Father Desbois’s interest in the Holocaust started at a young age, because his grandfather, who helped raise him, was a French soldier who been deported to the Nazi prison camp Rawa-Ruska during World War Two. His grandfather did not speak much of his time in the camp, and Father Desbois remained curious about the Holocaust and its Jewish victims.
As a result of his childhood interests, Father Desbois studied the Jewish faith while preparing for his ordination as a Catholic priest. He studied anti-semitism at Yad-Vashem, and later Jewish religion and culture with Dr. Charles Favre, a leader in the French Jewish community.
In 2002, he traveled to Ukraine, so he could see where his grandfather had been imprisoned during the war, and to pay respects at a memorial to the lives lost. Upon his arrival, he was shocked to discover that there existed not a single marking or commemoration to 1.25 million Jewish victims in all of Ukraine and Belarus. Speaking of his initial experience, Desbois stated:
In 2002, while traveling in Ukraine, he visited the site of his grandfather’s imprisonment, Rawa-Ruska. Desbois knew that before World War II more than 15,000 Jews had lived in the town, but when he asked to see where they had been murdered, the mayor brushed him off and said no one knew anything about it. “How could more than 10,000 Jews be killed in the village and nobody knows?” he says. “I knew I needed to find out what happened. So I came back two times, three times, four times to Rawa-Ruska. And then the mayor lost the election and a new mayor was elected, much less Soviet.”
The new mayor led Desbois to the forest where, Desbois says, approximately 50 elderly men and women of the village were gathered in a semicircle. “You are standing on the graves of the last 1,500 Jews of Rawa-Ruska,” the mayor said. One by one the villagers stepped forward and told of their experiences during World War II. They told of how the Jews were marched out to this clearing, forced to dig steep pits and hand over their valuables before being shot. They recounted stories of how the Germans had forced them-children or teenagers at the time-to guard the Jews to prevent them from escaping, to cover the corpse-filled pits, to serve the German soldiers food and even bring them a gramophone so they could listen to music.
Desbois recalls one woman-“an old lady with a blue scarf”-who tearfully told him, “I was at my farm, I was 14, and they told me, ‘Come, come’ and I had to climb in the trees and pick up pieces of corpses and hide them with branches in the grave so that the next Jews will not see them. And, after, arrived trucks and trucks and trucks of Jews from Rawa-Ruska.”
Following these revelations, the villagers told Desbois they had never before publicly spoken of what had happened. Many asked the priest before he left, “Why are you coming so late? We have been waiting for you.”
In order to right this egregious wrong, Father Desbois helped found Yahad-In Unum in 2004. The organization collects information about the mass killing of Jews and Roma in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Moldova and Romania between 1941 and 1944. Local contemporary witnesses are interviewed about the mass shootings, which took place next to their home, and where the mass graves are located. Desbois estimates that there are no less than 1 million victims buried in 1,200 graves in Ukraine.
Desbois conducts many of the interviews with the witnesses himself (and with translators). Using metal detectors, Desbois and his team have unearthed German cartridges and bullets from the pits where bodies were thrown, as well as jewelry belonging to the victims. Criticism leveled against Father Desbois include his acceptance of the confessions of complicity in war crimes by those who he interviews. “Desbois doesn’t ask a lot of the people that he speaks with…He gives the impression that it was the Germans doing all the killing, but in fact much of the organization of the genocide had a lot to do with auxiliary and local police forces. He is not interested in that,” Professor Omer Bartov has stated.
Paul Shapiro of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has countered that “Some people have been critical of his methodology, but no one else is going out and doing this kind of work. It is easy to be critical; it is much harder to have the drive, stamina and commitment to go again and again to these places.” In March 2014, the French president, François Hollande praised the work of Father Desbois:
A moment ago, you honored Father Patrick Desbois. Through his own family history, he discovered the tragedy of Ukrainian Jews. He worked for the recognition of the ‘Holocaust by Bullets’ because the Holocaust had begun even before the camps, and furthermore, not only in the Ukraine. It is very important to know how the genocidal process began, and how it came to the extermination camps.