The Wheeler Centre
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Father Patrick Desbois: Holocaust by Bullets
Born in France in 1955, Father Desbois is a Roman Catholic priest, consultant to the Vatican and the head of the Commission for Relations with Judaism of the French Bishops’ Conference. He has devoted much of his career to furthering relations between Catholics and Jews, and as co-Founder and President of Yahad – In Unum, he has spearheaded an initative to locate the sites of mass graves of Jewish victims of the Nazi mobile killing units: the Einsatzgruppen. Here, he presents his work and joins Mark Baker in conversation.
Baker’s opening speech ponders what the lessons of the Holocaust could be — what, in the face of unimaginable horror and suffering, could possibly be taken from those dark days. He talks of an ‘awesome silence’ left by a representational vacuum, and offers that the only lesson, if it could be called that, is that we must seize the opportunity to act in favour of humanity when given the chance.
Between Baker and Desbois, a short film demonstrates some of the work carried out by Yahad - In Unum.
As images of his work fade down, Desbois enters the stage and animatedly explains why exactly a French Catholic priest is wandering the killing fields of former Soviet republics.
What follows is a frank and uncomfortable relay of some of the many scenarios, described by his witnesses, in which Jews were intimidated, duped and humiliated before their deaths. It raises the obvious question: why must we know these details?
Desbois' answer is delivered swiftly: the European continent will be unable to move forward without accounting for these injustices, and will be hypocritical in setting an example to other nations in conflict today. Denying slain peoples a burial undermines “all our values”, he continues, while locating victims allows their families to finally grieve them.
Speaking with Baker, Desbois tells us why he believes this new knowledge changes our understanding of the Holocaust. On the subject of interviewing witnesses, he cites several difficulties such as the challenges of interviewing couples and corroborating details, and the fact that due to “arriving late”, he’s now mostly limited to interviewing the children of survivors, victims and witnesses.
The priest also notes the necessity that one must not visibly react with shock and outrage when conducting interviews for archival information — because one is not there to judge or respond, but to record.
His work has revealed a perhaps unexpected banality of brutality; when Baker asks how it is that ordinary people can be transformed into those capable of committing evil, Desbois can only conclude that “everybody can be a killer, everybody can be a victim”. He expresses his disappointment that German silence on the Holocaust prevents further insight.
His numerous and sustained encounters with brutal history have taken their toll on his personal life, as one might expect. But Desbois intimates that as a youth, he was brought up oblivious to any awareness of Europe’s tragedy. It was only revealed to him through his grandfather’s mysterious refusal to speak despite having witnessed atrocities himself.
Finally, Desbois shares his hopes to expand Yahad - In Unum’s work to take in a broader field, including the Balkan states and Roma mass graves, whilst acknowledging the need for more resources and a greater level of concern to properly address Europe’s awkward shame.
This 2011 Wallenberg Oration was presented in partnership with Monash University’s Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation. Each year, the Oration explores important themes in Holocaust and genocide scholarship. It is named in memory of Raoul Wallenberg, who risked his life to save Jews during the Holocaust.