From the Publisher
“Father Patrick Desbois is a French Catholic priest who, virtually single-handedly, has undertaken the task of excavating the history of previously undocumented Jewish victims of the Holocaust in the former Soviet Union, including an estimated 1.5 million people who were murdered in Ukraine.” Wall Street Journal
“Part memoir, part prosecutorial brief, The Holocaust by Bullets tells a compelling story in which a priest unconnected by heritage or history is so moved by an injustice he sets out to right a daunting wrong…One might think Holocaust history has been exhausted, but Desbois breaks real news about how an emerging democracy in the New Europe still hasn't emerged from World War II. We have witnessed a decade of forensic excavations documenting genocides in Guatemala, Bosnia and Rwanda, but only now are these same tools being used to find the murdered Jews of Ukraine, thanks in large part to Desbois.” The Miami Herald
“Father Desbois is a generation too late to save lives. Instead, he has saved memory and history.” Wall Street Journal
“One of the most moving, troubling and insightful books on the Holocaust, or for that matter any other subject, that I have ever read.” Eugene J. Fischer, The Catholic Review
“Using a diverse team consisting of a researcher, photographer, interpreter, and ballistics expert, Desbois endeavored to uncover these burial sites and the brutal stories behind them. He uses ample testimony from those who may have witnessed key parts of this brutal process, and he makes some surprising discoveries. The narrative flows because Desbois has such a passion for his subject; he writes simply and well, so that even readers with little initial understanding will learn a lot. The result is an outstanding contribution to Holocaust literature, uncovering new dimensions of the tragedy, and should be on the shelves of even the smallest library. Highly recommended.” Library Journal, starred review
“An important addition to studies of the Shoah, agonizing to read and utterly necessary.” Kirkus Reviews
“In Jewish tradition the greatest category of acts one can perform are those of 'loving kindness,' including taking care of the sick, welcoming the stranger, and sheltering the needy. The most treasured of these acts is taking care of the dead because, unlike the others, it cannot be reciprocated. Jewish tradition posits that it is then that the individual most closely emulates God's kindness to humans, which also cannot be reciprocated. Father Patrick Desbois has performed this act of loving kindness not for one person but for hundreds of thousands of people who were murdered in cold blood. He has done so despite the fact that many people would have preferred this story never to be uncovered and others doubted that it ever could be done. His contribution to history and to human memory, as chronicled in this important book, is immeasurable.” Deborah E. Lipstadt, Ph.D. author of History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier
“In this very personal and affecting account of his gradual discovery of the events of the Holocaust in the Ukraine Patrick Desbois, a French priest, gives us a widened perspective of the extraordinarily complex manipulation of the local population by the Nazis, who forcibly requisitioned Ukrainian citizens of all ages to assist in the killings. In village after village, more than 60 years after the horrific events, the inhabitants, many of whom had been children at the time, came forward to bear witness. From the many interviews in the text, it is clear that the personal trauma of forced involvement in the mass executions has never diminished. And indeed, the stories of what they saw takes one's breath away. This is a significant addition to the history of the Holocaust that sheds new light on events in the Nazi occupied areas of the former USSR.” Lynn H. Nicholas, author of Cruel World: The Children of Europe in the Nazi Web and The Rape of Europa: Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War
“Prompted by compassion and intellectual curiosity, Father Desbois revisited the graves of a million and a half Ukrainian Jews, who were murdered during the German occupation. Combining archival sources and ballistic evidence with the voices of Ukrainian eyewitnesses, Father Desbois delivers a complete, harrowing account of what happened. This book is a triumph of historical exploration, deeply moving and profoundly disturbing.” Nechama Tec, Holocaust Scholar, University of Connecticut in Stamford, and author of the National Jewish Book Award-winning: Resilience and Courage: Women, Men and the Holocaust and of Defiance: The Bielski Partisans
“Father Patrick Desbois gives a horrifying account of dimensions of the Holocaust until now undocumented. His Catholic faith, experiences of his own family, the support of the French bishops and the research capacities of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum are enabling him to carry out a work of discovery, of healing and reconciliation. This book is a striking contribution to Christian-Jewish relations. We owe him a debt of enormous proportions.” Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I. Archbishop of Chicago
“[Desbois] is a human bridge between the modern Jewish world and the Catholic Church and a major conduit through which the Holocaust will be remembered.” The Christian Science Monitor
“[T]his modest Roman Catholic priest from Paris, without using much more than his calm voice and Roman collar, has shattered the silence surrounding a largely untold chapter of the Holocaust when Nazis killed 1.5 million Jews in Ukraine from 1941 to 1944.” The Chicago Tribune
Ph.D. author of History on Trial: My Day in Co Deborah E. Lipstadt
In Jewish tradition the greatest category of acts one can perform are those of 'loving kindness,' including taking care of the sick, welcoming the stranger, and sheltering the needy. The most treasured of these acts is taking care of the dead because, unlike the others, it cannot be reciprocated. Jewish tradition posits that it is then that the individual most closely emulates God's kindness to humans, which also cannot be reciprocated. Father Patrick Desbois has performed this act of loving kindness not for one person but for hundreds of thousands of people who were murdered in cold blood. He has done so despite the fact that many people would have preferred this story never to be uncovered and others doubted that it ever could be done. His contribution to history and to human memory, as chronicled in this important book, is immeasurable.
author of Cruel World: The Children of Europe Lynn H. Nicholas
In this very personal and affecting account of his gradual discovery of the events of the Holocaust in the Ukraine Patrick Desbois, a French priest, gives us a widened perspective of the extraordinarily complex manipulation of the local population by the Nazis, who forcibly requisitioned Ukrainian citizens of all ages to assist in the killings. In village after village, more than 60 years after the horrific events, the inhabitants, many of whom had been children at the time, came forward to bear witness. From the many interviews in the text, it is clear that the personal trauma of forced involvement in the mass executions has never diminished. And indeed, the stories of what they saw takes one's breath away. This is a significant addition to the history of the Holocaust that sheds new light on events in the Nazi occupied areas of the former USSR.
Read an Excerpt
The Holocaust by Bullets
A Priest's Journey to Uncover the Truth behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews
By Patrick Desbois
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2008 Father Patrick Desbois
All rights reserved.
I spent my early childhood living with my paternal grandparents in Saint-Laurent, a neighborhood on the banks of the river in Chalonsur-Saône that was not quite town and not quite the countryside. Claudius, my grandfather, was a farmer and a poultry provider for my parents' cheese and poultry shop. Every morning at dawn he set out on the roads leading to the villages of central Bresse in a little gray truck with empty wooden cages strapped to it. Every day he traveled to a different village, where the weekly market was held. People came to buy chickens, ducks, turkeys, pigeons, rabbits, eggs, and butter from the farmers. For me the days of the week corresponded to the names of the villages where the markets were held: Wednesday, Saint-Martin; Thursday, Saint-Germain-du-Plain; Friday, Mervans; and so on.
At nine in the morning, the town bell marking the opening of the market would ring over a market square that was already bustling with life. The chicken buyers, who had long been seated at an outdoor café, could finally rush toward the center of the market and the cages full of fowl. They had to be fast. From a very young age my grandfather taught me how to recognize good birds, and the tricks of negotiating for the best fowl in the Bresse region. At the end of the day I would stuff the squawking and flapping birds into the cages on our truck. The afternoons were spent in the plucking house where the birds and rabbits had to be killed and prepared for sale. I was my grandfather's "apprentice." Everybody said I looked like him.
Later, I lived with my parents who had a small shop in a narrow street in the middle of town, rue aux Fèvres, on the corner of the rue des Cloutiers. Eventually I discovered that this was in the old Jewish neighborhood of Chalon. The shop was called Au bon gruyère ("Home of the good gruyère"). As the name suggested, we sold cheese, mainly gruyère that we bought in 50-kilo rounds, but also the fowl that my grandfather bargained for in the villages. For the holidays, particularly Christmas, my uncles, aunts, and cousins came to help us pluck the chickens and prepare them. For us, Christmas meant the birth of Jesus but also a steady stream of customers coming to collect their turkeys.
My mother's family was called Rivière, like a river, my father's Dubois, like the woods. Some names lend a whole landscape to life, as did these. Life was simple and very lively, from school to the shop, from the shop to the slaughterhouse, from the slaughterhouse to the village farms, Chalon to Bresse. Every day we rode our bicycles steering our 13 cows to the meadows 10 kilometers from the house.
A sense of justice and a job well done were the twin pillars of my family. Being curious about life, I asked my parents to place a small chair, a little straw-bottomed affair, beside the shop door so that I could sit and watch the people on the sidewalk. The street and the passers-by were like a book that opened the world to me. My father always said: "The street is a theater!" Like the rest of my family, I knew all the people who lived on the street by name, regardless of their work, religion or nationality. My childhood friends were French, Italian, and Tunisian. It mattered little to me! My parents taught me a strict Catholic and humanistic ethic. My mother often repeated: "In the shop we must serve beggars in the same way we serve the Countess!" A countess did in fact come to the shop sometimes, in a blue convertible; she parked on the sidewalk and demanded: "A little piece of gruyere, please!" If there were other customers, my mother turned a deaf ear until her turn had come. Beggars also came to the shop with a meat voucher given to them by the municipality. My mother used to say to me: "You have to give them half a rabbit, but only give them the good bits, the thighs!" And we were perfectly happy to eat the rabbit ribs ourselves.
One part of my family was very Catholic, while another was atheist, even anticlerical. From childhood on, I knew I would have to make a choice about God and the Catholic Church. Some family discussions resembled epic medieval debates, only a bit more friendly. There were always painful issues behind these disputes, which inevitably ended with this question: "How could God exist and not react to the misery in the world?" Or sometimes: "Was Jesus's death on the cross the end of his story or had he really come back to life to play a role in the world?"
At the end of our little street stood the Cathedral of Saint Vincent which, seen through my child's eyes, seemed to be as large as the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. I often went to mass alone because my parents worked on Sunday mornings. Two childhood experiences still live in my memory. The priest had said that Christ was really present at mass so, sitting on a wooden bench, I blinked my eyes as much as I could, especially when he burned incense, thinking: "I'm sure I will see Him sooner or later!" Similarly, every year before Easter I listened attentively to the Holy Week readings. The priest said that every year "Jesus dies and rises from the dead." Every year I hoped it wouldn't happen. I used to think: "Maybe Jesus will be permitted to survive this year!" And every year, just before Easter, I was saddened to hear that He had been murdered again. Behind these two naïve memories lay the lessons my family had given me in simple words: believing in God and being aware of evil had to be expressed in prayers but also in actions, as a quest, and a responsibility toward others.
Every Sunday afternoon at the same time, after cleaning the shop, we closed the cream-colored folding shutters and set out for my maternal grandparents's house in the Bresse countryside. They lived in the farmhouse of the Chateau de la Marche, a castle that had been destroyed during the French Revolution.
Although I was born in 1955, 10 years after the end of World War II, the topography of my childhood was still heavily influenced by the geography of the war, with its divisions and violence. My grandfather Claudius lived about a hundred meters from a bridge where the line of demarcation passed, the famous line that separated France in two, the occupied zone to the north and the non-occupied or so-called "free" zone to the south. A little plaque had been placed on the bridge: "Line of demarcation." Each time we crossed the bridge, one of us shouted: "We've passed the demarcation line!" Our whole family life was immersed in war stories. I can still hear my mother, every Monday morning, perched on a step-ladder in order to reach the top of the shop window, washing the glass panes and singing at the top of her voice the refrains she must have heard from resistance fighters: "Flee, cowardly soldiers, you shall not pass!" From earliest childhood, I knew exactly who had collaborated with the Germans, which houses the Germans had burned down, and the places in the neighborhood where the men were taken to be shot.
My family always took the opportunity to give me a detailed account of the places where they had suddenly come face to face with history. They were simple people who wanted to tell us, the younger generations, what had happened, using places and traces where the war had marked our daily landscape. This was a human, ethical education in which people spoke little but where everything that happened became the material for a story or an epic. Very often I used to go up to the attic to see if the refugees had left something behind. I looked under the furniture and in the cupboards.
How often had I heard the story of the German plane shot down by the Communist resistance fighters! The plane fell into my maternal grandparents's fields. My mother's farm often provided fresh supplies to the resistance fighters, the maquis, and shelter to refugees from the east of France. German troops came to the farm to look for resistance fighters. Soldiers turned the house upside-down and threatened to shoot all the men in the household. I didn't find out until much later that the German pilots taken prisoner by the maquis had been tortured in my grandparents's farm before being shot in the forest across from the house. As an adult, it's strange to think that we used to play hide and seek in places where men were tortured. My mother only once said something on the subject: "They made me go outside when the Germans screamed too loudly because I was a little girl."
My maternal grandfather, Emile, who was a forest worker, often took me walking in the immense forests surrounding the farm. He spoke little and walked fast. He often pointed out certain trees which had what looked like scar marks on their barks: "See the impact of the bullets on these trees? See here, that's the trace left by a bullet when they shot a German." I was already learning that, for those who knew how to see and hear them, both nature and ordinary people bore the scars of history.
My maternal grandmother Victorine was in some ways the heroine of the family. One day I asked her if there had been any Jews among the refugees. She merely replied: "Why should I have asked them if they were Jewish?" I didn't really know what it meant to be a Jew. For me, the Jews were the Lévys who sold trousers on the square at Baune, and the Peres, our neighbors, who had come from Algeria. Faces, smiles, friends.
Another topography, strange, distant, and foreign, synonymous with misfortune and suffering, regularly appeared in the course of our family conversations. Other unknown names of distant towns and villages echoed through my life.
Mauthausen. A cousin had died there. He was a bus driver and crossed the demarcation line every day with his passengers. One evening he didn't come home. His wife could not get any information from the German authorities. Disappeared. A year later she received a letter, short and to the point. Her husband had died of pneumonia in Mauthausen.
Dachau. A cousin had come back from there. He lived with us. He had had tuberculosis since the war and no longer worked. He didn't speak much about his experiences in Dachau but went back there from time to time with other former deportees. He always returned sadder than when he left.
And then, there was one name, a name unlike all the others: Rawa-Ruska. I was told my grandfather Claudius had been taken there during the war. As usual, I tried to understand. I thought that if he didn't talk to me about it, it was because he must have done something bad. One day I asked him this terrible question: "Grandpa, did you kill any people?" Not even turning round to face me, he simply answered: "No." I didn't know how much the misery of deportation could isolate people, how much he must have thought that nobody in Chalon in 1970 could possibly understand what had happened in Rawa-Ruska back in 1942. I didn't know how sullied a person could feel after living through such horror.
And then one day, one summer morning, sitting beside him in the little gray truck, I pushed him, pushed him so much that he told me about his three escape attempts. I was seven years old.
He had tried to escape from the camp twice and failed, but on his third attempt his fellow-inmates helped him by stomping their clogs on the ground, making a racket to create a diversion while he jumped into a thicket. It was successful. He made it to the train station of Strasbourg, in Alsace, a region of France which had been annexed as part of Germany. He went to buy a ticket to return to his wife and son in Chalon-sur-Saône. He asked for a ticket in German. The lady behind the counter answered him in French. My grandfather paused for a moment: "In that instant I knew I had failed. She was going to report me! I didn't even make it to the train. The Gestapo arrested me. Destination Rawa-Ruska." Then my grandfather fell silent. And afterwards ...? There was no afterwards. This silence, from a man usually so cheerful, was charged with meaning. The silence had a name: Rawa-Ruska.
Several times during our Sunday lunches I tried to ask questions when he was absent. As soon as I pronounced the words Rawa-Ruska everybody started crying, especially Marie-Louise, my grandmother. Rawa-Ruska echoed like a painful family mystery. What a strange name! I didn't even know what country Rawa-Ruska was in. It was nowhere. It was impossible to situate it. Was it in Russia, Poland, or somewhere else? Just once, he uttered these words: "For us, the camp was difficult; there was nothing to eat, we had no water, we ate grass, dandelions. But it was worse for the others!" That sentence was engraved in my consciousness as a child for all time. I realized that he couldn't say any more about it. But who were the others?
I was 12 years old when I saw images of the Holocaust in the municipal library in Chalon for the first time. There was a large album with photographs on a varnished wood display stand. I opened it and turned the pages. I saw photographs of the concentration camps for Jews at Bergen-Belsen. I remember closing the book quickly and thinking to myself: "Now I understand everything! I understand grandpa's secret. The others were the Jews!" I ran out of the library. Shocked by my discovery, I didn't tell anyone about it but since that day, I have always sought to understand what happened, what the tragedy was that my grandfather had been forced to witness.CHAPTER 2
All the major decisions in my life were made spontaneously: Faith came to me with brutal suddenness when I was 20 years old.
It was in 1976 and I was studying mathematics at Dijon University where I had met Denise, a fellow student who was never free on Thursday evenings. One day she told me that she was a Catholic and that she attended meetings in the university Catholic center. I couldn't believe it! A Catholic in a world of science ... How, in 1976, could there still be people so old-fashioned as to believe that God could give meaning to life? I spent entire evenings explaining to her that God was merely something man had invented to reconcile himself with death. Most of my friends were Marxists or Maoists. In return, Denise and her friends spent months explaining to me why they believed in God.
A few months later, in July 1976, I was on vacation at the beach in Narbonne. Sun, sea, boredom. The loudspeakers announced the projection of a film by a Protestant group. To keep my summer apathy at bay, I went and sat in the back row. At the end of the film, two girls from the evangelical group came to talk to me about their convictions. A minute later my ship was foundering. As they spoke, for the first time in my life, I felt that Christ lived in them. I went home troubled and alone, thinking: "If Christ is alive, then it's all true, God exists!" For years I was to meditate this question: "God, what do you want?"
From then on, I sought God everywhere ... even as far away as Calcutta. One day I found a book by Mother Teresa, God is Love, in which she described her life and her commitment to providing homes for the dying in Calcutta. I wrote to ask if I could help their congregation that summer. I received an airmail letter containing four words: "Come whenever you want." That response was all I needed.
The following summer I went to Bengal. Every day, I went with Mother Teresa's brothers to the home for the dying set up in Kalighat, in an annex to the temple dedicated to the goddess Kali. Men and women who lived on the street came there to die with dignity. Every day there was prayer, mass, love for the poor and for the most rejected. I saw the sisters dressed in blue and white saris kneeling on the floor of the chapel praying for food. Neighbors often arrived with bags of rice. Mother Teresa believed in this, relying on divine providence.
One day when I was ill, Mother Teresa asked to see me and, smiling warmly, she said: "Go home, recover your health and never forget, if God calls you, He will never let you go." Since then, that certainty has never left me.
I returned to France to continue my studies in mathematics. One evening, as I was climbing the stairs to my apartment, I was suddenly filled with the internal conviction that God was calling me for something specific. I began to meet with priests, with people involved in the Church. For a long time I wondered whether it was madness or if it really was a call from God.
In my search for God, I found myself in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) as a math teacher. I landed in Dedougou High School, which had had no math teacher for the previous two years. Every evening I went with one of the Sisters of Saint Joseph to the isolated white buildings at one end of the town. It was the leper house. Inside, in semi-obscurity, men, women, and children afflicted by the illness were waiting for us.
Excerpted from The Holocaust by Bullets by Patrick Desbois. Copyright © 2008 Father Patrick Desbois. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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