French Priest Provides Voice To Holocaust Witnesses

Some researchers say up to a third of all Holocaust victims were executed not in camps, but by bullets. Most of them had been shot by German troops during the invasion of Russia. A French priest has spent years searching for mass graves and recording the memories of elderly witnesses. His organization has opened a display of the priest's work in Paris.

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We turn now to the story of what a French priest has learned about a particular group of survivors of the Holocaust. And a warning: You may find graphic portions of this next story disturbing.

Some experts say up to a third of all Holocaust victims were executed - not in camps, but shot by German troops during the invasion of Russia. And one man, Father Patrick Dubois, has spent years searching for mass graves and recording the memories of elderly witnesses. His work has led to an exhibition in Paris, and Eleanor Beardsley has this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: In 1942, the witnesses of the mass slaughter of more than a million Jews were terrified children and teenagers. Today, they're mostly in their late 70s and 80s, living in rural poverty in villages across Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. For the last five years, Father Patrick Dubois and his nine-person team, which includes translators, a filmmaker and a ballistics expert, have sought these witnesses out to listen to their stories.

Father PATRICK DUBOIS: These people, they want to speak before - to die. You know, one wife, she told me all my life I dreamt to find somebody to say what I saw because she was forced to walk on the corpse between every shooting to make space in the mass grave. And it was the first time she was saying that in public.

BEARDSLEY: During the Soviet era, talk of the Holocaust was taboo. Officially, people were killed by the Nazis because they were Soviet citizens, not because they were Jews. Dubois has interviewed more than a thousand eye witnesses. He cross-references their testimony with Soviet and German archives to find out how the Jews were killed and where they are buried. He has located hundreds of previously unknown mass graves. (Soundbite of street noises)

BEARDSLEY: Off a busy Paris avenue lies Father Dubois' association, Yahad-in-Unum - the Hebrew and Latin words for together. It is here that Dubois keeps all the interviews and evidence he has collected over the last five years. Visitors to his Holocaust by Bullets resource center can now watch recorded testimony. Father Dubois plays a video interview with a man called Michola(ph), who as a 10-year-old boy hid with his friends and watched the S.S. kill all the Jews in his Ukrainian village. To protect the witnesses, Dubois doesn't release their last names.

MICHOLA (Holocaust eye witness): (Through Translator) They brought the Jews over from the ghetto in a truck. They pushed them out and manhandled them. They were naked. They were forced to line up with a rabbi at the head of the line. And then the S.S. just started mowing them down with machine guns.

BEARDSLEY: Michola, who is speaking at the sight of the killings, says they continued for four or five days, and non-Jewish villagers were forced to shovel dirt onto the mass graves.

MICHOLA: (Through Translator) For two weeks, those pits moved. They had thrown people in still half alive. They grabbed the children by their arms and hurled them into the grave alive.

BEARDSLEY: Dubois' grandfather was held prisoner of war by the Germans in Ukraine, and told Dubois about the murder of thousands of Jews in the town. Dubois went to the site, but found nobody could tell him where the bodies were buried. So he decided to search for himself. Dubois says he is driven by the desire to do a final kindness to the victims. He says these Jews have suffered a double injustice because their murders are still shrouded in darkness.

Father DUBOIS: All these Jews have been shot one by one. It was a personal murder. We would like all these mass graves to be recognized as human dumps because the Jews and the Gypsies have been killed like animals and buried like animals. And we cannot build a modern world above hundreds and hundreds of mass graves. Otherwise, it's a great scene. We cannot speak about the Holocaust and not bury the victims.

BEARDSLEY: Dubois admits his mission is psychologically grueling, but he says there is an urgency to it. There is only a small window left to gather the remaining testimony, as the witnesses won't live much longer. Dubois says he won't stop until he has talked to each witness and found every mass grave.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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