Holocaust Remembrance Day: Group applies lessons from Nazi victims to Latin America massacres

Eleven million people were killed during the Nazi Holocaust in the span of about five years.

More than 200,000 civilians are believed to have been killed during 36-year-long civil war in Guatemala.

Despite the enormous difference in scale between these two tragedies of 20th-century history, there are parallels between them, as one Paris-based Holocaust organization is helping to point out.

For the last 11 years, Yahad-In Unum (the name combines the Hebrew word for “together” with the Latin for “as one”) has been helping discover remote sites in Eastern Europe where Nazi forces carried out mass killings.

Of those 11 million or so killed during the Holocaust, more than 2 million were executed by the Einsatzgruppen, German units that went into newly occupied territories in Eastern Europe and Russia and were responsible for rounding up and killing Jews, Roma and other “partisans.”

“Since the Holocaust, nobody has built anything modeled on the concentration camps,” Yahad’s director, Marco González pointed out to Fox News Latino. “Lamentably the Nazi model of lining people up and shooting them has been duplicated in many countries around the world.”

Among them González's native Guatemala.

Yahad  tracks down witnesses and survivors of Nazi-perpetrated massacres, videotapes them about their recollections and questions them to elicit as much of their stories as possible. According to González, most of the hundreds of Holocaust survivors whose testimony they have gathered were kids of 10 or 12 when the atrocities occurred.

“The majority of the witnesses are now around 80 years old,” he said, “and for 98 percent of them, it’s the first time they tell their story.”

More recently, the group has expanded its mission to include investigating brutalities in Latin America. Under the leadership of González – who became Yahad’s director four years ago but has been affiliated with the group since its founding – the organization is beginning to gather eyewitness accounts of mass killings in Guatemala and other countries in Latin America.

They have made three trips into the rural parts of Guatemala, where many mass killings of Mayan indigenous groups took place in the early 1980s, to gather information and record eyewitness accounts.

González, who grew up in the capital of Guatemala City, understands that this new front in Yahad's work comes with added challenges.

“The idea for us is to recreate the crime,” he said, “like with a cold case, in order to try to collect enough evidence and have the case be treated as a crime. In places like Guatemala, unlike the Holocaust, many of those responsible are still around.”

The reception of overall has been warm, he said, pointing out that political and social climate in Guatemala has changed dramatically, with protesters recently forcing the resignation of and criminal proceeding against former President Otto Pérez Molina.

“The idea would be to go into countries like Colombia, El Salvador and Peru, where there have been many similar crimes,” González told FNL. “It all depends on finding the funds and the right groups to partner with.”

While decades have passed since the atrocities in Germany, there are still witnesses coming forward.

So far, Yahad has uncovered eyewitness evidence of Nazi killings in Poland, the Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, Romania, Moldova and Macedonia. The main purpose being to educate people about this little-remembered portion of the Holocaust story.

The group, which was founded by the French Catholic priest Patrick Desbois, advocates on behalf of victims and their descendants as well as for local governments to create memorials or events to commemorate those who lost their lives. They also mount traveling exhibits of “Holocaust by Bullets” (also the title of a book written by Desbois), which include videos of people’s testimony and interactive maps.

The group has held shows at the Dallas Holocaust Museum and the Lycée Jules Verne in Guatemala City.

“It’s so strange to me that I grew up in the same country as the people we’re talking to,” González told FNL. “Many of them were my age, kids in 1982-83, and we had such a radically different experience growing up.”