The French Catholic priest had come to Charlotte to speak about the Holocaust, about how he’s spent the last 15 years tracking down 2,100 unmarked mass graves in Eastern Europe that contain the remains of tens of thousands of Jews and Gypsies murdered by the Nazis.
“Hitler’s killing fields,” TV’s “60 Minutes” called them in its report on the work of the Rev. Patrick Desbois. The Nazis had turned these fields, forests and ravines into long-hidden execution sites and burial grounds. And Desbois has been steadily uncovering them – and the truth.
On Thursday night at Queens University of Charlotte, Desbois shared the details from his field research and from his 5,300 interviews with now-elderly witnesses of these killings. His audience: About 400 people who had filed into Belk Chapel at the school to mark the one-year anniversary of the university’s Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice.
Though we had all heard horror stories about the Holocaust over the years – or had experienced them, in the case of the three or four Holocaust survivors in the crowd – Desbois’ anecdotes about babies being thrown live into the graves to save bullets and doomed Jews being told they were to be deported, not shot in the head or in the back, still managed to shock.
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And, for me, the words of Desbois, author of “The Holocaust By Bullets,” also triggered American images of homegrown terror – some of them recent, some longer ago but still searing enough to haunt our history.
When Father Desbois spoke of the Nazis’ sickeningly efficient and barbaric strategy of calculating the number of Jews still living in a town, then digging a grave just big enough to bury their soon-to-be dead bodies . . .
I remembered the recent TV news video of torch-bearing white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., marching to the chants of anti-Semitic slurs and Nazi slogans and brandishing swastikas – a symbol of genocidal murder of Jews.
When Desbois described the Nazis’ mass executions of Jews and Gypsies as public events, with many of the victims’ neighbors on hand to watch or even participate . . .
I recalled those old black-and-white photos of white witnesses at public lynchings in the American South, smiling as they pointed to the misshapen bodies of African-American victims.
And when Desbois discussed how the Nazis rounded up their victims, auctioned off their possessions and even robbed them of their identity by burying them in unmarked graves ...
I thought of all the pictures and drawings I’d seen of countless and unnamed black men, women and children who’d been kidnapped, shipped to America, re-named, sold as property and enslaved.
Nazi Germany may well have sunk to the lowest levels of depravity in human history. But systemic bigotry and mass violence did not start with Nazis and, sadly, it didn’t end with them.
And so, as I considered Father Desbois and his dogged determination to document the Nazis’ brutality and reclaim these far-away, long-ago crime scenes as sacred sites, I also felt inspired Thursday night.
And I felt grateful that Charlotte is now home to a center at Queens University that’s equally determined to tell the stories of the voiceless and educate the rest of us. About the Holocaust, to be sure – but also about the continuing scourge of racism near and far and about the perilous plight of today’s refugees and immigrants.
Under the direction of Rabbi Judy Schindler, who lost some of her own family in the Holocaust, the Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice wanted to celebrate its one-year anniversary by inviting a noted human rights activist and Holocaust scholar to speak.
Desbois, president of the Yahad In Unum Association and an adviser to the Vatican on Judaism, agreed to answer a few of my questions after his talk in Belk Chapel at Queens.
He had mentioned during his speech that Holocaust deniers are on the rise in Europe – and that many are in their 30s, with no memory of World War II. So I asked about the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. Many of them were also young and appear emboldened to go public with their hate.
“Now we see people who feel free to be neo-Nazis or (deniers) because we are far from the (Nazi) genocide,” he said. “So, more than ever, we have to make people conscious of what happened, stand in front (of the deniers and bigots) and never give up.”
The United States is now embroiled in a debate over whether to remove monuments erected to honor Confederate leaders and soldiers, whose home states seceeded from the Union to fight for the preservation of slavery.
Desbois wouldn’t comment on what he considered an American decision – “I want to keep my visa,” he joked. But he did say he favored monuments – for history’s victims. Some in the United States have taken up that cause, suggesting new monuments be built to remember black Americans who were enslaved or lynched.
As part of his field work in Eastern Europe, Debois said, “we work that a monument can be placed where the Jews and Gypsies have been killed. To remember and educate. Because (sites with) monuments are also places of education.”
Finally, I asked Desbois, a man of faith, what he says to those who look at the genocides perpetrated by the Nazis in the 1940s and others since then and ask: “Where was God?”
“That has never been my question,” answered this tireless agent of justice. “I am from a family of fighters. We are interested in action!”