How long does it take to change how the world thinks about human history? French priest Father Patrick Desbois has been trying to broaden our collective understanding of the Holocaust for the past eight years—and despite diligent work, constant advocacy, and a spiritual impetus, the light at the end of the tunnel remains dim.
Recently profiled in Jewish lifestyle and culture magazine Moment, Desbois contends that people generally simplify the Holocaust as “trains taking people to death camps.” He gives a number of reasons why, including the iron-fisted Soviet control of Eastern Europe, complicit actions of non-Jewish Europeans, and that Western Jews were more likely survive and tell their story. Although a brutal element of the Nazi war effort in Central and Western Europe, ghettos and gas chambers weren’t nearly as common on the Eastern front. In the bread basket of Europe, guns were the executioner’s weapon of choice, and “the rule became one Jew, one bullet.”
Much of Desbois’ work in the past decade has been to find the sites of mass graves—no easy task. Traveling across the Ukranian and Polish countryside, he and a team of researchers have found and interviewed nearly 2,000 witnesses of Nazi atrocity. Many describe how, fearing for their own skin, non-Jews helped exterminate large numbers of their countrymen. Some participated in the Berlin-ordered “Sonderaktion 1005,” a tactic to destroy evidence of the mass shootings in case Western nations heard of the genocide. Some would “exhume and burn the bodies buried in mass graves,” others would help pile up corpses to conserve space. (33,771 people, for example, were killed during one massacre at the Babi Yar ravine near Kiev.) Desbois’ investigation is also running against the clock—the clock of decay. Many of the executed (the ones that weren’t exhumed) have been buried for more than 60 years.
In addition to correcting history and ensuring victims are properly buried, Father Desbois sees broader implications in his work. “I have the conviction that we cannot build a modern Europe, and perhaps a modern world,” he told Moment, “above thousands of mass graves of Jews, who have been killed like animals, buried like animals. We cannot build democracies above mass graves. Otherwise, what can we say to Rwanda, to Darfur, Cambodia? What can we say to other countries if we don’t bury the victims?”
I’ve glossed over or completely left out many fascinating facets of Desbois’ life and work—including his family’s history with the Holocaust and his run-ins with Holocaust deniers. All in all, an excellent profile of an individual wearing out the soles his shoes for social and historical justice.