Father Patrick Desbois believes that many more than six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, and he can prove it.
Through interviews with more than 1,200 witnesses, Desbois has uncovered upwards of 700 previously unknown Jewish mass graves in Eastern Europe, where at least 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews are buried. Since 2004, Desbois has worked systematically and painstakingly, documenting and mapping the site of Jewish mass killings by Nazi mobile killing units, or Einsatzgruppen, in Eastern Europe.
Desbois is reluctant to say how many more victims there might be of Nazis and German policemen, who lined up Jews and shot them one by one. Having made his way through the Ukraine, he turned his attention to Belarus last year.
“What we can say is that the number of shootings is without any comparison. If you look only at the German archives, you’ll find five to six times less than what we found. It’s sure that at the end, the number will increase,” he said on Tuesday, at a gathering in New York City hosted by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“This killing began the first day of the war, and finished the last day of the war.”
Desbois said he is not looking for 10,000 or 45,000 missing Jews. “We are looking for the family,” he said. “For the persons. It’s what keeps us strong.”
For Desbois, the work began nearly 60 years after the Holocaust. The French Catholic priest said he was deeply impacted by his grandfather’s experience during the war, when he was held at Rawa-Ruska in the former Soviet Union. His grandfather mostly refused to speak about the experience, except to describe harrowing conditions, including no food and drink.
He always said, “Outside the camp, was worse,” said Desbois. “For me, I was wondering, what is worse?”
In 2004, Desbois established Yahad-In Unum, meaning “together” in Hebrew and Latin, to collect forensic evidence of the killings. The organization also maintains an archive in Paris. In November, Desbois published a book, The Holocaust by Bullets, which documents his findings to date.
During one of his first research trips to Eastern Europe, Desbois said he stopped at a farming village, where 100 old farmers stood waiting for him.
They took him to a mass grave, recalling that Germans had listened to music and played a harmonica while Jewish workers dug it. They secretly placed explosives in a field, and sent Jews from the town to rest in the area, where they were killed.
Later, Desbois and his team used a metal detector in the area and recovered fragments of the harmonica, along with bones and German shell casings.
The German policemen used one bullet per Jew, and they buried alive whomever they failed to shoot and kill, Desbois said, telling how witnesses later said the mass graves moved for three days. “It took me a while to accept, to understand,” he said.
Like so many Holocaust research projects, his is a race against time. “The witnesses are old and we are also in a political window that lets us do the job,” he said. “In five years this project is finished, unfortunately.”
It is a painstaking process, with his researchers cobbling together files on each town using documents and maps that are part of Soviet and German archives.
Desbois says during visits to each village, he taps local priests and mayors to find witnesses, while also scouring the markets for people who lived there during the war and remember seeing Germans killing their Jewish neighbors.
The interviews are matter-of-fact: Desbois asks for precise information regarding where the Germans stood, whether they brought dogs, which streets they blocked off.
“The goal is to rebuild the killing,” he said, explaining how forensic scientists then return to the scene and look for evidence, such as shell casings or neglected jewelry.
“We make at this moment a ballistic investigation. Why? Because the Germans were not afraid to leave evidence.”
He recalled one village where he found 50 gun cartridges in one place.
“It meant the shooter didn’t move,” he said. “We also found a bunch of Jewish jewels. It means these policemen stole everything and stole a lot of jewels.”
If the Holocaust was a secretive extermination in the West, it was public in the East, he said.
“Anybody who had a pistol could be invited to be in the killing group,” he said. Local Germans sometimes organized the killings.
For Desbois, a primary goal is not only to document what happened more than 60 years ago, but also to protect the mass graves, which are vulnerable to looting. He has encountered anti-Semitism along the way, and travels with bodyguards.
The recipient of honorary degrees from Bar-Ilan University and the Hebrew University, Desbois has been honored by Jewish organizations around the globe. In June 2008, French President Nicolas Sarkozy named Desbois Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur for his research.
On Tuesday, the chairman of the Presidents’ Conference, Alan Solow, expressed his “personal appreciation” for Desbois’s courage, perseverance and work to preserve humanity.
In presenting Desbois with a silver etching of a dove, Malcolm Hoenlein, the group’s executive vice chairman, underscored the importance in Judaism of preserving the sanctity of the dead. There is “no greater mitzva” than that, he said, “It’s something you cannot repay.”
“All my team, we have the same conviction,” Desbois said. “We cannot build Europe, we cannot build the modern world, and ask the thousands of Jews and gypsies to stay in silence.”
- this video report
- this posting from The Huffington Post, 17 January 2010
- this report on a National Public Radio broadcast about Father Desbois, of 17 January 2010
- this posting on Avid Editor’s Insights of 26 May 2009
- this description of an exhibition at the Shoah Memorial museum, from the 20th of June, 2007 to the 6th of January, 2008, presenting the ongoing research of Father Patrick Desbois and the Yahad-In Unum research team