Mass graves dug up in thieves’ gold hunt

Death pits in Ukraine containing tens of thousands of Jews are routinely targeted by thieves seeking precious metals


v Thieves have desecrated a mass grave in western Ukraine where almost 24,000 Jews are buried — in an apparent search for gold.

The perpetrators dug a large rectangular hole at the site in the Sosenki Forest, near the city of Rivne.

Police detained a 54 year-old man in connection to the incident on July 24, while another suspect escaped arrest.

The unnamed man claimed he did not know there was a mass grave on the site and that his friend had told him only that he needed help, because his metal detector had signalled there was something underground.

But local activists say attempted robberies at mass graves are increasingly common in Ukraine and the holes are professional dug, reinforced with wooden beams and supports

The suspect in last month’s case was released on bail and a criminal investigation opened.

Vyk Chymshyt, a Rivne archivist who helps survivors’ families trace their loved ones, said the authorities were reluctant to press charges and keen to play down the incident.

A conviction can carry a fine of up to £485 and a six-month prison sentence.

It is most likely that the robbers were looking for gold, Ms Chymshyt said.

Shmuel Herzfeld, an American Modern Orthodox rabbi, is understood to have helped collect and reinter the remains.

Tens of thousands of Jews from the then-Polish ghetto of Równe were led in the early hours of November 7, 1941, to the pine grove in Sosenski, where they were massacred by the Nazi mobile killing units known as the Einsatzgruppen.

Many locals collaborated in the shootings.

It took two days to kill 17,500 adults. Some 6,000 children were murdered in a separate, adjacent pit.

Ms Chymshyt said that although the Jews were stripped naked before they were shot, there remains a widespread belief that they were wearing gold jewellery and had other precious items in their possession when they died.

The Sosenki death pits today lie on the outskirts of Rivne, just beyond brand new car showrooms that are frequented by those who make money out of the region’s illegal amber mining.

The pits are marked by a memorial — an unusual sight in Ukraine, where many death pits go unacknowledged.

This month’s attempt was the second incident this year in which grave robbers, known locally as “black archaeologists”, targeted the site of the mass grave in Sosenki.

Several such attempts have been made since the 1990s. When the complex was badly vandalised in 2012, the local Jewish community decided not to replace a sign on the main road pointing to the memorial.

Other death pits have been dug up near Nemyriv, where 2,680 Jews were murdered by the Nazis in 1941.

In the most recent incident, bones were removed from the graves, although what the robbers intended to do with the remains is not clear. Two men were arrested and criminal proceedings launched.

Concerns about antisemitism have been rising in Ukraine in recent years.

A law passed in 2015 has served to rehabilitate Stepan Bandera, a controversial nationalist figure who fought both the Nazis and the Soviets during the war but whose supporters also killed Jews and Poles.

Earlier this month, the country’s chief military prosecutor, was criticised for suggesting Jews sought bloodshed in Ukraine.

But the current Prime Minister Voldymyr Groysman is Ukraine’s first ethnically Jewish leader. His grandfather survived the Holocaust after pretending to be dead in a mass grave.

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