by Matthew Raab
On Thursday, July 14, the Georgetown Center for Jewish Civilization hosted a talk by Father Patrick DesBois, who spoke on his Holocaust by Bullets project, which has gained international recognition for its methodical and prolific research into the various sites where European Jews were murdered and buried beyond the internment camps. The lecture, part of the Jan Karski Institute for Holocaust Education’s Summer Certificate Program for High School Educators, showcased Father DesBois’ research and provided a forum for discussion about the legacy of the Holocaust in areas that are often not considered a central part of its history, primarily in the former Soviet Union.
Father DesBois, who has recently accepted a full time appointment as the inaugural Braman Endowed Professorship of the Practice of the Forensic Study of the Holocaust at the Center for Jewish Civilization, provided an overview of his work including specific narratives shared with him by local townspeople who witnessed the shootings of Jews.
These testimonies painted a picture of a Holocaust starkly different from the well-documented concentration camps, but equally horrific.
“It’s a continent of extermination,” Father DesBois remarked. “For 12 years we have criss-crossed archives with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, with whom we work very closely … And we begin to make a mapping of the mass grave, and after we go on the ground, and we ask the people who are not young, ‘Were you here?’ And they say yes.”
Aided by the aging residents of villages who were often just children when the shootings occurred (and surprisingly willing to share their recollections), Father DesBois and his organization, Yahad In-Unum, have gradually been able to map a Holocaust that for decades has gone unmarked.
Twice featured in the past six months on CBS’s 60 Minutes, Father DesBois commented in segments about both current genocides and new understandings of the Holocaust. One of those segments was featured in Thursday’s event, a powerful-15 minute piece that detailed the extensive traveling and intensive work that Father DesBois, a French Catholic priest, has done as part of his dedication to this project. DesBois’s initial inspiration for the project occurred when he visited a town in Ukraine where his grandfather was imprisoned during World War II . While it was known that Jews had died in that town during the War, DesBois was shocked to find no commemoration for those deaths, particularly as he discovered that the killings had occurred in public, attended by much of the town. This experience started DesBois on a journey of discovery that has led to his current work.
Father DesBois’s work now focuses on reconciling the difficulty of understanding how entire towns could stand as witnesses to a genocide with the importance of commemorating the lives lost and understanding the complexities of day-to-day life in those parts of Europe at the time. Above all, he expressed his commitment to finding lost individuals and alleviating the anonymity of systematic shootings and mass unmarked graves.
We don’t work to find one million. We are working to find to find … families, to find the dentist, he said. “I work for one.
Father DeBois conducts his work at Georgetown with the help of the Center for Jewish Civilization, a program that was permanently endowed earlier this year to pursue education and research relating to the Jewish faith, Catholic-Jewish relations, Holocaust and genocide studies, and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East as it relates to Israel, among other subjects. The center also conducts programs like the Jan Karski Institute certificate program who sponsored this event, which seeks to equip primary and secondary school educators around the country to teach the Holocaust.
Father DesBois’s own position, the Braman Endowed Professorship of the Practice of the Forensic Study of the Holocaust, will allow him to continue to develop and publicize his research, expanding the reach of his findings, while also supporting his exhaustive, multidisciplinary methodology, a focus of Thursday’s event. Father DesBois currently teaches a class at Georgetown based on his research and book, Holocaust by Bullets, where he takes students to the locations where he is working to identify mass graves and document the stories of those who witnessed their creation. Fortified by recent gifts and the abilities of scholars like Father DesBois, the CJC hopes to continue researching the causes of genocide and sharing that message with the world.