Author Talk: Father Patrick Desbois
Father Patrick Desbois, a 63-year-old French Roman Catholic priest, once worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, building huts for people who were dying of disease and famine. Today, his organization, Yahad-In Unum, documents evidence of the Holocaust as well as investigates the tribal genocides of Myanmar’s Rohingya and the Yazidi in Iraq. Father Debois has published two books on the subject, the Holocaust by Bullets and In Broad Daylight: The Secret Procedure Behind the Holocaust by Bullets. Yahad-In Unum launched an educator training program last year and, in 2016, founded the first and only museum of the Holocaust in Central America in Guatemala. For his work, Desbois has received the Legion of Honor, France’s highest honor; the Medal of Valor from the Simon Wiesenthal Center; and the Humanitarian Award of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, among many other honors. He heads the French Bishops’ Committee for Relations with Jews and is a consultant on Jewish relations with the Vatican. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Why have you devoted your life to uncovering the Nazi genocide against Jews and Roma in Eastern Europe?
It began during a trip in 2002 to Rava-Ruska in Ukraine, where my grandfather, a French soldier, had been in a Nazi prison camp. I knew that 10,000 Jews had been killed there, but when I asked the mayor where they were buried, he seemed not to know. The townspeople did not want to speak of this time. I returned the next year, and a new mayor took me to meet 100 villagers wanting to tell their stories. What drove me then, and still today, is that genocide still happens. It’s not the past, unfortunately. It is part of our present. People need to know the true, horrific history of genocide or they will not recognize it again until it is too late.
How do you assess the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism in contemporary Europe?
The Holocaust was not a tsunami. It came on slow, and we did not see the signs. As I travel across the world, I see people are becoming more nationalistic, anti-Semitic and intolerant. People are beginning to forget the lessons of the Holocaust. It is time for a major revitalization of history and education of past genocides if we are to navigate safely through these volatile times.
What lessons can we learn from the Holocaust?
In the unspeakable actions of the Holocaust we see a pattern. Yahad-In Unum has revealed a chilling connection to today’s world. Modern terrorists have adopted the same method of improvised shootings and executions as were used by Nazi killing units during World War II. We have seen this with the genocides of the Yazidi people in Iraq and the Rohingya people in recent years.
What are your plans for the future?
Yahad-In Unum is now in a race against time. No more than three years remain to capture the eyewitness accounts of living witnesses and locate the remaining mass killing sites before all living testimony is silenced forever. We are committed to ensuring that the history of these atrocities does not die with the last witnesses and uncovering as much as we can in that time.
Jack Fischel is author of The Holocaust and The Historical Dictionary of the Holocaust.