On the occasion of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Israel last week, Israeli newspaper Haaretz has run a long story about French priest Patrick Desbois, who continues to make headlines internationally about his search for Jewish mass graves in Ukraine.
Father Desbois was in Pope Benedict's entourage, whether on his own initiative or as part of the Pope's public relations campaign is unclear. In any case, the continued exposure of Father Desbois allows the Vatican to show it really cares about the Holocaust. In fact, Desbois's work is a natural extension of Pope John Paul II's initiatives - in which he challenged Catholics in Poland and elsewhere to care for Jewish cemeteries and to acknowledge what has happened to the Jews who had formerly cared for them. Pope Benedict XVI has been less forthright in his addressing Holocaust history.
For many year's I have been ambivalent about Desbois's work. After being engaged for many years supervising the work of young Jewish Ukrainians documenting cemeteries and mass graves on a shoe-string budget in the 1990s, I am pleased that any work continues to discover the locations of mass graves, and to learn about the lives and fates of the murdered victims buried their, and to make efforts to protect and preserve these places. Still, I had hoped that such an effort would be a more formal one - involving both Ukrainian government leaders and agencies in partnership with Jewish communities. I wasn't looking for an Argentinean style "truth Commission," - but I did hope for more government recognition of the legitimacy of this history, and that it is part of the national story of Ukraine. Even more so, I hoped for belated recognition that the fate of the victims was due to their being Jews, and that their memory must also include some Jewish component.
I am afraid that much of Father Desbois's work - or at least the public interest in it, tends to more about him and his story (of a Catholic priest) - than about the stories of those whose grave he seeks. For many, his search has become as much about Catholics as about Jews. He sets a good example for Catholics, but I'm reminded how the public discussion of the Holocaust in places like Latvia often seeks to balance the noble actions of few hundred "Righteous Gentiles" (who are rightly recognized) with the fate of tens of thousands of Jews who met their deaths. The singular act of heroism is usually more memorable, or more easily tellable, than tales of horrific events - especially when horror was on such a large scale. In a similar way Desbois heroism - for what he is doing is heroic - risks overshadowing what he discovers. For in truth, for those knowledgeable about the Holocaust the story Desbois is revealing is not new; only the details are. But the for press, Desbois himself is now - and therefore noteworthy.
From the Haaretz article it seems that Father Desbois's efforts have taken a new direction - and have moved into a more systematic and institutional mode. Perhaps this will no longer be one man's quest - but something a society at large can embrace and even participate in. I hope that Father Desbois will make the effort to expand his efforts to include more Ukrainians and Ukrainian Jews. Only if this is done can his expeditions lay the ground work for on-site care of these graves, with more comprehensive planning for their marking, legal protection and long-term care. If only for the press coverage - this task cannot just be about Patrick Desbois - it must be about the victims of the crimes, and the those of the coming generations who must live near their remains.
French priest interviews Hitler's willing executioners in Ukraine
By Cnaan Liphshiz
A horrific page of history unfolded last Monday in Ukraine. It concerned the gruesome and untold story of a spontaneous pogrom by local villagers against hundreds of Jews in a town south of Ternopil in 1941.
Not one, but five independent witnesses recounted the tale, recalling how they rushed to a German army camp, borrowed weapons and gunned down 500 Jews inside the town's Christian cemetery. One of them remembered decapitating bodies in front of the church.
The man heading the research that led to this discovery discussed it in Israel last week; Father Patrick Desbois was in Pope Benedict XVI's entourage.
Desbois is a French Roman Catholic priest. His team has been investigating mass executions in the former Soviet Union during the Holocaust for more than six years. In 2004, he founded Yahad-In Unum, a Paris-based organization devoted to Christian-Jewish understanding.
Oral testimonies from these events in Ukraine and Belarus are but a part of Desbois' research. Using metal detectors, his team uncovers German-made cartridges and bullets as well as victims' jewelry from killing pits. The findings are transferred to an archive in Paris, where the testimonies are translated.
Earlier this year, Desbois helped start the first Holocaust masters program at the Sorbonne, focusing on the extermination in the former Soviet Union.
To Desbois, there are two holocausts: a western one and an eastern one. The western holocaust was more organized, whereas the eastern one, "the one that happened away from Berlin," was chaotic, decentralized and undocumented.
"German officers wanted to appear efficient, so they documented one mass grave and declared the place judenfrei. In reality, the killings went on for years," he says. "The only way of documenting these [other] graves is asking the locals. Time's running out, and we're the only organization on the ground there."
Read the full story here