me. In contrast, the finding of the grave and the bodies is a release from stress. The routine work can begin.
Then we move on to the second question. To deal with relatives and friends of the dead is inescapably disturbing to the emotions and full of stress.
So we come to the woman in a red coat. It happened thus. On July 16, 1990, we had finished our excavation (at Serniki, in northwest Ukraine, the site of a massacre of up to 850 Jewish men, women and children in 1942). We had finished our anthropological analysis, finished recording the cause and manner of death. The bodies in the grave waited for the ceremony of reburial.
Out of the woods, like deer, emerged a few hundred villagers from Serniki. They stood uncertainly around the grave. Some Jews from Rovno gathered inside the grave with shovels. An American rabbi studying in Minsk conducted the ceremony. That was the moment when the technical team felt awkward and unnecessary. A new regime had taken over.
Suddenly the woman in a red coat started wailing by the graveside. Who was she? Our interpreter found out that her family was in the grave; she had been away on the day of the murders in 1942.
So in the previous weeks we had been handling the bones and soft tissue of her parents and siblings. We didn’t know who they were, of course. All the bodies had been merely catalogue numbers to us, analysed for age and sex, and with an attached list of gunshot and blunt instrument injuries.
The woman in a red coat forced emotions to slip out from behind the curtains of the professional workers.
Sonia, my professional colleague and wife, felt helpless at this moment. She vowed that she would let the world know what had happened to the people in the grave.
This exhibition is one of the fulfilments of that promise.
In 1991 we returned to Ukraine to the mass grave at Ustinovka. This site also dated from 1942. The genocide there had a particularly atrocious component. Shot first were 140 adults. Then 20 children were brought in a cart to the grave. They were thrown in and those whose necks were not broken were shot as they lay in a crumpled heap. That’s what the witnesses said. That’s what our excavations revealed.
After three weeks we had finished our work. The bones of the children were returned to the bottom of the grave and the grave remained temporarily open.
Villagers from Israelovka came to see this appalling sight. They came in buses, with headscarves and bunches of flowers. It was too much for me. This was their moment. I hid in the tent.
Emotions also slip out when the remains in the ground become personalised. An example. The time was 10 years after Serniki. I was working on the Srebrenica massacre at the site of Glogova. Hundreds of men and boys had been forced into the Kravica warehouse in July 1995. Grenades and machineguns killed them.
I had already worked for four years in Bosnia. I had no experience of being unable to cope with my emotions.
Until … at Glogova we opened a wallet of a once living person. Now he was reduced to a pair of jeans and a denim jacket, filled with shattered bones, mummified flesh and hair. Inside the wallet was a licence, with a smiling Polaroid photo of the young owner of the wallet. I looked at his date of birth. I said to my scene of crime officer: “This lad is the same age as my daughter; I mean, was the same age.”
That “was the same age” was too much for the emotions. I had to take deep breaths and go for a walk in the abandoned orchards before returning to work.
On my way back I bumped into the officer in charge of the US troops guarding us. “Those are terrible things you are making us look at, sir,” he said. That comment started me off again and I had to walk the reverse route through the orchards back to the site.
We forensic archeologists and anthropologists are not as unemotional as the performance artists standing as frozen statues at Circular Quay, Sydney. But we must not let our emotions get in the way of a detached analysis of the evidence.
Editor’s note: The only man to be tried for European war crimes in Australia, Ivan Polyukhovich, was acquitted in 1993 of being knowingly involved in the Serniki murders. He died in 2004.