When people envision heroes, they rightly see soldiers, police officers, or firefighters. Rarely, if ever, do they see a 61-year-old French-Catholic priest. To honor International Holocaust Remembrance Day, that heroic French priest – Father Patrick Desbois – is coming to Minneapolis next week thanks to the efforts of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. He will be speaking at Beth El Synagogue on Jan. 26 at 7 p.m.
Desbois is the President of Yahad – In Unum (Together In One), a global humanitarian organization he founded in 2004 dedicated to identifying and commemorating the sites of Jewish and Roma mass executions in Eastern Europe during World War II. In a piece on “60 Minutes” in October, 2015, Desbois took anchor Lara Logan to Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus to show her some of the thousands of previously-undiscovered mass graves of Jews murdered during the Holocaust were located.
“I saw this piece and I told Steve [Hunegs, JCRC executive director] ‘We have to bring this humanitarian to our community,'” said Laura Zelle, the Director of Tolerance Minnesota and Holocaust Education for the JCRC. “His message, his interfaith work, his devotion to uncovering the dead is incredible. He has invitations to speak from all over the world.”
The event is co-sponsored by: The Basilica of Saint Mary, the Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, the Jewish Institute of Life and Learning at Beth El Synagogue, the Minnesota National Guard, Center for Holocaust & Genocide Education at St. Cloud State University, and the Fagen Fighters WWII Museum. The event is free of charge, although you must register online
Desbois is based in Paris but is also a professor at Georgetown University, where he is on the faculty for the Center for Jewish Civilization. In his travels to do this work, he brings with him translators to conduct one-on-one interviews with the townspeople that lived in those places as the Germans advanced. Desbois and his staff comb through millions of pages of Nazi archives.
Yahad – In Unum identifies mass Jewish killing sites and collects forensic evidence of the executions that were carried out by Hitler’s mobile death squads known as the Einsatzgruppen, who methodically entered villages, rounded up Jewish families, and marched them to freshly dug graves. Witnesses’ testimonies to these killings are videotaped, and to this day, Yahad has effectuated research concerning 2,133 execution sites and has gathered 4,748 testimonies during the course of its 111 research trips in 7 countries in Eastern Europe: Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Poland, Romania, Moldova, and Lithuania.
“When he decided this was what he was going to explore it was complete and total effort,” Hunegs said. “He’s a towering figure of both humanitarianism and history. We’re fortunate to have him here. We want the community to learn from him and be in his presence. He’s written the book on what happened to Jews after Germany invaded the Soviet Union June 22, 1941.”
That book, “The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews,” won the 2008 National Jewish Book Award. Last September his second book, “The Manufacturing of Terrorists: Into the Secrets of ISIS,” looks at his account of collecting evidence of the Yazidi genocide perpetrated by ISIS.
In the “60 Minutes” piece, Desbois is shown interviewing several people now in their 70s and 80s who were children as the Nazi’s marched into town. He told the story of his grandfather, a French soldier who was held as a prisoner of war in a camp in Rawa-Ruska, near the Ukraine-Poland border. His grandfather never told him what he saw there and none of the townspeople would tell him their story despite repeated trips – until one night when the mayor took him to the edge of the forest where 50 elderly villagers were waiting.
“And he said, ‘Patrick, I bring you at the mass grave of the last 1,500 Jews of Rawa Ruska,'” Desbois said, as all 50 told them their stories. “I couldn’t bear it. I found finally what my grandfather never say. I say, ‘They shot the Jews in public, and everybody knew. And surely my grandfather saw that.’ And– but that’s it. I was in total shock.”
“He went to the killing fields,” Hunegs said. “He couldn’t find traces of Jewish civilization in these places. Piece by piece, they literally started unearthing. Then, through being non-judgmental he got people to talk. Massacres didn’t always happen in the forest. They happened in town in a very public way. This was shrouded in mystery.”
Said Zelle: “When he gets there to interview, he asks ‘Were you there? What did you see?’ He extends an empathy branch to them in a way of saying ‘You lived through this, tell me about it.’
Hunegs refers to this opportunity to give eyewitness testimony to such atrocities as “an expiation of conscious.”
“Many of them were kids (at the time). It gives them a chance to finally find someone they can tell their story to before they die, and maybe they die a little more comfortably,” he said. “That’s the role of a priest or rabbi or imam. To help people in need.”
Logan asks Desbois in the piece if he ever stopped to wonder how he came to this work.
“No,” he said “I only say to the people: ‘Finally we found you. Finally, we came back.'”