Fr Patrick Desbois is a pioneer in Holocaust research and has spent much of his life carrying out ground- breaking work on one of the ‘forgotten stories’ of the Holocaust – the 1.5 million Jews who were not taken to camps and gas chambers, but shot in the occupied Soviet Union.
His work on the mass shootings in Ukraine and other countries invaded by Nazi Germany helped shape the term ‘Holocaust by bullets’, the title of his first book.
The French priest and renowned author has been director of the Episcopal Committee for Relations with Judaism of the French bishops’ conference and has also been a Vatican consultant on relations with Judaism.
He is the president and founder of the French organisation Yahad-In Unum, which is dedicated to locating the sites of mass graves of Jewish victims of the Nazi mobile-killing units in the former Soviet Union.
And now Fr Desbois has been appointed Chief Strategy Officer and Chair of the Academic Council at the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (BYHMC), which is being developed to remember the 34,000 Jewish victims shot at the Babyn Yar ravine in Kiev by the Nazis in September 1941. This year marks the 80th anniversary of the tragedy.
BYHMC also commemorates the tens of thousands of Ukrainians, Roma, mentally ill and others shot throughout the occupation of Kiev.
“Almost 20 years ago, my team and I began to investigate the ‘Holocaust by Bullets’ in Ukraine followed by other countries, in each village occupied by the Nazi units,” he said.
“That is why it is a great honour to serve the memory and the dignity of the Jews killed in Kiev and Ukraine with Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center’s wonderful team.”
Born in 1955 in France, Fr Desbois studied mathematics at the University of Burgundy and worked as a maths teacher in Africa in 1978 before working for St Teresa in Calcutta, where he helped set up homes for the dying.
Entering the Grand Seminary of Prado in 1981, Fr Desbois was ordained as a priest in 1986. He earned a master’s degree in theology from the Catholic University of Lyon in 1986 and a master’s degree in history from the University Lumière Lyon 2 in 1991.
His interest in the Holocaust was inspired by his grandfather, who was deported to a Nazi POW camp in Rawa Ruska, western Ukraine as a French prisoner of war during World War II.
As a child, Fr Desbois pushed his grandfather to tell him stories about his imprisonment which he told him was bad for the soldiers but worse for “the others on the outside”.
The need to find out who the “others” drove Fr Desbois on. “Since I was a child I wanted to know who those ‘others’ were,” he said.
While leading a pilgrimage to Poland as a young priest in 1990, he said, it became clear to him that the group knew very little about the Holocaust.
For his part, he began studying Judaism, attending seminars on the Holocaust at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and learnt Hebrew. He said it was important for him, as a priest, to do this work because Pope John Paul II called the Jewish people “our brothers”. “Sooner or later, we had to act,” he said.
Between 1992 and 1999, he was the Secretary of Jewish Relations for Cardinals Albert Decourtray, Jean Balland and Louis-Marie Billé. He was also appointed to the French Conference of Bishops as director of the national service for the Relations with the Jewish community and currently serves as an advisor to the Vatican on relations with Judaism.
Fr Desbois began his research back in 2002 in western Ukraine, the location he had heard so much about from his grandfather.
During this period, Fr Desbois searched for the killing sites of Jews and Roma, collected eye-witness testimony to their murder and of other Nazi victims, and researched German and Soviet archives.
In 2004, he founded Yahad-In Unum which continued his research in Eastern Europe on a much larger scale and is engaged in establishing a dialogue between the Christian and Jewish worlds.
In his first book, titled Holocaust by Bullets, published in 2008, Fr Desbois cites hundreds of eye-witness accounts of Nazi crimes against Jews in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union, in particular the murder of 1.5 million Jews in Ukraine.
The book won the National Jewish Book Award in the United States.
Published 10 years later, In Broad Daylight, documents the mass killings through archival material and testimony of victims’ neighbours. It demonstrates how these mass-murders followed a template, which included a timetable that was duplicated across numerous locations.
Far from being kept secret, the killings were carried out in broad daylight and witnessed by many.
For his work Fr Desbois has been awarded honorary doctorates by universities in Israel, the United States and Canad, and was awarded the Medal of Valor by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Humanitarian Award by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
He also received the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest honour, for his work.
In 2015, he turned his focus to Islamic State-crimes committed against the Yazidi people with Yahad-In Unum and interviewed several hundred Yazidi survivors.
As the Endowed Professor of the Practice of the Forensic Study of the Holocaust, he has, since 2016, taught at the Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
His new role at the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center was welcomed by Natan Sharansky, Chair of the Supervisory Board, who described Fr Desbois as a “distinguished Holocaust researcher”: “Fr Desbois has dedicated his life to tell the truth about the tragic death of Holocaust victims from bullets in Eastern Europe,” he said. “His contribution to the preservation of historical memory and the development of dialogue between the Christian and Jewish worlds has been recognised by leading institutions for the study of the Holocaust and noted by many governments and religious leaders around the world.
“I believe that our joint Holocaust research efforts will help us to save the memory and convey the history of this tragedy to future generations.”
Picture: Fr Patrick Desbois pictured in the ‘Mirror Field’ at Babyn Yar. It consists of stainless steel columns featuring over 100,000 holes, shot with bullets the same size as those of the Babyn Yar massacre. The viewer sees the bullet holes in their own reflection when viewing the installation. By night, light shines out through the holes, creating a mirage effect. (Photo courtesy of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center).