French priest and Holocaust investigator Patrick Desbois

French priest investigating Nazi mass killings in Europe: “Holocaust deniers are getting stronger”

“Holocaust deniers are getting stronger and stronger”, a French priest working to document Nazi mass shootings of Jews in World War II has warned.

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Father Patrick Desbois has devoted his life to travelling around eastern Europe: a “continent of extermination” for Jews in World War II, he said, “that extended from Lithuania to Azerbaijan”.

That’s with the goal of finding all the graves of the 2.2 million Jews and Roma shot by the Nazis, an ambition for which he founded the association Yahad-In Unum in 2004.

The recipient of the Legion d’honneur, the former head of the Commission for Relations with Judaism of the French Bishops’ Conference, and the author of books including In Broad Daylight: The Secret Procedures behind the Holocaust by Bullets spoke to The Jewish Press about his ongoing search for the mass shooting sites.

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Go deeper

Desbois and his five investigation teams employing 29 people full-time have so far uncovered about 2,700 mass graves accounting for about 1.5 million victims.

They’ve also interviewed about 7,000 elderly non-Jews who were witnesses to the atrocities, with the aim of understanding exactly how the mass extermination was able to take place.

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The priest explained that right now he has one team in Estonia and one in the Ukraine.

He estimated he and his association will need another two or three years to finish the work.

“We interview anybody who was present at the killing in order to rebuild the crime and establish evidence because Holocaust deniers are getting stronger and stronger and the survivors will disappear”, Desbois said.

“So we work to establish, crime by crime, what the Germans and the neighbors did to kill the Jews”.

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Why it matters

“These shootings were done with [the help of] local people, but nobody mentions it because the neighbors have never been interviewed”, Desbois added, explaining that his is the first organisation to interview witnesses to the killings.

But he admitted “we’re running against time” to find the estimated remaining 500,000 dead, “because the witnesses are old and we want to finish before they die”.

“My question is not the guilt. We are here to establish the evidence of the crime, so if a guy was working [for the] Gestapo or something like that, he’s my best witness”, the priest said.

“I want to know the crime and the location of the corpses because anti-Semitism is coming back, and we must also protect the corpses”.

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What’s next

As to the evident difficulty of his work, Desbois said “we do what we have to do”.

“It has to be done. [The Nazis] killed more than two million Jews, and nobody cares”.

“Even in the Jewish memories, it hasn’t stayed. People remember Auschwitz but not the shootings”, the priest lamented.

“The shootings were public and nobody remembers, and Auschwitz was secret and everybody remembers. One victim in three was shot”.

Historians have often seen Catholic anti.Semitism as an essential enabling factor in the Holocaust.

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The argument goes that the faithful just stood by as Jews were killed in retribution for having killed the Christian Savior 2,000 years ago.

But Desbois doesn’t enter into the polemics. He simply prefers to continue his work.

“We have no time”, he insisted.

“It’s like if you interviewed a policeman working against gangs in Los Angeles and you asked him what the attitude of the priests in Los Angeles is. He would say, ‘I have no time'”.

“We have no time. […] It’s important. But we have no time to study that”.

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