Exposing a hidden Shoah, one mass grave at a time

When Father Patrick Desbois is not advising the Church on Jews, he is researching the tragic end of Eastern European communities

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Father Patrick Desbois (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
Father Patrick Desbois (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

PARIS — Patrick Desbois began taking interest in the Jews of Eastern Europe after traveling to the Ukraine because of his grandfather, who as a French political prisoner was deported to a Soviet internment camp in 1942.

“He never spoke. He only said that outside the camp was worse than in the camp. I wanted to understand why, and I discovered that 18,000 Jews were shot in this village, Rawa-Ruska, and were never buried.”

A Catholic priest based in Paris, Desbois is an unlikely Holocaust researcher. But the story of the Ukrainian Jews, which he exposed bit by bit through interviewing local peasants who collaborated as teenagers with the Nazis in the extermination, moved him to found Yahad-in Unum.  Established in 2004 and tasked with researching and documenting the story of entire communities erased from the face of the earth, the organization operates today in eight eastern European countries, shedding new light on executions by gunfire previously unaccounted for in Holocaust research.

Today, Yahad-in Unum scans evidence from Soviet and German archives being opened, cross-referencing the evidence with the testimonials of some 3,500 local farmers who were present at the killing sites, and in some cases even with ballistic evidence.

“People who were present at the killings wanted to speak before they die. Many people were requisitioned to dig the mass graves, to fill them, to bring the Jews in horse-drawn carts, to bring back their suits, to sell the suits, to put ashes on the blood. Fifty different jobs,” Desbois said.

Yahad-In Unum’s research so far indicates that 1 million Jews “from Poland to Ossetia” were shot dead and laid in mass graves, many of whom were unaccounted for in previous Holocaust research.

“A whole part of the genocide has not been declared,” Desbois told The Times of Israel. “The challenge is to collect the maximum amount of evidence about the killing of the Jews in these countries and find out about the mass graves. Tomorrow the witnesses will disappear and the deniers will overreact, saying that the Jews falsified the story.”

When Desbois got involved in Holocaust research, he was already working as an adviser to the Cardinal of Lyon on Jewish affairs. Today he is the main adviser to France’s Catholic church on Judaism, and also advises the Vatican. Heavyset and sharp-spoken, Desbois mixes Hebrew words in his French and English conversation; he learned the language over two decades of traveling back and forth to Israel.

“I always say: the Holocaust was not a tsunami. It was a crime. And when there’s a crime you have evidence. It’s very easy to find evidence in these villages.”

‘Fighting anti-Semitism is knowing the Jews as they really are’

The terrorist attack against the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse in March 2012 was a turning point in anti-Semitic acts in France, Desbois said. It was the first attack following which people openly expressed satisfaction at the death of four Jews.

“Now [anti-Semitism] is a banality. If you kick a Jew, that will no longer be in the newspaper. Only if you kill a Jew will you make the headlines.”

As the Church’s liaison to the Jewish community, Desbois has concrete ideas about how to fight anti-Semitism in France. The key, he believes, is understanding how Jewish society functions today, not simply learning about Jews through scripture.

“Otherwise you dream the Jews, and that’s not good, because if you dream the Jews one day you will hate the Jews,” he said. “If you want to fight anti-Semitism you need to know the other as he is in reality, not as you imagine him.”

To that end, in October Desbois will arrive in Israel with a delegation of 150 senior clerics from France and Spain to inaugurate a memorial for Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the former Archbishop of Paris and son of Polish-Jewish immigrants, in the village of Abu-Ghosh outside Jerusalem.

‘Now [anti-Semitism] is a banality. If you kick a Jew, that will no longer be in the newspaper. Only if you kill a Jew will you make the headlines’

The group, headed by the current cardinal of Paris Archbishop André Vingt-Trois, will spend a week touring Israel on a visit decidedly defined as “not a pilgrimage” but designed to discover “what it means to be a Jew today.”

The trip will include a speech by Cardinal  Vingt-Trois at Bar-Ilan University, a two-day tour of the Negev desert and meetings with local farmers, and a two-day stay in Tel Aviv where they will visit the Beit Hatfutsot Diaspora Museum and attend a concert at the new opera house.

“I wanted them to see the Negev of today, not the Negev of Abraham,” he said. “How can you know your brother if you only meet his grandfather?”

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