“The Holocaust by Bullets” French priest dedicated to locating the mass graves of 1.6 million European Jews to speak in Hartford Sept. 27
By Cindy Mindell
Father Patrick Desbois can prove that six million is a low estimate when it comes to counting the number of Jews murdered during the Holocaust. It’s closer to eight million.
Since 2001, the French Catholic priest and a small team of researchers and ballistics experts have worked to track down, document, and consecrate the hundreds of mass graves where nearly 1.6 million Jews were shot and buried throughout eastern Europe. So far, with the help of the staff and archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the team has found more than 850 sites in Ukraine, Belorussia, Russia, and Poland, and recorded as many eye-witness testimonies. They have an estimated 1,100 killing sites to go.
Fr. Desbois is racing the clock. The last remaining witnesses who can point him toward the gravesites are in their 70s and 80s and dying off. He estimates that he has five years left to complete his task.
The author of “The Holocaust by Bullets,” which won the 2008 National Jewish Book Award in Holocaust Studies, will speak at the University of Hartford on Monday, Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. He will be hosted by the University of Hartford and the university’s Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies, in partnership with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Fr. Desbois’s passion for confronting antisemitism and furthering Catholic-Jewish understanding is a lifelong one. Born in 1955 in Chalon-sur-Saône, France, Desbois was raised by his grandfather Claudius, who was deported in July 1942 to Rawa-Ruska, a German camp of Soviet prisoners in Ukraine. “He didn’t want to speak about it,” Desbois says. “One day, he told me, ‘Inside the camp, it was awful; for the others outside the camp, it was worse.’ As a child, I wondered, ‘What could be worse than a prison camp? Who were the “others?”‘”
Those questions led Desbois on the quest that ultimately brought him to the killing fields of eastern Europe. In 1977, he earned a degree in mathematics from Université de Dijon. In 1981, he entered the Grand Seminary of Prado, where he was ordained in 1986. Somewhere along the way, an encounter with a book on the Holocaust gave him an idea of what his grandfather had been referring to.
He studied Hebrew at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, as well as Jewish history and culture, and attended seminars at Yad Vashem. In 1990, Desbois finally visited Rawa-Ruska. Together with a group of prison-camp survivors, he helped fund and erect a memorial at the site.
But he was shocked to learn that there was no memorial to the town’s Jewish victims.
“I asked the mayor, ‘Where are the mass graves of the Jews?'” Desbois says. “He said, ‘I don’t know, it was a secret; the Germans shot the Jews in the forest and nobody could see.’ I thought it was true. I came back on another visit and I raised the question again and again, and when the mayor lost the election, he took me to a small village. At the end of the street, 100 old people were waiting for me. We entered the forest and they told me, ‘We go to the mass grave of the last 1,400 Jews of the village.’ I organized them in a circle in the middle of the forest, and one by one, they came to me to tell their stories.”
In 2004, Desbois helped create the Paris-based Yahad-In Unum, an organization that works to promote Jewish-Catholic understanding and cooperation. Yahad-In Unum, which means “together” in both Hebrew and Latin, was founded by Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the archbishop of Paris at the time, and Rabbi Israel Singer, then-chairman of the World Jewish Congress. Desbois now serves as president of the organization, which is home to the mass-grave project.
Since 2004, Desbois has heard many eye-witness accounts from elders who were children and teenagers when the Nazis came. Many were conscripted to help dig the graves, to collect clothing, gold teeth, and jewelry from the corpses, and to clean up the killing sites. Everybody in the village was brought to witness the killings.
“Now those children are aged 75 to 90, and they want to speak before they die,” Desbois says. “Any emotional concept is outside the discussion, like ‘What did you feel?’ or ‘What did you think?’ They are ready to tell you the narrative; it was a completely narrative experience.”
For most witnesses, Fr. Desbois and his team are the only people who have ever asked them questions about the war. Some are reluctant to answer, afraid that the Russian authorities will punish them.
“To get them to speak, we tell them, ‘It’s for the memory, for teaching a new generation, for the museums,'” Desbois says. “They are proud to give a deposition for the memory of humanity. Very frequently they tell us when we leave, ‘Promise us, Father, that you will work to build a memorial for these people.'”
This is how Fr. Desbois has become “one of the great humanitarians of our times,” says Prof. Avinoam Patt, assistant director of the Maurice Greenberg Center.
“Fr. Desbois has been the leader in this research and the most successful in finding these sites,” says Patt. “There is a tendency to focus on the extermination camps and mass murder through mechanized killing, without realizing that the first state of the ‘final solution’ in 1941 was the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazis’ mobile killing units. The nature of the killing was concealed and there was no one left to return to these sites after the war and memorialize them.”
Fr. Desbois’s visit is supported by all organizations and institutions throughout the Jewish community of greater Hartford, as well as by the Archdiocese of Hartford. Before his presentation at the University of Hartford, the priest will address a school-wide assembly at Northwest Catholic High School in West Hartford, whose religion and history curricula address the Holocaust.
“These are young people who will become the next leaders of a very important world power,” says principal Margaret Williamson. “Somewhere along the line, we have to get to the point where we stop repeating history and ethnic-cleansing events. The Holocaust is just one example and everybody thought, it’s so horrific and well known that it won’t happen again; but it has. The more personally they can relate to the incident of the Holocaust or other incidents of ethnic cleansing, maybe they’ll realize that real people get killed and we can prevent or stop these things from happening.”
Williamson says that she wants to learn what keeps Fr. Desbois going in his work. “I’m very interested in how he feels when he’s talking to people who witnessed the massacres,” she says. “What kind of feelings does that bring up in him? It’s easy for us to say now, ‘Why didn’t you do something?’ but in the context, it wasn’t possible. But how does he feel when he’s hearing these stories?”
The involvement of the local Catholic community was coordinated by Michael Culhane, executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference, the public-policy office of the state’s six Catholic bishops.
“Fr. Desbois is a very dedicated person, and bases his work on Christian and Catholic beliefs regarding fellow man and the humanness of the situation,” he says. “You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the horror of the Holocaust, and anybody with any sense of feeling would have the same reaction. The Catholic Church places a very high premium on life, in terms of their social and moral teachings. The body is sacred and should be treated as such, even in death. Fr. Desbois exemplifies these tenets of our faith. I am curious to learn whether there is any moving principle within the Church that captivated his interest in pursuing this quest.”
Rabbi David Small of The Emanuel Synagogue in West Hartford has the same question. “I’d be interested to know how Fr. Desbois understands his quest within his own religious framework,” says Small. “In what way does his faith inform his work? I’m looking for meeting-places, where people of different faiths have tenets in common.”
Over the summer, Small co-led a trip to eastern Europe with the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford, an itinerary that included several concentration camps throughout Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Co-leader Prof. Samuel Kassow of Trinity College in Hartford provided historical information at each site, and serves as consultant to the Museum of Jewish History now being built in Warsaw.
“On the museum’s steering committee of outstanding academicians who are guiding the design, one is a non-Jew,” says Small. “It’s healthy that there’s a Polish non-Jewish academic who takes an interest in the Holocaust. To the extent that there can be a healing in the wake of this terrible breach, the respect and knowledge shown by non-Jews is helpful; likewise, Jewish receptivity to the interest is helpful and creates better understanding and mutual respect. As Elie Wiesel said, “the Holocaust belongs to all of humanity. ‘Never again’ doesn’t mean only to the Jews, but to any people. As we seek for understanding, we must bring to light what has been hidden. Fr. Desbois is doing a great service.”
Small says that the priest is helping to restore the personhood and dignity of those stripped of everything. “In every major religion, it is stated that every human is created in the divine image, intrinsically worthy and worthwhile,” he says. “Asserting their humanity and giving dignity to it continues to fight against those who would do mass murder. It doesn’t bring back the dead in flesh and bone, but it restores their humanness posthumously and defies the hatred that rages even today, that some shouldn’t be treated ‘b-tselem elohim,’ in the divine image. Fr. Desbois is helping to accomplish both and I look forward to learning more about him and his work.”
“I work to bury the victims in the east because of the bible, which begins by the crime of murder,” says Desbois. “Since I was a child, through my grandfather’s stories, in my nightmares, I hear the voice of God. He says, ‘Where is your Jewish Ukrainian brother?’ Now I can answer that he is in the fields, behind the bend, anywhere. We cannot build Europe or America or the modern world and ask 1,600,000 eastern European Jews to keep silent.”
Fr. Patrick Desbois will speak on Monday, Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. at the University of Hartford’s Lincoln Theater. Admission is $8 per person; free for students. All proceeds from the event go to the Fund for the Study of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, which supports the work of Father Desbois. Tickets and information: (800) 274-8587