The elderly man in a black suit and wide-brimmed hat painstakingly opens his bulging stack of files that threaten to slip off his knees. Vladimir Raksha fervently recites the names on his documents like prayers learned over years of study at synagogue.

  • Bunya Barkina, 40 years old
  • Esfir Barkina, 9 years old
  • Larisa Belitskaya, 12 years old
  • Raisa Alperovich, 57 years old

The Nazis executed an estimated 27,000 Jews, prisoners of war and others in Rostov on Don, Russia, during their occupation, mowing down most of them in unmarked graves in an area in the western outskirts of town called the Snake Ravine. Since 1975 a hulking monument has stood on the lonely grassy hillside to commemorate what is considered the worst Holocaust-era crime in Russia. To activists, the statue is cold and inhuman, as it provides visitors no insight into the individuals murdered nearby. Indeed, no signs mark the mass graves where they died and many of the names of those exterminated have been lost to history.

Photographs of those killed during German occupation of Rostov-on-Don, clockwise: the Gramm family, the Meerovich family, Bunya Barkina, Lidia and Marik Valdshtein, Lubov Polak and Naim Gavrilovich, Cecilia Makarovskaya. Courtesy of the Holocaust Rostov Archive.

Rashka is the self-described archivist of Rostov’s Jewish community. His congregation from the Rostov Soldiers’ Synagogue along with the Russian Jewish Congress have been working for years to compile a full list of the Rostov Holocaust victims so they could add them to the Soviet-era memorial already in place. So far they have confirmed only around 6,000 names, mostly of Jewish victims, and they have raised money to pay for a new plaque to display them.

But the quest to commemorate the dead has run into a wall of unsympathetic authorities.

Rostov’s city administration, which oversees the memorial, say the have denied permission for the plaque of victims because the activists have not had their list of names properly attested and verified by the Russian state archives. Yury Dombrovsky of the Russian Jewish Congress says this is an impossible bureaucratic feat because the state archives doesn’t have a list of victims  — which is why the activists are working to complete the task on their own.

Rostov’s city administration denied permission for a plaque of the Rostov Holocaust victims

For outsiders it may seem inexplicable that Russian officials would stand in the way of a chance to mark the crimes of a Western country upon their own citizens, especially given the current political climate in Moscow. Activists believe that the real motivations to the authorities’ intransigence is because their work to remember the dead raises troublesome questions about how history is remembered and taught in today’s Russia.

The extermination of Rostov’s Jews occurred due to widespread collaboration with the Nazis, a history that has been whitewashed out of the state-sponsored narrative of World War II. The Rostov massacre also raises key questions in today’s Russia about the value of individual lives in a political culture that values loyalty and social unity. And it underscores feelings among many local Jews that anti-Semitism is still alive and well in their country.

“The cult of informing was always around in Soviet times. But now no one speaks about this or talks about it in school books or on television,” said  Rashka in a recent interview.

Rostov’s massacre is one of the least understood chapters of the Holocaust, in large part because of the fickle attitudes that Soviet — and now Russian — authorities have had toward their citizens. During World War II about 15 percent of the Soviet population died, many in battle, others from starvation and some from the Soviet regime.

In 1943 after the liberation of Rostov, the Soviet government established a special commission to investigate the Nazi atrocities and executions. The report, filed away by the Soviet secret police, was briefly made public by a Russian documentarian in the mid-1990s, but it is no longer in the public domain.

Soviet authorities demanded that official records of Nazi crimes during occupation keep victims nonspecific. In this report of the killing of Jews in Babi Yar, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov crossed out “Jewish population” and replaced it with “peaceful Soviet citizens.” Courtesy of the Holocaust Rostov Archive.

In the 1970s, Soviet authorities erected a monument to the victims, and in line with the ideology of the time, the plaque at the site emphasized communal suffering and ignored the names, ethnic and religious backgrounds of those killed. The same thing happened at Babi Yar in Ukraine, where over 100,000 residents of Kiev, mostly Jewish, were killed by Nazis.

In Rostov, this whitewashing of history means that today, even some of the most basic facts of the Holocaust-era crimes are in dispute. Dombrovsky of the Rostov Holocaust Memory Foundation says that 27,000 people were killed, and around half of the victims were Jews, numbers apparently taken from the Soviet archival statistics. According to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Center in Israel, 15,000-16,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis in Rostov-on-Don from August 1942 to February 1943. It doesn’t state statistics for other ethnicities or nationalities.

In the early years of the Soviet Union, Rostov was home to a diverse and thriving Jewish community, and in 1939 Jews made up 5.4 percent of the city’s population. Yet more is known about those responsible for the killing due to the reports made by Soviet investigators after the Red Army liberated the area from the Germans, rather than the victims.

Rostov’s extermination of Jews was supervised in a chillingly organized campaign by Kurt Christmann, a 35-year-old Obersturmbannführer, according to German archives.

On Tuesday, August 11, 1942, an announcement published in the name of the Rostov’s Jewish Council of Elders, a Nazi-approved organization, ordered the city’s Jews to leave their homes so they could be moved to safer locations after a series of crimes had been committed against Jewish individuals. In reality, the order was a pretext for mobilizing the city’s Jews for their death.

Individual members of the Elders’ Council were responsible for gathering the families living in various Jewish districts of town. On the prescribed morning, fathers carried suitcases to the central meeting point. Mothers held their children’s hands. Schoolteachers helped assemble children.

From there, people were separated into two groups. Families were loaded onto tarmac-covered trucks and driven towards Zmievskaya Balka, the Snake Ravine, while men aged between 16 and 55 were taken to Zoological Street.

Early Soviet records of Nazi occupation of Rostov documented the rounding up of the Jewish community and the first discoveries of mass graves. Later the emphasis would shift from Jewish victims to Soviet victims. Courtesy of the Holocaust Rostov Archive.

On the outskirts of town, trucks unloaded their unwitting passengers. Local Rostov men joined German army soldiers in pushing families toward two large pits dug towards the edge of the ravine. When the soldiers opened fire, the force and violence of the bullets hurled the victims’ corpses directly into the deep holes.

After the city had been “cleansed” of Jews, the members of the Elders’ Council were also executed in Snake Ravine.

Once the war ended the KGB arrested ten men for collaborating with the Nazis in Rostov. They were convicted and executed for treason.

The names of the victims have never been published in school books or by the state. For now, they only remain alive in an archive run by  Rashka.

The local campaign to memorialize the victims takes on greater urgency as the years pass and fewer Rostov residents remain alive to remember those days of terror.

With local authorities’ animosity toward the project running high, for now the tales of loss and local betrayals lives on as oral histories told by the city’s elderly.

Valentina Barkina, 67, remembers the exact address from where her aunt and cousin were taken away to Snake’s Ravine: 46 Bratsky Lane. She was always told that their neighbors betrayed them to the Nazis. “After the war the Soviet authorities would only put ‘passed away’ in the victims’ death certificates, not ‘shot,” said Barkina. “That’s why today we can’t prove that our relatives were executed.”

“After the war the Soviet authorities would only put ‘passed away’ in the victims’ death certificates, not ‘shot.” 

Valentina Barkina

A short drive away on Pushkin Street, Natalia Petrova says her great-grandmother hid with her daughter in the basement of the building, hoping to escape the Nazi patrols. Both were also killed in the ravine after their neighbors informed on them. “I used to play with the kids of these two traitors and I never knew what they had done,” Petrova said. “It was only decades later that my relatives told me about the tragedy.”

On the other side of the building a former police investigator Erem Nazayan, 84, recalled two sisters in his building rumored to have worked in what had been euphemistically called an “officer’s club,” which everyone understood was a brothel for German soldiers during the occupation.

Dombrovsky of the Russian Jewish Congress says local media outlets as well as officials never discuss these local memories of collaboration and killing.

Instead, whenever they raise the subject of the Holocaust massacre, they emphasize the fact that some Jews of Rostov collaborated with the Nazis notably Gregory Lourie, who led the Elders’ Council.

These days, when driving through Snake Ravine, visitors pass the crumbling remains of a Soviet summer home used by the KGB, a gas station and car wash. There is no sign of the mass graves.

Resurrecting the identities of those killed here is a moral imperative, says Raksha.

“Not a single individual should be lost to history, which has continued to erase names of people as if they never existed,” said Raksha.