His subjects were mostly children and teenagers at the time, terrified witnesses to mass slaughter. Some were forced to work at the bottom rung of the Nazi killing machine — as diggers of mass graves, cooks who fed Nazi soldiers and seamstresses who mended clothes stripped from the Jews before execution.
They live today in rural poverty, many without running water or heat, nearing the end of their lives. So Patrick Desbois has been quietly seeking them out, roaming the back roads and forgotten fields of Ukraine, hearing their stories and searching for the unmarked common graves. He knows that they are an unparalleled source to document the murder of the 1.5 million Jews of Ukraine, shot dead and buried throughout the country.
He is neither a historian nor an archaeologist, but a French Roman Catholic priest. And his most powerful tools are his matter-of-fact style — and his clerical collar.
The Nazis killed nearly 1.5 million Jews in Ukraine after their invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. But with few exceptions, most notably the 1941 slaughter of nearly 34,000 Jews in the Babi Yar ravine in Kiev, much of that history has gone untold.
In four years, the 52-year-old priest has videotaped more than 700 interviews, identified more than 600 common graves, and gathers evidence of execution of Jewish residents during 1941-44, with a team including interpreters, a photographer, cameraman, ballistics expert, mapping expert and notetaker.
“People talk as if these things happened yesterday, as if 60 years didn’t exist,” Father Desbois said. “Some ask, ‘Why are you coming so late? We have been waiting for you.’”
His research - interviews, documents, photographs - are now on display at the Memorial of the Shoah in Paris, including images of 15 mass graves of several thousand Jews in Busk.
Desbois grew up on a farm in eastern France. His paternal grandfather was deported to a prison camp for French soldiers on the Ukrainian side of the Polish border, but said little, while a cousin who carried letters for resisters perished in a concentration camp, and the farm hid dozens of resisters.
In 2002, on a group tour to Rava-Ruska, he asked where the Jews were buried. The mayor said he didn't know. Debois knew 10,000 Jews had been murdered there. In 2003, the town's new mayor took him to a forest where villagers waited to tell their stories.
Read this moving story here.