God's work: Father Patrick Desbois is in a race against time to gather testimony before all those who witnessed the slaughter die
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
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.
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".
The modus operandi of the Einsatzgruppen was as predictable as it was murderous, explains Father Desbois. The mobile units were the precursors of Heinrich Himmler's "Final Solution" policy. Composed primarily of German SS and military personnel, they could draw on members of the notorious German Gendarmerie, local police or even civilians – "anyone with a carbine" explains the priest. Using the Soviet system of requisition enacted on their behalf by compliant local mayors appointed by the Nazis, the death squads were often staffed by gunmen plucked from everyday war duties and left deeply traumatised by their actions. Their orders were to kill those they were told were enemies of the Reich. Among the Jews, Gypsies and communists were thousands of mentally and physically disabled people, women and children.
Their approach was always the same, explains Father Desbois. First a single uniformed officer, an expert in digging mass graves, would arrive in a village. His initial stop would be the home of the local mayor, where he would ask simply: "How many Jews?" Gauging who was and was not Jewish in the Soviet Union was easy. Jews were considered one of the USSR's national minorities and the information was recorded in official documents. Having arrived at a figure and estimated the volume of the pit required to hold the victims, the solider would order the mayor to round up local teenagers, many of whom are now among Father Desbois's witnesses. They would then be ordered to dig. Sometimes the pits were complex structures, excavated deep into the ground with stairs to allow the soon to be murdered to lie down "like sardines" before they were shot. Sometimes they were little more than shallow holes. When the work was complete, the call would go out to the regional headquarters seeking gunmen from the surrounding countryside.
The day of the murders would have a chilling routine to it, says Father Desbois.
Those who were left behind remember all too vividly what they saw, says Father Desbois.
Sometimes some of those who were not dead would escape. More often they would suffocate under the weight of the earth and bodies, but not before they had endured further days of suffering, during which villagers watched as the freshly dug earth heaved and fell under the agonized movements of the victims below. It was as if the whole pit was breathing, according to one onlooker.
But while official records were kept detailing how many had been shot, it is believed that up to 10 times that number were killed in Ukraine unofficially. After the shootings each village would be declared "Judenfrei" – free of Jews – putting them in good favour with the Nazi authorities. Any Jews that escaped and returned were often killed to prevent this status being lost. Many were forced into hiding in the forests until the end of the war, only to emerge into the further terror under Stalin. Others were not so lucky.
Unlike the Holocaust in Central and Western Europe, where victims were rounded up and deported, the genocide in Ukraine and Eastern Europe came to the village squares, the gardens and farms of the survivors, and it was among them that the bodies remained. Again, unlike Germany and Poland, where the extermination camps stand testament to the atrocities that were perpetrated within their walls, no symbols or memorials exist to the dead Jews and Gypsies of the former USSR. Under Stalin, the victims, where they were remembered, were considered to be fallen fellow-Soviets. All that remains of this Holocaust by bullets are the cartridge cases discarded in the dirt, each bearing a distinctive date and brand and each having claimed the life of a human being.
It may seem strange that the task of remembering the millions of Jews and Gypsies who died in Eastern Europe should fall to a Roman Catholic priest. Father Desbois is neither a historian, nor an archaeologist. He is certainly not a politician. It was through his family's wartime experiences that he became involved in his present mission. The Desbois family resisted the German occupation, hiding partisans on their farm in eastern France. His grandfather (and other relatives) were imprisoned, eventually being sent to the Ukraine, witnessing the horrors at Rawa-Ruska where thousands of Jews died. He eventually told his grandson what he had seen, as a way of downplaying his own suffering. It was during a visit to the site of his grandfather's wartime incarceration that Father Desbois posed the local mayor a simple question: "Where are the bodies of the Jews?" The politician said he did not know – an answer the priest found impossible to believe. Returning the next year, there was a new mayor, who this time took the inquisitive Frenchmen out in to the forest where 100 villagers were waiting to tell him of the horrors they had seen played out there among the birch trees.
The symbol of his authority is, he says, his clerical collar. Arriving unannounced, he knocks on doors and listens – offering no comment or judgment on actions which may have haunted a life for 60 years. Often, at the end of a gruelling testimony he may pray with the witnesses, though he does not offer absolution through confession. It is simply an opportunity for someone to talk while another listens.
He recalls a recent interview in Brest, Belarus, when an elderly man was describing how he would rest at night from packing away the belongings of the slaughtered Jews as the German soldiers raped the surviving women.
Even today, conditions in the villages of the former Soviet Union are harsh. There are often no roads; no running water and the weather is bitterly cold. It is also an occasionally violent part of the world and the priest, who has been shot at in the past, makes his five journeys a year to the former killing fields in the company of armed bodyguards. After enduring the horrors of the Nazis and Stalin during their lives, the villagers have never posed themselves the kind of questions of guilt and complicity that so often bedevil the conscience of the wealthier and more privileged, believes Father Desbois.
As a former mathematics teacher in West Africa who became a priest after working with Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta, he is not inured to suffering. But he dismisses inquiries about how he or others "feel" in relation to the atrocities as "typical Western questions". Under the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century people simply had no choice – they co-operated or they died. This leaves him free to concentrate on the task in hand – logging the dead.
With the backing of the French government and Pope Benedict, Father Desbois has become of the leading figures in the world of Jewish-Christian relations. But he sees his role simply.
And at the heart of the unimaginable continent-wide tragedy can be found individual human suffering and a timeless story and its still unanswered questions dating back to the murder of Abel.