At present, Paul Shapiro, of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum — which has been co-operating in Father Desbois’s body hunt — reckons that 1.5 million Jews were murdered by the Germans, their allies and collaborators in the towns and villages of Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and other former Soviet republics.
As Hitler’s armies pressed into Russia, the Einsatzgruppen — Operational Groups — rounded up the Jews, forced them to dig pits, strip and lie in the mud until they were shot.
Hundreds and thousands were killed even before German bureaucrats met in 1942 at the Wannsee Conference to work out the logistics of systematically murdering European Jewry and before the concentration camps were slaughtering their inmates. Father Desbois calls it “the Holocaust by bullets”.
Time is of the essence. According to Fr. Desbois, “The witnesses who I am talking to were children at the time and are now very old indeed. So far I have talked to 950.” The eyewitness accounts are harrowing:
One of his interviewees was Petrivna, a Ukrainian woman, in the village of Ternivka. The Jews, she said, were gathered in the centre of the village and taken to a large pit on the fringes of the community.
They were told to lie down, 20 at a time, and shot in the back of the head. “It’s not easy to walk on bodies,” Petrivna told the priest.
“Very calmly I asked her: ‘You had to walk on the bodies of the people who were shot?’ She replied: ‘Yes, I had to pack them down . . . after every volley of shots. We were three Ukrainian girls who, in our bare feet, had to pack them down, the bodies of the Jews, and throw a fine layer of sand on top of them so that other Jews could lay down’.”
Fr. Desbois' published his efforts in the book The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest's Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews (MacMillan, 2008).
SYNOPSIS: In this heart-wrenching book, Father Patrick Desbois documents the daunting task of identifying and examining all the sites where Jews were exterminated by Nazi mobile units in the Ukraine in WWII. Using innovative methodology, interviews, and ballistic evidence, he has determined the location of many mass gravesites with the goal of providing proper burials for the victims of the forgotten Ukrainian Holocaust. Compiling new archival material and many eye-witness accounts, Desbois has put together the first definitive account of one of history's bloodiest chapters.
- "Father Patrick Desbois: A Priest on a Holocaust Mission", by Michael Kaminer. The Forward August 26, 2009. Updated
- How Father Desbois Became a Holocaust Memory Keeper (Wall Street Journal January 23, 2009)
- Interview with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Sadly, it was only this past week that an annual poll of Jewish-Arab relations, conducted by Haifa University's Professor Sami Samuha, revealed that "some 40.5 percent of Israeli Arabs believe the Holocaust never occurred," and denial of the Holocaust has become more prevalent in recent years.
Departing from Ben Gurion airport in Israel last week, Pope Benedict XVI reflected on his visit of Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial:
The ceremony at the Presidential Palace was followed by one of the most solemn moments of my stay in Israel – my visit to the Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem, where I paid my respects to the victims of the Shoah. There also I met some of the survivors. Those deeply moving encounters brought back memories of my visit three years ago to the death camp at Auschwitz, where so many Jews - mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, friends - were brutally exterminated under a godless regime that propagated an ideology of anti-Semitism and hatred. That appalling chapter of history must never be forgotten or denied. On the contrary, those dark memories should strengthen our determination to draw closer to one another as branches of the same olive tree, nourished from the same roots and united in brotherly love.