Fr. Patrick Desbois with the Holocaust by Bullets display. Photo by Carolyn Savoie

French priest uncovers even more Holocaust horrors

By  Carolyn Savoie, Catholic Register Special
  • May 7, 2014

OTTAWA - Arrested, forced to walk the death road, stripped of clothing and possessions, shot and then looted. This was the fate of many thousands of Holocaust victims across Eastern Europe whose tales went untold for generations — until Fr. Patrick Desbois, a French priest, unearthed the truth through painstaking interviews and archival research.

Desbois was in Ottawa at Saint Paul University April 24 through May 1 to discuss genocide and to debut the “Holocaust by Bullets” exhibit. The exhibit was put on by Yahad — In Unum, an organization “dedicated to systematically identifying and documenting the sites of Jewish mass executions” by the Nazi mobile killing units, the Einsatzgruppen, during the Second World War. Desbois leads the organization and was among its founders in 2004.

“For me, it began as a personal story,” said Desbois, who is also director of the French bishops’ Episcopal Committee for Catholic-Judeo Relations. “My grandfather was deported in 1942 to a disciplinary camp in the Ukraine. One time he told me that outside the camps was worse than in the camps. And so, I kept asking this question ‘what happened there?’ ”

Years later, as a priest, he travelled to Rawa-Ruska in Ukraine, the Nazi prison camp where his grandfather, a French soldier, had been sent. There he was taken by the mayor to a location beyond the village, to the site of an unmarked mass grave where 1,500 Jews were shot during the Holocaust. There, 50 locals shared their stories with him one by one of what they had witnessed in their youth. Desbois soon learned that this type of public massacre was widespread, having occurred in communities throughout German-occupied areas of the former Soviet Union, including Belarus, Romania, Russia, Moldova, Poland and Ukraine. Some witnesses had simply witnessed the shootings whereas others had been requisitioned for work, such as digging the graves or covering up the bodies.

This led Desbois to found Yahad — In Unum.

The fact that so many people were executed outside the camps comes as a surprise to the general public, said Desbois, as it was not widely known before he began his investigations.

Vern Redekop, professor of Conflict Studies at Saint Paul University, says he pored over Desbois’ exhibit twice and found it emotionally moving.

“It strikes me that the historiography of this dimension of the Shoah has been underrepresented,” he said.
People should come away from the exhibit reflecting on the human capacity for evil and seek to avoid this capacity in their own lives, he added.

“I think this realization should prompt a whole lot of humility and reflection and self examination” he said, adding that everyone should ask themselves whom they bear hatred towards, and work on eliminating that hatred. “Because it’s those attitudes of dehumanization that lead to a capacity to embark on something like (the Holocaust).”

Today, Yahad — In Unum consists of several research teams that travel through Eastern European villages on the lookout for witnesses to the Holocaust and the mass graves of the victims. Each investigation consists of a dozen people: a team leader, two interpreters, two investigators in charge of locating witnesses, a professional cameraman, a professional photographer, a person in charge of the investigation report and drivers. Teams have already succeeded in identifying 1,337 massacre sites through interviews and in-depth research of Soviet and German archives. They have also collected 3,580 interviews with eyewitnesses to the crimes — most of whom have never before spoken about what they saw as children or adolescents.

“He is doing something that is not only worthy of our admiration but total overwhelming gratitude,” said Rabbi Dr. Reuven P. Bulka, spiritual leader of Congregation Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa.

Bulka joined Desbois on a panel at the university to discuss genocide. He said Desbois’ work is important, as it reminds people that human beings are capable of gross evil and must not think that the atrocities of past genocides are an exaggeration.

“People are able to look at other human beings point blank, look them straight in the eye and shoot them. It’s unhuman, but it can happen. It has happened and it continues to happen,” said Bulka.

Yahad — In Unum works not only to provide evidence of the “Holocaust by Bullets” but to fight against Holocaust deniers of today and tomorrow, to work towards respecting and preserving the burial sites of victims and to use the lessons learned to fight against future genocide and mass violence.

The exhibit will next be available to the public in Calgary where it will be on display at the Beth Tzedec Synagogue from May 13-20.

(Savoie is a freelance writer in Ottawa.)

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