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.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:
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).
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, yahadinunum.org [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.