By Barb Arland-Fye
As a child, Father Patrick Desbois pestered his grandfather about memories of being imprisoned in a Nazi prison camp during World War II in the Ukraine. The former French solider said little of his experience, except that it was awful. But it was worse for others outside the camp, he told his grandson.
What could be worse, and who were the others, the young French boy wondered. His curiosity led decades later to the uncovering of more than 800 unidentified mass graves of some of the 1.5 million Jews executed by the Nazis in Eastern Europe. Fr. Desbois has interviewed more than 850 witnesses to the atrocity, many of whom were children at the time. Some were ordered to help dig graves, hide fragments of flesh or walk on bodies inside the graves to compact them.
Fr. Desbois told the story of his search for truth and justice to a packed ballroom of more than 500 people at St. Ambrose University’s Rogalski Center in Davenport on Aug. 27. Among them were students, faculty, staff and area residents of various faith groups and backgrounds.
“Your tireless work on behalf of Jewish victims of the ‘Hidden Holocaust’ has been a journey of service and a quest for the justice of truth,” St. Ambrose University President Sister Joan Lescinski said in opening remarks. “St. Ambrose shares a strong commitment to service, truth and justice, and we are very pleased to be a part of bringing Father Desbois’ story to our community.”
The Quad-Cities is a small venue for the French priest, who has received international coverage of his work and wrote an award-winning book about it, “Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews.”
He agreed to speak here because Allan Ross of the Jewish Federation of the Quad-Cities was persistent and Fr. Desbois wants people everywhere to recognize their connection with brothers and sisters around the world.
During his St. Ambrose lecture and earlier in the day during a presentation at the Diocese of Davenport headquarters, he referred to the story of Cain and Abel. God asked Cain, “Where is your brother?” That’s the question Fr. Desbois is asking in his search to identify the Jews who disappeared from Eastern Europe.
He said the former Soviet Union compiled 16 million pages of documents detailing the mass killings, but the West didn’t pay attention, suspecting it was Soviet propaganda. That’s why Fr. Desbois took up the cause.
“Humanity begins with burying the dead,” Fr. Desbois says in a seven-minute video that served as an introduction to his presentation at St. Ambrose.
A staff of 10 assists him with research, translation and on-site interviews. His interviewing technique is nonjudgmental because that gets people to open up, he said. Interviews are corroborated with research records and photographs. Families of killers as well as victims have contacted him, searching for the truth, he said.
He spoke of how the Nazis systematically rounded up the Jews in each village, shot them in the back, children as well as adults, and watched as they toppled over into ditches. To conserve bullets, the Nazis limited soldiers to one bullet per one Jew. Those who didn’t die immediately were buried alive. The witnesses described for Fr. Desbois the agonizing sounds and movements in the pits that would go on for several days until the living also died. Fr. Desbois asked his subjects why they never talked about the killings before; they told him, “Because no one asked.”
“What’s the toughest part of your work,” a man at the St. Ambrose presentation asked Fr. Desbois. “That depends,” the priest said. Questioning killers and then breaking bread with them is difficult. Listening to stories day after day about the killings is draining. Hearing Holocaust deniers is also tough. But the world needs to know the truth, and learn from it, he believes.
Fr. Desbois is a co-founder and president of Yahad-In Unum. It collects information about the mass killings of the Jews in Eastern Europe from 1941-44. The organization also oversees Holocaust studies at the Sorbonne in Paris. The testimonies he has collected also will become part of the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s permanent collection.
His Quad-City visit dovetails with another of Fr. Desbois’ objectives — to foster positive relations between Jews and Catholics. The lecture was a collaborative effort between St. Ambrose, a Catholic university, and the Jewish Federation. It also received support from the Riverboat Development Authority, Rauch Family Foundation II, Stanley and Bernice Harris Memorial Endowment Fund and the Davenport Diocese.
“Fr. Desbois had an audience of over 500 people that included many, many students. He couldn’t have given a more powerful, meaningful sermon to especially impressionable youth of our community. He gave them a call to go out and make this world a better place, to co-exist, to right the wrongs of the past,” Ross said.