“They had told the Jews that they were being moved to another camp. Then, suddenly, the carts turned towards the woods. Four motorcyclists followed. These unfortunate people understood that something was going to happen to them. They began to scream.” — Afanassia, born in 1916, Ukraine
“I worked at the airport with the Jews. One evening, a truck came to get them. They did not bring the Jews to the market place as usual, but to the Jewish cemetery. There, pits had been dug in advance.” — Leszek, born in 1925, Poland
The eyewitness photos don’t lie.
You can’t escape the look of shock and disbelief revealed so vividly in their eyes. Nor, can you be numb to their pain as they relate tales of unspeakable horror, stories many of them have been holding inside for more than 70 years.
Afanassia and Leszek were just horrified children during World War II. Today, they are among more than 5,000 eyewitnesses from all over Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union who have shared videotaped interviews with Fr. Patrick Desbois. He and his team of 28 full-time researchers from the Yahad – In Unum, a global humanitarian organization he founded in 2004, are dedicated to identifying and commemorating the sites of Jewish and Roma mass executions during the war.
Desbois, a French, Catholic priest and professor at Georgetown University, is also secretary to the French Conference of Bishops for relations with Judaism, adviser to the Cardinal-Archbishop of Lyon, and adviser to the Vatican on the Jewish religion.
He passionately tells a side of the Holocaust story that relatively few have ever heard. Many people know all about Auschwitz and the other Nazi death camps in World War II. They are also familiar with Anne Frank, the young German-born diarist who famously kept a diary while she and her family were in hiding during the German occupation of the Netherlands from 1942-44.
But most don’t know about the “Holocaust by Bullets,” a reign of Nazi terror inflicted by Hitler’s mobile killing squads, the Einsatzgruppen. To date, Desbois and his team have located more than 1,873 mass burial sites in seven countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Desbois has become one of the leading voiceson Hitler’s killing fields and on genocide throughout the world.
The “Holocaust by Bullets” story is powerfully told through photos and eyewitness accounts in an exhibit currently on display at Jewish Museum Milwaukee, 1360 N. Prospect Avenue. The exhibit, a joint effort by the museum, the Holocaust Education Resource Center and the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, runs through May 23.
For Desbois, educating the world about this aspect of the Holocaust has been a personal journey that began about 15 years ago when he took a trip to see his grandfather, Claudius, in Saint-Laurent.
“I’m a French priest and my grandfather was deported in July 1942 from France to Ukraine,” said Desbois. “He came back alive, but he refused to speak. One day I discovered he had been deported to a place on the border of Poland and the Ukraine, a place where all of the Jews were killed by shootings. So, I went to that village in Belarus. Finally, I discovered the mass graves of 18,000 Jews who had been shot there. I discovered that these shootings were public and that the neighbors wanted to speak.”
“The column of Jews passed through the village. There were men, women and children. Some villagers made the sign of a cross on themselves as the column passed. Everyone was walking, there were no carts.” — Ion, born in 1933, Moldova
The Einsatzgruppen killed 2.2 million Jews from 1941-44 and it begs the question: Why did the Nazis need these mobile killing squads?
“They knew that in France and Germany they couldn’t shoot the people in the middle of the cities so they brought them to camps,” said Desbois. “Shootings were the majority way of killing Jews and Gypsies. It’s so typical that we forgot it, because of the Cold War afterwards and we couldn’t search these territories.
“We have interviewed 5,000 farmers who were present at the killing of the Jews. I will never forget one. I met her in July on a very beautiful day. She was with friends on a bench outside. She said, ‘I never spoke.’ She told me, ‘I was 14 years old and a German came. He said, come, come with your spade.’ So she ran to her mom and asked, ‘Must I go?’ and her mom said ‘If you don’t go, you will be killed.’
“So she arrived at the mass graves. In fact, the Germans requisitioned 14 Ukrainian girls. She had to help with the corpses between every shooting to pack the corpses to make space for the next shooting. She said, ‘Suddenly, I saw all my Jewish school mates arriving and I had to work on them like the others.’
“For me, it was one of the strongest stories I was told. She had never spoken. It was 70 years that she kept silent and finally she could deliver her secret. It was a terrible secret because these poor people were used like a machine, a killing machine. The Germans didn’t want to do the dirty jobs so they used the poorest people to do the dirty jobs.
“These (eyewitnesses) were Soviet children and in the Soviet Union you had no choice,” Desbois continued. “If the authorities told you to do something, you could choose between coming and death. So, the Germans used the Soviet system to use these school children to do all these dirty jobs to dig mass graves, (stack bodies), to sort the belongings of the Jews, etc. It was youth trauma. They were children and suddenly they saw 1,000, 2,000 Jews killed in front of them and they could not speak. If you spoke about that in the Soviet Union you were sent to the gulag.”
“The gunmen entered the Jewish homes to take their belongings.” — Elizabeta, born in 1918
There were five distinct stages these mobile death squads used in killing the Jews:
The Einsatzgruppen came to the small villages in Belarus, Moldova, Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine and arrested the Jewish people, taking them from their homes. Always it was done under false pretenses, telling the Jews that they were being relocated. ‘You have 15 minutes to pack your valuables and belongings.’
Leaving their homes behind, the Jews was forced to take their minimal belongings on the road to the killing sites that they didn’t know were waiting for them.
Once the Jews arrived at the location of the mass graves, which were often dug by the townspeople, they were forced to take all of their clothing off. Any valuables would be sorted out and distributed by the Nazis.
Ordered to stand at the edge of the open pit, the Jews were shot in the head before falling to their grave.
This was the process by which all of the goods that had been left by the Jewish people, their clothing and valuables at the side of the pit were taken. The clothing was either given to people in need in Germany or, if it was not of good quality, the clothing was literally used as rags to clean the floors of the Nazi barracks. The Looting also consisted of going into Jewish homes that were left when the people were arrested and taking anything of worth or anything not worthy of leaving behind when a new family would move in and take over the land and property.
“Jews were quarantined in the synagogue and in the house of prayer.” — Ryszard, born in 1931, Poland
When he spoke about the “Holocaust by Bullets” at the Jewish Home and Care Center Rubenstein Pavilion on April 19 (ironically, the night before an ISIS attack on the famed Champs-Élysées in Paris), Desbois passionately reminded his audience that we must never forget what happened in every ugly phase of the Holocaust.
“I am telling my audiences to wake up,” Desbois said. “We live in bubbles. Hitler’s methods are still used as a reference for these killers today. Paris is a wonderful city, but in Paris we are no more like in Milwaukee. Now we are shooting at homes with the same people with the same machine guns. We don’t know where the next shooting will be. We had shootings in Paris, Brazil, Germany. Who will be next?
“There is no Hitler fatigue. Hitler is a reference for mass killings. Today, nobody would build an Auschwitz. There is no Auschwitz in Iraq, no Auschwitz in Syria, no Auschwitz in Rwanda, no Auschwitz in Cambodia. Only killings one by one. These shootings with bullets are a reference. Nobody wants to build an Auschwitz because it brings memories.
“For example, we say that in Syria a half-million people were killed by shooting and bombing, not race. No memory. Nothing. The ‘Holocaust by Bullets’ exhibit helps people to realize that this was a personal crime like today. People don’t care about the victims of Syria like they didn’t care about the victims of the Germans during the war. We care when the genocide is finished but not during the genocide.”
When asked what he would like for people to take with them after experiencing the “Holocaust by Bullets” exhibit, Desbois did not hesitate.
“Don’t wait for a big organization to stop genocide. Take your own responsibility. Send money to our organization or contact us to give of your time. Don’t sleep. Don’t sleep, because one day you will be like Paris in a nightmare.”
(To make a donation to the “Holocaust by Bullets” project, please visit www.yahadinunum.org/how-to-help/)