WEST HOLLYWOOD — Anna Fishman takes a visitor's hand and guides it over an indentation on the side of her head.
The spot is where a scythe-wielding torturer struck her--she was just a small child then--in a Nazi concentration camp in her native Ukraine. Her family's three-year imprisonment in the southern Soviet Union left one sister dead and Fishman's mother so sick that she died shortly after the camp's liberation in 1944.
"We were placed in a pig sty--no windows, no doors, just the roof," Fishman said in Russian through an interpreter. "We were looted, some were shot, some were killed."
Fishman, 54, is among the thousands of Soviet Jews herded into concentration camps in their own country by German and Romanian invaders, a little-known chapter in World War II. In contrast to the ghastly accounts of death camps elsewhere in Europe, the story of the camps on Soviet soil was hidden from the world by the Soviet government's stubborn refusal to acknowledge the Holocaust or its victims. Little evidence of the camps in the Soviet Union was allowed to surface, and their survivors did not learn the scope of the Holocaust until arriving in the United States.
"They had no contact with anybody outside the Soviet Union, and within the Soviet Union, the Holocaust didn't happen," said Si Frumkin, a longtime Los Angeles activist representing Soviet Jews. "It's truly an amazing thing. It's difficult to verbalize."
But about 100 survivors of the Nazi camps in Soviet territory have formed an association here to recognize the common nightmare their former government did not. Some are seeking new reparations the German government offered last year to Jewish victims left out of previous compensation arrangements. Others have discovered survivors from the same camps. Still others, unbelievable as it may seem, only learned of the scope of the Holocaust after recently visiting the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance.
"Everybody has their own story, but nobody had the whole picture," said Dmitri Triphon, a contractor who is active with Jewish emigres from the former Soviet Union.
On the eve of the Jewish High Holy Days, two dozen members of the new group--Holocaust Survivors from the Soviet Union--gathered this week in a West Hollywood park favored by emigres to pray and commemorate the more than 34,000 Ukrainian Jews who died during a 36-hour slaughter in the Babi Yar ravine outside Kiev. The ravine served as a killing ground during the war; estimates of the death toll there over a two-year period run as high as 200,000.
The association began planting donated flowers around the 2-year-old Babi Yar monument, which members have promised to maintain for the city.
The idea for the survivors' group came to a new emigre during the 1991 ceremony dedicating the black granite monument. Solomon Patlazhan, who as a child survived three years in a concentration camp in Ukraine, said that while there were two groups of Soviet war veterans in Los Angeles, no organization existed for civilians who were imprisoned. He began searching for others who had shared his experience and located dozens more Holocaust survivors among West Hollywood's large Russian emigre community.
"We want to be united, not to be
separated," said Patlazhan, 62, a former hospital X-ray technician who lives in West Hollywood.
The murky history of the camps began when the Germans and Romanians turned on their Soviet ally by invading Ukraine in 1941. Only a handful of camps were known to have operated in Ukraine and little evidence survived of the atrocities. The camps in the Soviet Union accounted for a small share of the 1.3 million to 1.5 million Soviet Jews killed during the three years before the Germans were driven out; most victims were shot on the spot by special German units called the Einsatzgruppen, according to Aaron Breitbart, senior researcher at the Wiesenthal center.
No reliable figures exist for the number of camps throughout the Soviet Union, largely because the Soviet government long suppressed evidence of anti-Jewish atrocities and so few of the survivors made it to the West to tell their stories.
In 1941 at age 10, Patlazhan was taken to one of the most infamous camps--Domanevka, about 100 miles north of the Black Sea port of Odessa--after his father reported for a roundup of Jewish men and was never heard from again. The family had fled their farming village for Odessa in hopes of getting passage to Soviet Central Asia. The plan was thwarted by advancing German and Romanian troops, who slaughtered and jailed Ukrainian Jews by the thousand. Patlazhan and his mother were marched with others to Domanevka and later held as farm laborers to raise food for the captors.
"The conditions were horrible," Patlazhan said of the Domanevka camp. "Lice. Typhus. We were hungry."