The priest wasn’t actually hearing confession in Temple Emanu-El last week, but…
During ordination and investiture services last week, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion presented its highest honor, the Roger E. Joseph Prize, to Father Patrick Desbois, a French priest who serves as the church’s liaison to the Jewish community in his country. At a reception afterward, guests would come up to Father Desbois and whisper a few words, as if at confession. “My family comes from Ukraine,” they would whisper, “but we don’t know what happened to our relatives.”
Their relatives, of course, are kin who disappeared during the Holocaust without a trace. And Father Desbois is the world authority on what happened to many of them.
The grandson of a French soldier who was interned in a Nazi prison camp on the Ukrainian side of the Polish border, Father Desbois has spent most of this decade locating 800 mass graves and other execution sites of Jews throughout Texas-sized Ukraine. In the process he has interviewed the aging witnesses to the doomed Jews’ final hours, and documented the fatal operations of the Einsatzgruppen mobile killing squads that took an estimated 1.5 million Jewish lives during World War II.
HUC honored Father Desbois, 52, for the work he has done under the aegis of the Paris-based, Catholic-and-Jewish-supported Yahad-In Unum organization (the names mean, “together,” respectively, in Hebrew and Latin), leading teams of researchers (two interpreters, a photographer, a cameraman, a ballistics specialist, mapping expert and a note taker) to Ukrainian villages and fields for several weeks at a time.
“In capturing the evidence of the Shoah, before the last eye-witnesses are gone, Father Desbois reminds the world that genocide is the murder of individual victims, one by one by one,” said Rabbi David Ellenson, HUC president, who presented the prize to the priest. The citation, which accompanies a $10,000 honorarium, praised Father Desbois’ “relentless and selfless … devotion to … giving each victim a concrete identity.”
“I do this so people can know what happened” to the Jews who died in unknown and unmarked graves, Father Desbois explained the morning after the HUC ceremony. He tells his story at greater length in his recently published autobiography, “The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews” (Palgrave Macmillan).
“La Shoah par Balles,” the Holocaust by bullets, is a French expression for the way the Final Solution was carried out outside the better-known gas chambers of the death camps.
“We cannot give a posthumous victory to Nazism. We cannot leave the Jews buried like animals,” Father Desbois writes “Men, women, and children without tombs or burial places appeared … as the supreme token of dehumanization.”
Father Desbois says his interest in the fate of Europe’s wartime Jews was sparked by his grandfather’s experience as a Nazi POW. “The others” suffered worse at the Nazis’ hands," his grandfather said. “The others” were the Jews.
Following a visit to the site of his grandfather’s prison camp, Father Desbois set out to find a nearby mass grave. His mission quickly went national. “I saw the Holocaust as a responsibility,” he writes.
In this country last week to be honored by HUC, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, he was in constant touch with his Paris office, arranging his next trip to Ukraine, where a few hundred uncovered mass execution sites remain, and to Belarus, another former Soviet republic where the Einsatzgruppen operated. He recently obtained permission to start conducting interviews and looking for mass graves in Belarus. Next: Russia.
“I have seven, eight years left,” Father Desbois said. “After that, it will be impossible. Then there will be no more witnesses.”
Everywhere he has gone with his team, with the blessing of local rabbis and the help of local priests, he has located elderly residents of villages who have lived in the same place their whole lives and witnessed the Nazis’ atrocities. Many of the senior citizens, who were forced to feed the soldiers and to flatten the bulging graves, seem relieved to unburden a lifetime of guilty memories, says Father Desbois.
In Ukraine, in his clerical collar, he listens to testimonies dispassionately, like a priest in church.
“It’s not a confession,” he says, “because confession is not done in public.” Father Desbois’ team of researchers is party to the conversations.
In Ukraine, the priest isn’t hearing confession, but …