In this heart-wrenching book, Father Patrick Desbois documents the daunting task of identifying and examining all the sites where Jews were exterminated by Nazi mobile units in the Ukraine in WWII. Using innovative methodology, interviews, and ballistic evidence, he has determined the location of many mass gravesites with the goal of providing proper burials for the victims of the forgotten Ukrainian Holocaust. Compiling new archival material and many eye-witness accounts, Desbois has put together the first definitive account of one of history's bloodiest chapters.
Published with the support of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (Amazon).
My Review: This book isn't your typical non-fiction book for youth, The Holocaust by Bullets, part memoir and part chronicle, this book is meant for older youth. While not as disturbing as other works on the holocaust, Desbois chronicles his journey to document the Holocaust of Ukrainian Jews.
Father Patrick Desbois grew up in Saint-Laurent, France. Born ten years after World War II, Desbois’s childhood, and really the course of his whole life were influenced by the events of the war. As a child Desbois heard stories of the French resistance fighters, the Maquis, that his maternal grandparents’ farm supplied fresh supplies to the resistance, he knew where the demarcation line was, and heard of foreign places “synonymous with misfortune and suffering...” Mauthausen—a cousin died there, Dachau—another cousin was deported to and returned from there, and Rawa-Ruska, (Desbois, 6).
[T]here was one name, a name unlike all the others: Rawa-Ruska. I was told that my grandfather Claudius had been taken there during the war. As usual, I tried to understand... Just once, he [Claudius] uttered these words: “For us, the camp was difficult...But it was worse for the others!” That sentence was engraved in my consciousness as a child for all time... I was 12 years old when I saw images of the Holocaust...for the first time...I saw photographs of the concentration camps for Jews at Bergen-Belsen...Shocked by my discovery, I didn’t tell anyone about it but since that day, I have always sought to understand what happened, what the tragedy was that my grandfather had been forced to witness, (Desbois, 6-10).
In Desbois’s search for the truth, the understanding of what his grandfather endured he was led on a quest that would eventually become a great part of his life. In 1990, not long after the fall of the Soviet Union, while visiting Poland, near the border of Ukraine where Rawa-Ruska was located, the understanding for Desbois came quickly:
I was so close to where my grandfather had been...The ground slipped from under my feet and I said to myself “You’ve been looking for this for 50 years. You’ve finally found it.” How could I say that when I was only 35 years old? Then I understood in a flash that I had completed a circle. That night I was as cold as my grandfather had been 30 years before me.
I was suddenly and brutally conscious of the unfathomable nature of what it was my grandfather had tried to make me grasp: his deportation, and the Holocaust... I saw the Holocaust as a responsibility: That day I understood how much the Holocaust was part of my life. The unspeakable crime to which my grandfather had been a helpless witness—the murder of men, women, and children simply because they were Jews...[T]hat night the irrevocable decision to search took root in me. I had to understand, (Desbois, 15).
Eventually, a soviet transcript was translated and given to Desbois, containing the testimony of a forest guard, it stated what the guard, Stephan Pelip, witnessed—the execution of 10,000 Jews, and Desbois wondered if this was what his grandfather saw.
The first step in his quest was to learn Hebrew, learn the history of anti-Semitism, and for two years he was trained by Charles Favre, and became a leading mediator of the Cardinal’s relations with Jewish leaders, later Desbois began to visit the sites of the Shoah. Eventually Desbois began to travel in the Ukraine to villages to document what had occurred in the villages and towns to communities’ Jewish population.
Desbois’s ultimate goal seems to be—and should be documenting what happened to the Jews of the Ukraine. Desbois’s role as a Priest, I believe, made it easier (though still difficult), for people to tell them what they witnessed when the Jews were killed. The testimony of the Ukrainian witnesses indicates to me that they were not complicit in the murder of the Jews—they were forced to trample bodies, pull teeth, sort garments, and witness the horror that took place—events that still traumatized the witnesses over 50 years later.
This book should be required reading in any high school study of the Holocaust. This book documents the plight of those who were considered less than sub-human, the Ukrainian victims never made it out of their villages, there are few ways to account for how many were murdered...but counting the bullets in the mass graves.
Books to pair with The Holocaust by Bullets for Holocaust units:
Night - Elie Wiesel
Born in the town of Sighet, Transylvania, Elie Wiesel was a teenager when he and his family were taken from their home in 1944 to the Auschwitz concentration camp, and then to Buchenwald. [This book] is the terrifying record of Elie Wiesel's memories of the death of his family, the death of his own innocence, and his despair as a deeply observant Jew confronting the absolute evil of man. (WorldCat)
United States Holocaust Museum