‘We can’t build a democracy on a mass grave,” said Father Patrick Desbois, a Catholic priest from France, who has received several honours for his efforts to identify the mass graves of Jewish Holocaust victims, and for his dedication to further understanding between Christians and Jews.
Not to locate the mass graves and recognize the victims “undermines all our values,” said Father Desbois, 58, in an interview from Paris with the Bulletin.
Father Desbois will be the keynote speaker at Ottawa’s Yom HaShoah commemoration. He will also participate in a panel discussion about genocide.
In 2004, Father Desbois joined other leaders in France’s Catholic and Jewish communities to found Yahad-In Unum – which means “together” in Hebrew and Latin – to further relations between Catholics and Jews.
Its largest and most ambitious initiative is to locate the sites of mass graves of Jewish victims of the Nazi mobile killing units, the Einsatzgruppen, in Ukraine and Belarus.
“The purpose of my organization Yahad-In Unum is to look for the victims,” he said. “We are not looking for the killers; we are looking for the victims.
“In many genocides, we only remember the names of the killers. The Jews have given sanctity to the names of the victims so that we remember them.”
“We are now 23 full-time in my organization,” said Father Desbois. “I’m not alone now. All are younger than me.”
The organization receives many letters from families asking, “‘In which mass grave is my mother, in which grave is my uncle?’” he said.
“My goal is to give back to the families so they can pray and say Kaddish on the mass graves. The second goal is to give back the Jewish victims to the Jewish people. The third one is to fight the Holocaust deniers.”
Yahad-In Unum has found evidence of mass graves in “village after village” and the organization has signed a contract with the American Jewish Committee so that “the graves will be protected forever and not desecrated,” he said.
“We are investigating the crimes of Hitler against the Jews … [and] we have interviewed 3,800 neighbours who were present at the killings. They could look through the window. They were not collaborators. They were teenagers who … saw everything.
“They are now old and they want to speak before they die. For the majority of them, it is the first time they speak. We have recorded all of them and it is accessible through our website.”
The immensity of the project is outlined in Father Desbois’ book, The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews.
Father Desbois is currently director of the Episcopal Committee for Relations with Judaism, which is connected with the French Conference of Bishops. His interest in the Holocaust started at a young age because his grandfather, who helped raise him, was a French soldier who had been deported to the Nazi prison camp Rawa-Ruska during the Second World War.
His grandfather did not speak much of his time in the camp, and Father Desbois remained curious about the Holocaust and its Jewish victims.
He studied anti-Semitism at Yad Vashem and, later, Jewish religion and culture with Charles Favre, a leader of the Jewish community in France.
In 2002, Father Desbois travelled to Ukraine to see where his grandfather had been imprisoned during the war, and to pay respects at a memorial to the lives lost.
Upon his arrival, he was shocked to discover that not a single marking or commemoration to 1.25 million Jewish victims existed in all of Ukraine and Belarus.
In order to right that wrong, Father Desbois helped found Yahad-In Unum. The organization collects information about the mass killing of Jews and Roma in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Moldova and Romania between 1941 and 1944.
Often with the help of translators, Father Desbois himself conducts many of the interviews with witnesses. Using metal detectors, he and his team have unearthed German cartridges and bullets from the pits where bodies were thrown, as well as jewelry belonging to the victims and other artifacts.
“I want to say to the young people, perhaps one day you will be a doctor, perhaps you will be a soldier or a journalist, and you will be in a country of genocide.
“You must take a photo and send it to CNN or somewhere, and that’s the way you will protect humanity … There is a Russian proverb in all these countries that says the work is over when the last victim is buried. If we don’t do this, in future we will have no evidence of this crime.”
This year’s Yom HaShoah program, which will be held on Sunday, April 27 at 7 pm at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre, is a partnership of the Shoah (Holocaust) Committee of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa and the embassies of France and Israel. It is funded by a grant from the federal Department of Multiculturism.
Those partners will be joined by the Catholic Archdiocese of Ottawa and St. Paul University to present the panel discussion at St. Paul University, 223 Main Street, on Monday, April 28 at 5:30 pm.
Titled Duty to Remember, the discussion will explore a number of aspects of the Holocaust and genocide. In addition to Father Desbois, panellists will include University of Ottawa history professor Jan Grabowski, Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka of Congregation Machzikei Hadas, St. Paul University conflict studies professor Vern Redekop, and Emery Rutagonya, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide and co-founder of the Rwanda Survivors Foundation. The moderator will be Naomi Azrieli, CEO of the Azrieli Foundation.