French priest reveals ‘forgotten’ Holocaust victims at Twin Cities event

| January 27, 2017 | 0 Comments

Father Patrick Desbois, pictured above, spoke about the Holocaust at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park Jan. 26. The French priest has spent 15 years in eastern Europe and Russia investigating mass graves of Holocaust victims. Courtesy Yahad-In Unum

Father Patrick Desbois has dedicated his priesthood to uncovering a massive crime.

That’s how the French priest described the Holocaust when he spoke at a packed Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park Jan. 26.

He said the Holocaust is often noted as just a fact of history.

“If it was nothing to shoot 2 million or 3 [million] Jews in Europe, what can we say today?” Father Desbois asked, indicating that he faces a lingering indifference to the existence of mass graves.

Since 2004, Father Desbois has investigated hidden mass graves from the Holocaust in Ukraine, Russia, Poland and Belarus. He has found tens of thousands of people’s remains buried in fields, forgotten by the annals of history.

“Even if at some point I have read or became familiar with the numbers on a page, it’s always mind boggling and staggering,” said Demetrios Vital, who was among the 750 people who attended the presentation. He serves as the outreach coordinator at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota. “That’s true of so many of the different horrible things we hear about, [that] we must hear about and learn about.”

The Nazis killed millions of Jews and members of other groups from 1933 to 1945 during World War II. While much has been documented about the Holocaust in Germany and Poland, less is known about its mass killings and grave sites around eastern Europe and Russia.

During his childhood, Father Desbois first learned of the Holocaust from his grandfather, who had spent time in a concentration camp in Rawa-Ruska, Poland. Father Desbois said his grandfather told him that the victims outside the camp had it worse than those inside.

As a priest, Father Desbois visited the city and began to see what his grandfather described. He learned of German Nazis shooting Jews in secret and burying them in mass graves, sometimes while still alive. The rule was one bullet per person, he said; eyewitnesses reported seeing the ground move for days as those who were still alive struggled until death.

In 2004, Father Desbois formed the organization Yahad-In Unum (a combination of Hebrew and Latin meaning “together in one”), and he works with 27 people to research mass graves from the Holocaust. He also interviews witnesses, who are now in their 80s or older, which means little time remains to interview more.

TV news show “60 Minutes” featured his work in October 2015 in a report titled “The Hidden Holocaust.” Father Desbois also wrote a book about his work, “The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

Father Desbois said his organization’s purpose is to “find them, to recognize them and prove it” in investigating the graves. He and his researchers don’t memorialize the graves because they must “work with the legislation of the country,” but the families of the deceased can mark the site with small memorials.

Often, the mass graves have been treated and sold as regular land, with some lying under buildings.

“It’s very common because in the Soviet Union, people couldn’t choose anything,” Father Desbois said. “So they couldn’t choose their house, they couldn’t choose their garden, they couldn’t choose their field. It was given through the Soviet structures.”

Number unknown

The number of hidden mass graves remains unknown. Father Desbois does know that Nazis shot members of other groups such as gypsies. Besides the shootings, they took victims’ belongings and sometimes raped women and girls.

Judith Meisel, 86, who attended Father Desbois’ presentation, said she saw executions first-hand during the Holocaust while growing up in Lithuania. Now a St. Louis Park resident, Meisel and her sister escaped and came to the United States.

“Instead of [bringing people to a] concentration camp, they [Nazis] would have the children stand on the balcony, and they’d take stones and kill the people if they can, and then shoot,” Meisel said.

Concerns for safety preceded Father Desbois’ presentation at Beth El after the nearby Sabes Jewish Community Center was evacuated Jan. 18 due to a bomb threat. St. Louis Park police provided security at Father Desbois’ presentation.

“Resilience in the face of threats is one of the most important ways to respond to terrorism or threats of terrorism as people demonstrate that they won’t be deterred, Jews and non-Jews alike,” said Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.

Father Erich Rutten, chairman of the Commission on Ecumenism and Interreligious Affairs of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, introduced Father Desbois and read a message from Archbishop Bernard Hebda, who was unable to attend. The event occurred on the eve of the Jan. 27 International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Father Desbois told the crowd that they must pass on the truth about the Holocaust. He said such an atrocity could happen again, and the brutality of the Islamic State resembles it.

“We have to teach [about the] Holocaust because, unfortunately, it’s the reference today for mass crime,” Father Desbois said.

He also indicated it’s important to help people understand and explain the Holocaust as a crime “because there is a denial” of the Holocaust having happened. It takes evidence to explain it, he said.

In addition, Father Desbois said Christians “have the same duty to show the evidences of the persecution of the Christians by ISIS. They [militants] destroyed most of the churches, they stole most of the property, they killed some Christians, and nothing has been done systematically to prove it.”

Father Desbois added that time is running out to collect evidence of the Christian persecutions, too.

 

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