NEW YORK – Even after decades of in-depth Holocaust research, excruciating details only now are emerging about more than 1,100 German-run ghettos in Eastern Europe where the Nazis murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews.
There also were about 200 more ghettos than previously believed, said Martin Dean, editor of the recently published “Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945, Volume II.” It’s part of a long-term effort to document every site of organized Nazi persecution, beyond the well-known extermination camps such as Auschwitz.
It “gives us information about ghettos that would slip into historical oblivion and be forgotten forever if we didn’t have this volume,” Holocaust scholar Lawrence Langer said. “Who knew there were more than 1,000 ghettos?”
More Jews died during World War II in Poland and the western part of the former Soviet Union – today’s Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania – than the estimated 1 million gassed in Auschwitz, Langer said.
“The people are dead, but at least we have the memory of the place where they lived and some knowledge of who killed them,” said Langer, an 83-year-old professor of English emeritus at Simmons College in Boston.
Researchers at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington painstakingly collected details for the encyclopedia’s more than 2,000 pages from the communities where Germans herded Jews and killed them if they tried to escape.
Researchers and writers scoured the world to find new witnesses and to study survivors’ texts and testimonies in many languages and archives opened after the fall of communism.
For town after town, village after village, and even just spots in the countryside, Dean and his team assembled pieces of a grisly puzzle, which he said “shows that the Nazis made a concerted effort to find every last Jew in every last place” and eliminate each one.
Dean is a Holocaust scholar at the museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies and former senior historian for the Nazi War Crimes Investigation Unit at Scotland Yard.
One tiny town in Ukraine, Mizocz, reflects the horrors repeated over and over across Eastern Europe. Its entry was written by a survivor who now lives in Pennsylvania and is one of the fewer than 10 percent of Eastern European ghetto dwellers who survived the war.
Helen Segall, now 81, was 11 when she witnessed SS troops torch her town of about 2,000. Hundreds of hidden Jews burned to death before they could escape. Others were killed outside the town.
“People had to undress and walk in small groups into the trench and lie face down, where they were shot by an SS man helped by a Ukrainian schutzmann,” she wrote, using a German word for local policeman.
In two days – Oct. 13-14, 1942 – the 300-year-old town “ceased to exist,” wrote Segall, who is now writing her own memoir.
She also wrote an encyclopedia entry for Dubno, her Polish birthplace where her father and two brothers were dragged from their home and murdered in the local cemetery. The ghetto was established there on the first day of Passover 1942.
Hunger and diseases took their toll, she wrote, and on a lilac-scented May day, a deep ditch was dug nearby. SS troops armed with whips and dogs rounded up the elderly and ill and shot them to death. The rest were forced to work for the Germans in factories and construction, and on the railroad.
Some of the Jews who lived in the Polish city of Krakow were helped by Oskar Schindler during the liquidation of the ghetto there, later working in the enamel factory portrayed in the film “Schindler’s List.”
Another encyclopedia on World War II ghettos was published in 2009 by the Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to Holocaust victims in Jerusalem. The “Encyclopedia of the Ghettos” sums up the story of each ghetto for either lay readers or researchers.
The two-part book compiled by the U.S. museum was published in early May by Indiana University Press. It includes more listings, extensive scholarly footnotes and a bibliography.
The two projects are complementary, said Dan Michman, the head of Yad Vashem’s Institute for Holocaust Research who wrote the introduction to its encyclopedia.
The rest of the seven-volume U.S. project is expected to be completed in the next decade.