On the Trail of the Holocaust by Bullets

By Father Patrick Desbois

Father Patrick Desbois is President of Yahad - In Unum, a research organization whose teams travel to towns and villages in Eastern Europe investigating execution sites, identifying mass graves and videotaping interviews with witnesses to the executions. More than 1,700 interviews have been recorded to date. Since its founding, Yahad has confirmed the location of hundreds of mass graves, many previously unknown, in more than 600 towns in Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and Poland. Yahad teams will conduct 15 two-week research trips in 2011, interviewing 40-50 witnesses each trip.

Fr Desbois will deliver the Wallenberg Oration presented in partnership with the Wheeler Centre and the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation at the Capitol Theatre in Melbourne on Thursday, June 2.

The old man gazes at the young woman standing before him in the road that runs through his rural Ukrainian village. He appears unsurprised by her question.

“Yes, I lived here during the war,” he says. “Yes, I can tell you what happened here.”

And so we begin another journey back in time. It is a journey of memories as dark as the shadows in the woods nearby, of a day almost 70 years ago when the old man, then a 12-year-old boy, watched as his neighbors were shot and buried in a pit at the edge of his village. Another interview. Another witness to the ‘Holocaust by Bullets’.

Before the death camps of Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibor, the Nazis were already at work in their quest to annihilate the Jews of Europe in the territory of the former Soviet Union. In the wake of the Third Reich’s invading armies came the Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing squads moving from village to village to carry out mass shootings of Jews, Roma and other civilian victims of Hitler’s regime.

Unlike the secrecy surrounding the camps, however, the genocide carried out in the towns and villages of Eastern Europe occurred in full public view, witnessed by the victims’ neighbours. These people, farmers or woodsmen, often live today in the same village where, as children, adolescents or young adults, they saw the shootings occur, sometimes requisitioned by the killers and forced to perform some task: to gather; to drive; to dig. They know where the bodies are buried and lead us through fields or forests to the mass grave sites, often overgrown with weeds and rarely marked. “There,” they will say, pointing at the slight depression in the ground, “that is where the Jews are buried.”

For the past nine years, teams of mainly young people from the association Yahad - In Unum have traveled the back roads of Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and Poland identifying mass grave sites and videotaping interviews with non-Jewish eyewitnesses to shed new light on the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. We are in a race against time to interview as many of these witnesses, most today in their 80s or 90s, before they and their memories are gone. To date, we have covered approximately 60% to 70% of Ukraine, identifying more than 600 mass grave sites, many previously unknown, that contain the remains of more than 1 million victims. Videotapes of our interviews with more than 1,700 witnesses can be seen at Yahad’s headquarters in Paris, at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and, soon, online.

The stories recounted by the witnesses during the interviews are sometimes horrible beyond imagining. Yet the interviewer continues asking the questions. When the interview is concluded, the team moves off to meet another witness. Once the history and mass grave sites of a village are confirmed, the search continues in the next village. This year, Yahad teams will make 15 two-week research trips, interviewing 40-50 new witnesses each trip.

Sometimes I’m asked the question, “But why do you do it, Father?” It is an understandable question. The Holocaust is not something that most of us are inclined to think about when we wake up in the morning. It is unpleasant, tragic, frightening, revolting. There is so much to live for, why focus on the terrible deaths that happened so long ago?

Part of the response is found in the reaction of the old people who we meet. “What has taken you so long to come?” they sometimes ask. It as if they have been expecting us. The events that they witnessed have remained locked inside them - many of them tell us that it is the first time they have ever spoken of them. For the first time, the voices of those who can confirm the facts first-hand are being heard, bringing another perspective to the Holocaust in Eastern Europe and adding a powerful element to the body of evidence. Their memories often fill in the details we have gleaned from archival accounts of Soviet and German war crimes investigations, details that would otherwise soon be lost forever.

They are details about real people - the Jews, Roma and others whose existence the Nazis sought to erase from the earth, thrown like animals into anonymous mass graves that are disappearing beneath the grass and trees. Our work seeks to preserve the memory of the lives of these people and to ensure that they are not forgotten. By identifying the mass graves, we enable dignity and respect to be restored to the victims, re-integrating them in humanity.

Our work also is about education, about increasing awareness and understanding of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe and building human resistance against genocide. The fact that the ‘Holocaust by bullets’ occurred in plain view of everyone, that the evidence of the atrocities exists not somewhere far removed from our daily lives but rather, ‘just behind this wall’ and that genocide, sadly, did not end with the Nazis, should warn us that it is an ever-present danger, requiring vigilance, assertive action and the power of conscience to prevent.

Through Yahad’s work, to remember the victims and stand against genocide, those who become involved in our work find a purpose that is self-propelling. I am never asked the ‘Why?’ question by anyone who has sat listening to a witness tell what happened the day the Germans arrived. We listen. We think. We remember.