Priest uncovers untold Shoah by bullets


By Elena mancini

“The Shooting of Jews in Ukraine” is the title of a groundbreaking exhibition based on the recently published “Holocaust by Bullets” by French priest and Holocaust researcher Father Patrick Desbois. On display is the heretofore-untold history of the 1,500,000 Ukrainian Jews who were murdered between 1941 and 1944, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union.

The onsite anthropological work of Desbois and his team from the Yahad-In Unum Association has been instrumental in unlocking the secrets of the Eastern Holocaust. Unlike the heinous crimes perpetrated at Auschwitz, Dachau, and Treblinka that have become prominent in public discourse, any discussion of the Holocaust of the Eastern front has remained largely suppressed throughout the Cold War and until recently, when Debois undertook a large-scale investigation into the atrocities of the Ukrainian Shoah in 2004.

Born in 1955, Desbois learned of the Eastern camps through his grandfather, Claudius, who was deported to Rawa-Ruska internment camp in Ukraine. Struck by his grandfather’s reluctance to speak about his internment, Desbois, who hails from a long lineage of Catholics and atheists, became intent on uncovering this story. Driven by his faith, Desbois pursued his quest of bringing these forgotten victims to light by learning Hebrew and studying the history of anti-Semitism at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

In his book, “Holocaust by Bullets,” Desbois explains that, unlike the systematic modes of torture and execution that the Nazis employed on the Jews that were deported to the death camps, Ukrainian Jews were shot to death in a chaotic and arbitrary fashion. In the farther removed regions of the East, the rigorous organization and supervision of the Nazi war crimes were slackened. There were no organized camps or gas chambers. Here, the victims were typically killed from behind, with a bullet to the back of the head. In many instances, the Nazis held non-Jewish Ukrainians at gunpoint and ordered them to murder their neighbors. This, Desbois writes, was how the perpetrators handled the more difficult task of assassinating children. The Nazis also commanded non-Jewish, peasant children to dig the mass graves, strip the dead of any valuables and cart away the corpses.

The work of uncovering this history has consisted of traveling to Rawa-Ruska and other Ukrainian villages to identify surviving eye-witnesses and locating the unmarked burial sites in which victims were deposited. Working with translators, historians, anthropologists, forensic and ballistic experts, Desbois found mass graves, bones, and traces of the killings beneath several feet of forest bramble.

The testimony of hundreds of surviving witnesses has been crucial to the reconstruction of this lost history and discovery of the sites. Many of the survivors were initially reluctant to speak of the horrors they had seen. A 96-year-old woman, who witnessed her mother’s friend being killed, feared getting into trouble with the KGB. Most witnesses, once they had agreed to talk, offered vivid accounts of the murders and often led the priest to the execution sites.

For many of these survivors, their conversations with Desbois marked the first time they had ever spoken of the memories with which they had been burdened. Desbois explained that as the news of his work began to spread, witnesses began to come forward and volunteer their testimony. In addition to these human memories, concrete items of historical evidence of the shootings, such as German guns and cartridges, filled in the details of these accounts. Historical documents stored in German and Soviet archives have also corroborated these stories.

In addition to his faith, another driving force behind Desbois’s work is to do justice to the memory of these forgotten victims, to condemn genocide, and to combat Holocaust denial. Desbois, who is secretary to the French Conference of Bishops for relations with Judaism, advisor to the Vatican on the Jewish religion, president of Yahad-In Unum Association and an honoree of the United States Holocaust Museum seeks to remind Christians and Jews of their shared heritage and responsibilities.

Appropriately, “Yahad-In Unum” are the Hebrew and Latin words for “togetherness.” A believer in the importance of action, he is committed to extending his work throughout all of the regions of the former Soviet block.

New York is the first in a string of locations that will show this exhibition created by Memorial de la Shoah, Paris in conjunction with Yahad-In Unum.