French Priest Explores Eastern Europe's 'Holocaust by Bullets'

News Story: March 1, 2009

Father Patrick Desbois

Father Patrick Desbois, a French Catholic priest, finds himself with the unlikely responsibility of speaking for an entire generation. For the past several years, he has relentlessly pursued a trail of tears leading to the graves of what he estimates will be at least two million murdered Jews. They were residents of Ukraine and Belarus, and their families had been at home there for centuries. Over the course of just a few years, his research has found, they were systematically rounded up and executed. This was done not in the style that has become familiar to the West in out-of-the-way gas chambers hidden from public view but in broad daylight with the knowledge and often the unwilling cooperation of the local populace.

Desbois shared the results of his painstaking research with an audience of 200 at Sacred Heart University in a forum sponsored by the University’s Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding on March 4. He was drawn to the subject by the vague recollections of his French grandfather, who was imprisoned during World War II in what was then the Soviet Union. Eventually, he began exploring the rumors of a once-thriving Jewish community in Eastern Europe that was wiped out by gangs of Nazi gunmen. His stories are as relentless and unforgiving as bullets.

He and his team have investigated more than 850 execution sites and mass graves in Ukraine and Belarus, and he expects their investigations will take them next into Poland and Russia. The generation of eye-witnesses is fast disappearing with most now in their 80s and above, and he recognizes that in only a few years, they will all be gone, giving renewed urgency to his task.

A mathematician by training, Desbois said he regularly speaks with elderly people who are sharing their childhood recollections for the first time in their lives; they are anxious, at long last, to contribute to the record and let the world know what they witnessed. Children were forced to participate in preparing their neighbors for immediate death. Sometimes they would be obliged to scrape off remnants of body parts from trees so that the next round of victims would remain unaware of their impending fate. The youngsters would gather up clothes, help dig enormous graves, even collect gold teeth. Once the hundreds of men, women and children in a town had been shot to death, the children would return to their dead neighbors’ homes and take anything of value to be sold at public auction. Men’s clothes would end up in one classroom, women’s in another, household furnishings in a third.

Used to the threat of mass deportation, a village’s Jewish population would respond quickly to the loudspeaker announcements that everyone should gather at a common spot for immediate transport to Palestine. There they would be huddled into large holes in the ground and shot: hence the “Holocaust by Bullets.” The Nazi rule was “one bullet, one Jew,” so Desbois reports that many victims were merely disabled by the gunfire before being buried alive. The gravesites, now covered in dirt, would continue to stir for several days as victims slowly suffocated.

Father Desbois has returned again and again to Eastern Europe to chronicle this grim history. Ironically, the Shoah – or Holocaust – in the West was carried out in relative secrecy, and it is well known today. The ethnic cleansing that occurred in Ukraine and Belarus took place in full view of thousands of witnesses – and accomplices – and yet it has remained buried until his research. He signed copies of his book on the subject, Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Ukrainian Holocaust, and encouraged interested parties to visit his organization’s website at The name is a combination of the Hebrew and Latin words for “together.”

According to Dr. Ann Heekin, the director of programs and publications for the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding, Father Desbois’ heroic work is especially welcome at this time in the history of interfaith relations. “Since the Second Vatican Council, relations between Christians and Jews have improved more than in the past 19 centuries. Recent developments such as the ‘rehabilitation’ of a Holocaust-denying bishop, have thrown a shadow on this progress. Father Desbois and his colleagues have taken on the awesome responsibility of being not only their brothers’ keeper, in the familiar wording of Genesis, but their brothers’ memory-keeper as well. He came too late to save the lives of these millions, but he is working to preserve their memory and to be sure that something like this will never happen again.”

The Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding is an educational and research arm of Sacred Heart University. It works to promote dialogue and mutual understanding between religious traditions and sponsors publications and forums for religious leaders and lay people. For further information, contact CCJU at 203-365-7592 or