Monday, January 26, 2009

Father Patrick Desbois And The Documentation Of The Lesser Known Part Of The Holocaust

While the details of the holocaust as carried out in Poland are familiar to anyone with the slightest acquaintance with that part of history, much less is known about the details of the holocaust in the Ukraine. That is in the process of changing:
Father Patrick Desbois is a French Catholic priest who, virtually single-handedly, has undertaken the task of excavating the history of previously undocumented Jewish victims of the Holocaust in the former Soviet Union, including an estimated 1.5 million people who were murdered in Ukraine. Father Desbois was born 10 years after the end of World War II -- and yet, through his tireless actions, he exemplifies the "righteous gentile." The term is generally used to recognize non-Jews who, during the Holocaust, risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis. Father Desbois is a generation too late to save lives. Instead, he has saved memory and history.

How much he has accomplished since 2002 can be seen in "The Shooting of Jews in Ukraine: Holocaust By Bullets," which runs until March 15 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. The exhibit was created by the Memorial de la Shoah Paris in cooperation with Father Desbois's organization, Yahad in Unum (the words for "together" in Hebrew and Latin). It follows the publication last August of his book "The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest's Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews" (Palgrave MacMillan).
The nature of the murder of the Jews in the Ukraine by its very nature requires much more work in order to uncover, let alone categorize the evidence:
Using forensic evidence, eyewitness accounts and archival research, Father Desbois has taken it upon himself to document the murders of Jews after the Nazis invaded the former Soviet Union. In Ukraine, where he has begun his work, these Jews were not killed in the relatively well-documented machinery of the death camps. They were the victims of mobile killing units that shot their captives and deliberately left few records of their crimes. At each location, according to Father Desbois, local Ukrainians, including hundreds of children, were requisitioned at gunpoint to assist with the logistics of murder. In August 1941, for instance, these death squads were killing an estimated 82 Jews every hour.

The exhibit is excruciating, and encompasses videos of eyewitness testimony as well as step-by-step descriptions of the executions. From the forced preparation of the grave sites through the painstaking pre-execution activities (like the forcible removal of the Jews' jewelry and gold teeth), the firing squads and the aftermath (including the Nazi banquets celebrating a job well done), the exhibit documents the Holocaust in a part of the world where the specifics of murder, and the location of specific sites, were previously omitted from the historical record. At one point, it describes the technique pioneered by Nazi Einsatzgruppen Leader Friedrich Jeckeln in 1941 of positioning the victims-to-be face down on top of those who had just been executed. Jeckeln called this method Sardinenpackung, or sardine-packing, and noted its purpose: "to avoid having to rearrange the bodies and to gain space."

Father Desbois is tired, as the circles beneath his eyes attest, but he wants to learn more. In 2009, he and his team will expand their work into Belarus and Ossetia. He hopes people will contact him through his organization's Web site, [English version here], and tell him where to look for more mass graves and more eyewitnesses to history.

Among its pages, the Yahad in Unum website has background on Father Desbois's work and excerpts of some of the testimonies he has collected.

Father Desbois is aware that his project cannot go on indefinitely--in addition to the psychological toll his work takes on him, the witnesses he interviews now were children at the time, and now are in their 70's and 80's.

At some point, the book will be closed on his work, but the history of what happened will be remembered.

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CJ said...

Way to go, Father Desbois.
Let's see "Bishop" Williamson and the SSPX stuff that in their antisemitic censers and smoke it!

Indra said...

Dear Book Blogger,
I recently read your post about Father Patrick Desbois and wanted to let you know about an exciting exhibition about his work in Ukraine that is now on view through March 23 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage —A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City. The Shooting of Jews in Ukraine: Holocaust by Bullets includes powerful evidence, both physical and testimonial, gathered by Father Patrick Desbois and his team from Yahad-In Unum. Interviews with Ukrainian bystanders and witnesses, together with photographs, artifacts, and text panels, tell the chilling story of Jewish victims–men, women, and children–who were summarily executed near the places they lived, with their neighbors watching.
The Museum has also hosted several public programs over the course of the exhibition’s run that complement the themes in the exhibition. On Monday, March 2 at 7 p.m. director Sergey Bukovsky will screen and discuss Spell Your Name, his film about the Holocaust in Ukraine. This event is free with suggested donation. It is the Museum’s hope that the exhibit will engage visitors and promote dialogue about remembrance and responsibility. Please visit our website at for up-to-date information about upcoming public programs or to join our e-bulletin list.

Thanks for sharing this info with your readers. Let me know if you need any more.

Unknown said...

I am the grandchild and grand cousin nephew etc. of an entire family of murdered Jews in the Ukraine. I would like to know if Father Debois has been able to document the identities of the victims of the Einsatzgruppen and if so where can I go to read such documentation.
I am 54. Since childhood I have read the accounts and books of the memories and documentation of the Holocaust with horror and fear that no one will read these accounts after my generation is gone. Thanks to people like Father Debois and his tireless efforts and the holocaust museums across the world that fear hopefully will go unrealized.
There are always new Hitlers though in countries across the world that speak out against the memory of the dead because in their own inadequacy and cowardice they have sought out and found the enemy who cannot answer back for themselves. Their strength and spirits live through the beautiful lives of those who have dedicated so much of their lives to this memory, now fading into the cemeteries of Eastern Europe and places like the Ukraine.
May the Lord give them the strength and courage to persevere.

Daled Amos said...

If you want to contact Father Debois and his organization, you can try the contact page on his site: this helps.

CMD said...

this is quite research of the holocaust just led me to a recent article about fr. desbois' work...i plan to blog about him tomorrow at Never Again! my online holocaust memorial