And the Lord said to Cain: “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground.”
When Father Patrick Desbois, a French priest, quotes from Genesis, he hears the voices of 2 million brothers and sisters, buried in mass graves, scattered across the Ukraine and Belarus.
They are the Jews, slaughtered and executed by rifle shots and machine guns by Nazi troops between 1941 and 1944. While the gas chambers and death camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka are well known and memorialized, the deep pits with layers upon layers of Jewish bones have been largely forgotten.
One of the few exceptions is the Babi Yar ravine, near Kiev, filled with the remains of 34,000 murdered men, women and children.
Whatever else has been discovered and identified in the last nine years is almost entirely due to Desbois and his small team of experts.
They have been traveling from village to village, tracking down remaining eyewitnesses to the slaughter and finding new killing sites.
Desbois, who comes from the Burgundy area of France, will discuss his quest next week at the downtown Central Library and at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont.
In a phone call from Paris, he recalled the genesis of what has become his life’s work. “My grandfather was in the French army and was taken prisoner by the Germans. He escaped three times, was recaptured, and as punishment was sent to a camp in the town of Rava-Ruska on the Ukrainian-Polish border.
“He never talked about his experiences. But when I was 6, I kept asking, and he finally told me, ‘For us [prisoners of war] it was bad, for “others” it was worse.’”
When Desbois became a Roman Catholic priest — to the dismay of his secular family — he decided to travel to Rava-Ruska to retrace his grandfather’s steps and find out what had happened to the “others.”
In what was to become the pattern for his research, Desbois sought out the now aged farmers and officials who were children or adolescents during the Nazi invasion and asked whether they recalled the killings of their former Jewish neighbors.
Initially, the locals wouldn’t answer and said they couldn’t remember, but gradually, thanks to the authority of Desbois’ clerical collar and calm, non-judgmental approach, the stories came out.
For instance, in Rava-Ruska, one man recalled that the village boys used their carts to transport Jews to the killing site, which they quickly located for the investigators. In total, Desbois said, 1.5 million Jews were executed in the Ukraine and 500,000 in Belarus.
So far, Desbois and his team have interviewed 1,150 witnesses, videotaped more than 899 testimonies and located around 700 hitherto unidentified mass graves.
The priest travels with an interpreter, photographer, mapping specialist and a ballistics expert to analyze rusted bullet shells found at the killing sites.
By the evidence, the Germans were sparing of their ammunition under the standing order of “one bullet for one Jew, one Jew for one bullet.”
In some villages, local citizens supported and applauded the Nazi troops in their grisly task, in others farmers were drafted as diggers or for transportation, according to Desbois and reports on his Web site.
After some prodding, some witnesses recalled the massacres in complete detail, with one peasant asking Desbois, “Why are you coming so late? We have been waiting for you.”
In an unexpected discovery, the team learned that in some places German soldiers, ignoring their “racial purity” ideology, herded Jewish women into houses and raped them before executing them.
Some funding for Desbois’ current work comes from the German government and small private foundations, as well as from supporters of his organization, Yahad-In Unum (“Together” in Hebrew and Latin). His book, “The Holocaust by Bullets”(Palgrave Macmillan) came out last year.
The priest feels a sense of urgency about his mission. “In five to six years, practically all the eyewitnesses will be gone,” he said, adding, “How can we build a modern world when so many Jews still lie buried and unmarked like animals?”
Desbois will speak Tuesday, Oct. 20, at 7 p.m. at the Los Angeles Central Library. For reservations, call (213) 228-7025 or visit this story at jewishjournal.com. On Wednesday, Oct. 21, at 6:45 p.m., he will speak at the Athenaeum at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont. First come, first serve seating. For information, call (909) 621-8244.
For more information on or to support Desbois’ work, visit this article at jewishjournal.com.
Father Desbois will speak Tuesday, Oct. 20, at 7 p.m. in the Mark Taper Auditorium of the downtown Los Angeles Central Library, 630 W. 5th St., in conversation with Louise Steinman, the curator of ALOUD, the library’s arts and lecture program. For reservations, call (213) 228-7025 or visit www.aloudla.org.
On Wednesday, Oct. 21, at 6:45 p.m., he will speak at the Athenaeum, Claremont McKenna College, 385 E. 8th St., Claremont. First come, first serve seating. For information, phone (909) 621-8244.