Yesterday marked the 69th anniversary of Auschwitz's liberation, and the New York Times marks the solemn occasion with a look at a less widely known fact about the Holocaust: At least 2 million of the 6 million Jews who were killed died not at Auschwitz or any other concentration camp. Instead, they perished in what some call a "Holocaust by bullets"—executions that occurred at thousands of Eastern European killing sites as mundane as forests, fields, and homes, the bodies deposited into unmarked mass graves. It's a side to the Holocaust that only started to emerge after the fall of the Soviet Union, as records and witness accounts slowly became available.
The bulk of the killing—in places like Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia—began after the June 1941 Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. "The further east the Wehrmacht went, the greater the killing," says an Austrian history professor who calls the executions "in a sense, invisible." The rare survivors were "terrorized and silenced" and in many cases "left behind the Iron Curtain," writes Alison Smale for the Times. To wit, a French priest who has spent a dozen years searching for witnesses, now with the help of 23 employees, says 90% of those interviewed have never discussed their experience before. In a 2009 interview with the AP, Rev. Patrick Desbois said his work had led him to more than 800 mass extermination sites, the bulk of which had been unidentified. He also uncovered horror upon horror: local children who were forced to bury the dead, and sadistic killings that went beyond firing squads, like throwing Jews alive onto bonfires or into wells. (Also in the news this week: a newly revealed Nazi trove of documents.)