May 16th, 2011
09:57 AM ET
By Padmananda Rama, CNN
Washington (CNN) - Father Patrick Desbois does not consider the stories confessions. Instead, he considers the collection of stories he's gathered over nine years the truth.
The Catholic priest and his teams have traveled to some 600 villages across Eastern Europe, seeking elderly villagers, farmers, pensioners, anyone old enough to remember and recount the atrocities committed by Nazi soldiers during the Holocaust.
"I'm not looking for the guilt. I'm looking for the facts and where are the corpses," Desbois told CNN following a presentation at the State Department Thursday.
Over nine years, Desbois and his ecumenical organization, Yahad – In Unum have searched for evidence of what Desbois calls the "Holocaust by bullets." The French priest still remembers the first story he heard when he embarked upon his journey from a woman who told him the German soldiers had asked villagers in her town to pour ashes onto the mass graves to stop the flood of blood pouring out from them.
"It was a crime. This was not a Tsunami," said Desbois. "Everything was done in broad daylight."
As he continued to collect stories, with a small team filming the interviews, the horror of what happened during the Holocaust also grew. Witnesses expressed memories they had kept silent for decades, saying many of the graves were moving graves with people buried alive. Others told of the deception Nazi soldiers showed towards their victims.
"I remember one woman, she saw her neighbor in the line queuing to be shot and the woman I interviewed cried and the other said, 'Don't cry. Don't' cry, we go to Palestine," said Desbois. But the woman he interviewed responded saying, "I know where is Palestine. I saw the mass grave behind the church."
Desbois said the evidence of these mass executions, which happened in Eastern Europe between 1941 - 1944, needs to be revealed because there are still people who deny it ever happened. And he believes, instead of concentration camps like Auschwitz, mass shootings have become "the base for modern genocide."
"This model was taken by the next ones. In Rwanda, no Auschwitz. (It was) bullets and guns. In Cambodia the same, in Darfur the same," said Desbois. "Everything is under our watch."
So far, Yahad – In Unum has identified a thousand mass graves and interviewed more than 1,700 people in the Ukraine, Belarus and, most recently, Poland. Desbois estimates that within five to six years the last remaining witnesses will have died. And so his mission is one with a clear deadline.
"They want to speak before (they die.) What they saw was awful. When you see 10,000 people being killed... it's a trauma," said Desbois. "I think it's not a confession but it's a way to say the truth before (dying.)"
Desbois sees his mission as not only uncovering the truth of these roving murders but also locating the graves so that the remains of the Holocaust victims are memorialized. About half of those discovered by Desbois' teams in the Ukraine have been memorialized. Yet, many remain unsealed or undiscovered. This summer in partnership with the Holocaust Museum, portions of Yahad – In Unum's eyewitness accounts will be available online through a searchable database, entitled "Traces."
Paul Shapiro, the museum's director for Advanced Holocaust Studies said Desbois' work corroborates evidence found in Soviet and German archives, making "it possible for the first time to see in detail what happened on the ground in that part of the world and know that we are looking at the truth."
For Desbois, who was born in France after World War II but recalled the stories his grandfather told him as a French soldier detained in a prison camp in the Ukraine, the urgency is clear.
"We cannot build (a) modern world above mass graves of people killed in genocide. Otherwise what can we say to Rwanda, Darfur, Cambodia, even Iraq, if we don't bury the Jews in our continent."
At the State Department Thursday, Desbois received recognition for his efforts with a certificate of appreciation, the first awarded by Hannah Rosenthal in her role as the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Rosenthal sees the French priest as a "personal hero" with his work crossing lines of faith.
"Having a Catholic priest decide his life's mission is to find and honor these Jews is far more impactful," said Rosenthal. "I think it's wonderful that a priest is doing this."
When asked where he hopes to be at the conclusion of his journey, Desbois replied, "I dream to reach the last village and (know) the German (soldiers) were not at the next village."
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