Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Father Patrick Desbois

Father Patrick Desbois has spent the better part of two decades working to break the silences. 

Although he was born 10 years after the end of World War II, there were times during his childhood when it seemed the war was not over. It was still there — in the silences of his grandfather, Claudius, a former French soldier who had been imprisoned in an internment camp in Ukraine during the war. 

“He was always laughing, but when anyone brought up the name of Rava-Ruska, he would go quiet,” Father Desbois said. 

One day, Father Desbois said, his grandfather confided in him: “He said, ‘Patrick, life in the camp was horrible, but outside the camp, for the others, it was worse.’” 

But, the priest said, he did not understand what his grandfather meant. Who were the “others”? What happened “outside”?

In 2002, Father Desbois travelled to Rava-Ruska in the Ukraine, searching for answers. The town archives revealed that more than 15,000 Jews had been executed there during the war, but when he inquired further, he was met only with silence. No one had seen anything. No one seemed to know where the Jews were buried. No one wanted to talk. 

“But on that day, I discovered the secret of my grandfather,” he said. 

After the election of a new mayor and as the closed mentality of the Soviet era began to fade, things changed. Father Desbois recalled that he was visiting Rava-Ruska when a stranger came to him and told him, “They’re waiting for you.” 

He went with the man, who escorted him to where the new mayor was waiting. The mayor, in turn, brought the priest to where 50 elderly people — some leaning on sticks, some with newspaper tucked inside their boots — were gathered. They led Father Desbois through the forest to a hidden burial site, and they began to speak. 

“And I heard the call of God,” Father Desbois said. 

A reluctant detective

Father Desbois is a French Catholic priest, an advisor to the Vatican on Judaism, a professor at Georgetown University and the president of Yahad-In Unum, a humanitarian organization dedicated to uncovering and commemorating the mass burial sites of the 1.5 million Jews and Roma killed by the Einsatzgruppen — Nazi death squads who were deployed throughout Eastern Europe during WWII. 

He is a reluctant detective who found his calling in bringing the secrets of genocide into the light — across Europe and, more recently, in Iraq. 

Father Desbois is also the author of three books, two of which — “In Broad Daylight” and “The Holocaust by Bullets” — tell the story of the massacres undertaken by the Einsatzgruppen, and “The Terrorist Factory,” which documents the recent genocide of the Yazidis at the hands of ISIS in the Middle East. 

On Thursday, Jan. 31, Father Desbois gave a presentation sponsored by the Holocaust Commission of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater, the Norfolk Forum and the Virginia Beach Forum at the Sandler Center in Virginia Beach. The presentation was in recognition of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, observed each year on Jan. 27. 

‘In the memories of the poorest people’ 

Once he returned from Rava-Ruska, Father Desbois said he went to see Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, then archbishop of Paris. The cardinal told Father Desbois he was not surprised by what he had learned; he himself had been born to a Jewish family and converted to Catholicism at age 13. His mother had been killed in Auschwitz.

“I will never forget what Cardinal Lustiger told me. He said, ‘The secret of the Holocaust is in the memories of the poorest people,’” Father Desbois said. “They were peasants — and it was they who were requisitioned to dig the mass graves. They had no choice. They have been carrying the secret since ’42, and they wanted to talk.”

In 2004, Father Desbois founded a non-profit group dedicated to excavating the history of the “Holocaust by bullets.” The name Yahad-In Unum was chosen to reflect the commonality of purpose shared by two faiths —Judaism and Christianity — merging the words “Yahad,” meaning “together” in Hebrew and “In Unum,” meaning “in one” in Latin.  

With the aid of 29 full-time workers, the organization has recorded interviews with approximately 6,000 people, many of whom Father Desbois described as “the poorest of the poor.” 

As a result of those interviews, investigators have uncovered more than 2,300 mass graves from Lithuania to Azerbaijan.  

“It’s a continent of extermination,” he said. 

‘No genocide without the neighbors’

By interviewing eyewitnesses, many of whom were teenagers during the war, Yahad-In Unum researchers have put together a coherent picture, detailing the methodology of a genocide in which victims were killed not in concentration camps, but rather in their own villages, in front of their neighbors. 

Typically, Father Desbois said, one German officer would come out to survey the village to find a suitable place for the mass grave. In many instances, Jews were often told they were being deported to Palestine and, thus, they came willingly to their deaths. 

The Einsatzgruppen requisitioned villagers to dig the mass graves, run errands and even to bring the soldiers food and drink when they got tired of shooting. 

“There is no genocide without the neighbors,” Father Desbois said. “Hitler never missed a worker.”

Some villagers recounted that, due to the “one bullet, one Jew” policy adopted by the Germans to preserve the army’s dwindling resources, many victims were still alive when the mass graves were filled. 

“In village after village, it’s the same,” Father Desbois said. “They all say, ‘For three days, the grave was still moving.’”  

Many, Father Desbois said, tell their stories matter-of-factly, without emotion. 

“It’s difficult at times to hear,” he said. 

Father Desbois stressed that the potential for genocide exists when ordinary people fail to recognize the humanity of others, when they begin to see the killings as something that happens “to someone else” while they themselves feel quite safe. 

In many instances, he said, villagers came out to the massacre to watch as spectators. 

“‘It was interesting for the children,’ is something I often hear,” Father Desbois said.  

 ‘Same story, same evil’ 

On August 3, 2014, ISIS units invaded Sinjar in northern Iraq, the historical home of the Yazidis, an ethnic and religious minority who speak a form of Kurdish and practice a unique, monotheistic religion. Father Desbois said he had never heard of the Yazidis before they began to appear in the news but, from his work in Europe, he recognized the tactics of genocide all too well.

“It’s the same story, the same evil,” Father Desbois said.  

“I took three days to pray, and then I said, ‘I will not sit in my armchair and wait.’ Unfortunately, I don’t know Kurmnaji or Arabic, so perhaps I wasn’t the best person, but…” he said, shrugging self-depreciatingly. 

But, he added grimly, “I didn’t have a door.” 

In February 2015, Father Desbois was in Brussels when, the night before a meeting, he stopped into a barber shop for a trim. As he and the barber chatted, the young man confided to the priest that he was Yazidi, but that his boss did not know. Father Desbois waited for the shop to close to speak to him further. 

The young man told the priest about his home, his family and of the genocide of his people. They struck up a friendship and Father Desbois found his door in the form of a guide to an unfamiliar culture. The barber accompanied Father Desbois on his first trip to Iraq.

“Today, he has been working for Yahad-In Unum for three years as an investigator,” Father Desbois said. 

In Iraq, the priest found that many Yazidi people were told that they needed to report to an administration center for new identification cards, just as many Jewish people were once assured they would be only deported to Palestine. 

There, families were broken apart. Yazidi infants were taken to be given to Muslim families. Young boys were taken to schools to learn to handle bombs and Kalashnikovs and to be indoctrinated into ISIS. Girls were sold to Muslim men. The rest were executed. Again, it was the methodical extermination of a people. 

One Yazidi boy recounted that after he was rescued from ISIS, 

he had been at the home of 

a friend when ISIS came for him. He later discovered that his friend had reported him. Again, there was no genocide without the neighbors. 

Since the initial invasion, ISIS has been largely pushed back from Sinjar, and Yahad-In Unum workers have been able to set up four centers in the region: two for children and two for women where victims can find help to recover from their experiences. 

“Many of the children come back speaking Arabic, which is not their language. One young boy said, ‘It was like they stole my brain,’” Father Desbois said.  

Workers from Yahad-In Unum interview survivors in order to give the people a chance to tell their stories and to learn more about the manner in which ISIS operates. 

“In this case, the situation is even more complicated,” Father Desbois said. “In this case, the killers are still alive.” 

‘Human disease’ 

It might seem like a comforting thought, Father Desbois said, to believe that the propensity toward genocide is latent only within certain — other — nationalities, that there is immunity among ourselves. But genocide knows no nationality, he said. Members of ISIS, he pointed out, come from all over the world — from Canada, America, France, Germany, China and Australia. 

“It’s not a national disease, it’s a human disease,” he said. “We have to see that it is a temptation. A temptation that is there. To be a hero killer.” 

As a professor at Georgetown, Father Desbois said he is heartened by how many young people of all backgrounds and faiths he encounters who ask him what they might do to help stop mass violence. He advises them to stand up to hate groups, and to make it clear in their personal and professional lives that they do not condone their actions.  

“There are around 1,000 documented hate groups in America,” he said, grimly. “It’s a lot. We have two solutions. We can go on dreaming and sleep well until the nightmare comes. Or we can raise a new generation of fighters to stand up to hate. The other side is ready.”

Father Desbois continued, “It’s the question God asked Cain after he had killed Abel: ‘Where is your brother? What have you done with your brother?’ It’s a question we will all have to answer, I think, when we die.”