Priest uncovers Nazi killing fields in Ukraine

French priest Fr Patrick Desbois whose grandfather survived a Nazi death camp has found a new mission documenting the killing of Jews in Ukraine during World War II.

The Moscow Times reports that Fr Desbois' project may shed light on a poorly known chapter of the Holocaust.

The project is central to a broader reassessment of the Nazi horrors in Ukraine that followed the June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union, the paper says.

Last month, a team of rabbis visited a newly found grave site in the Ukrainian village of Gvozdavka-1.

That was just one site among many: Father Patrick Desbois and his mixed-faith team have been crisscrossing Ukraine for six years and have located more than 500 mass graves, many never before recorded.

At least 1.5 million Jews were killed on hills and in ravines across Nazi-occupied Ukraine, most slaughtered by submachine guns before the gas chambers became machines of mass death. Researchers are only now peeling back layers of Soviet-era silence about what they call the "Holocaust by bullets."

Part of Desbois' work so far - video interviews with Ukrainian villagers, photos of newly discovered mass graves, archival documents and shell casings - is on public display for the first time in a haunting exhibit at Paris' Holocaust Memorial.

"I'm not here to judge," said Desbois, whose Catholic grandfather survived a Nazi camp. The people whose stories Desbois records, he stresses, were "children, adolescents. They were poor. They were afraid."

Desbois' group has covered about one-third of Ukraine so far, and the 500 mass graves it has uncovered is quickly approaching previous estimates that put the number in all of Ukraine at 726.

Paul Shapiro, director of the Centre for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, predicted Desbois' team would reach a higher total. He called their work "critical" to humanity's understanding of the Holocaust.

Desbois "discovered that elderly eyewitnesses who had never been asked about this, when speaking with a priest, opened up. If you are ever going to bare your thoughts, if you are a Christian, you will bare them to a priest," Shapiro said.

Given Ukraine's history of anti-Semitism, some are reluctant to absolve these Ukrainian witnesses and participants of responsibility in the Holocaust.

Shapiro, however, said: "It is too late to be in a blame game. Our obligation is to understand."

Healing wounds between Jews and Christians has been central to Desbois' career. He heads a group called Yahad-In Unum (which combines the Hebrew and Latin words for "together"), founded in 2004 by Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, whose Jewish mother died at Auschwitz, and Rabbi Israel Singer.

French Priest Uncovers Nazi Horrors in Ukraine (The Moscow Times, 10/7/07)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
The Holocaust (Wikipedia)
United States Holocaust Museum

In synagogue, Pope recalls Holocaust as ┬┤darkest period┬┤in Germany (CathNews, 22/8/05)
Paris Cardinal lists mother in record of Holocaust dead (CathNews, 14/4/99)
Pope honouring Jewish massacre victims in Ukraine (CathNews, 26/6/01)
Backstory: A priest's crusade on Holocaust (Christian Science, 8/11/06)

11 Jul 2007