French priest searches for stories of Holocaust victims
The Rev. Patrick Desbois is uncovering a dark chapter from the Holocaust which, until the collapse of the Soviet Union, had been cloaked in secrecy.
Since 2004, the French Catholic priest, accompanied by a team of investigators, has combed the Ukrainian countryside, where he has discovered an estimated 800 unmarked grave sites of Jews and Gypsies who were killed as part of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Desbois believes there could be as many as 2,000 grave sites scattered across the Ukraine, where an estimated 1.5 million Jews are believed to have been shot and murdered from 1941-44.
He originally visited the Ukraine in 2002 to see the prison camp in Rava-Ruska where his grandfather, a French soldier who had been deported there by the Nazis during World War II, had been incarcerated. His grandfather had told him of the monstrosities he had seen in the Poland-border town of some 8,000, piquing his interest to learn more.
It was not until his first visit to the Ukraine that he discovered there were no markers for the Jews and Gypsies who had been shot to death in the Ukraine. The victims there were not sent to Nazi concentration camps; rather, they were shot and buried.
The discovery of the grave sites prompted Desbois to embark on a full-time journey, beginning in 2004, that involved him visiting elderly Ukrainian residents – door to door, unannounced – to interview them about the mass shootings they witnessed. The stories he has heard are laced with horror, but Desbois says he cannot show emotion while conducting the interviews.
“It’s very difficult,” he said. “You must not show anything on your face, or they will stop [talking]. They remember their friends from school who were shot and died in front of them.
“If you show something, the story stops.”
For the most part, the interviewees willingly speak about what they saw, Desbois said. So impoverished are some places he visits that there is no running water. His subjects are candid nonetheless. And time is running out.
“They want to speak before they die,” he said. “They are very proud to give their testimony.”
The interviews and stories, the priest said, have had a profound impact on him and members of his 10-member research crew.
“Afterwards, it takes two days to be normal,” he said. “It changes your life. In one way you are more lonely.”
Not until the fall of the Soviet Union, which had stonewalled investigations into the shootings until its 1991 collapse, was there any possibility for such a probe by Desbois. Likewise, the Nazis had originally denied any access to the grave sites.
The priest shuns the nonbelievers of the Holocaust.
“I denounce them. I have nothing to tell them,” he said this week in a telephone interview this week. “They know what the truth is. They are not deniers; they are anti-Semites. It’s a position of hate.”
Desbois’ discoveries prompted him to tell about his work in the book “Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 million Jews.”
He is scheduled to give a lecture and book signing at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 4, at the Hotel Jerome. The event is sponsored by the Chabad Jewish Community Center.
Desbois, a consultant to the Vatican and the head of the Commission for Relations with Judaism of the French Bishops’ Conference, said his mission is to give the victims -both the Jews and the Gypsies – a proper burial.
“The dignity of these people -they need to be buried like everyone else,” he said.
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