Father Patrick Desbois

… kept his personal pledge to depict the nightmare that has haunted him while
everlastingly recalling his grandfather’s words as he sought to interpret the misery
that had befallen the Jews…

Father Patrick Desbois.

Father Patrick Desbois.

Since childhood, Patrick Desbois had a curiosity about the Holocaust and Second World War. His grandfather had been a French soldier who was deported and imprisoned by the Nazis in a camp in the Ukraine during the Second World War. Although he didn’t discuss his experiences much with his grandchild, he left a lasting impression on Desbois that would later inform much of his career. 

Ordained as a Catholic priest, Father Patrick Desbois spent a lot of time studying Judaism and anti-Semitism. After working in Africa and India, Father Desbois returned to his interest in Judaism; he began serving in different positions to improve the understanding between Jews and Catholics, becoming secretary to the French Conference of Bishops for Relations with the Jewish community, as well as the advisor to the Vatican on Judaism. He currently is Director of the Episcopal Committee for Relations with Judaism, which is connected to the French Conference of Bishops. In 2001, Desbois decided to travel to the town of Rava-Ruska in Ukraine to see where his grandfather had been imprisoned. What he found there shocked him. He knew that thousands of Jewish people had been killed there, yet Desbois found no trace of a memorial for them. No marker, no grave, no evidence of the Nazi invasion. Desbois began to ask the locals if they remembered what had happened during the war. One by one, the villagers opened up to Desbois, unburdening themselves of the horrors they had both witnessed and of which they had been a part. 

After some time, deciding it was not enough to just listen to the stories, Desbois co-founded Yahad–In Unum (unity in Hebrew and Latin respectively) in 2004. Its primary goal is to further Jewish and Catholic relations and connections; its biggest project, however, is to locate, record, and mark every mass grave, hidden by years of silence, of the estimated 1.5 million Jews killed in the Ukraine during the Holocaust. With cameras, openness, and questions asked without judgment, Desbois has been able to uncover much of what had been unacknowledged and forgotten. 

When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union during the Second World War, mobile killing squads entered Ukraine, gathering up the Jewish people. But instead of sending them away to the death camps, they were shot on sight. After removing their valuables, including gold fillings from teeth, the bodies were dumped into mass graves. If the bullets didn’t kill everyone, they were buried alive. Terrified witnesses recalled how the burial pits would shift with the movements of the live bodies under the earth. These witnesses, now very old, had been young children when these events occurred. Some had been forced to participate in moving the people along to their graves, or removing fillings from the victims. Opening up to Father Desbois, a Catholic priest, seemed to be the kind of “confession” they had all been wanting to share. Desbois notes, “People talk as if this happened yesterday, as if 60 years didn’t exist. Some ask. ‘Why are you coming so late? We have been waiting for you.’ ”

Over time, Desbois has pieced together not only an approximate number of murdered Jews, but a minimum number of mass graves (over a thousand) as well. He and Yahad – In Unum work together with a number of archives and Holocaust museums to authenticate each grave and the numbers of victims. He has also looked for, and found, empty cartridges from guns used by Nazis, but none from Soviet weapons—further evidence that these killings were executions and not the result of an armed battle between warring enemies. In 2008, Desois published his account of this search as The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest's Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews, which won the Jewish Book Council's National Jewish Book Award for that year.

Father Patrick Desbois’s mission is extremely difficult and sensitive. The stories concern great brutality, and the witnesses, now very old, had been children when these events occurred—indeed, many have died with their stories untold. But Desbois persists in his mission, knowing the importance of remembering and acknowledging the atrocities of the Holocaust. He believes each individual life deserves to be granted its unique identity and memory. 

A witness leads Father Desbois and the Yahad–In Unum research team to an execution site in the Krasnodar region of Russia. © Markel Redondo/Yahad–In Unum.

A witness leads Father Desbois and the Yahad–In Unum research team to an execution site in the Krasnodar region of Russia. © Markel Redondo/Yahad–In Unum.

Extract from Father Patrick Desbois's acceptance speech
for the 2008 Roger E. Joseph Prize

We have uncovered 800 mass graves thus far, and know that these represent only 40% of the mass graves of Ukraine. We will soon begin to do the same research in Belarus, and hope to do so in Russia, too. My motivation for this sacred task was best expressed by Pope John Paul II when he told the Jews of Rome during his historic visit to their synagogue: 'You are brothers of faith.' Throughout the fields and forests of Eastern Europe, I have heard the echoes of God's question to Cain, 'Where is your brother?', and I have heard Abel's cry. We cannot keep silent.