On Thursday, May 12, 2011, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Hannah Rosenthal recognized the work of Father Patrick Desbois, President of the Yahad-In Unum Association of France, with a Tribute of Appreciation certificate. The event took place in the Treaty Room of the U.S. Department of State. Father Desbois delivered remarks and a short film about his mission was screened. Father Desbois has dedicated his life to identifying previously unknown Holocaust-era mass graves, countering anti-Semitism, and advancing Catholic-Jewish relations. Since 2001, he and his team have identified the remains of over one million Jews and Roma in almost 1,000 mass graves across Eastern Europe.
SPECIAL ENVOY ROSENTHAL: Thank you for joining us this morning in the historic Treaty Room. Past and present Secretaries of State and scores of diplomats have gathered to witness important events here. I would like to recognize the Ambassador-designate for International Religious Freedom, Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook. We look forward to having her on board next week.
Today marks another special occasion as we honor Father Patrick Desbois and his life’s work to uncover millions of uncounted victims of the Holocaust. Through his steadfast efforts in Eastern Europe, Father Desbois has met elderly townspeople and recorded their stories, their information, and they are eyewitnesses to unspeakable things. We’re going to first see a short video, very short video, that shows some of the work that Father Desbois does with his team, and then we’re going to hear from him, you know, personally.
I want to just say that Father Desbois founded an organization called “Yahad-in-Unum,” which is “Together” in Hebrew and Latin. He has made it his life’s mission to find the graves—the unmarked graves, the never-before-known graves—of millions of people, and he’ll tell you how he does it, and he’ll tell you what it means to him and why he’s doing it. So first, sit quietly as we watch this short video, and then we will welcome Father Desbois here to speak to us.
FATHER DESBOIS: Thank you. First we can wonder why a French Catholic priest from Burgundy what he is doing in the killing fields of Ukraine, Belarus, and now Poland and Russia. In July ’42 my grandfather was deported from France to a small village called Rawa Ruska. He was not Jew; it was a deportation for French military. And when he came back, he refused to speak…to nobody. So I raised to him the question thousands of times, “What happened there?” Finally he told me, “In the camp we had nothing to eat, no food, no drink, but outside the camp was worse.” And me as a child I was wondering what could be worse than a camp of deportee prisoners.
And one day I went back to Rawa Ruska. I met the mayor. It was post-Soviet period. And I asked the mayor, because I knew that in the village they shot 18 thousand Jews–it’s a very small village. I asked to him, “Where are the mass graves of the Jews?” He told me, “We don’t know. They killed them in secret. It was totally secret.” And in that period we were thinking it was secret. But me I’m from a village, and I know we cannot kill 18 thousand people in secret in a village. So I came back two times, three times, four times in Rawa Ruska, and finally things got…the mayor lost the election. A new mayor has been elected, much less Soviet. He told me, “I will make you a surprise.” He brought me in a small hamlet called Borové. And…only one road, dogs barking, geese walking. And at the end of the street were 50 farmers, old people, waiting.
When we went out of the car, he told me, “Patrick, we are going to the mass grave of the last 1,500 Jews of Rawa Ruska.” And he organized them in a circle like you are today. One came in the middle; he said to me, “I was with my mother keeping a cow when suddenly we saw a German arriving with a motorcycle and a dog, and he was turning. And nobody understood why.” In fact, [to] every village they sent a German who was a specialist of the digging of the mass grave, who was looking where to dig the grave. Normally he has seen the mayor of the city before[hand] and asks, “How many Jews in the village?”
You remember that in Soviet Union “Jew” was written on the passport, so the mayor knew exactly how many Jews were living in the district and where they were living. So this guy was a specialist to calculate the volume of the mass grave according to the number of Jews they wanted to kill.
One day after, arrived 3 Germans with 30 Jews in a truck to dig the grave 8 meters deep. The witness, he remembered everything. He remembered that the Germans were bored during the digging so they asked for a table from the village and they put a gramophone and began to listen [to] German music. And, after, one played harmonica, and he broke his harmonica. And later, with metallic detector, we found the pieces of harmonica in the ground.
After a certain moment, the Germans said to the Jews, “Now you are tired, you should take rest,” so they went out of the grave and took rest on the grass. And secretly, one local policeman went down in the mass grave and put explosive under the ground. And, after, they said to the Jews, “Now you can go on digging.” And the 30 Jews exploded.
At that moment, another witness came in–an old lady with a blue scarf. She told me, “Me, I was in my farm, I was 14 years old, and they told me, ‘Come, come,’ and I had to climb in the trees and to pick up the pieces of corpse and hide them with branches in the grave so that the next Jews will not see it. And, after, arrived trucks and trucks and trucks of Jews from Rawa Ruska.”
In one day and a half, they shot 1,500 Jews, the last Jews of Rawa Ruska. With two shooters, with carbine Mausers, and three pushers. Why pushers? Because in July ’41 they established a law in accord with Wehrmacht to use only one bullet per Jew. One Jew one bullet. One bullet one Jew. So if people were only injured they pushed them and they were buried alive.
After, we learned that they never shot the children. They always throw in air, and as we found in many German archives they say, “We played with the Jewish children like balloon.”
The same evening, I was alone in the forest with the mayor. He told me, “Patrick, what I did for you for one village, I can do for 100 villages.” And I will never know why he said that. And I will never know why I said, “Yes.”
I came back in Paris. I spoke to Cardinal Lustiger, [who] was from Jewish family. He told me, “Oh, I know the story because my Polish family has been shot in Poland in Bendzin. Same way.” I went to New York. I met with Israel Singer what at the moment were at the Jewish Congress, and he did not know I spoke Hebrew. So he said to another, “You know what? We are looking for these mass graves since ’44, and this guy that we don’t know he finds them.” Finally we decided to build the Yahad-In- Unum together in Hebrew and Latin, and Lustiger told me, ‘We will not say ‘unum’, because we are not ‘unum’ Catholic and Jews but we are ‘in unum’, and ‘unum’ is God.
Now, where are we? We are 7 years after. Four teams. We go 15 times per year in this country 17 days each time. Today, actually these days, I have one team north of Minsk and one team in Donetsk. How do we proceed? First, we have extremely good relation with the Holocaust Museum of Washington. So, we have somebody full time working in the Holocaust Museum to find Soviet archives. In every village in ‘44, Soviet either opens a mass grave, made investigation, or at least make a drawing to say where are the mass graves, 16 million of pages. They scan these documents, they send them to Paris. Two other persons are working in German archives, in Justice Archive in Ludwigsburg near Stuttgart. We got the authorization also to scan the archive. So we send that in France, we translate it, and we build the file. So for each village we have a file. So before going to the village now we know if they shot 40, 60 persons or, like in Bogdanovka, 45 thousand Jews. It was the Jews of Odessa. When we arrive in the village we are nine…we ask four persons to go in four directions and they knock at every door. We follow always the same question: “Ma’am, you were here during the War?” and if she says yes or he says yes, we say “Oh. You can help us.” And were you here the day of the shooting? And if she says yes, then “Do you accept to be interviewed?” and on the spot in afternoon we interview. We don’t wait; otherwise a neighbor will tell them not to speak.
The interview is not a sentimental interview. It’s really a rebuilding of the crime. I will give you an example. This lady that you saw in the beginning of the movie I found her through the church. She’s living in Rawa Ruska. I came over many time in Rawa Ruska because it was very difficult to find the graves. Suddenly it was Sunday and I went to the Greco-Catholic church and I asked the priest, an old priest. So at the end of the mass, he said, “Many Jews have been killed. Please, please say the truth: if somebody was present at the execution, go out of the church, a priest is waiting to interview.”
This woman run outside, and she said, “I was there.” And I said, “Which shooting you saw?” She told me, “I saw the shooting of 5 thousand Jews.” And so we brought her back to the mass grave, and she was present with 5 other children hidden behind bushes, and she remembered exactly where it was the chief of the unit, where was the truck, and she remembered also the name of many families of Rawa Ruska that she saw because they were her neighbors. That’s a nice testimony.
Sometimes it’s a very difficult testimony. I remember it was Christmas, Orthodox Christmas. It means January. One family said, “Oh, Father, come to make Christmas with us.” It means to eat. “And, because our grandfather was present the day of the shooting, so you can interview him.” So I was thinking, “I will make the interview before the vodka, because after it will be over.” So we began the interview at the table and the grandfather says, “Yes, I was here the day of the last shooting; I was asked to dig mass graves four meter per four and German told us not to watch, but I could watch.” And he said, “Two days after, they decided to burn alive 350 Jewish workers in a sugar factory.” He said, “They closed the factory with fences, they burned them alive, and after, I had to enter in the factory, to take the corpse by the window, before the farmers, to put them in carts, and bring them in another mass grave.” And, after, he said, “I was also present the day of the liquidation of the ghetto.” And he told me, “You know, the Jews had big apartments, so we had to have big ropes to take belongings by the window. We put the belongings in carts. We brought them in synagogue, and we sold them by auction.” At the end of the meal, as it was Christmas, arrived two teenagers. One was playing Jesus, one was playing Mary, Joseph, people I know, and suddenly was playing Mendel. He was playing Mendel arriving with a fur coat, a red nose, and speaking with a Yiddish accent. Until now I wonder how a 16-year-old Ukrainian can remember a Yiddish accent. And he said, “I am Mendel. I am the Jew of the village. I come to steal your money.” After, arrived a girl suited in Jew. Scarf. And she opened a leather bag, and she said, “I am Madame Mendel. I stole all the cellular [phones] of the village. I sell to you.” Suddenly the witnesses—the old guy—began to laugh. He said, “Ho, I did the same play when I was a teenager during the war. And the German arrested me because they were thinking I was Jew.” So you must understand that, at that moment, you must not show anything. It was, of course, a pure anti-Semite atmosphere. Either you want to know the truth either you want to express yourself. I remember my cameraman said, “Oh, it’s an awful family.” I said, “Yes, but if you show your feeling, you will never know what the next house what they did.” I say that because it was difficult to train 4 teams–we have 4 teams now, going 15 times per year—it was difficult to train young people not to show their feeling to be able to know the truth.
Finally, I will finish by saying we have interviewed now 1,700 witnesses. We have covered three quarters of the territory of the Ukraine, three regions of Belarus, two regions of Russia, and now we begin in Poland, because they shot one Jew per ten in Poland and there are many mass graves. More or less we could rebuild the crime. They sent, as I said, a German alone. He goes to see the mayor, he asks how many Jews and he uses Soviet system of requisition to have free workers to dig the grave. For example, in Brona Gura they asked 700 farmers to dig the graves. Forced workers. Without the Soviet system they could not do it. They dig the grave—or the graves. When the grave is finished, they phone to the region and they say the mass grave is ready. So they decide the day of the shooting. When they arrive for the shooting, they arrive from far. They already asked the local police to surrender the Jewish area so that no Jew will escape. They arrive early in the morning. They send an announce in the village that the Jews will be deported to Palestine or to Kiev or to but most of the time in Palestine. I remember a Ukrainian lady, she was crying, because she saw her neighbor in the line to be shot, and the neighbor said, “Don’t cry, don’t cry—we go to Palestine.” And she told her, “It’s not Palestine. I saw the mass grave behind the church.” And the local police said, “If you go on speaking with the Jew, you will be shot like the Jew,” so she went back home. After a certain moment, most of the Jews are queuing on the main road, five per five, with the majority of their belonging because they think they will be deported. You know that in the Soviet Union deportation was not rare. Many Jews understand they will be shot so they are hidden somewhere. So the local police is passing from home to home. Any Jew they find hidden they shoot him. So at the end of this line there are carts and carts who have been requisitioned with dead Jews. At a moment they give a signal: direction Palestine, or direction Kiev. They begin to walk, most of the time the mass grave is not in the forest, contrary to what we were thinking, because the German are afraid to be attacked by the partisan: it’s in the public place. Suddenly they tell them to turn right and left and suddenly the Jews understand that they don’t go to Palestine. Because they are in the field. So they throw everything—their jewels, their affairs—not to give to the Germans. And that we find after with metallic detector. Suddenly they tell them they have to undress from warm coat, their cover boots, and, after, they isolate them five per five and ten per ten and they kick them and they bring them to the mass grave. Why five per five? Because if there are five shooters, five Jew. Ten shooters, ten Jew. They put them in order in front, they shoot them. Just at the night they will cover them, the same people who were digging the grave, wait to cover even if the people are not dead. And they bring back all the suits to the school or to synagogue. In the nights, they employ people to repair the suits, to sell them with a better price. They reorganize the sale by auction; normally it takes three days. They announce everywhere: Sale by auction for the suits of the Jews. People come to buy: “Who wants a shirt? Who wants a pant?” and they make auction. After, they will sell the belongings of the houses that they bring also to a place, normally it takes minimum three weeks. I speak of a small city, not of course of Kiev or Lvov. It means after three weeks there are no more belonging, no more suits, and no more Jews.
They did that from the first day of the War. They began in Sokal, just near the border, until the last day of the War. This shooting officially took place from the border of Poland until Ossetia, northern Georgia. Many people think they stopped the shooting when they began Auschwitz, when they began the camp. It was not the case. They never deported the Jews from Ossetia to Auschwitz –they shot them. And even when Auschwitz was existing group were going on working.
Why we need the Soviet archives? Because Himmler established a competition between the German to have efficacity. So very quickly they asked for the certificates that the city is Judenfrei. When they find new Jews, they don’t declare them to Berlin. These units are far from Berlin. So they want to be well-considered, so when sometime for one official shooting in German archive you have ten non-declared shooting. Without the Soviet archives, we could not work. Because they arrive after, and they find all the mass graves.
Finally, why we stand? Because sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s not, sometimes it’s freezing, sometimes there is no running water, because we need bodyguards. Why we stand after so many years? I have the conviction that we cannot build a modern Europe, and perhaps a modern world, above thousands of mass graves of Jews, who have been killed like animals, buried like animals. And also above mass grave of Roma Gypsy. We found 48 sites of extermination of Romas, with no memorial at all, not even one. We cannot build democracies above mass graves. Otherwise, what we can say to Rwanda? What we can say to Darfur? What can we say to Cambodia? What can we say to other countries if we don’t bury the victims? I always say, “When there is a war, there is a military century.” When there is a genocide, there is no century. And also, you know, of course I am a believer: in the beginning of the Bible, Cain is killing Abel. And you remember that God is asking, “Where is your brother?” Asking to Cain. And I think, I am listening to this question from my grandfather for my education since I am a child: “Where is your Jewish Ukrainian brother? Where is your Polish Jewish brother?” He’s in the forest, under the market? Anywhere, like an animal. And you remember the answer of Cain, he said, “Am I the guardian of my brother?” It means, “It’s not my question.” You have so many things to do today; we are not to look for the past. And you remember that God said, “Don’t you hear that the blood of Abel is climbing from Earth until Heaven?” And I think we cannot be the modern world and ask Abel to keep silent. Thank you. [Applause]
SPECIAL ENVOY ROSENTHAL: It’s always hard to to talk. I want to present Father Desbois with this certificate of appreciation in grateful recognition of your invaluable efforts and accomplishments in your service to all mankind. Your unwavering dedication, perseverance, and diplomatic efforts have strengthened the mission of the United States in the international community to fight hate and anti-Semitism and to ensure that the lessons of the Holocaust are reinforced and will never be forgotten. We are so grateful.
Thank you all for coming.
We will frame this and send it to you; you don’t have to schlep it now.
Thank you all very much.
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