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Documenting the Holocaust

Catholic priest dedicates life to hearing witnesses' stories

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A tool to prevent genocide might be right in your pocket, suggests a Roman Catholic priest who has devoted the last decade to uncovering stories of Holocaust victims.

"Take out your telephone and send a picture to CNN" or another news organization, says Rev. Patrick Desbois, explaining how anyone with a cellphone camera can document human-rights abuses or other atrocities.

"We see that in the world (now); one person sends an image, and it changes things."

Since 2002, the French priest has been changing how the world understands the Holocaust by documenting the deaths of more than 1.5 million Jews at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi mobile killing units that operated in German-occupied Europe between 1941 and 1944.

Desbois visits Winnipeg next week to speak to high school students and accept an honorary degree from the University of Winnipeg. He is scheduled to participate in a discussion on indifference with Sen. Roméo Dallaire at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 2, at Shaarey Zedek Synagogue, 561 Wellington Cres. The free public event is jointly sponsored by the university, the synagogue and the Freeman Family Foundation Holocaust Education Centre.

Intrigued initially by his grandfather's reluctance to speak of his Second World War experiences in the Rawa-Ruska concentration camp on the border between Poland and Ukraine, Desbois decided to visit it himself. He discovered thousands of prisoners -- mostly Jewish -- had been killed and buried in mass graves during the war. Local citizens had witnessed the events and sometimes were forced to participate in the burials.

Spurred on by these stories, Desbois set out to interview more witnesses and recorded the interviews, interspersed with his own story, in his 2008 book, The Holocaust by Bullets.

Desbois now divides his time between working in Jewish-Catholic relations in his native France and interviewing witnesses through the research organization Yahad-In Unum, which he helped found in 2004. Teams from Yahad-In Unum visit communities throughout Eastern Europe for up to 17 days at a time, interviewing witnesses to events that occurred decades in the past.

"Most of the time, they were forced to do things; they had no choice," Desbois says of how citizens of the former Soviet Union were requisitioned to dig graves, remove gold teeth or otherwise assist the Germans in the atrocities dating back to 1941, when the Germans invaded the U.S.S.R.

Along with hearing the stories and identifying graves, Desbois uncovered much guilt in those who were reluctant witnesses to the killings. Many of them had never before shared their stories.

"These people were not free because of the German Reich, and they were not free after" the war, he says, adding they remained silent about the killings for decades.

To date, Desbois and his team have conducted 3,300 interviews, collecting memories from witnesses about the locations of the killings and asking for details about the colour of army uniforms and the weather conditions in order to corroborate accounts and document the lives and deaths of Jews.

"We're fighting hard to find the last mass graves," he explains in a telephone interview en route to Romania on another interview mission.

"We give the dead back to their families, and now families are asking us to find their loved ones."

Desbois' work helps the Jewish community and beyond understand the broader history of the Holocaust, says Belle Jarniewski, chairwoman of the Winnipeg-based Holocaust education centre.

"It's very moving to me that a Catholic priest would dedicate his life to restoring the memory and the humanity of these victims of the Shoah," explains Jarniewski, daughter of two survivors of the Holocaust, or Shoah, as it is referred to in Hebrew.

"He has gone in there, and being a Catholic priest, people were willing to talk to him. He has been able to restore humanity to these people who were murdered."

Restoring that humanity has deeply affected the 57-year-old Desbois, who considers this work his life's mission. Now when he prays, he calls up the names of murdered Jewish children, some whom he has discovered were buried alive alongside their dead parents.

"It changes your faith. You present yourself to God with all the names of people who were children when they died," he says of the impact of hearing hundreds of gruesome stories.

"I am not alone when I pray to God."

However disturbing the stories, Desbois believes this type of research and study is vital to prevent history from repeating itself.

"If you study the Holocaust, you will be strong to fight a new genocide," he says.

"The first step to fight the disease is to know the disease."

brenda@suderman.com

To learn more

FOR more information about Rev. Patrick Desbois and his work, check out the website of Yahad-In Unum (www.yahadinunum.org/), the organization that carries out research into mass murders of Jews and Roma people in Eastern Europe between 1941 and 1944. The organization's name means "together" in Hebrew and Latin.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2013 J13

History

Updated on Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 11:56 AM CDT: Edit

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