Father Patrick Desbois seldom smiles. Sitting across from me in the deserted dining room of a Foggy Bottom hotel in Washington, DC, the austere French Catholic priest unflinchingly chronicles the mass execution of Jews during World War TI. "The shootings took place in public, it was like a show," says Desbois. Our waiter looks uncomfortable as he places a Sprite on the table--most likely he is unaccustomed to hearing his customers discuss genocide over drinks.
The diminutive 56-year-old has spent the last eight years on what some have called a "holy mission," traveling across Eastern Europe--mostly in Ukraine--to identify the unmarked and sometimes previously unknown graves of the more than 1.5 million Jews murdered there during World War II. In village after village, Desbois, using his clerical collar as his means of entree, convinces local witnesses--children or teenagers during the war--to tell him stories that have been left untold for more than 60 years. "It is like opening a box," Desbois says in his thick French accent. "They have been waiting to speak."
His work is bringing to light an often-neglected chapter of Holocaust history--that of entire Jewish communities massacred where they lived. "This project has focused attention on the need for greater understanding of the Holocaust in the East," says Paul Shapiro, Director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). It balances our perception of the Holocaust, he adds, which has been of "trains taking people to death camps" with events that "in large part took place before the trains even started." Over a third of the murdered six million were killed by bullets in Eastern Europe: Desbois' work--recording testimony, documenting mass graves and even collecting the actual bullets--not only provides irrefutable evidence of this but is changing the way we understand the Holocaust itself.
Desbois was born in a farmhouse in peaceful Burgundy, France in 1955, after the war. As a child he was very close to his grandfather, Claudius, with whom he did farm work and sold poultry in neighboring villages. Claudius freely told his grandson about his life, except for one chapter--his experiences during World War n. Captured by Germans in 1942, he was interned at a prisoner of war camp in Rawa-Ruska in western Ukraine. When pressed about his experiences there, Claudius would only say, "In the camp we had nothing to eat, no food, no drink, but outside the camp was worse," Desbois recalls. "As a child I was wondering what could be worse than a camp of deportee prisoners." It was only years later as a teenager that he realized his grandfather was talking about the Jews.
As a mathematics student at Dijon University in eastern France, Desbois found himself attracted to theology and religious studies. After graduation he taught math in West Africa and later worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. But, partly because of his grandfather's story, he was drawn to Jews, and after being ordained a priest at the age of 31, he requested to work with them in France. He was appointed secretary to the French Conference of Bishops for Relations with the Jewish community and an advisor to the Vatican on relations with Judaism.
In 2002, while traveling in Ukraine, he visited the site of his grandfather's imprisonment, Rawa-Rusha. Desbois knew that before World War H more than 15,000 Jews had lived in the town, but when he asked to see where they had been murdered, the mayor brushed him off and said no one knew anything about it. "How could more than 10,000 Jews be killed in the village and nobody knows?" he says. "I knew I needed to find out what happened. So I came back two times, three times, four times to Rawa-Ruska. And then the mayor lost the election and a new mayor was elected, much less Soviet."
The new mayor led Desbois to the forest where, Desbois says, approximately 50 elderly men and women of the village were gathered in a semicircle. …