Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Holocaust by Bullets

In fall 2007, while living in Paris, my mother and I visited the Mémorial de la Shoah. The Jewish Holocaust museum was hosting a temporary exhibit called “The Holocaust by Bullets.” The exhibit featured a French Catholic priest’s project to collect the memories of “witnesses” to the massacres in Ukraine. The eyewitnesses, who must have been children at the time, are now extremely old, and Father Patrick Desbois is racing against time to record their accounts.

The exhibit had an overwhelming amount of information to process, and I struggled—and still struggle—to reconcile the country I love with such unthinkable brutality.

Last week, I happened upon Father Desbois’s memoir: The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest's Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews. He details his experiences recording the witnesses’ testimonies all across Ukraine. He talks about his grandfather’s own internment during WWII, his research team, and the process that team uses to record the testimonies.

Father Desbois’s story is interesting, but I was most intrigued in the witnesses’ accounts. I felt impatient reading about his life when what I really wanted to read was more transcripts. Despite attending the exhibit, despite reading countless memoirs and biographies about Holocaust victims, I continue to be surprised by the depths of “man’s inhumanity to man.” Father Desbois interviews one woman who as a child was “requisitioned” by the German army to walk across corpses in mass graves. Multiple eyewitnesses recall how the graves moved for three days with the wounded buried inside.

Holocaust by Bullets is not an easy read, but Father Desbois’s project is vital as very few eyewitnesses to the Jewish Holocaust remain.

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