Mar 5, 2009 — “What’s a Catholic priest from France doing in the killing fields of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia?” That was the opening question posed by Father Patrick Desbois—a priest who has dedicated his life to identifying and documenting the sites of mass executions in Eastern Europe—to an emotional crowd at the 2009 Hillel Rogoff Lecture at Yeshiva University. Many braved the elements to hear the answer from the author of “The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews,” which was recently honored with the National Jewish Book Award.
Using forensic evidence, eyewitness accounts, and new archival material, Father Desbois and his nine-person team assume the challenge of recording and commemorating the deaths of Jews during WWII by mobile killing units that shot their captives leaving scant records of their crimes.
“We must establish evidence of these atrocities because there are deniers – even in my own church,” said Father Desbois. “Many of these witnesses won’t be around in a few years. We must get to them before it is too late.”
To date, Father Desbois has identified over 800 mass graves and interviewed more than 900 surviving witnesses.
“His speech made me realize that while the Shoah may have targeted Jews, there were also other victims—not only those who were murdered, but the witnesses who had to live with it for the rest of their lives,” said Stern College for Women junior, Tzivia Berow of Passaic, NJ.
“I grew up in Vladimir Volynsk, Ukraine where there are mass graves,” said Holocaust survivor, Nechama Ariel of Brooklyn, NY. “I want to make sure they are protected. Father Desbois knows my town and is working to prevent any desecration of the site.”
Father Desbois became interested in the Nazi shootings after hearing the recollections of his grandfather, who was a POW held at the Rawa-Ruska forced labor camp in the Ukraine. Together with the international organization he founded, Yahad-In-Unum (which means “together” in both Hebrew and Latin, and supports dialogue between Jewish and Catholic authorities) they are committed to honoring the victims with proper burials and by bringing their stories to light.
“This aspect of the Holocaust is not as well-known as the gas chambers of Auschwitz and other camps operated by the Germans,” said Zvi Schwartz, also of Brooklyn. “With his dedicated and steadfast work Father Desbois is creating a spiritual memorial to the countless victims who died nameless.”