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Father Patrick Desbois: A Priest on a Holocaust Mission

If the Rev. Patrick Desbois is bothered by the glances from late-lunching tourists at a midtown Manhattan hotel café, he’s not letting it show.

These Friday afternoon guests probably didn’t expect to hear about mass graves, murdered babies and Nazi killing machines over their cappuccinos and sandwiches. But Desbois, in a casual black shirt and trousers, seems inured to the effects of brutal words.

As founder of the Paris-based interfaith foundation Yahad-In Unum — the name means “together” in Hebrew and Latin — he’s made those words his life’s work. Since 2004, the diminutive 54-year-old Catholic priest has collected wrenching video testimony from witnesses of mass shootings of Eastern European Jews by mobile Nazi killing units. By painstakingly comparing recollections of elderly Ukrainians with official Soviet and German accounts, Desbois has illuminated a chapter of the Holocaust whose shadow seems to grow as those years recede.

“There is such a personal element to these killings that people try to avoid it. Every killer saw his victim, every victim saw the killer,” he noted on a weeklong visit to New York recently to promote “Hitler’s Hidden Holocaust,” a National Geographic Channel documentary that spotlights his project.

Desbois leads a peripatetic life. Just this summer, he gave the keynote address at a meeting of the Jewish Genealogical Society in Philadelphia, spoke at Chabad in Aspen, Colo., interviewed survivors in Detroit and studied Russian in New York — prep work as his investigations expand to former Soviet territories.

In October, Desbois will return to Paris to inaugurate a new Yahad-In Unum Archive Center housing thousands of pages of official records from Russia and Germany, a complete record of his witness video testimonies, artifacts recovered from sites near mass graves and a library covering the Holocaust in Eastern Europe.

“Desbois has made an enormous contribution by getting the locations of these mass graves. But the value of what he’s done goes beyond illuminating history,” said David Marwell, director of New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, which hosted an exhibit on Yahad-In Unum’s work early this year. “He’s brought us these voices. They would have been silenced without him.”

Yahad-In Unum already oversees Holocaust studies graduate programs at the Sorbonne. The Archive Center, the first of its kind in Europe, is intended to be a kind of academy for genocide prevention. “If there’s a tsunami, people are trained to fight the next tsunami. When there’s a genocide, we don’t see the next wave coming,” Desbois said. “In Rwanda or Cambodia or Darfur, we see humanity is very poor in the face of that. Genocide is very quick. By the time people react, it’s finished.”

Snippets of witness testimony pepper “The Holocaust by Bullets,” the autobiography/travelogue/collection of transcripts Desbois published last year. The words on the page can be nauseating; according to Desbois, he and and his team must struggle to seem impartial during interviews. “It’s very difficult for me psychologically. You have to show nothing, even if you’re horrified by the position of the person. Sometimes we fall sick after an interview.”

“People have told me, ‘The earth was moving.’ I’ve heard it hundreds of times. I thought they meant corpses. Suddenly I understood it’s because people were still alive. It takes time to accept that kind of horror.”

But his deceptively gentle interrogations often pay off as witnesses and their families divulge deeper details — and sometimes secrets. “We were in a village in the south of Belarus,” he recalled. “I asked one guy about a policeman who used to kick Jews in the ghetto. The guy says: ‘You want to know the truth? That was my grandfather.’ And suddenly we got an intimate portrait of this very violent man.”

Desbois’s own grandfather, a former prisoner of war, played a pivotal role in the priest’s vocational choice. Born in a south Burgundy village, Desbois grew up in a family split between “believers” and those whose tendencies, he writes, were “almost anticlerical.” His grandfather rarely talked about World War II, except to remark that as miserable as his experiences were, “others” had it worse.

Only after a 12-year-old Patrick saw “shocking” images of Jews at Bergen-Belsen in a book at the local library did he realize who those “others” were. “Since that day,” he wrote, “I have always sought to understand what the tragedy was that my grandfather had been forced to witness.”

After choosing to pursue religious studies, he spent a year in Calcutta assisting Mother Teresa; studied mathematics in France; taught school in Burkina Faso; and then entered the Grand Seminary of Prado in Lyon, France. A fateful visit to Poland in 1990 sparked “the irrevocable decision to search.”

To date, Desbois has recorded 1,008 video testimonies, all of them in Ukraine. They provide an almost perverse funhouse-mirror image of the Shoah Foundation project that records testimonies of Holocaust survivors. Both add value to the study of history by infusing it with human voices, stories, faces and memories. And both confront parallel challenges.

“Some witnesses lie. Some say half-truths,” Desbois said. “Sometimes we have to interview someone three times. Sometimes we have only liars. But we can compare testimony with documents, and we can compare two witnesses. The liar will shrink in front of the camera.”

Stephen Smith, the new executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, agreed. “You can’t use testimony on its own,” he said. “It needs to fit alongside historical documents, geographical and topographical studies, archaeological digs. But as a part of the matrix of historical documents, testimony is increasingly becoming a vital part of our knowledge base.” Still, Smith said, “we have to take it for what it is — human memory, with an emphasis on the ‘human’ bit.”

Though mass shootings may have killed as many as 5 million people, according to Smith that story has not become ingrained in the Western narrative of the Holocaust; Desbois’s work is restoring a balance. “The Shoah really happened in those fields, forests and dikes,” Smith said. But “it’s too harrowing to make a film of people being taken out of their homes and shot. We do not see films about the deaths of Jews in the forests of Eastern Europe.”

With time working against him as witnesses die, Desbois plans to accelerate Yahad-In Unum “radically” in the coming year. He anticipates hiring, building and training “three or four” new research teams, all of them funded — as is the organization — by the German government and “a lot of small foundations.”

Desbois’s success, however, creates a paradox. Gaining the trust of witnesses depends on their perception of Desbois as a simple European priest. A loss of anonymity could derail some of his projects. “To be known brings some advantages and many problems,” he said. “When it’s a European priest looking for mass graves, it’s perfect. But when the enemies of the Jews begin to see that there are results, and that the results can change perceptions of the story, they get concerned. And that can make life more difficult.”

Has his work ever made him question his faith? He paused before replying.

“I’m sure God is not only the God of the winners,” he said. “That I cannot accept. When I pray, I present myself with all of these people to God. I pray to establish a memory before God and say, remember.”

Michael Kaminer can be reached at [email protected]

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