Catholic Priest discusses search for Holocaust graves
Censorship of former Soviet Union restricted research
Published: Wednesday, March 14, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 08:03
Father Patrick Desbois spoke about his search for unidentified mass graves from the Holocaust at Cohen Auditorium last night as part of the Cummings/Hillel Program for Holocaust and Genocide Education.
The Roman Catholic priest is the co-founder and president of Yahad-In Unum, an organization dedicated to finding the bodies of 1.5 million Jews whom the Nazis killed in Ukraine, Belarus, Poland and Russia. Desbois shared information about this lesser-known era of the Holocaust, which he has devoted his life to uncovering.
“If you are here today, you have already opened your eyes,” Desbois said. “Cultivate your heart, cultivate your attention and then you will find the way.”
Desbois and his team have traveled across Eastern Europe since 2004 to record thousands of testimonials from eyewitnesses who saw the Nazis shoot Jews near their homes. Outside the lecture, Desbois sold his book, “The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews,” which details many of their stories.
“They were human, like you or me,” Desbois said. “But they were buried like animals.”
Using information from the surviving witnesses and archives from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Desbois has discovered numerous graves across Eastern Europe. Before Desbois found the graves’ locations, they were unmarked and hidden beneath plants that grew over the burial grounds.
“If you go in the forest in these towns now, where lovers are walking, there are mass graves underneath them,” he said.
Desbois recounted several stories that eyewitnesses told him, including one where the Nazis took children from school and put them in a pit where they had to watch Nazis crush babies’ heads. Scared to run away, the children were shot and killed.
“The majority of people will sleep well when there’s a genocide,” Desbois said. “We have to be the ones who can’t sleep well when there’s a genocide occurring nearby or faraway.”
At the beginning of the night, Paul Shapiro, Director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, discussed how the censorship of the former Soviet Union originally restricted research of this phase of the Holocaust.
“They were hidden in a cloud of Soviet anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial,” Shapiro said of those killed in this part of the Holocaust.
Even though the USSR fell in 1991 and the Museum was given access to the documents, prior to Desbois, people disregarded the validity of the information because it came from the Soviet Union. When Desbois started talking to the eyewitnesses, though, their accounts corroborated the data from the documents, Shapiro said.
“I don’t want to explain it,” Desbois said. “I want to fight it. Today, we need fighters.”
The Cummings/Hillel Program began in 2010 when Trustee Emeritus William Cummings (A ‘58) and his wife, Joyce, donated funds to create a Holocaust and Genocide Education program through Tufts Hillel. Last semester, the program brought Holocaust survivor John Saunders to campus to share his story of surviving five concentration camps.
Before he started to speak, Desbois showed the audience a video that chronicled the events of of the Holocaust with interviews from those who have stayed in the towns where they witnessed the shootings. The eyewitnesses he has interviewed wanted to retell the stories of what they saw, but did not have the opportunity before Yahad-In Unum began, Desbois said.
“Interviews with couples are the most difficult because they each say that what the other is saying isn’t true,” he said. “But there’s no doubt that the people did want to speak.”
After the lecture, Desbois took questions from several members of the audience who asked him how students could become more involved in his research as well as in working toward ending genocide.
“If there is a genocide — you see someone killing children or raping women — please take a picture,” he said to the students in the audience. “You are the only protection against genocide.”