Father Patrick Desbois shared his powerful humanitarian work at Sandler Center

February 18, 2019

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In a first ever joint event, the Norfolk and Virginia Beach Forums came together, and with the Holocaust Commission, brought the powerful message of Father Patrick Desbois to Tidewater.

The idea to bring this internationally known scholar and humanitarian to Tidewater originated with Sonia Stein Bonnie, who brought it up at her first Holocaust Commission meeting in 2016. The cost seemed prohibitive, and it was put on the back burner, but she never gave up. After looking at several options, Harry Graber, then United Jewish Federation of Tidewater executive vice president, explored the concept of involving the Forums. With Jody Wagner, Norfolk Forum president, on board, it was not hard to bring in Bryan Plumlee of the Virginia Beach Forum.

And, so, on the coldest night of the year, nearly 750 fortunate people were able to hear Father Patrick Desbois speak at the Sandler Center on Thursday, January 31.

A 2018 study indicated that far too many Americans, including a large percentage of millennials, do not know much if anything about the Holocaust. While this was disheartening to the Holocaust Commission, whose mission is to educate about the lessons of the tragic events of the Shoah, think for a minute about those who DO know something about the Holocaust.

If any of those knowlegeable people who attended Father Desbois’ talk were asked, most would tell you that he had told them about a part of the Holocaust of which they had very little awareness: the Holocaust By Bullets.

With passion, as well as a degree of pathos, Father Desbois shared stories from his life and his research. His normally gregarious grandfather’s silence about his experience in a Soviet labor camp during World War II always made young Patrick curious to know more. After becoming a math teacher and then a priest, and working with the Catholic church on Catholic-Jewish relations, he serendipitously found himself in the town where his forebear had been imprisoned. The Mayor of Rawa Ruska in Ukraine shared with the grandson what the grandfather had been reticent to divulge: the town had been witness to, in fact party to, the mass murder of its Jewish population at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi killing squads who terrorized the Jews of Eastern Europe before the death camp machinery was operational.

This meeting led to the founding of his organization, Yahad-In Unum (Together in One) and almost two decades of interviewing witnesses, and some perpetrators, to the Nazis’ crimes. To date he has recorded more than 6,000 interviews and found more than 2,500 unmarked mass graves as he tries to “find” 1.5 million Jewish victims.

When asked in the Q&A session what he says to Holocaust deniers, he responded, “The deniers don’t confront me; they hate me, because I have evidence.”

But he does not stop with this emotionally wrenching look into the past. Father Desbois refuses to stand by while genocide continues. He visits Iraq frequently to document the genocide of the Yazidi people by ISIS, his organization trying to deprogram and support children orphaned by ISIS crimes, in real time. Father Desbois is relentless in his pursuit of the truth, no matter how difficult it is to live with. His hope, his goal, is to prepare a new generation to fight the evil of deniers, and the evil of the terrorists who learned their trade from the Nazis.

A professor at Georgetown University, where he is on the faculty for the Center for Jewish Civilization, Father Desbois was the recipient of the 2017 Lantos Human Rights prize.

Once in a while a speaker like Father Desbois comes along who changes the way you think about the world. As Leigh Casson, UJFT program associate, says, “I will never forget that talk as long as I live.”

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