Bringing names, faces to 1.5-million killed by Nazis

By 
  • September 30, 2010
Father Patrick Desbois TORONTO - On TV serious, scientific crime scene investigators appear within hours of a murder to gather minute, detailed evidence. Fr. Patrick Desbois of France and his team of micro-historians show up three generations after 1.5-million murders committed by Nazi Einsatzgruppen soldiers to piece together precisely who was killed, when, how and by whom.

“Each time when we land in Belarus or Ukraine or Russia I tell my team, ‘They are waiting for

us,’ ” Desbois said in an interview from Paris. “Very frequently people ask me, ‘Father, why do you come so late?’ ”


Desbois is the founder and president of Yahad-in Unum and author of The Holocaust By Bullets. Christian-Jewish Dialogue of Toronto and Beth Tzedec Synagogue are bringing Desbois to Toronto to speak about Yahad-In Unum’s work at Beth Tzedec Synagogue Oct. 4 (7:30 p.m., 1700 Bathurst Ave.)

Yahad-In Unum has identified thousands of graves across Eastern Europe. Through interviews and physical evidence, it has documented precisely what happened to people who were taken from their homes and shot in cold blood more than 60 years ago.

Before the end of the year the Yahad-In Unum web site, will feature an interactive map showing the locations where people were murdered. A team of 20 in Paris is at work geotagging hundreds of thousands of pieces of evidence. The result will be a resource for families who still don’t know what happened to their lost relatives.

Desbois avoids speaking about mass murder and the final solution — not because he fails to understand the scale of the genocide, but because he doesn’t want to forget the individual lives that were cut off and the individual criminals who committed murder.

{sa 0230617573}“In Ukraine, Russia and Belarus every person was killed by one person. It was every time a personal crime. Every victim had a particular killer,” said Desbois.

In Desbois’ understanding of micro-history we still need to face up to the crimes of the past and take responsibility.

“It’s important, as Fr. Desbois states, that we see both the murdered and the murderers as real human beings,” said Christian-Jewish Dialogue of Toronto executive director Barbara Boraks. “It is only by keeping vigilant in our respect for human life that we can prevent ourselves, as individuals, from succumbing to ideological or politically motivated attempts to undermine and destroy both lives and values.”

There’s a certain Catholic tendency to generalize, and by generalizing erase our awareness of individuals, said Desbois.

“Sometimes in the Catholic context, they try to very quickly go out of private history to general concepts,” he said. “I think it’s a temptation to get rid of your neighbour and to think about heaven and God and so on. It’s no more Madame So-and-so. It’s a theological question.”

More than anything, Desbois feels it is our duty to remember.

“What surprises me so much in humanity is our capacity to forget,” he said. “(Forgetting) undermines our values. We cannot build a society of human values, or Christian values, above the mass graves of people we never recognize and never buried like human beings.”

Desbois calls the 20th century “a century of extermination” that featured genocides against Armenians, Gypsies, Jews, Cambodians and the Rwandans.

“It is the duty of the believers and of people of good will in general to be a huge network against genocide,” he said. “Otherwise, it would mean we don’t believe in the human spirit.”

“Not only is it reasonable to expect people to remember events three or four generations afterwards, it is imperative,” said Boraks.

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