Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Pg1-FrenchPriestFather Patrick Desbois, who researches mass graves of Holocaust victims in former Soviet states, speaks in 2008 at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. He spoke twice on Sept. 27 in West Hartford, first at Northwest Catholic High School and then at the University of Hartford. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

WEST HARTFORD – How do you psychologically and emotionally comprehend the genocide of millions of people? The answer is to look upon each death as that of an individual person, someone with a name, a family and a personal story, according to Father Patrick Desbois.

Father Desbois has devoted his life to confronting anti-Semitism and furthering Catholic-Jewish understanding. So it should come as no surprise that he has taken a key interest in the Holocaust of the 1940s.

The French priest is president of the Yahad-in-Unum Association. Since 2001, he has worked with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, using its archives to locate every mass grave and location in Ukraine and Belorussia where Jews were killed by the Nazis during World War II.

Father Desbois has written a book about his endeavors called The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews. He spoke about his efforts on Sept. 27 at Lincoln Theater on the University of Hartford campus.

He also spoke earlier that day to students at Northwest Catholic High School.

A packed house attended his evening talk. Some held up photos of family members and expressed their gratitude to him for finally bringing them answers about the fate of their loved ones. They asked about villages and hamlets and what information he may have found. They jockeyed for position at the end of his talk so that they could shake his hand and thank him for taking on this humanitarian task.

"It’s always like this," said a museum official who accompanies Father Desbois on his speaking engagements.

The 1.5 million Jews murdered in the former Soviet Union between 1941 and 1944 were among more than six million Jews killed by Nazi Germany during its reign of terror. But the circumstances were different in far Eastern Europe than elsewhere.

Jews in Soviet territories were not sent to concentration camps, where they suffered and died in secret. These Jews were killed in "mass shootings in their own towns and villages," said Paul Shapiro, director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the museum.

They were murdered in the presence of families and friends. Soviet authorities kept records of all of this, but those records were not available until the communist government fell, and even then those documents were not initially trusted because of the Soviet Union’s open practice of anti-Semitism.

Father Desbois found them to be both detailed and reliable and has used them to locate mass graves and, more important, survivors who tell him their stories, which are recorded for posterity and as a teaching tool for future generations.

Father Desbois first became interested in the Holocaust as a child when he learned that his grandfather, a French soldier, had been imprisoned in a forced labor camp in the town of Rava Ruska on the Poland/Ukraine border.

The grandfather "refused to speak about the camp" and that only piqued his interest more.

His research relies upon four sources of information: German archives, Soviet archives, ballistic studies and eyewitness testimony. There are tens of millions of pages of archives available to him and others through the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

To date, Father Desbois has interviewed 1,550 witnesses, some of whom spoke of what they’d seen for the first time in 60 or more years. He said he is compelled to talk to as many as he can find as quickly as he can because they are elderly and in another five years few will remain.

Asked why he chose to do such work, he cited the biblical story of Cain and Abel and God’s dismay at a man’s killing his brother and trying to keep it a secret.

"We cannot build a modern world above hundreds of mass graves" without acknowledging what happened and remembering the people who were killed, he said.

In one village, the Germans shot and killed 1,500 people in a single day and 18,000 overall. Because the soldiers were told to ration their ammunition and limit themselves to one bullet per Jew, those who were wounded but not killed were buried alive. Eyewitnesses told him that in one instance, a mass grave moved for three days as these people slowly perished.

"We knock on every door" to ask for information and the location of eyewitnesses to these atrocities, he said. "The challenge is to collect evidence."

Father Desbois travels with a nine-member team, including two armed bodyguards. There are those in the villages who do not welcome his presence because they collaborated in the killings.

Not only were Jews killed in the villages, but their clothing and possessions were taken from them and sold at auction. Children were removed from classrooms and shot.

There are no memorials to these people, no stones on their graves. The graves he finds are mapped and catalogued but left unmarked so that grave robbers don’t dig up the bodies to extract the gold from the victims’ teeth.

"Many mass graves are in private gardens," he said. Others are in forests or fields just outside of the towns. They are bucolic settings, bearing no visible evidence of what lies beneath the soil.

Father Desbois began his work in this field 10 years ago. He has followed this path in cooperation with French Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, and the World Jewish Congress.

If Catholics see Jews as brothers in faith, then he believes "we have to pass from discourse to action."

For more information about the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the work of Father Desbois go to www.ushmm.org or www.yahadinunum.org.