By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Even separated by thousands of miles via the phone connection, the Rev. Patrick Desbois does not come across simply as a man of the cloth, driven by spiritual motivation on his rounds.
At 61, Desbois’ Catholic faith is clearly strong. But just the sound of his voice, his stridency and dedication, make his persona more like a determined French police inspector or even head of an intelligence agency. He is driven to piece together 75-year-old mass murders where no statute of limitations exist, while exposing ongoing Middle Eastern war crimes to a world affected by the perverse ideology responsible.
“We didn’t know how to react,” Desbois said of exposing the literal opening rounds of the Holocaust, the shooting deaths of up to 1.5 million Jews by the SS’s Einsatzgruppen shock troops in the wake of Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union.
Through his investigations, Desbois knows the consequences of not defeating Nazi Germany.
“If Hitler had not lost, there wouldn’t be one Jew alive today,” he said.
Now Desbois is actively working against ISIS’ mass killings of non-Islamic ethnic groups, namely the Yazidis, in northern Iraq as the battle to free the city of Mosul continues.
“I always say wake up to the genocide of today like it was in 1942,” Desbois said, his message ringing loud and clear over the miles and despite his thick Burgundy accent. “We have to learn how the Germans could succeed so publicly, kill so many Jews, day after day. Everybody knew it, and nobody cared. Today the same.”
History literally is repeating itself with an ideologically-frenzied, well-armed group believing it is ethnically and religiously superior to an oppressed minority, and inflicting death and enslavement on it. That is ISIS’s stance against the Kurdish-speaking Yazidis. Also caught up in the web of death are Christians and Shiites, fellow Muslims.
“The Yazidis are to Daesh (Arabic term for ISIS) what the supposedly inferior races were to the Nazis,” Desbois wrote in his recent book, “La Fabrique des terroristes” (The Terror Factory).
“There were organizations during the war to save Jews, to help Jews,” he said in the trans-Atlantic interview. “We have to do the same today. The same disease, the same evil. Sometimes it’s the smallest people who do something.”
Desbois is founder of Yahad-In Unum, a multi-national, multi-religious group of volunteers who have located up to 700 unmarked grave sites of Jews in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldava. He believes another 1,300 such sites exist throughout the old Soviet Union.
“I am not alone,” Desbois said. “We are 25 full-timers, 25 young people. They try to (focus) on me, but it is not so.”
The priest spearheads an international, inter-denominational effort. Their common link is justice – albeit justice delayed, but finally closure and the ability of any descendants of the lost Jews to mourn properly at the gravesites.
“We study each village as a crime scene,” Desbois said. “Who were the killers? Where are the cartridges? We look at the Soviet archives. We knock at the door of the people present at the killings. And so we can rebuild the crime by the testimony of the neighbors and crisscross it with the evidence from the archives.”
Racing against time to interview aging witnesses, Desbois and his crews have interviewed thousands who had previously been silent since horrifyingly watching the killing fields fill up.
“In four years it will be finished,” he said. “The witnesses will have disappeared. We try to make the maximum number of travels in one year – 20 in one year. We teach (team leaders) to concentrate on a crime. How shooters would arrive in the village at 5 a.m. and leave in the evening, around 5 p.m.”
Desbois’ efforts have received worldwide publicity, most notably in a recent “60 Minutes” segment with Lara Logan, taken on a tour of gravesites by the priest. The pair mounted a hill under which some 1,000 Jews were buried.
His Holocaust work has earned Desbois the Legion of Honour, France’s highest honor, and a Medal of Valor from the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Cardinal André Armand Vingt-Trois of Paris actively supports Desbois’ efforts.
Now Chicagoans can hear personally his testimony and his warnings, in a May 16 benefit, sponsored by the U.S. Holocaust Museum. Desbois will describe his work. He will also be interviewed by Suzanne-Brown-Fleming, director of the visiting scholars program for the museum’s Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. The aim is to discuss lessons of the Holocaust to create a future different from the past while funding the ongoing gravesite searches.
“It’s one of the challenges,” Desbois said. “If we don’t raise the money, we will not find the dead Jews.”
Desbois’ own family history led him to his present path.
His grandfather was a French POW in World War II, deported to a German camp in Rava-Ruska in Ukraine in 1942. After the war, the ex-soldier, like many millions of other veterans worldwide, refused to speak of his experiences to his family. Finally, the young Desbois got him to reveal just enough to spark his own interest.
“We can wonder why a French Catholic priest originally from Burgundy, much known for the wine, what is he doing in the killing fields…with three teams of young people?,” Desbois said in a recent speech. His grandfather’s testimony was startling.
“Inside the camp it was awful,” Desbois said of the remembrance. “No food, no drink. But outside the camp it was worse. And me, I was wondering what could be worse than a camp?”
He later learned 18,000 Jews had been killed in the immediate area.
“I am from a small village in France,” Desbois said. “And I know you cannot kill 18,000 persons in secret in a small village.”
As he began his documentation efforts in 2001-02, Desbois came back to Rava-Ruska several times.
“I was a nudnik always raising the same subject,” he recalled. Eventually a new mayor linked him with 50 farmers who had been witnesses to the killings.
Desbois had studied Judaism while preparing for his 1986 ordination as a priest after working first as a math teacher and then with Mother Theresa in Calcutta. He later studied anti-Semitism at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial. And he got a further education in Jewish religion and culture with Dr. Charles Favre, a leader in the French Jewish community. Desbois eventually became a Vatican adviser on Judaism.
He founded Yahad-In Unum, an organization that seeks to uncover a chapter of history that has remained hidden for far too long. The main documentation is via surviving witnesses in their 80’s and 90’s, whose first-person accounts of history will soon no longer be available. Without eyewitness testimony, identifying the location of the mass graves and collecting the evidence of the genocide will be virtually impossible.
“Nobody previously under the former Soviet system or afterward bothered to interrogate the witnesses over a half-century. If not for their recollections, the gravesites would be “totally invisible…Never be recorded and the Jews would still be buried like animals,” Desbois said.
Opening up was difficult for many of the senior-citizen witnesses.
“I can’t tell,” said one old man, choking up during a video interview before he could continue. “The children, thrown into the pit by hand.”
The same man recalled how doomed Jews’ clothing was left behind in wagons. The executioners did not need the clothing per se, but wanted to be sure they could snare any gold and other valuables left behind.
Desbois recalled the strict order to Nazis and Ukrainian assistants: one bullet per Jew. He also relayed memories from witnesses of the graves appearing to be “moving,” that a few Jews were still alive after their executioners had moved on.
Bottling up such memories must have evoked a sense of post-traumatic disorder among scores of witnesses. Desbois explained how such first-time testimony was lost, and found, history.
“The answer is common across Ukraine,” he said. “Because nobody asked. It was the first time talking.
“It is the Holocaust witnessed by poor people who haven’t imbibed Soviet ideology.”
One sympathetic Ukrainian mayor affixed a Star of David to his local killing field so investigators, and then mourners, could properly understand the site.
“We have an interactive map on our web site and our Facebook page,” Desbois said. “You can find in every village evidence of the crime. You can find testimonies and pieces of the archives.
“We have many, many families who ask us to re-connect them to the village. So now many families go back and say kaddish for the first time. They build a small family memorial on the grounds.”
While hearing the first-hand testimony of witnesses was horrifying, Desbois said it is still far better than the silence and mystery of the mass shooting deaths, which largely preceded the gassings and other forms of execution in Nazi death camps in Poland and Germany. Desbois has given a face to the dead.
John Prendergast, human rights activist and co-founder of the Enough Project, said: “He humanizes the unspeakable…finding every single one of the victims. Ensuring that everyone knows their name and their story. Human life does matter.”
Desbois applies that philosophy to the Yazidis, once a community of some 400,000 in northern Iraq. They are a religious sect borrowing their beliefs from ancient Middle Eastern philosophies. Testimony from one Yazidi to Desbois in a Brussels barber shop prompted Desbois’ expansion of Yahad-In Unum’s efforts to the Middle East.
He used interviews of more than 100 former ISIS captives for “La Fabrique des terroristes.” Witnesses tell of death, kidnapping, ransoming and sex enslavement. One woman was forced to witness the execution of a captured Jordanian pilot, who was burned alive.
Desbois travelled to Iraq with Roma activist Costel Nastasie, an expert in the Nazi genocide of Europe’s Gypsies. They visited Sinjar in theYazidi heartland.
The active horrors of the Middle East, along with the looming deadlines for interviewing survivors of Nazi killing fields, is one reason Desbois cannot let up. But just as important is his mission to educate future generations for whom the Holocaust has lost impact simply through the passage of time.
“Many young Jews say they have Shoah fatigue,” Desbois said. “We say OK, but (Holocaust) deniers are going on, multiplying. Anti-Semitism is growing. In the Muslim world, there is no Hitler fatigue. You can find many books about Hitler in (Iraqi) bookstores.
“I met somebody in Chicago and he told me, Father, I am old, but my grandchildren don’t seem concerned. We see a challenge. If we want the young people to be concerned, we must find a new way. We must show the legacy of Hitler today. All the terrorists today love Hitler.”
Desbois said “in France we are under (terrorist) attack. You don’t see it too much in America. Before they killed the Jews. Now they kill Christians on the street. ISIS is an international machine. We have to heal this planet. We have to denounce the killers of today.”
Desbois will speak at Venue One, 1030 W. Randolph, at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 16. Tickets are $125 and can be purchased at: https://events.ushmm.org/profile/form/index.cfm?PKformID=0x349420001&ga=bottomButtonGetTickets). For more information, contact the Midwest Office of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum at (847) 433-8099.