Yitgadal veyitkadach Cheme raba
Bealma di vera khrioute.
With these words, tears broke through and fell silently onto my cheeks. I was not surprised at the tears, just at how long it took before they arrived. I read 178 pages of Father Patrick Desbois’s book – The Holocaust By Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews, and I had not yet cried. These words – the haunting, powerful words of the Kaddish – the Jewish prayer for the dead – unlocked my emotions.
Father Desbois, a French Roman Catholic Priest (pictured above), worked for years to locate and identify hundreds, maybe thousands, of mass graves of Jews murdered by the Nazis. He went from town to town with a translator, a camera crew, and a metal detector (to detect spent cartridges) searching for the mass graves. In each town, he asked to speak to the oldest person. Perhaps they had witnessed the murders.
With much patience and kindness, he interviewed many witnesses. He discovered much more than the location of the mass graves. He uncovered the depth of involvement by the local population during the killings. Townsfolk were “requisitioned” — forced to participate in the murder frenzy. Most requisitioned civilians were forced by threat of death to dig the pits and to fill them in after the killings were done for the day. However, others were requisitioned to tie up clothes into bundles, prepare food for the murderous Nazis, extract the gold teeth from the mouths of the Jews (before they were killed), to store spades in their homes at night, and to guard Jews to prevent them from escaping. (97)
Many so requisitioned were children. One such child was Petrivna. Now an old woman, she described how she was forced to go down into the pits between rounds of shooting and stomp on the bodies and cover them with sand.
“’You see, it’s not easy to walk on bodies,’ trying to express that the ground was moving. In a flash, I realized that she was trying to convey her unspeakable experience, her suffering. Very calmly I asked her: ‘You had to walk on the bodies of the people who were shot?’ She replied: ‘Yes, I had to pack them down,’ making the same gesture with the arms. I thought I understood: ‘You had to do that at the end of the shootings, in the evening, or between each volley of shots?’ Seeing that I was beginning to understand, she told the rest of her story. ‘After every volley of shots. We were three Ukrainian girls who, in our bare feet, had to pack down the bodies of the Jews and throw a fine layer of sand on top of them so that other Jews could lay down.’
‘Barefoot?’ I asked. She replied ‘You know, we were very poor, we didn’t have shoes. The Germans had seen me in the fields in the morning. I was tending a cow. They said to me: ‘Go to your mother’s house and get a spade and come back.’ When I got to the house, my mother said to me: ‘Go, if you don’t they will kill you!’ The other requisitioned girls were also looking after their cows. We were all poor.’
‘Did you have time to sit down between two shootings?’ I asked. She answered ‘The shootings were so quick that we didn’t even have time to catch our breath between shootings! It lasted from 10 o’clock in the morning to 4 in the afternoon. The Germans took turns to go and eat but not us.’ I asked ‘And the Jewish children?’ She answered ‘They tore them from their mothers’ arms and put them in horse-drawn carts. They were killed at the end of the main execution, after the adults. They threw them in the air. They threw them any old way.'” (84-85)
Many of the interviewees described how the earth “moved” or “breathed” for three days after the killings. Over and over Father Desbois heard this until he finally understood that the movement of the earth was not the deterioration of flesh, but from those still alive, moving under the earth. It took three days for them to die. (65)
It seems that there were two main methods of killing by bullets. One was to have the Jews undress, stand or kneel at the edge of the pit and shoot them in the base of the neck. The force of the bullet would at once kill them and push them over into the pit. After enough bodies piled up, dirt was shoveled into the pit to fill it in and cover the bodies. The other technique was to force the naked Jews to walk down a plank into the pit and lay down on top of those previously murdered. Then, laying down, the Germans would shoot them. This was the technique that Petrivna was forced to help with by stomping on the bodies, like we do with our garbage, compacting the space for the next round.
Another interview by Father Desbois revealed how the Nazis enjoyed their work. They spoke with a woman who cleaned the homes of the Germans: “Her testimony is the most complete because she remembered all the execution, with their dates and circumstances.” Father Desbois states. “She recounted in particular that the Germans came back every evening, very proud of what they had done, boasting about it.” (174)
Father Desbois does not mention visiting Slonim, where Esther’s family members were shot or Chalopenitz, where my relatives, who remained in Samke, were murdered. The map that Father Desbois has on his website – Yahad In Unum – http://www.yahadinunum.org/
has so many dots depicting mass graves, it’s hard to believe that he missed these two. Nonetheless, the map filled with dots hints at the magnitude of what it means to murder 1.5 million people with machine guns.
The Kaddish, quoted above that unlocked my tears, was uttered in Busk, Ukraine. It was in Busk that Father Desbois worked with an archeologist to locate 17 mass graves. They opened up the graves and took land and aerial photographs to document the horror. Because the graves were opened, Father Desbois, requested that an Orthodox Rabbi, who came from Israel, be present to ensure that Jewish law related to honoring a dead body was observed. Once the measurements and photographs were complete, the graves were covered. It was at this point, when all 17 mass graves were closed once again, that the “great rabi of the yeshiva of Belz, Rabbi Bohl, arrived from Lviv in a grey car, accompanied by 10 young members of his religious community to recite the kaddish.” (178) Here is where I broke down.
After my tears dried up, I pulled myself together and continued reading. I discovered that Father Desbois and I shared the moment. He put my feelings into words:
“The unchanging words seemed to resonate and take us back to a time when, long ago, the kaddish must have been recited often. Despite the constant difficulties, I had astonishingly felt nothing during the whole excavation. But when the kaddish resounded through the Jewish cemetery, before the communal graves that had been forgotten and denied since 1943, my emotions spilled over. For the first time in a very long time, I had the feeling that the boat was coming into harbor. Finally, a Jewish prayer was being pronounced for these young mothers and these little Jewish children who had been killed and buried like animals beside the river.”
Oshe Shalom Bimromav, hu yaaseh shalom aleinu, v’all kol amo Yisroel. V’Imru Amen.
Desbois, Patrick, Father. The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews. New York, NY. Palgrave Macmillan, St. Martin’s Press. 2008.
If you want to learn more about Father Desbois and his project, check out his website:
 These are the first two lines of the Kaddish cited on page 178 of Dubois’s Holocaust By the Bullets. Translation from the Koren Prayer Book:
“Magnified and Sanctified May His Great Name Be, In the world He created by his will”
 The last line of the Kaddish. Translation from the Koren Prayer Book:
“May He who makes peace in His high places, In His compassion make peace for us and all Israel – And say: Amen.”