Priest discusses Holocaust documentation efforts

The Rev. Patrick Desbois, secretary to the French Conference of Bishops for relations with Judaism and adviser to the Vatican on the Jewish religion, appeared at Wilshire Boulevard Temple on May 22 to discuss his effort to locate the mass graves of the approximately 1.5 million Jews who were murdered in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust between 1941 and 1944. 

 “I will never know why I said ‘yes,’ ” said Desbois, a French Catholic priest, explaining how difficult the work has been since he started it in 2004 with support from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) and with the Paris-based research organization Yahad-In Unum. 

After crisscrossing the countryside for several years, Desbois and his team have identified 800 of an estimated 2,000 mass graves. The work has included collecting artifacts and recording video testimonies from eyewitnesses, many of whom were speaking publicly for the first time.

Desbois documented this effort in the book “The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews,” which won the 2008 National Jewish Book Award. Desbois explained that, although he is not Jewish, the injustice of these 1.5 million murders — which occurred prior to the construction of concentration and death camps — not being central to the Holocaust narrative act. 

Paul Shapiro, director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at USHMM, who provides the foreword to “The Holocaust by Bullets,” introduced Desbois at the lecture at Wilshire Boulevard Temple that was attended by 200 guests. USHMM presented the May event, the fourth annual Linda and Tony Rubin Lecture, in partnership with the synagogue and the Sigi Ziering Institute for the Study of the Holocaust at American Jewish University.

Some of the testimonies that Desbois’ team recorded will become part of the USHMM’s permanent collections. Bullets found near the mass grave sites have since become part of the USHMM exhibition “Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity in the Holocaust.”

Shoah Foundation, Bay Area group partner to fund preservation of Holocaust testimonies

In a separate effort to make sure that voices from the Holocaust are not forgotten, the USC Shoah Foundation Institute and the San Francisco Bay Area-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JFCS) are partnering to raise money to support an initiative that will help digitize more than 1,400 Holocaust survivor testimonies that were recorded on VHS tapes during the 1970s and 1980s. 

 “It’s up to the community and individuals to step up to do this, to help us preserve that oral history,” said Barbara Farber, director of development at JFCS.

Covering the areas of San Francisco, the San Francisco Peninsula and Marin and Sonoma counties, JFCS is one of the oldest and largest family services institutions in the country. Dedicated to making audiovisual interviews with survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust a tool for education and action, the USC Shoah Foundation has more than nearly 52,000 eyewitness testimonies in its Visual History Archive.

The end goal is for JCFS oral testimony collection to become part of the USC Shoah Visual History Archive. The JFCS collection is the sixth largest of its kind in the United States, according to Farber.

The process involved with upgrading the oral histories is costly. Each video, which lasts anywhere from four to six hours, needs to be transformed from the outdated VHS tape medium to computer files, a high-tech digitization process. 

Additionally, each video needs to be coded with more than 60,000 keywords used so that viewers can type in search terms — such as “Auschwitz” or “Kindertransport” — and can jump to parts in the interviews where the survivors are discussing those subjects. 

So far, $1.2 million has been raised toward a goal of $1.6 million, with $600,000 of that coming from a matching grant. Organizations that have contributed include the Koret Foundation and the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund. On June 9, Stephen Smith, executive director of USC Shoah Foundation, will appear at a JFCS tribute event in San Francisco that will help raise more funds.

This is not the first time that USC Shoah’s Visual History Archive will feature testimonies taken from other organizations. In April, the Visual History Archive was granted 50 testimonies from the Rwandan genocide that were provided by the British nongovernmental organization Aegis Trust.

Farber emphasized the importance of the project. 

“We knew these oral histories would not last much longer on VHS tapes, and in order to honor our Bay Area Holocaust survivors who gave their oral histories, it’s important to preserve them,” she said. “They are phenomenal teaching tools as we go forward and do not have our Holocaust survivors to be able to speak in schools.”