A holy mission to reveal the truth about Nazi death squads
Father Patrick Desbois has spent the past decade piecing together the horrific story of the Nazis' secret death squads. Jonathan Brown meets a man who's rewriting history
By Jonathan Brown
Tuesday, 26 May 2009
Father Patrick Desbois is a man desperately racing with death. By his own calculations he has six, perhaps seven years at the outside in which to complete his work: a task, which until the reaper renders it impossible some time in the not-too-distant future, is at once unimaginably chilling in nature and nightmarishly ambitious in scale. For the 53-year-old French priest, with an easy laugh and shining eyes, has made it his holy mission to recall for the world the slaughter enacted by the Nazi mobile death squads, the feared Einsatzgruppen, which roamed and murdered Jews and Gypsies with impunity in the remote villages of the former Soviet Union between 1941 and 1944.
It was, until the intervention of Father Dubois, a largely overlooked episode in one of the grimmest chapters of the Second World War. But for the last 10 years the priest and his helpers have painstakingly gathered the testimony of the survivors of this period, travelling to some of Europe's most abject places where, without judging, they have listened as a procession of elderly men and women recalled – often for the first time – how, a lifetime ago, they became teenage helpmates to the Nazi killing machine.
Today these witnesses have grown old and infirm and many are already dead. Living in countries where the average life expectancy for a man is little more than 60 years, those who experienced first-hand the Nazi genocide in Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and Ossetia are steadily dying out. When they are gone, Father Desbois fears, so too will the memory of what they saw – and with it a truth which exists only in the conscience of Europe's poorest people.
During the course of the last decade, Father Desbois and his team from Yahad in Unum, a French organisation dedicated to Christian-Jewish understanding, have recorded conversations with more than 1,000 witnesses to the mass murders on Hitler's Eastern Front. So far they have discovered some 850 unmarked graves – the majority of them previously unknown – including a site at Bodgdanivka which contained the remains of some 42,000 Jews.
The oral histories they have gathered, along with detailed ballistic evidence, could soon change the face of the study of the Holocaust, pushing the final death toll upwards by as much as 500,000 victims. They are also, he hopes, providing irrefutable proof in the face of increasingly vocal Holocaust deniers, emboldened by the disappearance of the generation still able to recall the horrors of the Third Reich as they actually happened.
Father Dubois was invited to Britain by the University of Manchester's Centre for Jewish Studies where last week he addressed academics and spoke at the city's Anglican Cathedral. Though largely unknown outside Jewish circles in the UK, he is a hero in Israel and the United States. Last year, in his native France, he was awarded the Legion d'Honneur by President Nicolas Sarkozy, and sports the discreet red streamer proudly in the buttonhole of his black priest's jacket. As he sits in the Victorian splendour of Manchester's Palace Hotel, describing the detail of his harrowing work, he displays a blistering sense of urgency at the looming loss of the folk memory of the Nazi atrocities in the former Soviet Union.
"I am running against time," he says. "We have a maximum of six or seven years if we take into account the age of the witnesses because they are so old. Sometimes you arrive in the village and are told 'I'm sorry, Father, but Madame Anna died just one month ago and she was the last witness. And now nobody knows any more.' So I see time is short and we need to achieve our goal as quickly as possible, which is why we must multiply our energy," he says.
The reason for taking up this work is simple: to restore the dignity of the uncounted and largely unmourned dead who were slaughtered and piled into pits like animals, and to allow the Kaddish – the Jewish prayer of mourning – to be recited over their final resting places. But there is another reason too; to prevent a repeat of the Holocaust.
"You cannot leave Europe with thousands of unknown unmarked graves, or we deny all our values," he says, his hands trembling slightly as he speaks. "And what do we say to Cambodia or to Darfur if we do not bury correctly the victims in our own continent? We are now 60 years after, and it is our last chance to do it."
It is estimated that a minimum of 1.5 million Jews and Gypsies were killed in Ukraine during the Second World War. The country was second only to Poland for the number of Nazi murders on its soil. A further 500,000 perished in Belarus, while the exact numbers that perished in the vast expanse of Russia, where the German army was encamped some 17 miles from the Kremlin in the Moscow suburbs, or even in occupied Ossetia, can still only be guessed at – until that is these territories, too, welcome in the priest and his helpers to unlock the memories of survivors there too.
What made the slaughter in Eastern Europe so unimaginable is that it was carried out not in the impersonal industrialised surrounding of the concentration camps but by mobile units of individuals armed with low-powered rifles. The policy laid down by Berlin was simple and based on an evil economy to appease the army's concerns over dwindling resources: "one bullet – one Jew; one Jew – one bullet".