Sunday, November 20, 2011
Woodmere shul hosts Shoah researcher priest; Father Patrick Besbois uncovers holocaust massacre sites
Close to two million Jews were shot and thrown into mass unmarked graves in Eastern Europe by the Einsatzgruppen, Nazi mobile killing units, in less than three years during the Second World War. Few survived to tell the tale. A French Catholic priest, in a story worthy of a forensic detective thriller, is returning to the killing fields in a successful bid to find, record and memorialize the sites, restoring names and faces to the countless dead. Last Shabbat, Father Patrick Desbois spoke at Young Israel of Woodmere about his work.
“Humanity begins with burying the dead,” said Desbois. One of his cases, in Aug. 2006, Desbois and his team exhumed graves in the Ukraine; the Jewish community had been in existence in that area for 500 years. The pit held 1,700 skeletons. Ballistics experts found hundreds of German cartridges; the skulls had either one bullet hole in the head or no bullet holes in the head indicating that they were buried alive and suffocated. He noted that the digs stopped at the first layer of skeletons “due to Jewish religious constraints.”
The mass grave is now marked by a large black Star of David on a white background—the only memorial in the Ukraine. Desbois pointed out that the interviews that he and his staff conducts with the elderly locals are probably the first and last time they are telling what they witnessed. A rabbi is on his staff to recite kaddish and perform other required rites.
Desbois described the chain of events leading to his discoveries. It was known, he said, that the Germans arrived in the morning and when they left in the evening all the Jews in that area were dead. The reports filed said, in effect, “we were in the city, found a lot of resistance, came to the ghetto and had to kill civilians” with no mention that the Jews, men, women, children, were wiped out.
Desbois’s secular Catholic family has an activist tradition with his grandfather surviving a Nazi prison camp. His grandmother on the other side hid resistance fighters. When he went to pay respects at the site of his grandfather’s camp in 2002, he asked where the town’s 15,000 Jews were buried. The mayor brushed him off, but a number of visits later and a new mayor led him to the forest and a gathering of elderly villagers who were witnesses to the murders. They were forced to prevent the Jews from escaping, to cover the pits of corpses, feed the Germans and bring a gramophone for the Germans to listen to music while conducting the murders.
Desbois founded Yachad-In Unum, meaning together in Hebrew and Latin, in 2006 to collect information on these mass gravesites. He researches killing sites in the Ukraine at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and provides them with the information he gleans from his interviews with witnesses and research on the ground. He currently has information on 800 of these 2,000 pits, with video testimonies, photographs and artifacts from the gravesites.
In his talk Saturday night, Desbois recalled accounts of witnesses, that the Germans would drink all night, encircle the Jewish area so that they could not leave and announce, “you are being deported to Palestine.” They would be lined up in rows of five in the town square, the elderly and children and dead in carts, and marched to a pit that had been dug by the townsfolk. Their coats, suits and boots were collected, they were lined up five or ten in a group along the edge of the pit and shot “one bullet, one Jew,” and flung into the pit.
Desbois recounted a letter that was written by a German soldier describing how the Germans would play with the children like balloons, throwing them up in the air and trying to shoot them. The Jews’ belongings were collected, their homes were emptied and collected and auctioned off in the school. Jewish girls were kept as sex slaves and later killed. In Rustov they killed 27,000 Jews in two days. When Desbois asked how this was possible witnesses said that they “worked” day and night turning tractors with headlights to focus on the pits.
Desbois explained that their main goal is to retrieve information. The witnesses were generally poor people who speak to him as a priest. He shows no emotion when listening; any emotion would cause them to stop talking. His goal is to locate and record those victims. “Genocide is not a tsunami,” he said, “it’s a personal crime. I’m looking for victims and want to reintegrate them into humanity. They were killed and buried like dogs. If we leave, it as if Hitler and people like Ahmedinajad won. Even 60 years later we don’t forget. We are coming back.”
“Special people choose to do something,” Rabbi Herschel Billet said. “He dedicated his life to doing something that’s a credit to humanity. We have to appreciate a man who cares about humanity and the Jewish people. He is one of the chasidai umos haolam.”
Father Desbois was invited to speak about his work, said Rabbi Billet, “ to educate people and parenthetically to show some appreciation for what he is doing.”
The response appeared to be positive in spite of some rumblings in the community about a priest speaking in shul. “I can’t read Rabbi Billet’s mind but I think he did it on Shabbos to guarantee a critical mass of people,” said Rita Carp, a member of the Young Israel of Woodmere who attended the presentation. “It’s a kiddush Hashem. One time I was paying a shiva call with my father who is a Holocaust survivor.” Her father consoled the mourner as fortunate, because her parents have a grave, which Carp’s murdered grandparents were not given. “It’s very meaningful to have a kever to say kaddish. My father has no place to go and say kaddish.”
Young Israel of Woodmere member Hilda Heller also attended the lecture, defending its scheduling on Shabbat. “Ordinarily people are apathetic. It’s important, uncovering massacres in Europe; people in their respective communities allowed this to go on,” Heller said. “He certainly is a righteous gentile. You’re always going to get controversy; but he went out of his way to do something out of the box for the Jews. He should be lauded and applauded.”