Shalom Life | April 16, 2014

French Priest Uncovers Mass Graves In Ukraine

Father Patrick Desbois spoke in a Toronto synagogue.

By: Doris Strub Epstein

Published: October 12th, 2010 in News » World

French Priest Uncovers Mass Graves In Ukraine

Before Treblinka, Sobibor, Maidanek – before any of that – Jews were being killed in the Ukraine. It started early on, in 1942 when Germany invaded the Ukraine and ended in 1944. Two million Jews lived there before the War. One and half million were murdered and lie in unmarked mass graves, unrecognized and unremembered. Babi Yar, where 34,000 died in a ravine just outside of Kiev in 1944, is the only exception. They were killed by the Germans and by their many Ukrainian collaborators. They lie forgotten mainly because the Soviet regime would not allow any publication concerning these Jews.

The victims were taken from their homes to locations just outside the towns and villages they lived in. There, they were shot at close range, face to face or in the back. Many died buried alive – men, women, children, babies.

That is until a French Catholic priest, Father Patrick Desbois, came along. He has spent several years searching for the remains of the Jews murdered during the war in the Ukraine and has excavated hundreds of mass graves containing the bones of Jews massacred during this time. The present population, unwilling to make this public, have demolished all vestiges of Jewish life in the Ukraine. “Synagogues are used as garbage dumps, Jewish cemeteries have become market places and mass graves yield the bones of the murdered every time there is a thaw,” writes journalist Adam R. Tomaszewski.

It all began with Father Desbois’ grandfather. During the war he was a prisoner of war in a camp in Rava Ruska in the Ukraine. He spoke little of what he had experienced there, saying only “for others, it was worse”. When he was 12, Desbois picked up a book about the Holocaust. He found out that the “others” were the Jews and about their unimaginable fate. From that time on, he knew his life’s purpose was inextricably tied to that of the Jews.

In 2002, he visited the Ukraine for the first time. Speaking with a heavily French accented English, he told the overflow audience at Beth Tzedec, “I was shocked at what I didn’t see. I knew thousands of Jews were killed, but there were no markers, no documentation and no interest in investigation. When I asked the mayors of the towns where the Jews were buried, they answered: ‘We don’t know anything about that.’”

Anyone could kill Jews, not just Germans or when ordered by them. It was legal – state sanctioned murder. “If a Ukrainian neighbor wanted a Jewish neighbour’s house they could kill him and take the house,” one witness told Desbois.

He found in every town and hamlet, people that wanted to talk – witnesses that were young during the war and remembered vividly, and in detail, how the Jews were taken to their horrifying deaths.

2004. Paris. He, together with Cardinal Lustiger, whose Polish Jewish family was murdered during the war, founded Yahad In Unum, to fund the investigation of where and how the Jews were killed in the Ukraine. Seven hundred killing sites have been located in the Ukraine. “The confluence of the opening of the Russian archives, a priest’s interest – he is trusted, and the vestige of witnesses who want to talk, is working,” he said. Every month Desbois goes to Eastern Europe with a team of 22 trained people – Christians, Jews and nonbelievers. The work has expanded into Belarus, Russia and Poland.

“When we arrive in a village, it’s not like here. There’s no asphalt, no running water. I look for old houses to find the old people. Surprisingly, they want to talk.” Not because they loved their Jewish neighbours, but because of the weightiness of living with the horrific memories that they have never talked about. “Our goal is to collect evidence, because tomorrow may come the deniers, [of the Holocaust] who are always anti-Semites.”

“The past is not the past,” he said, referring to the anti-Semitism that still prevails in those countries. Young people, some in their teens, act out anti-Semitic caricatures.

“Anti-Jewish hate continues even now,” writes Tomaszewski. "Ukrainians blame Jews for the famine of the 1930s and the Russian dictatorship under the communists. Roman Shukhevytch, a high ranking officer in the German battalion which murdered 7,000 Jews in Lemberg or Lviv, is called a great Ukrainian hero.”

Father Desbois has devoted himself to this arduous and risky task. In some parts of Eastern Europe he must travel with bodyguards. He is also the Director of the French Conference of Bishops for relations with Judaism, advisor to the Cardinal-Archbishop of Lyon, and Advisor to the Vatican on the Jewish religion.

His book, The Holocaust of Bullets, is “a priest’s journey to uncover the truth behind the murder of 1.5 million Jews.” He told the deeply moved audience, who gave him a standing ovation, “We must not build a modern world and think evil will keep silent.”

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