There’s a lot that Father Patrick Desbois cannot explain in life, in spite of his years of travel and learning, his 32 years of priesthood, his position as a visiting professor at Georgetown, and a lot of other bona fides.
Why did he choose to be a Catholic, for example, after growing up a militant atheist? (“I felt myself suddenly overtaken by a certainty, a crazy and unacceptable certainty: God existed,” he wrote in his 2015 book “In Broad Daylight”.)
Why did he become a priest? (“When you fall in love, you don’t exactly know why.”)
And why is he on a seemingly endless quest for victims of genocide around the world?
“If you are a believer, you would say, ‘It’s God’s call, I have been called for that,’ ” he said in an interview from his office in Paris. “My grandmother was rescuing refugees during the war. Nobody would ask her, ‘Why did you do that?’ It was natural.”
But his quest began by accident, during a visit to Poland. He took a wrong turn and ended up passing by a village in Ukraine whose name, Rava Ruska (sometimes spelled Rawa Ruska), had a familiar ring.
His grandfather had been in a Soviet prison camp there with 25,000 other French soldiers during World War II. He never talked about his experience, but he once cryptically alluded to his grandson that “outside the camp, for the others, it was worse.”
He didn’t say who the “others” were. Desbois, born 10 years after the end of the war, grew up not knowing much about the Holocaust: the history had not been taught in French schools.
But he sensed that Rava Ruska had something to do with it, and now he was determined to find out who the “others” were. After several visits to Yad Vashem — the Holocaust memorial and study center in Jerusalem — he began to knock on doors in Rava Ruska.
“I found the first marked grave, and I realized that so many Jews had been shot and buried like dogs, because their bones were outside,” he said.
But Ukraine, which became independent from Russia in 1991, was just beginning to break free of the paralysis of an engrained Soviet mentality, and it wasn’t easy to get answers.
“In the post-Soviet Union it was difficult because people were used to [lying], by Soviet tradition,” the priest explained. “So it’s only really when the Soviet boat was sinking that the people began to feel free to speak. They were afraid to be deported to the gulag if they spoke.
“Imagine, during the Soviet Union, a priest going from village to village with a microphone. It would have been impossible. It was a taboo [subject] in the Soviet Union — you couldn’t speak about that. It’s why also it was written nowhere. We knew about the Holocaust of the Jews in the West, but not of the Jews from the Soviet Union.”
It’s estimated that 2.2 million Jews were killed by the Nazis when they occupied parts of the former Soviet Union. In most cases, Jews (as well as Gypsies and disabled persons) died by firing squad, which has given rise to the term “Shoah by bullets.” In fact, one of Desbois’ books is titled “The Holocaust by Bullets.”
In many cases, the victims met their end with the help of local villagers, who were forced to dig graves, for example. Other townsfolk witnessed the executions. Like Desbois’ grandfather, most have not wanted to talk about it. But around the year 2000 that began to change.
“They want to speak before they die,” Desbois said. “There’s a Russian proverb, ‘We finish the war when we bury the last victim.’ So for them we come to bury the last victims or to finish the war. One man told me, ‘I have 1,500 Jews buried in my garden, and nobody came since ’42.’ He told me, ‘You came to finish the war.’ I said ‘Yes.’ For them, we come not to investigate but to bury the people.”
Desbois had the blessing of his bishop, the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, who told him that his own Jewish Polish family “had been shot in the same way.” With the help of people like Israel Singer, then-director of the World Jewish Congress, Desbois began a foundation called Yahad-In Unum, the first word of which is Hebrew for “together,” the rest of the phrase being Latin for “in one” — “Together in One.”
Yahad-In Unum, which now has a full-time staff of 29, has documented scores of mass murders of Jews and Gypsies throughout the former Soviet lands. Its website features an interactive map where viewers can hone in on individual villages and pull up statistics, stories of victims, and video testimony of now-aged witnesses.
But the work of the foundation has expanded. Desbois has led an investigation into a mass shooting that occurred during Guatemala’s civil war, for example.
“We opened the first Holocaust museum in Central America, in Guatemala, with the approval of the archbishop of Guatemala [City], near the cathedral,” he said. “We try to teach this generation about what happened in Europe, to help them to not enter into gangs, and to fight against violence and drugs and rape and so on.
“We have the task of transmitting to the new generation [that] learning about the Holocaust is a way to fight against violence in daily life today,” he said. “Unfortunately, these children know violence, with the gangs.”
And now, Yahad-In Unum has begun documenting the still very fresh genocide carried out by the Islamic State against the Yazidi population in Iraq. ISIS “is not dead,” Desbois insists, but his organization has been interviewing Yazidis in Iraq who have escaped or been released from slavery under the jihadist venture.
His just-published co-authored “The Terrorist Factory” (Arcade Publishing, $25) is a riveting account of the findings.
“I never heard such sorrowful stories,” Father Desbois said. “I never heard of so much sadism. I remember one mother who had a little girl of 8 years old. She was the only survivor and had been raped by five men. All the other children died, and she was the only survivor. I never heard such stories. Never in my life. Even about the Holocaust.”
He said that some Yazidi families are still trying to get their children back from ISIS strongholds, usually through ransom payments. But many of the youngsters are “completely brainwashed,” he said. “They have been taken in Islamic school, taken in the terrorist camps, and they do not even remember their name.”
Yahad-In Unum’s investigations have shown him what happens when people “are free to kill” and have unlimited imaginations to torture their victims. “It’s why people are afraid to think about it. They see the news and they turn off the TV,” he said.
“It’s why good people don’t want to know, and the bad people are very happy to follow. It’s why we can show what we do in the media today because normal people say ‘awful,’ and bad people say ‘Hey, I want to be part of that.’ ”
But for this French priest, ISIS’ treatment of Yazidis and Christians is just one more manifestation of an ancient struggle. “I always say at conferences that it’s not bizarre that they put the story of Cain and Abel at the beginning of the Bible, to force us to say that the first brother killed his brother,” he explained, “and that the blood was swallowed by earth.
“It’s exactly what happens today, and we are still there. Me, I don’t see a general genocide. I see Cain killing his brother. We have to treat this original disease as a catastrophe for the planet. All these mass shootings, these bombings that we hear about every day in the news — it’s original sin. I don’t care from which religion they are, there is no good reason to kill a mass of people,” he said.
“So it’s to teach [the] Holocaust to heal the planet, it’s not to teach the Holocaust because the victims were Jews,” he continued.
“It’s why we do the same in Iraq today. I investigate what happened to the Yazidis, and also for the Christians, … to know what ISIS has done. It’s why I published this book. But it’s also to unmask Cain, to say, ‘Cain was under the mask of the Nazis, now he’s in the mask of another group.’ But it’s the same evil.
“For me it’s really a fight against evil. It’s why I always say to my team, ‘You must pray a lot, to ask God’s presence in front of that because you cannot be alone in front of evil, it’s very dangerous.’ ”
He said he is beginning to dig deeper into what happened to the Christians in Iraq as well, but he can only go so far on a limited budget. If there is funding, he envisions Yahad-In Unum beginning projects to look at the killing of Christians in places like Pakistan and Egypt as well.
He said he is not the kind of person to ever feel satisfied with the work he has done, and considering the state of the world today, it’s unlikely he will ever get to a point where he feels enough has been done.
As for the work documenting the “Shoah by bullets,” he commented, “I do it for the dignity of the victims, and to teach that we cannot build democracies in countries on the mass graves of other people. … I realize also that the [relatives of] victims are very afraid to come back to the mass graves, from any place on the planet, and it will be the first time Jews are coming to their mass graves to say the Kaddish, to pray. I would like it to be the same in other places.”
In some families, at least, the last victims will now have been buried — properly. But for Desbois, the war is far from over.
John Burger is an award-winning writer and the news editor at Aleteia.
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