By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published March 6, 2008
Fields of sunflowers and rural pastures in Ukraine hide a gruesome truth that a French Catholic priest is uncovering.
Under the postcard scenery, in unmarked mass graves lie the remains of Jews massacred by the Nazis’ killing machine.
“God wants his people to be buried. They are his people,” said Father Patrick Desbois in his heavily accented English.
Father Desbois has traveled the dirt roads of the Eastern European country, seeking out witnesses to the “Holocaust of bullets” to tell the story of the killing of more than 1.5 million Jews.
The Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. That started the bloodshed in Ukraine as mobile Nazi killing units followed the front lines. The history was covered up until the Cold War ended in December 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved.
Entering a village unannounced, Father Desbois finds the elderly, people who would have been teenagers during World War II. Nazis forced them to prepare meals, dig the graves, strip clothes from the condemned, watch friends walk to their death.
A simple question put to peasant farmers can open up a flood of memories buried for 60 years. Father Desbois, 52, wears his Roman collar, sitting in often cold homes, as if he is hearing confessions.
“The people are very, very thankful,” he said. “They see me as a priest visiting the family.”
Farmers told him about having been forced to climb trees to retrieve the remains of Jews blown apart when Nazis dropped grenades into a pit. Others slaughtered a cow for Nazis for dinner. The soldiers would get up from their meal and kill a group of Jews, then return to eat. Excavations have been found with remains of mothers trying to protect their children as they were buried alive.
Since 2004, the effort has located more than 800 unidentified Jewish graves and interviewed more than 700 witnesses. With a skilled team, the priest has collected rusty bullets, archives from the Soviet Union and other evidence of the massacres that ended in 1944 with the collapse of the Nazis’ war effort on the Eastern Front.
The grisly work seems relentless and without hope. But Holocaust scholars say Father Desbois’ work restores what the killers tried to erase.
“The return of humanity is important. The perpetrator’s goal was to remove the humanity,” said Paul Shapiro, director of Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Father Desbois and Shapiro visited Atlanta as part of a four-city tour of the United States. They spoke at the archdiocesan Catholic Center and at Our Lady of Assumption Church, Atlanta, on Feb. 26. They also spoke at Emory University. Father Desbois is being honored by the museum in April for his work.
“It is difficult to overstate the importance. The significance isn’t lost on any of us,” said Shapiro about a Catholic priest taking up this task. “Across the faiths, there’s something significant here, moving us.”
Shelley Rose, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s regional office in Atlanta, said there are no words to describe Father Desbois’ work. He is documenting a long-buried part of the Holocaust.
“I was very moved by his presentation. I think the work that he is doing is so important and really phenomenal. He uncovers irrefutable evidence of what was going on before the ovens,” Rose said. “I’m so appreciative of the work he is doing.”
A French book about Father Desbois’ search, “A Priest Reveals His Holocaust by Bullets,” was published in late October, and an English edition will come out later this year.
The killings in Ukraine were not like Auschwitz and other concentration camps, with industrialized precision aimed at wiping out Jews in Europe. Some 6 million Jewish people were killed by gas and burned in ovens. In Ukraine it was personal. Neighbors were marched past fellow villagers. The shootings lasted for days.
And unlike in Germany and Poland, there are no public landmarks to remind people of the atrocities. Instead, it is hidden. The hand-dug graves where people were shot in plain sight are fields now in poor, remote farming communities. The history was silenced, first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets.
Father Desbois became interested in this history, learning it from his grandfather who had been held in a POW camp in Ukraine during the war. The captured soldiers faced a difficult life, but were spared the killings.
“For the French it was really difficult, we are eating only grass. But outside the camp, it was twice as worse,” he recalled hearing from his grandfather.
The short, dark-haired Father Desbois taught math in school and worked with Mother Teresa in India before becoming a priest. A speaker of five languages, he represents the French bishops in an interfaith dialogue with French Jews. He is the president of a Paris-based nonprofit, Yahad-In Unum, which means in Hebrew and Latin “together.”
The work is important for the Catholic Church to care for the Jewish people, who are our older brothers in faith, he said, paraphrasing the words of Pope John Paul II.
“We cannot avoid the question of God, where is your brother?” he said, relating the present situation to the biblical story of Cain’s murder of Abel. The priest asks people if they know anyone from the regions he explores as one way to get tips.
The trips to Ukraine started in 2000 when he traveled to Rawa Ruska, where his grandfather had been a prisoner. The goal was to replace the POW camp’s rundown memorial. He met silence when he asked the town’s mayor where the Jews were buried.
A few years later, a new mayor drove Father Desbois far from the town center to a small hamlet with a dozen homes.
“Here were waiting 100 farmers, very poor people. Together, in fact, we went to the mass graves of the last 1,500 Jews of Rawa Ruska. And every farmer said what he had seen when he was a child,” he said.
What followed were the first eyewitness accounts that Father Desbois heard about killing truckloads of Jews.
“The mayor told me, what we did for one village, we can do for 100 villages,” he said.
Since 2004, teams from Yahad-In Unum have covered about a third of the country’s rural, poor farming regions. Father Desbois and his team of experts include translators, ballistics experts, a photographer, mapping specialists and a note-taker. Witness statements are recorded and gravesites are marked by GPS.
The team never exhumes the bodies, in accordance with Jewish tradition. When possible, Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, is recited by local Jews. Then graves are camouflaged to keep grave robbers from looting the remains.
About a third of Ukraine has been explored so far. Father Desbois is planning to investigate in new territory in Belarus to look for more unmarked graves. He does not plan to stop the work soon.
“Until the last tomb of the young Jew is found, I will not say I am finished,” he said.
For more information, visit www.yahadinunum.org.