I had never heard of Patrick Desbois until October 4, 2015. He’s an ordinary-looking man. Wears glasses. Balding. Speaks mediocre English with a heavy French accent and is a Roman Catholic priest.
I’m sure I’ll never meet Desbois in person, and had he not been on the CBS news program 60 minutes in October 2015, I wouldn’t know he exists. Yet he affected me profoundly as I sat in my living room sipping tea, separated from him by about 4,500 miles and the Atlantic Ocean, because he may have told me what happened to my family during the Holocaust.
As evil as we know the Holocaust of World War II was, it seems new information always surfaces to reveal it was far worse than we imagined. Such was the case in Ukraine. We know that now thanks to Father Desbois.
My mother was born in Ukraine but grew up in Montreal, Canada. Her brothers were not so lucky. They couldn’t get the government’s permission to leave. She was only a girl when her grandparents practically forced her to board the ship because they had a premonition that life for the Jews of Ukraine, already bad because of government-sanctioned Jew-killing sprees, was about to get worse.
While she grew up in freedom in the home of her uncle (an Orthodox rabbi) and his family in Canada, her brothers grew up in the Communist, atheistic, anti-Semitic Soviet Union. She corresponded with them faithfully until their letters stopped. The last one arrived in Montreal in 1941 or 1942. I can’t find it to tell you the exact date. By then, my uncles were married and had small children. One of my aunts was pregnant.
As evil as we know the Holocaust of World War II was, it seems new information always surfaces to reveal it was far worse than we imagined.
My aunts, cousins, and one uncle perished during the war. I had assumed they died in the Babi Yar massacre, a barbaric Nazi killing spree that exterminated more than 33,000 Jewish people in the Kiev, Ukraine, area in only two days. Babi Yar is considered the worst mass murder in history. Then I heard Father Desbois.
Apparently, more Jewish people were murdered en masse in Ukraine than anyone knew. The slaughters were conducted in broad daylight, and watching them was so popular that people ran to them with cameras and chairs as though they were sporting events. “They were fighting to have a good place like for a circus,” Father Desbois told Lara Logan of 60 Minutes.
“When a woman with a baby would approach the pit,” one eyewitness said, “they [Nazis] forced her to hold the baby in sight, first they shot the baby and then her.”
Others observed, “The pit was barely covered so we could even see their legs and arms.”
“We could see the blood bubbling.”
“They were screaming, the children were crying. When the pit was full they filled it with a little earth. For three days the ground moved. Some were still alive.”
The Jewish people of Ukraine lie by the thousands under cornfields, tomato fields, and houses and in forests and ravines. I have no doubt members of my family are there. The mass graves are invisible, unmarked, and forgotten. Until now.
Father Desbois has made it his life’s mission to find them. He has interviewed more than 4,000 eyewitnesses who were children at the time and has recorded more than 1,700 previously undocumented execution sites in the former Soviet Union.
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His work confirms how godless the Nazis were. They were the opposite of Christian. They epitomized God’s dismal assessment of the human condition: “The wickedness of man [is] great in the earth, and . . . every intent of the thoughts of his heart [is] only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5).
I was 31 when I finally understood why God sent us Jesus Christ. Only Jesus can truly change a human heart and heal a broken one. In Him there is peace and hope and life. He is the only reason I have been able to come to terms with the Holocaust, and that is a message I very much want Jewish people to hear because I love them.