Woodmere, NY – Close to two million Jews were shot and thrown into mass unmarked graves in Eastern Europe by the Einsatzgruppen, Nazi mobile killing units, in less than three years during the Second World War. Few survived to tell the tale. A French Catholic priest, in a story worthy of a forensic detective thriller, is returning to the killing fields in a successful bid to find, record and memorialize the sites, restoring names and faces to the countless dead. Last Shabbat, Father Patrick Desbois spoke at Young Israel of Woodmere about his work.
“Humanity begins with burying the dead,” said Desbois. One of his cases, in Aug. 2006, Desbois and his team exhumed graves in the Ukraine; the Jewish community had been in existence in that area for 500 years. The pit held 1,700 skeletons. Ballistics experts found hundreds of German cartridges; the skulls had either one bullet hole in the head or no bullet holes in the head indicating that they were buried alive and suffocated. He noted that the digs stopped at the first layer of skeletons “due to Jewish religious constraints.”
The mass grave is now marked by a large black Star of David on a white background—the only memorial in the Ukraine. Desbois pointed out that the interviews that he and his staff conducts with the elderly locals are probably the first and last time they are telling what they witnessed. A rabbi is on his staff to recite kaddish and perform other required rites.
Desbois described the chain of events leading to his discoveries. It was known, he said, that the Germans arrived in the morning and when they left in the evening all the Jews in that area were dead. The reports filed said, in effect, “we were in the city, found a lot of resistance, came to the ghetto and had to kill civilians” with no mention that the Jews, men, women, children, were wiped out.