Image on the cover of "In Broad Daylight".

Book review: In Broad Daylight uncovers a dark past

By  BARBARA BORAKS, Catholic Register Special
  • December 17, 2018

In Broad Daylight: The Secret Procedures behind the Holocaust by Bullets by Fr. Patrick Desbois (Arcade Publishing, hardcover, 312 pages, $35)

In Broad Daylight cover copyI didn’t want to read this book, despite the fact that I have met Fr. Patrick Desbois and admire his work. I didn’t want to wallow in the gore, the filth and the moral confusion of a time when Western civilization forgot its humanity.

A few years ago Christian Jewish Dialogue of Toronto (of which I am executive director) hosted an event featuring Desbois. He, together with Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, had founded Yahad-In Unum, an organization dedicated to identifying and commemorating the sites of Jewish and Roma mass executions in Eastern Europe during the Second World War. So when I was contacted by The Catholic Register to review Desbois’ latest book I readily agreed. 

Then I turned to Google to get some preliminary information about the book. The first thing I read was the subtitle: The Secret Procedures behind the Holocaust by Bullets. I started to doubt whether I actually wanted to read it. The next day it arrived in my mailbox. I read the fly leaf: “In Broad Daylight documents mass killings in seven countries formerly part of the Soviet Union that were invaded by Nazi Germany. It shows how these murders followed a template, or script, which included a timetable that was duplicated from place to place.” 

I put the book aside. I didn’t want to read it. 

A few weeks later, with a good amount of Catholic guilt egging me on, I opened the book and read the table of contents: The Architect; The Requisitions; The Diggers; The Rapes; The Column of Jews; The Cooks and The Shooters; The Child with the Bullets; The Fillers; The Auctions; The Coats; The Sanitizer; The Method. I put the book aside again.

Again, I let a few weeks go by, but I eventually I started to read. By the end of a few paragraphs I became fascinated and read the book through in one sitting. I read about how the Nazi ‘Architects’ developed a highly efficient administrative structure to implement the killing of tens of thousands of Jewish men, women, children and infants in Eastern Europe and Western Russia. The architects and the shooters were German, but almost everyone else involved were local village people — neighbours and friends of the Jews who had been conscripted to dig and fill in the massive graves, guard the gates of the Jewish ghettos, transport Jews to the grave sites and even cook for the Germans. Jews were forced to take off their clothes by the gravesite, and the villagers would then collect and sell the clothes.

I read about the soldiers, and some locals, raping the women and girls. I read how this process was repeated over and over again, from village to village. I was fascinated. I wasn’t disgusted, appalled or even perturbed. 

Which led me to ask myself — why hadn’t all these details disturbed me? Why wasn’t I recoiling from what I had read? Then the brilliance of the book struck me. Desbois, by systematically documenting the procedures, had allowed me to disassociate myself from the realities of what had happened in the same way the villagers were psychologically able to stand apart from what was happening. I wasn’t reading about people, I was reading about a process. I was reacting in the same way that many of the villagers had reacted. 

Each person involved had one very small, very specific task. No one need see themselves as having the capability to change what was happening to their neighbours. This ability to disassociate from the reality taking place in front of them led to a communal silence about this holocaust by bullets. This silence has only recently been broken by the work of Desbois and his team. 

I may not have recoiled when reading this book, but I certainly recoiled when I realized how easily I could remove myself from horrific realities. All it takes is an administrative structure that allows us to focus on one small part of a job — in effect, to stay in our cubicle. 

So how is this lesson relevant to our lives in Canada? According to StatsCan, Canada has the highest percentage of low-wage workers among industrialized nations. Seventy per cent of those in poverty have one or more jobs. I don’t want to imply there is any comparison to be made to the horrors of the Holocaust, because there categorically isn’t. But what Desbois made me realize was how closely we have to look at ourselves and our social structures. It really is so very easy to become complacent — all we have to do is follow the rules. 

(Boraks is the executive director of Christian-Jewish Dialogue of Toronto.)

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