French Priest Uncovers Nazi Horrors in Ukraine

UnknownA Ukrainian Jew being shot in Vinnitsa in the early 1940s.
PARIS -- Children, stomachs empty and knees quivering, saw and heard Nazis massacre Jews across the killing fields of Ukraine. Teenagers were forced to bury the victims, shoveling dirt over neighbors and playmates.

Today, these witnesses -- now elderly men and women -- are unburdening themselves of wartime memories, many for the first time, in testimonies to a French priest. Their words may change history, as they shed light on this poorly known chapter of the Holocaust.

The project is central to a broader reassessment of the Nazi horrors in Ukraine that followed the June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union. Last month, a team of rabbis visited a newly found grave site in the Ukrainian village of Gvozdavka-1. That was just one site among many: Father Patrick Desbois and his mixed-faith team have been crisscrossing Ukraine for six years and have located more than 500 mass graves, many never before recorded.

At least 1.5 million Jews were killed on hills and in ravines across Nazi-occupied Ukraine, most slaughtered by submachine guns before the gas chambers became machines of mass death. Researchers are only now peeling back layers of Soviet-era silence about what they call the "Holocaust by bullets."

Part of Desbois' work so far -- video interviews with Ukrainian villagers, photos of newly discovered mass graves, archival documents and shell casings -- is on public display for the first time in a haunting exhibit at Paris' Holocaust Memorial through Nov. 30.

"I'm not here to judge," said Desbois, whose Catholic grandfather survived a Nazi camp. The people whose stories Desbois records, he stresses, were "children, adolescents. They were poor. They were afraid."

Desbois' group has covered about one-third of Ukraine so far, and the 500 mass graves it has uncovered is quickly approaching previous estimates that put the number in all of Ukraine at 726.

Guillaume Ribot / yahad-In unum
A mass grave being studied in 2006 in Busk, Ukraine.
Paul Shapiro, director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, predicted Desbois' team would reach a higher total. He called their work "critical" to humanity's understanding of the Holocaust.

Desbois "discovered that elderly eyewitnesses who had never been asked about this, when speaking with a priest, opened up. If you are ever going to bare your thoughts, if you are a Christian, you will bare them to a priest," Shapiro said.

Given Ukraine's history of anti-Semitism, some are reluctant to absolve these Ukrainian witnesses and participants of responsibility in the Holocaust.

Shapiro, however, said: "It is too late to be in a blame game. Our obligation is to understand."

Healing wounds between Jews and Christians has been central to Desbois' career. He heads a group called Yahad-In Unum (which combines the Hebrew and Latin words for "together"), founded in 2004 by Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, whose Jewish mother died at Auschwitz, and Rabbi Israel Singer.

Troubled by his grandfather's stories of the Rava Ruska camp in western Ukraine, Desbois visited in the 1990s and asked the mayor where the Jews were buried. The mayor said he did not know. One year later, Desbois returned to find a new mayor -- and 110 farmers waiting to lead him to the grassy knoll.

"I was shocked. It was miserable. To see this place, and these old, weary faces," Desbois said.

Since then, Desbois has been on a mission to fill out historical records. Some of his interview subjects have looked out on grave sites from their kitchen windows for decades. Some even helped dig those pits, or fill them in.

Samuel Arabski, in a video testimony at the Paris exhibit, described a massacre in his village near Zhytomyr in central Ukraine in 1941, when he was 14: "A policeman gave me a shovel. ... When I saw people still moving in the grave, I fell sick. A neighbor pushed me away so I wouldn't fall in the pit. ... Then my mother came, and asked me questions I wasn't able to answer."

A few of those bodies stirring beneath the dirt managed to survive. Executioners were generally allowed one bullet per victim, but sometimes only managed to wound, not kill, Desbois said. Witnesses to numerous massacres told him of "stirring" graves and of victims who escaped only to be executed in a later massacre.

Nina Lisitsina was a survivor. At 5 years old, in 1944, she was rounded up near Simferopol in Crimea and forced along with other victims to strip off all her clothes to get ready for an execution. "I remember a woman next to me, a child in her arms. I lost consciousness, and couldn't hear the shots. Apparently they weren't bothering to finish everyone off. When I regained consciousness, it was nighttime. I grabbed on to roots of a tree to get out of the ravine. I don't know how I managed." Her story, too, is part of the Paris exhibit.

Yahad in-Unum's researchers rely heavily on family members of victims or survivors. At the Paris exhibit, which is displayed entirely in English and French, a sign near the exit asks anyone with information about someone killed by Nazis in Ukraine to leave a note in an adjacent box or to send an e-mail. "I want to return dignity to the families," Desbois said. "Every story helps us."