The old man exited a car and immediately ran through the forest to what he remembered was a mass gravesite. “The Germans were here,” he said. "The people were in a row, and they just shot them in the back, one by one.”
Mikhail K, a man well into his 80s, said he was just a boy when he witnessed Nazi German soldiers massacre villagers in southern Russia in the 1940s. In 2012, photographer Markel Redondo accompanied him to a site near the village of Ladozhskaya in the region of Krasnodar to document his memories surrounding the atrocity.
Mikhail stood silently for a moment, “remembering and looking at the place,” Redondo recalled. "You could see there was something going on in his head.”
Redondo met Mikhail and other witnesses as part of an initiative by the Paris-based group Yahad – In Unum. The project aims to locate and document World War II sites where Jews and other victims were executed by Nazis and their allies throughout Eastern Europe. Yahad – In Unum has chosen not to reveal the witnesses’ full names.
Redondo spoke with CNN ahead of Days of Remembrance, when Holocaust victims are honored during the week of April 27-May 4.
“We know much more about what happened in the more infamous places — like the millions of Jews who were killed in the Nazi death camps in Poland,” Redondo said. “But we don’t know much about Holocaust atrocities in places like Ukraine, Russia and Moldova.”
Redondo, 35, has photographed many of these aging witnesses in these countries. He has listened to their stories — many of which are difficult to hear — about victims who were dragged from their homes and children who were killed in front of their parents. “Really, really horrible things that happened to families,” he said.
After growing up among the Pyrenees Mountains of the Basque region in Spain, Redondo has seen his photography career take him from exploring environmental issues in China to traveling with migrants from Honduras to Arizona.
When Redondo got involved with the Yahad – In Unum project, it was an assignment. But it grew into more.
“I became interested in the quiet moments when people were processing or thinking about memories that really struck them,” he said.
The information held by these witnesses comes from one of the darkest chapters of human history. The stories must be documented, Redondo said. “Many of these people are dying; they’re now in their 80s, most of them. When they were kids, they saw something, and it’s difficult to remember now. It’s very important to do this while the witnesses are still alive.” Descendants and relatives of the victims should have a chance to gain closure by learning where and how their loved ones died, Redondo said.
But in a larger perspective, it’s important to “fill in the gaps of history,” Redondo said. The more we can learn about the darkest chapters of the human race, he said, the greater the chances that future generations “will avoid making the same mistakes.”
–Thom Patterson, CNN