The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

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Subject: Holocaust Mass Graves in the Ukraine
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Backstory: A priest's crusade on Holocaust

Patrick Desbois is a conscience and chronicler of little-known 
massacre of Jews in Ukraine.

By Sarah Wildman | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor


The confessions that Father Patrick Desbois receives don't come from 
his parishioners. They are not made behind closed doors. They don't 
even come from his countrymen. The words the French priest hears are 
the unburdening of villagers from Ukraine - the last witnesses to the 
mass killing of Jews in a little-known part of the Holocaust more than 
60 years ago.

He recounts one story - just one of a thousand he's heard - of a 
Ukrainian woman who was ordered by Nazi soldiers to cook them dinner. 
As they ate, the 25 Germans went out in pairs to kill Jews. By the 
time the meal was over, they had shot 1,200. It was the first time the 
woman had ever told the story. "These people want absolutely to speak 
before they die," says Father Desbois of the bystanders. "They want to 
say the truth."

Father Patrick Desbois has become one of the world's foremost 
chroniclers of what the French call the Shoah par Balles - the 
Holocaust of bullets. Though neither Jewish nor Ukrainian, he spends 
half his year combing the poverty-stricken landscape of Ukraine to 
document the annihilation of tens of thousands of Jews at the hands of 
traveling bands of Nazis called the Einsatzgruppen.

It is a self-appointed task that led the Israeli newspaper Haaretz to 
decree him "Patrick the Saint." Embarrassed, Desbois calls the 
characterization a midrash - Hebrew for exaggeration.

The priest, who has devoted his clerical life to fighting 
anti-Semitism, is uncovering, village by village, unmarked mass graves 
>from the Holocaust era. Here the Jews were shot, one by one, mother in 
front of child, child in front of father.

The "Holocaust of bullets" was every bit as brutal as the 
extermination of Jews by gas chamber, starvation, and other means at 
Auschwitz and elsewhere in Europe. Yet the depth and details of the 
tragedy in Ukraine have only recently surfaced.

In the local villages, teenagers and children were forced to help dig 
graves, pull gold teeth from the mouths of neighbors, and take piles 
of clothes away as their friends shivered, awaiting death. These 
children, now old men and women, have never been asked about what they 
saw, what they were forced to see. Never, that is, until they meet a 
humble priest walking through their woods in his clerical collar.

"This is very, very important," says Edouard Husson, a historian at 
the Sorbonne in Paris and a project consultant. The originality of 
Desbois's work is that "he was the first to have the idea to talk to 
the Ukrainian witnesses - the bystanders."


In his early 20s, as he crept toward a life of faith, Desbois was 
dogged by a question: "What does God want me to do?" Little did he 
know then, in the mid-1970s, that he would eventually answer that for 
himself by becoming a human bridge between the modern Jewish world and 
the Catholic Church and a major conduit through which the Holocaust 
would be remembered.

Desbois's journey to the woods of Ukraine is rooted in an unusual 
faith, an expansive humanity, and a personal tie. He was born in 
Burgundy, France, in 1955 to a family deeply affected by the German 
occupation. Two of his cousins were deported by the Nazis. His 
grandfather, like 25,000 other French soldiers, was held at a camp on 
the border of Poland, Ukraine, and Russia. "We felt ourselves to be in 
the same story as the Jews," says Desbois. Yet his grandfather always 
said his internment was not nearly as awful as it was for "the 

Desbois studied mathematics and spent several years teaching in the 
West African nation of Burkina Faso. At 21, he joined Mother Teresa 
for three months in Calcutta, caring for the dying. When he decided to 
make his life in the church, his secular-minded family was horrified.

After seminary, he briefly led the life of a "normal" priest - 
conducting baptisms and giving weekly sermons. He was soon appointed 
by the Cardinal of Lyon to aid the church's liaison to the Jewish 
community. Desbois was already studying Judaism. He had begun to learn 

To this day, he helps organize conferences between Catholics and Jews, 
and leads Holocaust study tours for young Catholics and other 
students. On one of those trips in the late 1990s, he stopped at the 
site of his grandfather's prison camp. A memorial there was all but 

Over the years, as he worked to repair the marker, he kept asking 
about "the others." The mayor of the village showed him where the 
camp's Soviet prisoners were buried. "I said, 'OK, [and] where is the 
mass grave of the Jews?' " Desbois recalls. "He told me, 'I don't 
know. I don't know. We never found it.' And I said, 'How could it be 
that more than 10,000 Jews were killed in the village ... and you 
don't know?' "

A newly elected mayor remembered Desbois's question. The next time the 
priest returned, 110 farmers were waiting. "In one day, I discovered 
we could not only find mass graves with precision, but we could also 
find witnesses who ... were present at the execution." The mayor said 
he would help Desbois find the mass graves in 100 nearby villages. In 
2004, with seed money from the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah, 
a French group, the Ukraine project was born. Desbois's team has 
mapped 500 unmarked graves so far. He believes another 1,700 exist. 
"We have a duty to ask, 'Where are the graves?' " he says simply.


Desbois's offices are as modest as the man. Deep in working-class 
Paris, in a drab modernist building, a rickety elevator opens to a 
ramshackle office suite. The walls are laden with images of Jerusalem 
and a 2006 calendar of Jewish holidays. On a table sits a massive 
bronze menorah that B'nai B'rith International recently awarded him 
for his human rights work.

Desbois answers the bell himself. He has a full head of dark hair, and 
his hands move continuously as he explains his project. He is busy. He 
is tired. Wednesday he was in London meeting nine rabbis. One will 
oversee the research in Ukraine. Desbois is cautious that his work 
adheres to halacha, or Jewish law.

Desbois runs a lean team. A student in Germany combs police archives, 
which are cross-referenced against Soviet archives in Washington D.C., 
for period recollections. Then Desbois searches for three, unconnected 
eyewitnesses. He approaches them as a priest, in his collar, in his 
gentle manner. He reconstructs the massacres through their accounts - 
where the Jews walked, where the killers stood. Ballistic experts 
analyze shell casings found on the graves. Each witness is 
interviewed, photographed, and filmed.

"He never made anyone feel guilty," says Anne-Marie Revcolevschi, 
director of the French Shoah foundation, who has traveled with 
Desbois. "He is just trying to understand what happened."

Desbois takes out a series of black albums filled with photographs 
that could pass for 19th-century images. In rural Ukraine, the roads 
are unpaved, the faces of the people deeply lined. When Desbois's team 
arrives in the most remote areas, blocked by rutted roads, the people 
tell him: the Nazis made the same journey, simply to kill. He shows 
one photo of an elderly man weeping. Like other witnesses to the 
massacres, this man saw the grave "still moving" after three days: In 
every village, many were buried alive.

"It is not always easy," says Desbois of his work. "And when it is 
much too difficult, I always think [of] my grandfather [who] was here 
three years in a camp and saw everything. Me, I am free." He sighs. 
"What I want is for the place to be respected as human places," he 
says. "I want to recover the memory because nobody was witness [to 
this] except those people I find. And they are very old. So we have to 
run to save the memory."


Philip Mathews

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