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French priest speaks on search for graves of Nazi victims

Father Patrick Desbois, a French priest who has devoted his life to discovering secret mass graves of Nazi victims in Ukraine, speaks Sept. 25 at the Boston Public Library. Pilot photo/ Neil W. McCabe

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A French priest described his eight-year quest searching for the lost mass graves of Nazi victims in Ukraine through the testimony of the elderly peasants who witnessed the atrocities to a Boston Public Library audience Sept 25.

“As a boy, I asked my grandfather what it was like inside the camps. He told me in the camps it was awful, but, outside the camps it was worse,” said Father Patrick Desbois, the secretary to the French Conference of Bishops for relations with the Jewish community and an advisor to the Vatican on Judaism.

This short answer was all he ever learned about his grandfather’s deportation from France to the Rawa Ruska camp in Ukraine, but his curiosity has led him to discover 850 sites where Nazis buried the Jews they murdered between 1941 and 1944 in the countryside of Ukraine, he said. It is estimated the Germans killed 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews.

Because the Nazis allotted one bullet for each execution, the priest said he compared the number of cartridges with the bodies he finds. Due to the Germans’ strict one-to-one ratio, many of the victims were not dead when they were put into the earth. “The villagers tell me how the dirt moved because the people were still alive.”

The project began in 2001 with the support of the Archbishop in Paris, the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, a convert from Judaism whose own mother was killed in the concentration camps, he said. Since then he has partnered with the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, which provides the priest with funding support and access to its 5 million pages worth of archives from Soviet-led investigations after the end of the Second World War.

For decades the Soviet Union’s stories of Nazi atrocities in Ukraine were discounted as KGB propaganda, but the priest now finds that those post-war investigations, depositions and trials line up nearly 100 percent with the stories told by the peasants, he said. “It is converging proof.”

The Soviet reports are actually more accurate than the German records, which were often written to impress bureaucrats in Germany, he said.

Using the maps and testimonies from the Soviet archives, he travels into each village in a modest blue minibus and stays until all of the graves are discovered.

The priest said he knocks on doors and speaks to people after Mass. Sometimes the villagers come to him with their stories. “One woman brought her husband to me and told him: You were there. I was there. Now, you must tell the priest what happened.” The man showed the priest where five children of the village were buried.

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