Last Witnesses of the Holocaust: A Priest's Search for Mass Graves in Ukraine

By John Goetz and Wiebke Hollersen

A French priest and his team are searching in Ukraine for the last witnesses of the Holocaust. They have already found hundreds of mass graves of Jews murdered by the Nazis. But time is running out.

Patrick Desbois has developed a keen eye for Ukrainian pensioners. The French priest -- a diminutive man dressed in black -- is standing on a village street and looking at two women walking by. They are the right age. "Go over there, quickly, and ask them," Desbois says to his colleague Andrej Umansky, a law student from Cologne. Both men have just arrived in Yaktorov by minibus.

"Did you live here during the war?" Umansky asks the women. That's always the first question.

One of the women nods.

"Did you see how the Jews were shot?" asks Umansky. When someone has answered the first question with "yes," this is always the second one.

The woman nods again.

She is another contemporary witness of the Holocaust in Ukraine who Desbois and Umansky have found. This has taken them one step further in their work: documenting the mass murder of Jews in this region.

For the past six years, the priest, the student and the others in their small team have been traveling through Ukraine and looking for old people, men and women over the age of 70.

An estimated 1.5 million Jews were murdered by German occupying forces in the area that constitutes today's Ukraine. Some of these people were deported to extermination camps in what is today Poland. However, most of the victims were shot by the occupiers in mass executions throughout the country.

Retracing the Steps of the Perpetrators

One of the largest massacres was in the Babi Yar ravine near Kiev. On two days in September 1941, more than 33,000 Jews were shot dead. This massacre has been investigated; there are books and films about it, and there is also a memorial there. Before the priest and his team arrived, not much was known about the many other killings. There were hardly any memorials; hundreds of thousands of dead had been forgotten.

The researchers retrace the steps of the perpetrators. Traveling from village to village, they conduct interviews with eye witnesses, find locals who will show them the sites of atrocities, search fields for spent cartridges, shoot films, take pictures and note down everything. They are usually on the road for a number of weeks in a row, traveling in teams of 10.

Over the past six years, they have questioned over 800 people in 330 towns and villages, and discovered hundreds of mass graves. This autumn their organization, Yahad-In Unum, will open a documentation center in Paris in collaboration with the Sorbonne University. The German Foreign Ministry has just made €500,000 ($717,000) available to allow them to continue their search.

The old woman in Yaktorov is prepared to answer additional questions. Her name is Anna; she is 82 years old. In the afternoon she is sitting at her living room table -- a tiny woman wearing a headscarf and a knit jacket, despite the heat.

Over the years, Father Desbois has developed a system that they now use to conduct all interviews. They inquire about a large number of details to refresh the witnesses' memories. What was the weather like on that day?

The weather was beautiful, says Anna, a sunny day.

It is important to ask the questions calmly. No interrogative tones, no judgments, no emotions.

"I was walking with my cows on the meadow in front of the village," says Anna. She was a young girl back then, 16, the daughter of simple farmers. Her answers are brief, and she glances mutely at the priest after each response.

It Was Much Worse for the Others

She had heard shots in the forest behind the meadow, and when it was quiet again, she went to have a look. She saw three pits with corpses lying in them. The pits were nearly filled with dead people, says Anna. She only remembers male corpses, and she can't say whether they were naked or clothed. A boy from the village was also there and they both stared into the pits. She only glanced for a moment, and then she ran away.

Patrick Desbois became a Holocaust researcher because of his grandfather, who was a prisoner of war held by the Germans in a camp in Galicia, in a small town called Rava-Ruska. When he later told his grandson about his internment in the camp, he said: It was much worse for the others. The old man never said who the others were, and his grandson didn't dare ask. When he later found a book with photos of Jews in a concentration camp, he realized what his grandfather had been talking about.

Desbois lived in Africa and India before joining the Catholic priesthood and becoming the secretary to the French Conference of Bishops for Relations with Judaism. He started to study the Holocaust, and visited Yad Vashem and Auschwitz. Nine years ago, he visited Ukraine for the first time and saw the town where his grandfather had been held.

During a second visit to Rava-Ruska, he asked about the other places. Thousands of Jews had been murdered in the town. But where? No one could tell him. Desbois refused to believe it at first, and then he simply could not accept it. He decided to look for the graves of the dead himself -- in a country that he hardly knew, and whose language he didn't speak. It would take two, perhaps three trips, he thought. He was furious, determined and far too optimistic.

Many eyewitnesses were children, younger than Anna, when the Jews were murdered in their towns and villages. The youngsters were curious and went to where the people had been shot. Others were enlisted by the Nazis to do manual labor. They had to fill in the pits or collect the clothing of the victims. These children were often plagued by guilt later on. Now many are recounting what they experienced for the first time.

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