Father Patrick Desbois, Porteur de mémoires: Sur les traces de la Shoah par balles (éd Michel Lafon, 2007), translated into English as The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest's Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
Translation of a review by Jan Süselbeck with the title ''Kontinent der Vernichtung'', in: <i>literaturkritik.de rezensionsforum</i>, October 2009 (http://literaturkritik.de/public/rezension.php?rez_id=13455). The review refers to the German translation with the title "Der vergessene Holocaust. Die Ermordung der ukrainischen Juden" ("The Forgotten Holocaust. The Murder of Ukraine’s Jews"). However, in order to avoid confusing those who may read the subsequent excerpts from the English translation of Desbois’ book, which bears the title "The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest's Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews", quotes from the German translation in Süselbeck’s review are rendered according to the English translation, even if the expressions differ from a direct translation of the terms used in the German edition. For instance, the equivalent of the expression ''Kontinent der Vernichtung'', which translates as ''continent of destruction'', is ''ocean of exterminations'' in "The Holocaust by Bullets", so the latter expression is used.
Ocean of Exterminations
Catholic priest Patrick Desbois researched the murder of Ukrainian Jews for his book "The Forgotten Holocaust" – albeit without mentioning the work of his predecessors.
By Jan Süselbeck
So after all there are still Catholics who do not deny the Shoah. Patrick Desbois is a French priest. Since 2002 he travels through Ukraine with a small team in order to find and interview eyewitnesses who experienced the Holocaust in their region. With the help of archival research throughout the world, a ballistics expert, a photographer and a translator, the Frenchman looks for the mass graves in which the German perpetrators let their victims perish by the hundreds of thousands. These were first of all the Jews whom the invaders encountered in the big wide Russian areas, that is, especially women and their babies, children as well as helpless elderly people. Sometimes, however, they also killed Soviet and Italian prisoners of war here.
Desbois describes his personal "search for traces" in the book "The Forgotten Holocaust. The Murder of Ukraine’s Jews", edited by Berlin Verlag. It is not a historiography text, but rather an autobiographical book, which reveals the reasons that led to Desbois’ engagement. His grandfather Claudius Desbois had been deported by the Nazis to the Ukrainian town Rawa-Ruska. He never wanted to talk about his experiences there. Only this much he told his grandson: "For us, the camp was difficult; there was nothing to eat, we had no water, we ate grass, dandelions. But it was worse for the others!" Soon young Patrick Desbois found out in the Chalon city library who the "others" were: "The others were the Jews!"
The mystery surrounding his grandfather’s actual experiences in that area east of the extermination camps in the so-called General Government, German-occupied Poland, has not let go of Desbois to this day. And his eagerness for knowledge led to his researching the events there about which one could until then read in no archive and about which even specialized historians knew nothing yet – at least that is the impression one gets when reading the foreword by Arno Lustiger. The public’s general knowledge today reaches at best to the massacre in the Babi Yar ravine near Kiev, where Paul Blobel’s <i>Sonderkommando</i> 4a shot 33,771 Jews within two days.
However unimaginable the number of those killed at Babi Jar may seem: in Desbois’ book one can among other things read interviews with men who as children had to watch from close up how the Nazis massacred 90,000 people where today there is a public park in the middle of a city, in the Lisinitchi forest. One of these witnesses, who lives less than one kilometer away from the more than 50 mass graves unmarked to this day, returned to that place on foot with Desbois for the first time since 1942 and just said: "No, for me, this is hell."
Desbois, who also has his interviews filmed with cameras and photographs, proceeds in a manner similar to that of Claude Lanzmann decades ago, in his groundbreaking film "Shoah". He tries to spontaneously approach the people on the street and make them talk by asking short, friendly questions. In the book one can see a number of impressive photos of witness who are crying or staring with discomposure into nowhere. Often it is these people who then, as if it were natural, lead Desbois to the ‘forgotten’ sites where the Nazis killed all local Jews during World War II. There are such sites in about every village in Ukraine.
Besides the bones of the about 1.5 million dead, which continue lying around there openly, it is the cartridges of the bullets used by German soldiers that point to the murderers. Desbois has them searched with a metal detector, counts them and exactly records the place where they were found with the help of a GPS-system. As the perpetrators tried to ‘waste’ no more than one bullet per head if possible, the numbers of cartridges found provide information about possible numbers of victims at places that no historian had on his list before Desbois.
Desbois’ interviews and his comments in between clearly show the incredible perfidy and cruelty of the perpetrators, but also their nearly perfect organization. The Germans drove into the villages on motorbikes and trucks and with their routine assault put the victims into a state of shock paralysis that led to most Jews not even trying to flee. All had to undress, their belongings were quickly collected and taken away, and then they were taken to some holes in the ground in order to swiftly shoot them.
Their death was an incredible torment, as most fell into the pit only wounded and were thereafter buried alive. Babies carried in their mothers’ arms often fell into the pit unwounded. Thus one of the most gruesome novelties mentioned in Desbois’ book is that practically all mass graves throughout Ukraine moved at least for three days after the shootings. Screams came out of the wells, and the market place of the village Sataniv, below which the local Jews had been immured alive, shook for four days, because the people tried to get out. Therefore various interviews mention the horror of those Ukrainians who were forced to close the graves and had to experience a hand of a child or adult emerging from the soil and gripping their spade.
Desbois describes how difficult it was for him to accept the true extent of this horror. This included the long-denied practice by German men of temporarily sparing pretty Jewish girls and keeping them for a while as ‘sex slaves’. They were only killed when this "race defilement" had led them to become pregnant.
The book proves the method of the <i>Einsatzgruppen</i> to use Ukrainian villagers, mostly young people and children, as "requisitioned workers" in the shootings. Thus Desbois for instance interviews a woman who he somewhat luridly calls the "presser". As a young woman she had been forced to go down into the death pits after every salvo and stomp on the wounded or corpses with her bare feet, so that the next "layer" would fit in better.
When Desbois asks his witnesses what they experienced during the war they mostly soon start talking and are glad to do so, telling him that he’s the first to ask them about those events more than 60 years later. One suspects that not all of them are only victims. There is a ghastly scene, for instance, in the village Bertniki, in which the old folks stare silently after Desbois, until someone eventually cries out that one of them regularly pretended to hide Jews in his house but then suffocated them with quilts at night in their sleep, robbed them and threw their corpses into a nearby quarry.
Also not very homey is another witness’s answer to the question: "In your opinion, why did the Germans kill the Jews like that?" Only people who are themselves not far from the netherworld of anti-Semitism answer to this like: "Who knows? Hitler didn't like the Jews; they shot them everywhere, not just here. I don't know why he didn't like them." From there it is really not far to the openly expressed complement: "Some reason he must have had." But Desbois doesn’t ask any further at this place – for whatever reason.
When he began his research in Ukraine the priest still thought that a few trips would suffice. The true extent of the mass murders, which here didn’t take place in gas chambers but ‘by hand’ in every however small village within a short time, only becomes clear to him gradually: "The landscape of Ukraine, village after village, east to west, was transforming itself under my eyes into an ocean of exterminations", he notes. "I imagine that if we could open all the mass graves we would have to take aerial photos of the whole of Ukraine. A mass cemetery of anonymous pits into which men, women, and children were thrown. Not a camp but a country of graves."
Desbois emphasizes that comprehending the true dimensions of this annihilation enables to take a firmer stand against coming genocides. For genocides function especially because the perpetrators are confident that later on no one will believe their crimes anyway. This is so simply because the scope of the killings was planned from the beginning as monstrously as no one could imagine. "No one who is responsible for genocide should ever think it possible to hide their crime", Desbois demands in his book. Thus he will continue collecting German cartridges. It would be nice if he could also hold a sack thereof under the noses of Mr. Ratzinger and his skeptical friends of the Pius Brotherhood. But for a start it should be sufficient to simply have them read his book.
Yet also Desbois himself must be criticized, however meritorious his book may seem to be at first glance. For the author fails to mention the predecessors who already years before started doing comparable research in Ukraine and published studies about it. Strangely also the historian Arno Lustiger, who published the foreword to Desbois’ book, seems to have not noticed that for instance also the photographer Henning Langenheim (1950-2004) worked on this subject. After the publication of a short version of this article in KONKRET 9/2009 a reader furthermore called my attention to the fact that said author, in connection which his comprehensive work "Memorial", travelled to Ukraine already in 1996/97, photographed some of the death sites there – also almost unrecognizable ones – and issued a text documentation that was published in Berlin in 1999 under the title "Mordfelder" ("Fields of Murder").
Even sharper was the criticism from the writer of a reader’s letter in the <i>Berliner Zeitung</i>, to which the editor Volker Dittrich – also following the aforementioned review in KONKRET – called my attention. Dittrich himself edited the book "Nur wir haben überlebt – Holocaust in der Ukraine – Zeugnisse und Dokumente" ("Only we survived – Holocaust in Ukraine – Testimonies and Documents") by Jewish historian and Kiev resident Boris Zabarko, which was published in collaboration with Margret and Werner Müller in 2004. Zabarko himself spoke with Desbois in Kiev and told him that he had "(back then already) interviewed over a hundred Jewish contemporary witnesses and published these documents as books", according to Dittrich. Desbois is said to have even received a collection in English translation from Zabarko in Kiev, without Desbois mentioning this in his book about the "forgotten Holocaust".
Werner Müller thus wrote on 27. August 2009 to the <i>Berliner Zeitung</i> that, while Desbois’ book bears the title "The Forgotten Holocaust", it is "largely a self-presentation of the priest Patrick Desbois, which deliberately ignored the findings about the Holocaust in Ukraine already published years before. It is probably for this reason that he avoids including a bibliography in his book, because then the thesis that he ‘discovered’ the Holocaust in Ukraine would no longer be sustainable. It is incomprehensible to me why historians, who have been dealing with this subject for years, do not protest against the exaggeration of this book’s importance and point out the known facts." Furthermore Desbois pretended findings which, like the simply impossible identification of the victims in the mass graves of Ukraine, he could not possibly have gained – and generally handled the historical facts in a rather "frivolous" manner.
This important professional criticism shows once more how easily the so immensely important preoccupation with the Holocaust can lead to improper forms of presentation, even degenerate into presumptuous self-promotion – and how easily overhasty reviewers or even respected historians like Lustiger run the risk of falling for exaggerated pretensions of alleged research achievements. For the sake of honesty Desbois should as soon as possible pronounce himself about the serious and justified reproaches of his colleagues.