Catholic priest seeks testimony of Holocaust’s bystanders
Sometimes the witnesses cry a lot, although they are old now, and their tears reflect memories going back seven decades.
They cry because they can recall in vivid detail their young Jewish classmates being shot and killed right before their eyes. They can remember their schools closing for the day, allowing them to join the rest of the villagers to watch the massacre as if it were a sporting event. They remember the names of their murdered neighbors, where they lived and where their bones now lie.
Sometimes, the witnesses don’t cry, though, because their own families were among the killers and stole the belongings of the dead.
But what Father Patrick Desbois hears most often from the witnesses as he travels through Eastern Europe with his teams of researchers, searching for testimonies as well as the mass graves of the Jews and Roma slaughtered by guns during the Holocaust, is, “Why did you come so late?”
“It’s like they’ve been waiting all these years to tell their story,” said Lauren Bairnsfather, executive director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, which will host an exhibit of the work of Desbois and Yahad-In Unum, the international organization he founded. It opened on Sept. 1 and runs through Sept. 26.
The exhibit is entitled “Holocaust by Bullets,” and incorporates interview footage of several of the witnesses whose testimony Desbois has recorded, as well as panels with text and photos explaining his work.
The exhibit is not recommended for those younger than 14 because of its graphic nature.
Desbois’ research “is about the piece of the Holocaust that we don’t know much about,” Bairnsfather said. “And it’s chilling research.”
During the Nazi invasion of the former Soviet Union, all the Jews were systematically gathered together in each town, and then marched to the countryside where they would be shot in cold blood. That scenario is chilling enough, but perhaps equally alarming is the fact that thousands of non-Jewish townspeople would assemble at the killing sites to watch.
“It was a public spectacle,” Bairnsfather said.
For the last 12 years, Desbois, a French Roman Catholic priest, has made it his life’s mission to raise consciousness of the mass executions by Nazi killing units in Eastern Europe during World War II. Through Yahad-In Unum, which he established in 2004, Desbois and his team expose evidence of the slaughters, as well as raise awareness of current instances of genocide throughout the globe.
Desbois’ team has interviewed more than 5,000 witnesses to the massacres of Jews and has helped give proper respect to the victims’ burial places and enable their preservation.
Desbois, who serves as head of the Commission for Relations with Judaism of the French Bishops’ Conference and as a consultant to the Vatican, also teaches at Georgetown University as an adjunct professor. He was featured in a “60 Minutes” segment on CBS last year.
Desbois first became aware of the extent of the killings and mass graves in Eastern Europe while on a trip to Rava Ruska in Ukraine, where his grandfather had been held as a prisoner of war as a French soldier during World War II.
“He was deported to Ukraine in a German camp of Soviet prisoners,” Desbois said, speaking by phone from Paris. “He never spoke of the village called Rava Ruska. So one day I decided to go to Rava Ruska and I discovered that in that village they shot 18,000 Jews, and an unknown number of Gypsies, plus 25,000 prisoners, and nobody wanted to speak about nothing. So I came back, and back and back, until I found one of the mass graves of Rava Ruska, and it began like that.”
When Desbois discovered that those killings had been public and that some of the neighbors remembered them and were willing to talk about them, he formed a team to develop a methodology to record the testimonies.
“In the old Soviet Union, the Germans killed the Jews and the Roma (Gypsies) in public,” he said. “And they’d bring everybody. The Germans killed them in public, and they organized it like a show. And even the schools were closed so that the children could go to see the killing of the Jews. So, in one village, I found 17 villagers who were still alive.”
Desbois’ team makes 17 trips a year to various towns in Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Azerbaijan and typically records the testimony of 40 to 50 witnesses on each trip. But the team now is “running against the clock,” Desbois said, as the witnesses are aging.
Yahad-In Unum has so far located the final resting places of 1.3 million Jews who were murdered by gunshot, but there are an estimated 1 million more that have not been found, and it is Desbois’ aim to do so.
The priest figures he has about four more years to record the eyewitness accounts and to locate the remaining mass gravesites. Many were previously unmarked, but their location is still fresh in the minds of the witnesses.
“They never moved,” Desbois explained of the villagers. “They were born in the same house and will die in the same house, because in the former Soviet Union it was forbidden for farmers to move. So their landscape is the same. The same trees, the same roads, the same houses.”
Desbois expects that when his work is concluded, the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust will exceed 6 million because so many of those murdered in Eastern Europe were refugees from Germany and were not counted as Soviet Jews in the official death toll. Additionally, because it was legal for anyone to shoot Jews during that time, there were countless unofficial shootings, he said.
“It was a criminal adventure,” according to Desbois. “It was three years of free killing of Jews and Gypsies. It was legal. So anybody could kill them.”
Part of the work of Yahad-In Unum is to expose current-day genocides, and Desbois has already made six trips to Sinjar, Iraq, to record the testimony of survivors of the Islamic State mission to systematically murder the Yazidi people who lived there. He stressed the imperative of calling out Islamic extremism as genocide and drew parallels between the methodology of the Islamic State and that of the Nazis.
“There is a similarity between the way of killing of the Germans and the way of killing of the Islamists today,” Desbois said. “It’s the same practice.”
So far, he has interviewed more than 100 survivors of the Islamic State torture, and also has located several mass graves of those who were murdered.
“We are interviewing people who have been released less than 30 days,” he said, “so they remember exactly where they have been put in jail, where were the shootings, what were the names of the killers. It’s not the work for memory here, it’s the work for active justice, because genocide is alive.”
He noted “the same human indifference” in the way the world is responding to the genocide of the Yazidi as it did to the genocide of the Jews.
“We must identify the machine to denounce it and to explain the gravity of it,” Desbois said. “We have to denounce. We have to denounce radical Islam like we have to denounce Nazis. It’s not the same ideology, but it’s the same killing school. And we have to say it’s genocide, because people are trying to diminish the gravity. Like for the Jews, during the time it was like that, we said it was genocide when it was finished.”
Yahad-In Unum’s work has provided closure for many families of the lost victims of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, Desbois said.
“Families write to us now and ask, ‘Which marked grave is my grandmother? Which one is my uncle, or the rabbi?’” he said.
“I have one person full time who works to reconnect families to their country. Many people finally go back there and say Kaddish for the first time.”
Desbois will speak about his work on Wednesday, Sept. 14, at 7 p.m. at Carnegie Mellon University. For more information, or for tickets, go to jfedpgh.org/register/desbois-lecture. Admission is free for survivors.
For more information on Yahad-In Unum or for help locating the gravesite of a family member murdered in the massacres of Eastern Europe, go to yahadinunum.org.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.