Why a priest hunts for lost Shoah victims

Father Patrick Desbois on how he has made it his mission to give thousands

By Simon Rocker, December 4, 2008
Members of Father Desbois’s team digging for evidence of Nazi atrocities

Members of Father Desbois’s team digging for evidence of Nazi atrocities

A large, stone menorah stands at Babi Yar, outside Ukrainian capital of Kiev, in memory of the 33,000 Jews who were among the 100,000 people murdered there by the Nazis during the Second World War. But for most of the 1.5 million Jews who were shot by the Einsatzgruppen, the Germans’ mobile killing squads, in Ukraine, no memorial marks the scene of their death. They lie beneath mounds in the forests, in farmers’ fields, even in gardens.

Their fate is probably generally less well-known than those who perished in camps such as Treblinka and Auschwitz. But one French Catholic priest is determined to ensure that their story does not lie buried with their unmarked graves. Over the past eight years, Father Patrick Desbois has travelled repeatedly to Ukraine to locate all the sites where the victims met their end and to interview former neighbours who witnessed the killings. The author of a book, The Holocaust by Bullets, recently published in English, he will be speaking about his mission of remembrance for the first time in the UK next week.

So far, he says, “we have covered 45 per cent of the territory of the Ukraine and one region of Belarus. We’ve discovered around 850 extermination sites and interviewed 825 witnesses.” That is 850 out of more than 2,000 sites.

Over time, he and his team have honed their research skills, using metal detectors to uncover incriminating gun cartridges or learning to distinguish between human and animal bones dug up from the ground.

What led him to Ukraine was the experience of his paternal grandfather, who had been deported there during the war to a camp for French prisoners in a place called Rawa-Ruska. Conditions were difficult, his grandfather told him as a child growing up in Burgundy after the war, but “worse for others”. It was only when he was 12 years old and seeing pictures about the Holocaust in the local library that he realised who “the others” were.

Father Patrick Desbois: “We cannot build Europe on mass graves”

Father Patrick Desbois: “We cannot build Europe on mass graves”

During a visit to Rawa-Ruska in 2003, he was struck by the contrast between German investment in new cemeteries to rebury the remains of their soldiers who died in Ukraine during the war and the neglected burial places of the Jews.

Recalling the biblical story of Cain and Abel, he explains; “Abel is not buried. We say that he was swallowed by the earth. God asks Cain: ‘Where is your brother?’ I think since I was a child, I have listened to this question, ‘Where is your Jewish brother? Where is your gypsy brother from Ukraine?’ I think we cannot build a modern Europe, a modern world, on mass graves.” To bury the victims properly, he adds, “is to reintegrate them into humanity”.

On rabbinical advice, the remains are left undisturbed where they lie, but by identifying the sites, at least mourning rites such as the recitation of Kaddish can be said over them.

In 2004, Father Desbois founded an organisation called Yahad-in Unum to foster Catholic-Jewish relations — its name means together in Hebrew and Latin — and he advises the Vatican on Judaism. He estimates he has another seven or eight years’ work in the Ukraine, while eyewitnesses remain alive. Each time he leaves the country, he reflects on how the perpetrators “could have done that, young boys from Germany… killing women and children one by one, day by day… I always wonder how they could have done that in the modern world in the middle of Europe.”

Father Desbois is speaking at the Hertfordshire Learning Experience on December 10. For details, see www.hlx.org.uk. The Holocaust by Bullets is published by Palgrave Macmillan at £14.99

Last updated: 4:38pm, September 23 2009