Catholic priest collects tales of Holocaust shootings
Father Patrick Desbois has collected hundreds of tales from the Holocaust.
May 16th, 2011
09:57 AM ET

Catholic priest collects tales of Holocaust shootings

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."

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • Europe • France • Holocaust • Judaism

soundoff (50 Responses)
  1. Miguel Maldonado

    Hello, i am the author of that picture, is it possible to write under the picture "picture by M. Maldonado" please?
    thank you.

    May 18, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
  2. EliteAmericans

    The holocaust could have been prevented if the victims had these to fight back with [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMBpy24rr_k&w=640&h=390]

    May 18, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  3. Adelina

    Humans have intelligence and ability to reason because we were created in God's image. What mankind did without the Bible were obvious: murdering the powerless, oppressing women and minorities, worshipping evil spirits, and exercises of unlimited immorality. It was universal. Without the Biblical knowledge of the true God and His ways and attempts to educate mankind on them, the behaviors of mankind deteriorate as debris expand farther worse, not holding any worth or orderliness.

    May 18, 2011 at 3:08 am |
    • Adelina

      @EvolvedDNA, in case you won't go back to our previous conversation, the above comment is my reply for you.

      May 18, 2011 at 3:12 am |
  4. Bibletruth

    Everyone should read the Clifton Tracts...they are the Roman Catholic official response to the protestant push to have the world fair (about 100+ years ago in Chicago, IL) closed on Sundays.

    May 17, 2011 at 11:24 pm |
  5. Mosterd

    Fake priest. What has priesthood to do with the past? Just another Satanist in robes.

    May 17, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
  6. THOR


    May 17, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  7. JGB

    Be wary of taking Debois's claims at face value:

    May 17, 2011 at 10:24 am |
  8. Adelina

    In Christian West, sin was a shame and something to fight against. In secular West, sin is the most protected item and something to celebrate. Definition of perversion.

    May 17, 2011 at 2:00 am |
    • HeavenSent

      They need to modify the Const i tution to be more in line with the bible.

      May 24, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  9. Adelina

    The West is sick – it is measured by the amount of attacks it aims against the Christian churches. If they got something better than Christianity, it's understandable, but no, all they want is to be proud of their most perverse sensuality and their mass destruction of unborn humans.

    May 17, 2011 at 1:56 am |
    • Truefax

      You've hit the nail on the head of secular society: the only thing better than making babies is aborting them, brava.

      May 24, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  10. Adelina

    Church's misconducts are an abuse and exceptions. All others' misconducts are expected normality.

    May 17, 2011 at 12:32 am |
  11. Mturk

    If you examine history enough, all are guilty. There is no point is tearing down the RCC because several priests committed unspeakable acts. Any and all human groups have at times committed unspeakable acts – that's one thing that makes us human. I salute Fr. Desbois for his mission, and someday hopefully the same will occur for the Armenians, and all the others.

    May 16, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • Reality

      The problems with RCC go way beyond the current vomit-inducing cases of pe-dophilia and cover-ups. Said bigger problems involve Christianity's flawed history and theology.

      To wit:

      Jesus was an illiterate Jewish peasant/carpenter/simple preacher man who suffered from hallucinations (or “mythicizing” from P, M, M, L and J) and who has been characterized anywhere from the Messiah from Nazareth to a mythical character from mythical Nazareth to a ma-mzer from Nazareth (Professor Bruce Chilton, in his book Rabbi Jesus). An-alyses of Jesus’ life by many contemporary NT scholars (e.g. Professors Crossan, Borg and Fredriksen, ) via the NT and related doc-uments have concluded that only about 30% of Jesus' sayings and ways noted in the NT were authentic. The rest being embellishments (e.g. miracles)/hallucinations made/had by the NT authors to impress various Christian, Jewish and Pagan sects.

      The 30% of the NT that is "authentic Jesus" like everything in life was borrowed/plagiarized and/or improved from those who came before. In Jesus' case, it was the ways and sayings of the Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Hitt-ites, Canaanites, OT, John the Baptizer and possibly the ways and sayings of traveling Greek Cynics.

      For added "pizzazz", Catholic theologians divided god the singularity into three persons and invented atonement as an added guilt trip for the "pew people" to go along with this trinity of overseers. By doing so, they made god the padre into god the "filicider".

      May 17, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
  12. Reality

    A reminder:

    "Genocide is the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group. It is defined in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG) as "any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the groups conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."[1]

    "The worst genocides of the 20th Century

    Mao Ze-Dong (China, 1958-61 and 1966-69, Tibet 1949-50) 49-78,000,000
    Jozef Stalin (USSR, 1932-39) 23,000,000 (the purges plus Ukraine's famine)
    Adolf Hitler (Germany, 1939-1945) 12,000,000 (concentration camps and civilians WWII)
    Leopold II of Belgium (Congo, 1886-1908) 8,000,000
    Hideki Tojo (Ja-pan, 1941-44) 5,000,000 (civilians in WWII)
    Ismail Enver (Turkey, 1915-20) 1,200,000 Armenians (1915) + 350,000 Greek Pontians and 480,000 Anatolian Greeks (1916-22) + 500,000 Assyrians (1915-20)
    Pol Pot (Cambodia, 1975-79) 1,700,000
    Kim Il Sung (North Korea, 1948-94) 1.6 million (purges and concentration camps)
    Menghistu (Ethiopia, 1975-78) 1,500,000
    Yakubu Gowon (Biafra, 1967-1970) 1,000,000

    I, as many, forget how brutal our Asian and Russian "friends" can be.

    May 16, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  13. Frogist

    It's easy to argue. But this man is doing a service to those who died and were unceremoniously disposed of. He's trying to right a wrong and ease the minds of those who remain. I can see nothing to criticise in his actions. Especially since he's right, that we should be looking to resolve the shameful past of our western world or we only look like hypocrites when we criticise others for their shameful acts.

    May 16, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • Peace2All


      Hey CK..!!! Haven't seen you around too much recently, and... I hope that all is well with you ...?


      May 16, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • Frogist

      Hi P2A: Yeah haven't really been around. Lots of stuff going on. None really too pleasant. Too bad we can't chat away from here! I always wondered if it might be nice to say hi to some of you away from the religion crazies! LOL!

      May 17, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
  14. Adelina

    The good contribution of Catholic priests and nuns for mankind is beyond measure.

    May 16, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Perhaps you should research the Vatican's part during the Holocaust.
      Pope Pius XII gave tacit approval to the Third Reich's policies by adopting a "neutral" stance.
      He could not argue ignorance as several people advised of the campaign of deportation and execution including the Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Isaac Herzog in 1940, and Cardinal Theodor Innitzer of Vienna in 1941.
      He was asked by Harold Ti.ttman, the As.sistant Chief of the U.S. delegation to the Vatican to speak out against the atrocities, but stayed silent.
      After more than 200,000 Ukranian Jews were slaughtered in 1942, Ukranian Metropolitan Andrej Septyckyj wrote the Pope, highlighting the German regime of terror and corruption. The Pope replied by quoting verses from Psalms and advising Septyckyj to "bear adversity with serene patience."
      Also in 1942, future Pope Paul VI told Pius "The massacres of the Jews reach frightening proportions and forms." Yet, that same month when Myron Taylor, U.S. representative to the Vatican, warned the Pope that his silence was da.mning, the Vatican responded that it was impossible to verify rumors about crimes committed against the Jews.
      Their claim of "neutrality" was obviously bunk given that Pope Pius XII's secretary of state detailed and denounced several abuses committed by the Soviet Army against German inhabitants of the Soviet Union, demonstrating that the Vatican had no compunctions about speaking out against atrocities, even when doing so would violate neutrality.

      Furthermore, the Vatican's role in helping Nazi war criminals flee justice via their "Ratlines" is well docu.mented, as is their funnelling of Nazi gold stolen from their victims.

      May 16, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Jesusfreaker

      If you want to read about more good contributions by catholic priests, try reading the other article about child abuse. The priests and the Vatican have done so much good. Tell us more about Catholicism. Tell me why it would be good to let my kids spend some one on one time with one of those good priests.

      May 16, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Adelina: There is a lot of good as is demonstrated by the actions of this priest. Sadly, there is a lot of bad as well which we ignore to our detriment. And being part of the Catholic church does not make you immune.

      May 16, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • thessalonian

      Anti-catholic bigots like Doc Vestwhatever always speak as if their "facts" are proven. The book "Hitlers Pope" came out and was widely publicized by the news but the rebuttals, too numerous to mention here, got very little attention here. The hope of course is that with a shotgun blast of accusations some will stick. There is no consideration for the thousands of Catholics who helped Jews to safety. The French and English underground who with the aide of the vatican helped Jews. The 860,000 trees planted in Israel in honor of the vatican's efforts in assisting that number of jews to safety. Catholics and Jews were being slaughtered. Had Pius XII said what everyone wanted him to say, many more would have died due to Hitler's reprisals.

      May 16, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • thessalonian

      Jesusfreker – u seem to think all priests are a bunch of child molesters. Your kids uncle is far more likely to molest your kids than a priest. I'll bet you let your kiddies sit on his lap. Your comments only show hatred and bigotry. Not rational thinking.

      May 16, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
    • kells

      @Adelina nice one. but some people will refuse to believe when the facts are there because they are filled with hate. its a fact that you can't over-emphasize the colossal contributions and sacrifices the catholic church has made towards making the world a better place.

      May 16, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
    • Ed

      @Doc, No doubt the pope could have spoken out against Hitler but consider the possible consequencous of that act. He was in a country completely surrond by another coutry whose facist dictator was allied with hitler. The Swiss gaurd numbers around 175 most of the time not much to hold off anacttacking army. Has the pope spoken out against Hitler the would likely have been repriassals many people and catholics killed Hitler did that to any the spoke against him and Musselini was no defense. So prehaps the pope sat by silently bcause he felt forced. True it would have been more noble to spek out and even sacrifice his life todo what was right. but what of the lives of others. Its eaasy to sit in Canada today and second guess his acts then, but you should at least try to imagine his situation before being so critical.

      May 16, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
    • Jesusfreaker


      My statement is based on the Vatican's stand on this issue. How can anyone follow that corrupt organization? The government should step in and put an end to that. Ultimately it's the parents who should make the wise decision to steer clear of that atrocity. Maybe Jesus will protect your children like he did the others. When he doesn't? Well, God works in mysterious ways. Right?

      May 17, 2011 at 6:34 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Are you deny the Vatican's active role in helping nazi war criminals flee to South America?
      Do a bit of reading about Bishop Hudal and how he proudly aided and abetted the escape of the Commanding Officers of Treblinka and Sobibor, not to mention Adolf Otto Eichmann (one of the major organizers of the holocaust).
      In 1947, according to American Counterintelligence Operative Robert Mudd, there were 10 members of Pevelic's Ustasha cabinet(who slaughtered thousands of Serbs) living in the Vatican or it's outlying regions. He reported that "these Croats travel back and forth from the Vatican several times a week in a car with a chauffeur whose license plate bears the two initials CD, "Corpo Diplomatico". It issues forth from the Vatican and discharges its passengers inside the Monastery of San Geronimo."

      If you're willing to accept self-preservation as a defense for the Vatican's silence during the holocaust, how do you justify their active role in hiding Nazi war criminals immediately after the war?

      May 17, 2011 at 8:49 am |
    • thessalonian

      I don't doubt some bishops and priests did some things that from an outsider perspective were inappropriate and may well have been grossly immoral with and insider perspective. You point out one bishop in the vatican out of many. I don't have the details. Certainly doesn't sound good. Sounds like a wolf among the sheep to me. Sounds like an opportunity for you to broad brush with judgement while maintaining a relativist view of the world.

      May 17, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • thessalonian

      The vatican is not in favor of child abuse. That is stupid.

      May 17, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Hudal is merely the most egregious example of the Vatican's active role in aiding and abetting the escape of Nazi war criminals. He was unabashedly proud of his actions when questioned.
      The second example I gave of the Croatians who slaughtered thousands of Serbs involved, according to recently declassified U.S. intelligence, the complicity of many high ranking Vatican officials. Your own government says they were housing genocidal war criminals knowing full well who they were and what they did.
      By your own admission, the Vatican was very much concerned with preserving itself and it's reputation.
      The Vatican's primary motivations were then, as now "the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church, and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities." (according to the Irish government, anyways).

      Many second world war era records have become declassified in recent years that bear attention.
      Atrocious things were done on all sides during that era, many of which are only truly coming to light now that the primary participants are dead.

      May 17, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
    • thessalonian

      "By your own admission, the Vatican was very much concerned with preserving itself and it's reputation."

      This was not my admission. My admission was that Pius XII's silence can be explained by not wanting further reprisals on Jews and Christians throughout the world, which Hitler had a tendancy to do.

      Not everything brought to light is light. Yet everyone seems to take everything that is against Catholicism as light. There is so much I read on these boards regarding Catholic belief and practice that anti-catholics parade around as light that makes me laugh sometimes. "Catholics think the pope is God". There is no reason to suspect that there are great errors in the reporting of events based on bias and prejudice as well. There are of course truths that we should acknowledge as well of course. I am not going to give you a blanket statement that everything that you say is true much as you would like me to. There are sinners in the CC. I'm one. You are a sinner too, though you likely deny it's existence.

      May 18, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  15. Adelina

    At least there are no Americans who'd say the reports on Holocaust were forged...

    May 16, 2011 at 10:27 am |
    • SeanNJ

      There are plenty. Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. for one.

      May 16, 2011 at 10:29 am |
    • Adelina

      That's a shame.

      May 16, 2011 at 10:50 am |
    • unowhoitsme

      Not a true statement. There are lots of Americans that deny the holocaust. I know because my father was an American soldier that liberated the Dachau Concentration Camp, and I've defended his honor many times to American citizens.

      May 18, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
  16. Adelina

    Who will do this for the Armenian casuality?

    May 16, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • SeanNJ

      Why don't you get started on it?

      May 16, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • Adelina

      Thank you, but telling atheists about Jesus is important as well. Just remembrance here.

      May 16, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • SeanNJ

      Honestly, I already know about Jesus. I don't know anything about Armenia. You'd be doing a greater service creating a historical record rather than evangelizing to a group of people that already know about (and have rejected) your religion.

      May 16, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • Adelina

      Sean, atheists are notorious for having short memories on the Word of God. Google the history of Armenians. You have all the tools.

      May 16, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • SeanNJ

      Couldn't I just google the word of god too without you folks telling me about it? I'd rather we go that route, if that's ok.

      May 16, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • Adelina

      Sean, but you actually don't. That's why you need Christians.

      May 17, 2011 at 12:28 am |
    • yamamefish

      Keep doing what you're doing, Adelina. My wife of 10 years is a former atheist who was baptized this Easter. Some of them will listen and come to know God. You ought to check it out, Sean. You'll be glad you did.

      May 17, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • Adelina

      Mr. Yamamefish, thank God for your wife's salvation. May God bless you. Yes, knowing God is better than anything and most important in the world.

      May 18, 2011 at 2:46 am |
    • doctore0

      Hey help the poor... and still living; According to yer religion ... where are these dead people... comon tell us.. they are in hell, aren't they; Thats what your religion says

      May 18, 2011 at 3:37 am |
    • Adelina

      @Doctor0, humans who died outside of Jesus receive just punishment forever. You are still alive. Please receive the Savior by repentance and faith. You must trust in God because He is perfectly just and merciful. The sense of justice and fairness, including the justice systems the humans set up, originates from God. Know that His fairness surpasses that of humans, of anyone, in judging human souls. You just must be grateful as a creature that the Son of God died for your sin.

      May 18, 2011 at 10:29 am |
    • Adelina

      Doctor0, you are not given the complete knowledge because of several reasons. After all, it's a simple moral test. At the end, you are choosing either God's way(Jesus) or your own foolish notion(all others). Please choose God and live. Ask God to help you even if you feel you cannot believe there is God. God is always found by those who seek Him(the Truth) genuinely.

      May 18, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • Adelina

      Doctor0, the sin of humanity is forever serious; it marred the cosmos and costed the life of God's Son. Sin is nothing to you because you are a blind sinner who live in hopeless filth. God never made His salvation difficult to obtain for mankind. Rather, too easy. Entrust others to Him who is entirely just. You must repent your own sin before your Creator God.

      May 18, 2011 at 10:42 am |
About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.