As is often the case with an idea that becomes a movement, Father Patrick Desbois’ interest in seeking out the dead originated with a personal quest. His grandfather Claudius Desbois was a French soldier who was deported during World War II and held as a prisoner of war in Rawa Ruska, a small village on the border dividing Poland and Ukraine. After his return, Desbois’ grandfather never spoke of his experiences.
So, as an adult, Father Patrick Desbois traveled to Rawa Ruska and began asking questions.
“First it was a family investigation, and I realized there were no Jews buried in the village to which he was deported,” Desbois said. Yet, he discovered that “they had killed 18,000 Jews” there. “Afterward, people said, ‘Why don’t you go to the Ukraine. Why don’t you go to Belarus.’ In effect, it’s a criminologist’s investigation now, but we’re not trying to find the killers. We’re trying to find the victims.”
Desbois is not looking for Jews murdered in the notorious gas chambers of Auschwitz, but rather for evidence of mass shootings of Jews in villages and towns throughout Eastern Europe. Evidence of his horrific findings is on display at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) in Pan Pacific Park, where the exhibition “Holocaust by Bullets” continues through March 15. Co-presented with Desbois and his nonprofit organization Yahad-In Unum, the exhibition charts 10 years of research into the Nazis’ systematic massacre of Jews, that began in June 1941, before the creation of extermination camps, on-site mass killings that continued to the end of World War II. More than 2 million Jews were exterminated in this way.
Our Sherlock Holmes in this instance is a somewhat unlikely figure: a bespectacled French Catholic priest with a 5 o’clock shadow who has devoted his life and career to Holocaust research, combating anti-Semitism and furthering the relationship between Catholics and Jews. Desbois has been honored by the U.S. States Department of State, and he has won the B’nai B’rith International Award for Outstanding Contribution to Relations With the Jewish People, among other accolades.
The work of Yahad-In Unum (combining the Hebrew word yahad meaning “together” and the Latin phrase in unum meaning “in one”) is part of a groundswell, according to LAMOTH Executive Director Samara Hutman.
“We saw global activity after the [Adolf] Eichmann trials, in much the same way that people come out of the woodwork after a woman files a rape charge on a college campus,” Hutman said. “There is a domino effect, and Father Desbois is opening a window on this whole field of study.”
From 2004 to 2014, Desbois and his investigative team conducted more than 4,000 interviews. They have turned up more than 1,380 mass gravesites, in many cases paving the way for descendants of the dead to return and erect monuments.
“Families come to us and ask us, ‘In which mass grave is my father? In which mass grave is my rabbi?’ ” Desbois said. “If we can reconnect them with a village, they can go there and say Kaddish for the first time.”
“Holocaust by Bullets” shows the faces and recorded words of the mostly non-Jewish survivors who witnessed German soldiers rounding up Jews and preparing them for mass executions. Some watched from their nearby farms or climbed trees to gain a better view. Others were enlisted to dig mass graves or to fill them in once the killings had concluded. Whether in printed accounts or on tape, the memories are graphic and disturbing, intended to make the visitor a direct witness to the crime as well, according to Desbois.
The exhibition maintains that the Nazis’ mobile killing units swept across Eastern Europe, in each village employing the same five-step process (arresting, transporting, undressing, shooting, looting), from country to country. Photographs of the shootings — selected from approximately 400 snapshots Desbois’ researchers have recovered — were often used as propaganda or sent by German soldiers to their wives and girlfriends, Desbois said.
“It was very public, and that’s why it’s strange that nobody seemed to know about the killings,” Desbois said. “My hypothesis is that the more people show violence, the less people want to know. For me, a secret is not something you don’t know. It’s something you don’t want to know.”
In addition to the potential of Yahad-In Unum’s work to help descendants of the victims gain information and heal, “Holocaust by Bullets” has an anthropological function. Those mobile death units have continued to serve as a model for genocidal practices throughout the world, from Cambodia to Rwanda, from Syria to Darfur.
“Even non-Jews who come see this exhibition will recognize that this is something that happened in another mass crime as well,” said Marco Gonzalez, director of Yahad-In Unum. “Hopefully, people will be better aware that this is happening elsewhere and can end up as genocide.”
Desbois chronicled his work in the 2009 book “The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews.” A teaching guide accompanies the exhibition, and Desbois emphasizes that even after a decade, Yahad- In Unum’s work is far from finished. He estimates that documentation of the deaths of close to 1 million Jews, mostly from Russia, is still missing, and the window for finding living, credible witnesses to these mass exterminations — even the children who saw what happened 60 years ago — is quickly closing.
“There is a responsibility we have to teach the next generation,” Desbois added. “We are not building an Auschwitz now, but ISIS is shooting and bombing, killing people one by one and showing the images. There is a connection between the responsibility for yesterday and the responsibility for today. Otherwise, which world are we building?”
“Holocaust by Bullets,” through March 15
Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust
100 S. The Grove Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90036