Of Killing Fields and Looted Graves: A Catholic Priest Fulfills the Command, Zachor
NEW YORK–Father Patrick Desbois is an unusual Catholic priest, who, at the behest of two French clerics (the Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivor, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, and Cardinal Jean Pierre Ricard), officially took it upon himself to obey the commandment, Zachor, to remember. Born in the 1950’s, he is the grandson of a deportee sent to Rawa-Ruska, near Belzec, in the former Soviet Union–a deportee who witnessed mass shooting murder of the Jews by Nazis’ Einzatsgruppen, the mobile killing troops, and their collaborators.
Years later he returned to that site with his grandson, to teach him why he had to help heal the world. At that moment the wick was lit, and Father Desbois became “the memorial candle” for his family and his calling. With the blessings of the Cardinals and the Pope, in 2002, he embarked on a journey he did not then know could become dangerous.
On January 12, 2010, Father Desbois was the guest speaker at a luncheon for members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. More than 40 leaders of the Jewish community were in attendance, among them attorney Alan Solow, chairman of the Conference and chairman of the Jewish Community Center Association; John Ruskay, executive vice president of UJAFedNY; Mindy Stein, president of Emunah of America; Kalman Sultanik, honorary vice president of the World Jewish Congress, and former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman (who founded the Office of Special Investigations at the Justice Department to prosecute Nazi war criminals).
Father Desbois was there to present his case for community action and to ask the established Jewish community to help him preserve more than 900 mass graves that hold the remains of as many as 1.6 million Jews scattered all across Eastern Europe, before it was “too late,”—and to help him find as many more as he could before the sites were destroyed by grave robbers and urbanization.
Doing research and tracking history and maps, Father Desbois walks across the killing fields where the mobile killing forces that followed Hitler’s army through the towns and cities, shtetls and dorfs of Eastern Europe, carried out lethal ethnic cleansing, one bullet at a time. He seeks eye witnesses who watched what happened when the Nazis arrived to do their dirty work, and tries to find and protect the mass graves.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference, says the Catholic priest appreciates, “The kedusha of the Kedoshim, the holiness of the holy ones.” As a son of Holocaust survivors, Hoenlein uses that term to describe Jews murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust. (The official definition of a Holocaust survivor includes any Jew who was in Europe or fled, between 1933 and 1945.)
In 2004, Father Desbois and his team created the non-profit organization, Yahad in Unum, so he could fund this quest, which often takes him and his team to remote areas, where the natives are not always friendly and might even want to kill them. It’s one reason he learned to develop a poker face, one that would not reveal his feelings even while listening to the vilest forms of anti-Semitic libels. Said the priest: “If you show on your face what you think, the interview is over. Some of these people are violent and will kill those who try to stop them. And some of the people who speak of the ‘innocent ones’ are afraid of reprisals.”
In one place, he spent Christmas with a Greek Orthodox family whose entertainment for the evening included skit wherein his host’s son and daughter played a Jew who said he came to swindle everyone in town, and his wife, the Rebbitzen, opened her coat to reveal stolen cell phones for sale.
The witnesses who have given testimony have allowed Father Desbois to recreate precisely the way the Einzatsgruppen carried out their tasks. In meticulous, chilling detail, he described the methodology of death by close range shooting in the days before Auschwitz and the other death camps were built.
Everything went according to a system that began when a German location scout would show up to scope out the area for the best place to locate such a grave. When the troops arrived, the mayor and municipal police were recruited to bring the Jews out of their homes and march them to the sites, where they would dig their own graves and be murdered at close range–one bullet, one Jew. Within three weeks, beginning with the sales of clothing left at the gravesites and ending with auctions of Jewish-owned furniture in the local synagogue buildings, the entire Jewish community would disappear. But not without a trace. Artifacts remain at many of the sites, and grave robbers know it and seek them out.
When the Yachad in Unum team comes to a town, they ask the locals if they know anyone who witnessed the mass murder of the Jews. They race against the clock because the witnesses are dying of old age. Sometimes the people come forward, and sometimes they don’t. And sometimes the evidence confirms what the witness saw. In one case a witness described someone playing a harmonica while the shootings took place, and Father Desbois’s team found the remains of a harmonica near the mass grave.
The most horrific reason and need for speed to preserve the sites is because of what is happening to those mass graves today. In remote areas, there are mass graves that have not yet been confirmed and protected, and locals use them as gold mines (80% of the graves in Ukraine have been looted)—digging up the remains to search for gold teeth and jewelry.
Artifacts found by the Yachad in Unum team—shell casings, bullets, necklaces, bracelets—are sent off to various Holocaust museums to refute Holocaust deniers and to educate the public. They have developed a traveling artifact exhibit, “The Holocaust of Bullets,” that is sent to schools and study centers across the globe. The team has developed special relationships with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and with the Sorbonne in Paris to make these materials available to all, and to use those resources in their research as well.
Yachad in Unum’s goal now is to get funding to expand the search for mass graves into Russia, Belarus and Poland; to maintain an archive in Paris for other museums, scholars, students, survivor families and researchers to access; and to continue to make the traveling exhibition available.
Most importantly, they want to recruit people who can help them convince area governments to seal the graves with concrete and mark them as sacred grounds so that they cannot be defiled any longer.
But this work doesn’t come cheap. Each investigative trip, which includes all the research done by the 11-member team costs approximately $55,000 and it is expected that the cost to complete the entire project and seal the graves would cost $5 million.
At the conclusion of his talk, Hoenlein presented Father Desbois with an award of thanks on behalf of all of the major Jewish organizations in the United States.