Archaeologists search for mass Holocaust graves in Ukraine

"We are hoping that this work is going to shed light on the history of what happened in Rohatyn. This is one of thousands of towns and villages across Eastern Europe where the Nazis perpetrated horrible crimes where people were killed and buried."

Dr Caroline Sturdy Colls, Associate Professor of Forensic Archaeology and Genocide Investigation

Archaeologists from Staffordshire University have carried out the first ever archaeological investigation of a Holocaust site in Ukraine.

A team from the Centre of Archaeology, led by Dr Caroline Sturdy Colls, has completed a ten-day survey in the town of Rohatyn aimed at locating Holocaust-era mass graves using non-invasive technology.

Dr Sturdy Colls explained: “There have been no criminal investigations to locate these sites and determine what actually happened here. There are memorials on the suspected mass graves but this is the first forensic investigation to verify the exact location.”

The survey focused on three sites in the town where witnesses suggest mass killings and burials were carried out. Approximately 3500 of the town's residents were rounded up and shot at two pits to the south of the town on the 20th March 1942. Thousands more from Rohatyn and nearby towns and villages were killed in ad hoc executions throughout 1942-1943, and during the “Final Aktion” in June 1943. Rohatyn's old and new Jewish cemeteries were both desecrated by the Nazis.

The international archaeological team used a combination of non-invasive topographic and geophysical survey methods to map the sites and try to locate the mass graves without disturbing the ground. Photogrammetry techniques were also used to record a sample of the surviving headstones in both the old and new Jewish cemeteries. Volunteers from Rohatyn Jewish Heritage, the Lviv Volunteer Center and from the local community also carried out extensive cleaning operations in the new Jewish cemetery.

“We are hoping that this work is going to shed light on the history of what happened in Rohatyn. This is one of thousands of towns and villages across Eastern Europe where the Nazis perpetrated horrible crimes where people were killed and buried.” Dr Sturdy Colls commented.

“If we can locate the mass graves then we can compare that with historical sources and contribute to the work of Rohatyn Jewish Heritage to try and write a new history.”

The project was commissioned by Rohatyn Jewish Heritage, a volunteer-led NGO that works to reconnect the history of Rohatyn's now-lost Jewish community with the people and places of the modern town via heritage and education programs. The team also collaborated with the Cyprus Institute's Science and Technology in Archaeology Research Centre, who provided scientific support for the project.

Dr Sturdy Colls added: “At the moment these graves are very poorly protected and even though there are memorials we have seen evidence of looting and found human remains on the surface. Some of our work was to collect those remains and rebury them in collaboration with local Rabbinical authorities. Another important aspect of this project is to raise awareness of these sites to prevent that kind of desecration.”

The results of the surveys in Rohatyn will be available later this year in both English and Ukrainian. The progress of the survey was documented daily on the Centre of Archaeology's Facebook page.

The work formed part of a wider project entitled “Recording Cultural Genocide and Killing Sites in Jewish Cemeteries” that focuses on raising awareness of the causes and consequences of cultural genocide and mass killings (using Jewish cemeteries desecrated by the Nazis as a pilot case study), directly tackling racism, xenophobia and hostility in the present.

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