A Priest Bears Witness

By | Feb 07, 2012

Father Patrick Desbois is on a mission to uncover the mass graves of nearly two million Jews. Sixty years after the Holocaust, time is running out.

by Sarah Breger

Father Patrick Desbois seldom smiles. Sitting across from me in the deserted dining room of a Foggy Bottom hotel in Washington, DC, the austere French Catholic priest unflinchingly chronicles the mass execution of Jews during World War II. “The shootings took place in public, it was like a show,” says Desbois. Our waiter looks uncomfortable as he places a Sprite on the table—most likely he is unaccustomed to hearing his customers discuss genocide over drinks.

The diminutive 56-year-old has spent the last eight years on what some have called a “holy mission,” traveling across Eastern Europe—mostly in Ukraine—to identify the unmarked and sometimes previously unknown graves of the more than 1.5 million Jews murdered there during World War II. In village after village, Desbois, using his clerical collar as his means of entrée, convinces local witnesses—children or teenagers during the war—to tell him stories that have been left untold for more than 60 years. “It is like opening a box,” Desbois says in his thick French accent. “They have been waiting to speak.”

His work is bringing to light an often-neglected chapter of Holocaust history—that of entire Jewish communities massacred where they lived. “This project has focused attention on the need for greater understanding of the Holocaust in the East,” says Paul Shapiro, Director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). It balances our perception of the Holocaust, he adds, which has been of “trains taking people to death camps” with events that “in large part took place before the trains even started.” Over a third of the murdered six million were killed by bullets in Eastern Europe: Desbois’ work—recording testimony, documenting mass graves and even collecting the actual bullets—not only provides irrefutable evidence of this but is changing the way we understand the Holocaust itself.

Desbois was born in a farmhouse in peaceful Burgundy, France in 1955, after the war. As a child he was very close to his grandfather, Claudius, with whom he did farm work and sold poultry in neighboring villages. Claudius freely told his grandson about his life, except for one chapter —his experiences during World War II. Captured by Germans in 1942, he was interned at a prisoner of war camp in Rawa-Ruska in western Ukraine. When pressed about his experiences there, Claudius would only say, “In the camp we had nothing to eat, no food, no drink, but outside the camp was worse,” Desbois recalls. “As a child I was wondering what could be worse than a camp of deportee prisoners.” It was only years later as a teenager that he realized his grandfather was talking about the Jews.

As a mathematics student at Dijon University in eastern France, Desbois found himself attracted to theology and religious studies. After graduation he taught math in West Africa and later worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. But, partly because of his grandfather’s story, he was drawn to Jews, and after being ordained a priest at the age of 31, he requested to work with them in France. He was appointed secretary to the French Conference of Bishops for Relations with the Jewish community and an advisor to the Vatican on relations with Judaism.

In 2002, while traveling in Ukraine, he visited the site of his grandfather’s imprisonment, Rawa-Ruska. Desbois knew that before World War II more than 15,000 Jews had lived in the town, but when he asked to see where they had been murdered, the mayor brushed him off and said no one knew anything about it. “How could more than 10,000 Jews be killed in the village and nobody knows?” he says. “I knew I needed to find out what happened. So I came back two times, three times, four times to Rawa-Ruska. And then the mayor lost the election and a new mayor was elected, much less Soviet.”

The new mayor led Desbois to the forest where, Desbois says, approximately 50 elderly men and women of the village were gathered in a semicircle. “You are standing on the graves of the last 1,500 Jews of Rawa-Ruska,” the mayor said. One by one the villagers stepped forward and told of their experiences during World War II. They told of how the Jews were marched out to this clearing, forced to dig steep pits and hand over their valuables before being shot. They recounted stories of how the Germans had forced them—children or teenagers at the time—to guard the Jews to prevent them from escaping, to cover the corpse-filled pits, to serve the German soldiers food and even bring them a gramophone so they could listen to music.

Desbois recalls one woman—“an old lady with a blue scarf”—who tearfully told him, “I was at my farm, I was 14, and they told me, ‘Come, come,’ and I had to climb in the trees and pick up pieces of corpses and hide them with branches in the grave so that the next Jews will not see them. And, after, arrived trucks and trucks and trucks of Jews from Rawa-Ruska.”

Following these revelations, the villagers told Desbois they had never before publicly spoken of what had happened. Many asked the priest before he left, “Why are you coming so late? We have been waiting for you.”

As Jews were pushed out of Western and Central Europe in the late Middle Ages, they moved east at the invitation of Polish nobles who valued their business acumen. Restricted from owning land, Jews managed estates for absentee landowners and collected taxes for them, making the Jews an object of hatred for Ukrainian peasants. Although Jewish life would in many ways flourish—Hasidism, much of modern Zionism and various literary movements developed in Ukraine—anti-Jewish sentiments became embedded in Ukrainian culture, leading to repeated violence. One hundred thousand Jews were slaughtered in pogroms led by Bogdan Khmelnitsky in 1648 and 1649; thousands more died at the hands of the Haidamaks—paramilitary Ukrainian bands—in the 18th century; more lost their lives in pogroms in 1881 and 1882. Despite the persecution, almost two million Jews lived in Ukraine by the beginning of the 20th century. But they were helpless in the face of political, nationalist and ethnic tensions among Russians, Poles and Ukrainians: Between 1918 and 1921, enormous numbers of Jews were caught in the crossfire as the Bolsheviks and their opponents struggled for power during the reign of nationalist leader Simon Petlura.

Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 sealed the fate of Ukrainian Jewry. As Hitler’s troops marched through Eastern Europe in an ultimately futile attempt to reach Moscow, roving death squads called Einsatzgruppen followed in their wake with a license to kill those who might “endanger the security” of Hitler’s regime—which translated into Jews, as well as some political dissidents.

Every mass shooting was different, but some identifiable patterns existed. The most infamous shooting took place in September of 1941 in a ravine called Babi Yar northwest of the city of Kiev. Posters were put up around the city ordering the Jews to gather in order to be resettled; more than 30,000 Jews arrived at the Jewish cemetery near the ravine, some early, hoping to get good seats on the train. By the time people realized what was happening, it was too late. Soldiers forced them into groups of ten and shot them, one group falling on top of the other, and walked over the bodies after each round to pack them in tighter. In one “action,” 33,771 Jews were killed, the single largest mass killing under the Nazis. There were only a handful of known survivors.

This brutal sequence of events was repeated many times elsewhere. For the shooters, efficiency and order were paramount. The rule became one Jew, one bullet. If the bullet failed to kill someone, he was pushed into the pits and buried alive. Friedrich Jeckeln, a commanding SS General of the Einsatzgruppen who is credited with developing many of these techniques, also devised the horrific “sardine packing” method of positioning victims face down on top of those who had just been murdered, in order to maximize space.

As this continued, word of the ethnic genocide began to leak into the West, leading Berlin to initiate a secret large-scale campaign called Sonderaktion 1005 to destroy evidence of the shootings. German and local officers ordered prisoners (usually Jewish) to exhume and burn the bodies buried in mass graves. The prisoners—sometimes called “corpse units”—would be killed afterwards and the officers sworn to secrecy. According to Desbois, many graves and bodies were lost or destroyed in that way, and the absence of proof would later provide fuel for Holocaust revisionists.

The killings were further obscured from public view by the Soviets, who controlled Eastern Europe at the end of the war. They conducted interviews, took photos and wrote reports of what occurred in many of the towns and villages, but in the anti-Semitic atmosphere of Stalin’s Soviet Union, the official policy was to present the Holocaust as an atrocity committed against Soviet citizens, rather than against Jews. Those who sought to publicize the Jewish nature of the genocide were suppressed. In 1944, journalist Vassily Grossman, a Ukrainian-born Jew, published “The Hell of Treblinka,” one of the first articles to describe a Nazi death camp; it was used as testimony in the Nuremberg trials. But his attempt, with fellow journalist Ilya Ehrenburg, to publish a collection of accounts of Nazi atrocities against Jews in the Soviet Union was stymied by the Soviet authorities.

Even the mighty Soviet regime, however, couldn’t entirely erase history. In 1961, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko stirred up deep emotions, when he published the poem “Babi Yar” in the weekly newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta. The poem’s first line, “No monument stands over Babi Yar,” condemned the Soviet regime for its refusal to acknowledge what happened. He accused the government of anti-Semitism and warned that no matter how hard the regime tries, “no fiber of my body will forget this.”

The poem, which later inspired Dmitri Shostakovich’s 13th symphony, had a great impact on Soviet consciousness, as did journalist Anatoly Kuznetsov’s account of the massacre in his 1966 book Babi Yar: A Documentary in the Form of a Novel, which included interviews with Dina Pronicheva, one of the few known survivors. In response to increased public pressure, a monument was erected on the site in 1974 but it did not have a memorial specifically identifying Jewish victims until after the fall of the Soviet Union.

For Desbois, the experience at the mass grave in Rawa-Ruska was a personal revelation. He realized that there were citizens all over Ukraine who most likely had similar untold stories. He turned to Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the Archbishop of Paris and a leader in French interfaith relations, for advice. Lustiger, who died in 2007, was a Jew, whose mother died at Auschwitz; he converted to Catholicism in his teens after living with a Catholic family, but maintained his Jewish identity even after converting and becoming a priest—at his death, Kaddish was recited before the mass. Together, he and Desbois founded the organization Yahad-in-Unum (both the Hebrew and Latin words for “together”), with the goal of documenting all of the mass extermination sites in Eastern Europe. Desbois began journeying through Ukraine, knocking on doors in search of witnesses. Some recounted their stories willingly, as if in confession, and asked him to pray with them afterwards. Others needed cajoling, reluctant to revisit their pasts.

What started as a solo effort has evolved into four separate teams under the French priest’s direction. With funding from private donors in America, family foundations and the German government, as well as other sources, the organization runs 15 trips a year, each lasting 17 days. Teams include an interpreter, a photographer, a note taker, a bodyguard and—due to concern over Jewish burial laws—a rabbi. Eventually, Desbois added a ballistics expert to the roster, in recognition of the fact that each gun cartridge left on the ground correlates to a bullet, and each bullet to a Jew.

Full-time researchers at archives in Germany and in the USHMM scour records for information to give Desbois and his teams before they embark on their trips. Much of this material only became available after the fall of the Soviet Union and even then was infrequently utilized, according to Shapiro of the USHMM, where the vast Soviet archive is now located. “People weren’t looking at it,” he says. “They felt it was not credible.” But Desbois’ work has corroborated much of the material. “It’s turned out that in many cases the content of the testimony [Desbois and his teams found] and the information that the Soviets had are extraordinarily similar,” says Shapiro.

Once they arrive in a village, the search for witnesses commences. Team members follow the same script wherever they go. Desbois runs through it with me: ‘“Ma’am [or Sir], you were here during the War?’ and if the answer is positive, we say ‘Oh, you can help us.’ And ‘were you here the day of the shooting?’ And if she [or he] says yes, then ‘Do you accept to be interviewed’ and on the spot we do the interview. We don’t wait; otherwise a neighbor will tell them not to speak.”

When necessary, the teams reach out to local churches, asking clergy members to preach from the pulpit why it is important to speak up. And if nothing else works, the interviewers wait patiently in a grocery store for people to come in. “Slowly, slowly we find a witness,” says Desbois. “If we don’t find the truth in one day, we come back.” The teams know they will eventually find a witness, since the killing site “is not a hidden place, someone will say ‘oh, under the grass here or there.’ After all, the murders happened in the city in broad daylight under the watch of everybody,” says Desbois.

The interviews can last for hours—some have run up to eight—since each person is taken through every single detail they remember about that period. “The interview is not a sentimental interview,” says Desbois. “It’s really a rebuilding of the crime. It is a real investigation.”

Through his work, Desbois has defined a new category of witness: those requisitioned by the Germans to perform tasks connected with the mass killings. One woman told him her job was to walk across the corpses to flatten them before the next group was shot. Another man said he was responsible for finding kindling of sunflower and hemp to burn the bodies. Desbois recalls one woman who saw her Jewish friend in the line to be shot, and the friend said, “Don’t cry, don’t cry—we are going to Palestine.” But the woman knew they were going to their death. As more than one person told him, referring to those buried alive in the pits, “the ground breathed for three days.”

To date, Yahad-in-Unum teams have interviewed more than 2,000 witnesses of the massacres and identified the location of hundreds of mass graves. They have covered over three-quarters of the Ukraine, three regions of Belarus, two regions of Russia and have started to work in Poland. Desbois says they have also found 48 sites of Roma extermination. Slowly, the group is building a website that will have a page dedicated to each community visited. Each page will include historical facts, video interviews of witnesses, excerpts from German and Soviet archives and photos of the town and the people interviewed. For example, on the page from the December 2010 trip to the Grodno region of Ukraine, there is testimony from Vladimir, born in 1925, who saw “a cart was approaching the house. Around five German soldiers were waiting in front of the house. The Jews got down from the cart and were taken into the house on the ground floor. At this moment, one of the Germans entered the house and closed the door. We could hear the gunshots. Then, the officer came back out with his revolver in hand. He took a handkerchief and wiped the sweat off his forehead….[then] the executioners went to the next house. Like this, the elderly were shot in three houses.” On a page from a May 2009 trip to Velyky Glybotchok, Ukraine, another witness, Lemelian, recalls “I remember someone who was yelling—‘Guys, to the hill! Run!’ They [the Jews] saw these mass graves from the top of the hill and they started to run away. Grenades were thrown at them and submachine guns fired from both sides. The children, the women, everyone was killed and their bodies were huddled together. The blood was flowing into the pond.”

Documenting the massacres is only the first step. The second is to honor the victims with a proper burial. “We know from Catholic and Jewish tradition that a human being dead or alive needs to be respected,” says Desbois. “If you accept that the Jews and gypsies are not properly buried it is a little bit of a victory for Hitler because he said they were not human.” But a proper burial is complex: Bodies were buried in shallow trenches, exposed human bones sometimes litter the area and in some places, looters have desecrated the graves. In the few cases where there is a Soviet marker of some kind, its inscription is meager and incomplete, says Andrew Baker, director of International Jewish Affairs for the American Jewish Committee (AJC). “This reflects a Soviet approach,” he says, “saying nothing of Holocaust history, nothing of the fact they were Jews.” Through the AJC and with funding from the German government, Baker has been working with Desbois to construct covers and memorial markers for the graves.

To Desbois his work means more than ensuring that the victims are properly buried. “I have the conviction that we cannot build a modern Europe, and perhaps a modern world, above thousands of mass graves of Jews, who have been killed like animals, buried like animals,” he says. “We cannot build democracies above mass graves. Otherwise, what can we say to Rwanda, to Darfur, Cambodia? What can we say to other countries if we don’t bury the victims?”

By now, Desbois is an expert at not showing emotion as his heavily lined face absorbs witness testimony. He admits it is difficult to remain impassive when confronted by people who remain anti-Semitic, those who ask if there are still gold teeth to be found in the graves or those who show no remorse. “If you show your feelings, you will never know the next house, what they did,” the priest says. And this is what he has to teach his teams to do in order to find the truth. “It was difficult to train young people not to show their feelings.”

Some critics balk at his point-blank acceptance of the testimony of his witnesses. “Desbois doesn’t ask a lot of the people that he speaks with,” says Omer Bartov, author of Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine. “He gives the impression it was the Germans doing all the killing, but in fact much of the organization of the genocide had a lot to do with auxiliary and local police forces. He is not interested in that.” Adds Bartov: “There was a great deal of taking over the property of those who were killed.”

Others see Desbois’ strategy as the only option. “He doesn’t say anything about the complicity of the Ukrainian police, and some people ask if he is an apologist,” says Aryeh Rubin, president of Targum Shlishi, which has both supported and raised funds for Yahad-in-Unum. “But if he took all the Ukrainians on, he would never have gotten to see a single grave. You have to be non-judgmental; it’s like being an undercover agent.”

His calling makes it possible for the priest to build trust among the potential witnesses, says John-Paul Himka, a professor of history and classics at the University of Alberta whose work focuses on memory and the Holocaust in Ukraine. “In rural regions where views are more traditional a clergyman is still a clergyman,” adds Himka. “Father Desbois is interested in collecting information, not being confrontational. That’s why people feel they can talk to him.”

Shapiro puts it this way: “Some people have been critical of the methodology, but no one else is going out and doing this kind of work. It is easy to be critical; it is much harder to have the drive, stamina and commitment to go again and again to these places.”
A quick Google search makes it clear that Desbois is passionately hated by Holocaust revisionists. “The Shoah by bullets is apparently one of the Jewish fallback plans in the event the diesel/insecticide gas chamber/gas van myths die,” proclaims Holocaustdenier.com. “What Father Patrick Desbois has done is more like a circus magic performance,” says one commentator on a Holocaust revisionist forum. Outside the revisionist world, the priest’s words carry authoritative weight. “Having Father Desbois bear witness is so important,” says Hannah Rosenthal, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism in the Obama administration. “It is one thing when Hannah Rosenthal, child of Holocaust survivor, says it, of course she is going to. When Father Desbois speaks out, he has so much more impact because he is not the usual suspect.”

Not surprisingly, Desbois has widespread support in the Jewish community. Rubin says: “He is a tzadik. One of the chasidei umot ha’olam, the righteous gentiles.” Rosenthal agrees. “He is a mensch,” she says. “Some people think the lamed vavnicks that are holding the world up have to be Jewish,” she says of the traditional 36 anonymous righteous men and women who are said to inhabit the world in every generation. “I don’t. Desbois is one of them.”

I can’t help but wonder: How can he remain a man of faith after hearing of such horror—again and again? For the first time in our conversation, the priest’s composure cracks. “Both to believe in humans, both to believe in God,” he says, pausing. “It’s a fight. I know that anybody can be a killer now. I learned that, because when I first encounter a family I don’t know if they saved Jews or killed Jews.”

These difficult interviews are filling a crucial gap for scholars. “We have German documents and Jewish survivor accounts but they leave out the local participation,” says University of Alberta’s Himka. Through Desbois, we are “finding a lot more about how the Holocaust worked on the ground in these areas.” His work also corroborates the work of other scholars now focusing on the Holocaust in the Soviet Union. One of them is Yale historian Timothy Snyder, author of the highly acclaimed Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, who has long championed the need for readjusting Holocaust perception. In a July 2009 article for The New York Review of Books entitled “The Ignored Reality,” Snyder writes, “Auschwitz, generally taken to be an adequate or even final symbol of the evil of mass killings, is in fact only the beginning of knowledge, a hint of the true reckoning with the past still to come.”

Why is it that perceptions of the Holocaust became skewed toward Western and Central Europe? One simple answer is there were more survivors to tell their stories. Auschwitz, a labor camp as well as a death facility, offered a chance for survival, while very few survived the mass executions by bullets and the death camps in the East such as Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec. Another reason is that early Holocaust literature was primarily written by camp inhabitants from the West: Writers such as Anne Frank, Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel clearly shaped the way Westerners viewed the Holocaust. Until 1989, writers in the Soviet Union were unable to tell of their experiences. Not only couldn’t they leave to tell their stories, but researchers could not gain access to conduct investigations.

Now, literary work from the Soviet Holocaust is gaining prominence. Vassily Grossman, for example, is experiencing a renaissance in the West, partly due to a well-received 2005 release of his wartime diaries. His short stories were republished last year, and in September, BBC broadcast an eight-hour radio version of his opus, Life and Fate. For the past few years, Ukrainian historian and survivor Boris Zabarko has been publishing volumes of survivor testimony from the Soviet Union in English translation. American writers such as Jonathan Safran Foer, in Everything is Illuminated, have also begun to mine the depths of the Holocaust experience in Eastern Europe.

Finally free of the Soviets, newly reconstituted nations such as Ukraine have not yet had the time to come to grips with the Holocaust. “Ukraine was frozen under the Soviet system,” says Himka. Since their independence from communism in 1991, Ukrainians have been forging a new national identity and have latched on to pre-Soviet nationalist heroes of the 1930s and 1940s who fought the communists. At the same time, they have ignored the anti-Semitic actions of those heroes. They would rather “pretend that their national movement was not attracted or seduced by German promises,” says Himka. “They would like to have their heroes only for the national struggle and forget about the ethnic killings.” Take the case of Stepan Bandera: the leader of a nationalist movement during World War II, who collaborated with the Germans and was responsible for ethnic cleansings of Poles and Jews in western Ukraine. In 2010, outgoing President Viktor Yuschenko ignored international indignation and posthumously awarded Bandera the title of Hero of Ukraine, a move that the current president, Viktor Yanukovych later revoked.

Although modern day Ukraine is much less anti-Semitic than in the past, pockets remain, and there are those who accuse Jews of unfairly picking on Ukrainians. Some Ukrainian scholars have also promoted a theory that since many Jews were Bolsheviks, Jews were involved in the mass killings of Ukrainians just as Ukrainians were involved in the mass killings of Jews. “This is an attempt to find an equivalence with Jews who collaborated in killing Ukrainians,” says Bartov. “But that is a false argument. There was a nationalist Ukrainian movement that called for the removal of Poles and Jews from Ukraine. There was never anything like that the other way.”

With time, Ukraine is likely to follow the lead of other countries and come to terms with its history, says Himka. Not until the late 1970s and early 1980s did the French start dealing with their actions during the Holocaust. “Night and Fog [an influential French film made in 1955 by Alain Resnais] never mentions Jews, it seems to all be between Germans and French resistance.” Poland, he adds, only began to face history in the past 15 to 20 years, particularly with the 2001 publication of Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland by Princeton professor Jan Gross. His meticulously researched book proved it was Poles, not Germans, who massacred the 1,600 Jews of Jedwabne. Although extremely controversial in Poland, the book opened up a discussion about the actions of Polish citizens in World War II and started much-needed dialogue between Poles and Jews which has led to significant rapprochement.

Desbois, aware that the Holocaust is a difficult subject for Ukrainians, hopes his findings will serve as a wake-up call. He has organized a traveling exhibit of Yahad-in-Unum’s work featuring a display of Nazi bullets, photographs of bones and witness testimonies. The much-praised exhibit is traveling through Ukraine, being shown in schools and colleges. “The Ukrainian government has been supportive, they know it is happening, they are not stopping it,” says Shapiro. “The Ukrainian foreign minister was here at the Holocaust Museum and made very strong statements on the importance of recognizing and dealing with the subject. But the government of Ukraine has not poured the resources into the studying and teaching about the Holocaust, and that would be a logical next step.”

Just as new generations of Ukrainians are beginning to learn about the mass killings, witnesses are dying off and becoming harder to find. “Now sometimes they say that the last old woman who witnessed things in the war isn’t dead but has lost her brain or had a stroke,” Desbois tells me. “We still find witnesses but nevertheless the situation has changed; we must push much more to find them. The time is ticking. They are not behind the first door.”

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