From The Times, May 23, 2009, by Roger Boyes:
...After a five-year investigation [Father Patrick Desbois] had received a shocking insight into the mechanics of genocide — and strong indications that historians may have to raise their estimate of how many Jews were killed.
Working with a ballistics expert, the 53-year-old French priest dug up the mass graves of Ukraine. “Every village was a crime scene,” he says, “and each case was different because the heads of the killing squads had to take in all the different factors — the geography, the transport available, the proximity of partisans — before organising the most efficient massacre.”
As his work in the Nazi killing fields continues, he is convinced that the figure for the number of Jewish dead will have to be revised upwards. “Surely at the end of it all the numbers will be larger,” Father Desbois said, “but we are still inspecting sites in Belarus and there is the vastness of Russia ahead of us.”
At present, Paul Shapiro, of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum — which has been co-operating in Father Desbois’s body hunt — reckons that 1.5 million Jews were murdered by the Germans, their allies and collaborators in the towns and villages of Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and other former Soviet republics.
As Hitler’s armies pressed into Russia, the Einsatzgruppen — Operational Groups — rounded up the Jews, forced them to dig pits, strip and lie in the mud until they were shot.
Hundreds and thousands were killed even before German bureaucrats met in 1942 at the Wannsee Conference to work out the logistics of systematically murdering European Jewry and before the concentration camps were slaughtering their inmates. Father Desbois calls it “the Holocaust by bullets”.
The activities of the Einsatzgruppen have been known at least since the Nuremberg trials but their scope was never quite clear.
As a result, estimates of the number of Jewish Holocaust victims fluctuates between 5.1 million (Raoul Hilberg), 5.7 million (Martin Gilbert) and 5.9 million (Lucy Dawidowicz). These figures may have to be raised once Father Desbois has completed his grim research.
When the Germans were driven out of Russia and Ukraine, Soviet investigators were sent to the villages to take witness testimony, photograph the sites and make an estimate of how many died in the usually unmarked sites in fields and forests.
It was not until some years after the collapse of communism that it was feasible to check the Soviet documentation.
It was a task Father Desbois took on as a holy mission. His curiosity was stirred as a child because his grandfather had been a prisoner of war in a German camp in Ukraine.
The priest went to what was left of the camp — a small memorial stone — and discovered that 7,500 Jews had been killed in the area. The deputy mayor organised the local old people to meet the priest and the stories, untold for more than 60 years, tumbled out.
Some had fathers who had used the farm’s horse and cart to carry away the clothes of the victims. At least one interviewee was ordered to rip the gold teeth out of the mouths of victims.
In deserted barns the priest discovered old farming machinery designed to sort out chaff from wheat — but used by the Germans to sift for valuables in the ashes of cremated Jews.
“Now it is a race against time,” he says. “The witnesses who I am talking to were children at the time and are now very old indeed. So far I have talked to 950.”
One of his interviewees was Petrivna, a Ukrainian woman, in the village of Ternivka. The Jews, she said, were gathered in the centre of the village and taken to a large pit on the fringes of the community.
They were told to lie down, 20 at a time, and shot in the back of the head. “It’s not easy to walk on bodies,” Petrivna told the priest.
“Very calmly I asked her: ‘You had to walk on the bodies of the people who were shot?’ She replied: ‘Yes, I had to pack them down . . . after every volley of shots. We were three Ukrainian girls who, in our bare feet, had to pack them down, the bodies of the Jews, and throw a fine layer of sand on top of them so that other Jews could lay down’.”
More than 2,000 were killed in that single massacre and even larger numbers were killed across Ukraine. In the Lisinitchi forest, outside Lviv, 90,000 were shot in six months.
“Now it is just a recreation area, part of the city. Lovers go there. And though there are 57 mass graves in the woods there is not a single monument or memorial.”
Using a powerful metal detector, the priest and his team worked out where to dig. After one visit to a massacre site they gathered up the German cartridges and counted them on a restaurant table. They came to 600.
So far the priest’s investigations suggest that the Soviet reporting was accurate. This, he says, will help to thwart the Holocaust deniers.
Father Desbois’s account of his investigation so far is called Holocaust by Bullets and is published by Palgrave Macmillan.
Records of genocide
The commonly quoted figure of six million Jews killed during the Holocaust is derived from a claim by the senior SS officer Adolf Eichmann during his trial in Israel in 1961. It was the figure that he gave to Heinrich Himmler in 1944. Many historians believe it was an overestimate.
Raul Hilberg's 1961 book, one of the first significant studies after the war, estimated that 5.1 million Jews were killed. The British historian Martin Gilbert, in his Atlas of the Holocaust, said it was 5.75 million.
Much of the controversy over the figures comes from different estimates of the numbers killed by roaming SS squads after Germany invaded Russia in 1941. Records of the number of Jews killed in open-air shootings in places such as Ukraine, Poland and Russia are far less definitive.