“It is impossible to part with the dead who have not been mourned” (Bruno Bettelheim, 1979)
From the parapet of a bridge crossing the River Bug, one can see the remnants of Jewish gravestones in the muddy river bank. The locals of Włodawa, Poland leveled the Jewish cemetery after the war to make a park (Gilbert, 258). The last remnants of their once
vibrant Jewish community were swallowed by the earth. If one does not look over the parapet to the muddy river bank below, the landscape is placid and beautiful. There is no echo of the atrocities that occurred in the woods on the Belarusian side of the river.
From September 1939 to June 1941, the River Bug was the border between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. It was here that the Nazi Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing
squads, embarked on a campaign of mass murder that would eventually take the lives of 1.5 million Jews (Gilbert, 259). Before the gas chambers of Auschwitz, which have come to define the Holocaust, were even built, millions of Jews were massacred in plain sight of their neighbors and friends. Yet today, the River bug flows unmarked by the atrocities it witnessed and the ashes of those massacred in droves are lost to the wind.
Father Patrick Desbois’ “Holocaust by Bullets” project ensures that the victims of the Einsatzgruppen remain alive in our memory. Melding testimonies with ballistic and forensic findings, Desbois and his team have discovered hundreds of mass graves in the Ukraine. He tells the stories of those executed by way of those who witnessed the killings. These stories return humanity to those the Nazis sought to strip of everything. Father Desbois has denied the Nazis total victory, they have not succeeded in eliminating every last memory of European Jewry. In addition to his book, “The Holocaust by Bullets,” Father Desbois leads a French organization called Yahad In-Unum (the Hebrew and Latin words for “together”) in order to prevent further acts of genocide (Associated Press 2009). Yahad In-Unum was founded by Catholics and Jews to bring the two faiths closer together. Paul Shapiro, Director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, explains that Father Desbois’ mission is guided by a close adherence to the strictures of both Christianity and Judaism (Desbois, xiii). Christian scriptures call for “acts of loving kindness” (misericordia) and Judaism asks for the “good deed” (mitzvah) of “healing the world” (tikkun olam). The power of the more than 450 testimonies Father Desbois and his team have collected is palpable. For a long time, survivors and witnesses did not share their stories, afraid of how they would be received (Langer, xiii), believing that they did not deserve to live when so many others had died (Lifton, 1980). Father Desbois has opened the floodgates and enabled witnesses to tell their stories without fear of being judged. A sampling of the many testimonies in Father Desbois book is enough to reveal how much is still unknown about the Holocaust. These memories help to situate us in war-torn Ukraine as no textbook can. Father Desbois has shown us that “the memory of victims who seemed nameless and unknowable can be recovered” (Desbois, xii)..
Father Desbois’ journey began in 2003 in Rawa-Ruska, Ukraine, where his grandfather was interned in a camp as a French prisoner during the war. This was also a site of an Einsatzgruppen massacre, which Desbois’ grandfather had witnessed. “The French prisoners were condemned to witness the genocide of the Jews. They were condemned to see their murders” (Desbois, 30). This theme of being “condemned to remember” (Desbois, xi) is repeated throughout Desbois’ book. French poet and Holocaust survivor Charlotte Delbo likened her life after Auschwitz to a snake shedding its molting skin. She
could begin to look and act normally again but she could not shed her memories. “The skin of memory doesn’t renew itself” (Delbo 1985). Desbois’ interviewees, just children of eight or nine during the war, have aged, but their memories still scar them. The villagers of Rawa-Ruska agreed, at the request of the mayor, to guide Father Desbois to the final resting place of the Jews of Rawa-Ruska and to give their testimony. Despite the brambles that had overgrown the path, all the elderly villagers knew the way to the clearing, they had been there 60 years earlier. This small earth mound was the mark of the grave of the 1,200 Jews of Rawa-Ruska (Desbois, 36). One by one, the witnesses stepped forward into the pit to tell their stories, each more intense than the next. One woman stepped forward:
I saw the execution of the last Jews, shot by the Germans. They brought them here in trucks. I remember the blood that ran like a stream after the execution, along the path that goes down to the village. The Germans asked me to come and cover the pit with chalk to dry the ground out; it smelt so bad (Desbois, 36).
Another woman walked into the pit crying:
The Germans had grenades that they threw in the pit after the shooting of the Jews because many of them were not dead yet. One day I saw the dismembered body of a woman on top of a tree. That tree you can see over there. They made me climb up in the tree to bring the body down and put it in the pit (Desbois, 36).
When the Nazis marched into Ukraine, they sought to exterminate all traces of the vibrant Jewish communities there, especially children, the future of the generations, and the elderly, those deemed incapable of hard labor. They could stem the flow of blood with chlorine, sand, and chalk (Desbois, 40) only for a time. The physical precautions they took to ensure that the Jews of Europe would be forgotten could not erase the images etched into the memories of those “requisitioned” (Desbois, 77) to help carry out mass murder. In a speech to the commanders of the German army on August 22, 1933, Adolf Hitler asked, “Who remembers the genocide of the Armenians today?” (Desbois, 63). Inadvertently, by involving entire towns in the process, the Nazis ensured that the genocide of the Jews would never be forgotten. With Father Desbois’ help, the witnesses of the Ukraine are “accepting awareness of what happened” which “is to help new generations become resistant to genocide mechanisms which could be set in motion, again, anywhere in the world” (Desbois, 63).
Venturing through the small village of Khvativ in Ukrainian Galicia, Father Desbois and his team were repeatedly told, “There are no more old people in our area, they have all died” (Desbois, 56). He was lucky to find a 91 year old woman name Olena who remembered everything, but refused to tell for fear of the KGB (Desbois, 57). After forty-five minutes of silence, Olena told her horrific story. Olena was a young, newly married woman when the Germans came to Khvativ. She was harvesting wheat when two German trucks filled with Jews roared past. In one of the trucks was a friend of Olena’s mother’s screaming: “Olena, Olena save me!” (Desbois, 58). “The more she shouted, the more I hid myself in the wheat. I was young, and I was afraid that the Germans would kill us like they were killing the Jews. That woman shouted until they took her to the pit” (Desbois, 58). Desbois’ training as a priest helped him not to judge those he was interviewing. “These are people who saw what happened but who could do nothing. Powerless people who still ask themselves whether they are guilty or innocent, when they were only six, seven, eight, or nine years old at the time these events occurred” (Desbois, 74). This “bystander guilt,” as American psychologist Dr. Yael Danieli writes, is common among Holocaust survivors and witnesses who feel that others judge them for having survived or think that they must have somehow helped the Nazis commit the atrocities to remain alive (Danieli 2009). Many wanted to deny their experiences after the war for fear that none would listen to their horrific stories (Danieli 2009). Father Desbois let the witnesses know that they finally had sympathetic ear and could finally share with someone the traumatic events that had given them many sleepless nights. After he patiently listened to her story, Father Desbois accompanied Olena to a place the locals call “the Forest over the Jews” (Desbois, 58). Olena was too late to save her friend but was able to save her memory by unveiling the mass grave to Father Desbois.
These testimonies more than anything else have helped Desbois and his team to find over 800 mass graves scattered throughout the Ukraine. The “Holocaust by Bullets” project hopes to expand into Belarus and parts of Russia that had been occupied by the Germans to collect more testimonies and find more unmarked mass graves (Associated Press 2009). By telling these stories and arranging for Kaddish (a Jewish prayer for the dead) to be administered, Father Desbois keeps the memory of the millions killed alive. Elie Wiesel wrote that we are the cemeteries of the dead who have no physical cemeteries (Engelking 2001). Father Desbois insists that it is our moral duty to remember their stories and teach future generations so “that ‘never again’ becomes a reality” (Desbois, 63).
- Bruno Bettelheim, “Postface,” Vegh (1979).
- Yael Danieli, “Conspiracy of Silence,” Reform Judaism Magazine (2009).
- Charlotte Delbo, La Mémoire et Les Jours (Paris: Berg International, 1985), 13.
- Father Patrick Desbois, The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews (New York City: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008).
- David R. Dietrich and Peter C. Shabad, The Problem of Loss and Mourning: Psychoanalytic Perspectives (Madison, Connecticut: International Universities Press, 1989).
- Barbara Engelking, Holocaust and Memory: The Experience of the Holocaust and Its Consequences: An Investigation Based on Personal Narratives (London and New York City: Leicester University Press, 2001).
- Martin Gilbert, Holocaust Journey: Travelling in Search of the Past (New York City: Columbia University Press, 1997).
- Lawrence L. Langer, Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1991).
- Robert Lifton, “The Concept of the Survivor,” Dimsdale (1980): 117-130.
- Associated Press, “Priest Uncovers ‘Holocaust by Bullets’,” MSNBC, February 1, 2009.
- Barbie Zelizer, Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory through the Camera’s Eye (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998).