Catholic Priest ‘Bearing Witness’ to Holocaust Victims of Mass Gravesites

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Father Patrick Desbois is the founder and president of Yahad-In Unum — the Hebrew and Latin words for “together” — a 25-person Paris-based nonprofit dedicated to identifying and documenting the sites of mass graves of Jewish and Roma victims of the Nazi era.
 

Father Patrick Desbois has gone door-to-door in small, desolate towns of Eastern Europe looking for answers for the past 15 years.
 
His question: What happened to the Jews murdered in the Soviet Union during World War II?
 
The Anti-Defamation League celebrated 10 years of its Bearing Witness program by hosting  Desbois at Adath Israel in Merion Station on April 12. 
 
Desbois is the founder and president of Yahad-In Unum — the Hebrew and Latin words for “together” — a 25-person Paris-based nonprofit dedicated to identifying and documenting the sites of mass graves of Jewish and Roma victims of the Nazi era.
 
Desbois has traveled the world — specifically Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Romania, Moldova, Lithuania and, more recently, Iraq — researching and interviewing witnesses and advocating against anti-Semitism.
 
“We must not teach Holocaust just to teach Holocaust, but think, ‘Why do we teach Holocaust?’” he said. “We teach it for different reasons. One reason is because anti-Semitism is not dead. In my country, in France, not only do people hate Jews, but people kill Jews.” 
 
Yahad-In Unum even had to move locations to another building after experiencing the ripple effects of the Paris terror attacks in November 2015. 
 
Desbois has a personal connection to his research, too. His grandfather was held as a prisoner of war by the Germans in Ukraine during the war, and he told him about the murder of thousands of Jews.
 
A native of France and a Roman Catholic priest, Desbois felt a connection to these victims and the stories he discovers through the testimonies of people who witnessed the mass executions — or committed these acts themselves. 
 
Due to overcrowding in death and labor camps and a poor railway system, many Jews in the occupied Soviet Union were just shot at execution sites in their home countries during World War II. Testimony by villagers who witnessed it are all that’s left. 
 
During the Soviet era, especially, discussing the Holocaust or feeling remorse for Jewish victims was considered taboo, Desbois said, so many of the testimonies he reveals are people talking about it for the first time.
 
It took Desbois four years to discover his first gravesite in 2004. He has since found more than 1,900 and gathered 4,748 testimonies during 111 investigative trips.
 
In his travels and research, he’s come upon wedding rings, other jewelry and magen davids that were thrown away or hidden in the ground.
 
Randi Boyette, associate regional director of education for the ADL, said the 200-person audience at the event was split between Jews and non-Jews, including many members from the Catholic community. 
 
“To hear from a Catholic priest who’s dedicated his life to uncovering the mass graves of Jews who were killed in the Holocaust as well as dealing with current-day genocides in Iraq … it was a really important connection,” Boyette said. 
 
The Bearing Witness program brings Jews and Catholics together — which comes at a perfect time to celebrate its 10 years in correlation with the 50-year anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Catholic document that called for a new, peaceful relationship between Catholics and Jews. Originally a national program, it partners the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the local ADL office.
 
“We already had a warm and close relationship with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia,” she said, “and it was just something that could build on this.
 
“There was certainly new learning, and I think he’s inspiring. I hope he was inspiring to the people in the room.” 
 
She hoped people realize that genocides are still occurring in the world.
 
“I hope people understand that some of this work is really rooted in the new Catholic-Jewish relationship that happened post-Vatican II through the Nostra Aetate document,” she added. “A lot of people aren’t aware of how much power that had to transform a really painful and challenging history. It was a really fraught connection between Catholics and Jews, and I think Vatican II and Nostra Aetate were healing in many ways and paved the way for relationships.”
 
She was surprised to hear during his talk that Desbois did not feel anger toward the people he interviewed, but rather tried to remain impartial to get the full story.
 
“It’s clear to me he doesn’t see the perpetrators or the neighbors as so different from us,” she said. “I also believe that we have to acknowledge what all people are capable of in order to say, ‘That isn’t a choice I want to make. I don’t want to be a perpetrator, and I don’t want to benefit from somebody else’s pain in the ways that the neighbors’ benefited from the tragedy.’”
 
Boyette also was struck by a story Desbois related about a non-Jewish woman who told him she wanted to follow her Jewish boyfriend to his death at the mass execution, but her mother saved her. In her testimony, she still proclaimed her love for her old beau, Samuel.
 
“It was really important to also hear that there were moments of light in that,” she added. “There was this woman who wanted to be with her boyfriend and never forgot him.
 
“When you’re faced with the horrors of what he told us — children being buried alive, not wanting to waste bullets on children — I try really hard to focus on the fact that he is light in darkness. He and his non-Jewish team are light in the darkness, and the story of a woman who was willing to sacrifice her life to be with the Jewish man she loved was a very powerful story.” 
 
Many Jews are afraid to stand up against anti-Semitic acts, Desbois explained, especially in Europe right now, so he does this work for them.
 
And with “God’s will,” he will continue doing so for as long as he can.
 
“Most of the people who work with us are non-Jews because we have to go in countries where anti-Semitism is strong,” he said. “I am trying to do what the Jews cannot do themselves.” 
 
Contact: rkurland@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0737

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