by Father Patrick Desbois
National Jewish Book Awards Winner 2008
Reviewed by Jack Fischel on November 10, 2011, for the Jewish Book Council
One and a half million Jews were shot by Nazi mobile units known as Einsatzgruppen, the death squads that accompanied the Wehrmacht (German army) into the Soviet Union following the Nazi invasion in June 1941. These death squads were aided by Order Police, police battalions, and auxiliary units of non-Germans, whose primary mission was to kill Jews. Jews were rounded up and shot, and their bodies thrown into pits that became their unmarked graves. This brutal genocide of the Jews marked the beginning of the “Final Solution,” and preceded the use of poison gas that was used in death camps such as Chelmno, Sobibor, Belzec, Treblinka and Auschwitz, Birkenau (the Holocaust by Gas).
Father Patrick Desbois, a French Catholic priest, has dedicated his life to reclaiming the dignity of the Jewish dead by unearthing these anonymous graves and honoring the victims with proper burials. The Holocaust by Bullets is Desbois’ account of his discovery of the gravesites of Jews exterminated by the Nazi death squads in Ukraine during World War II. Joined by a team which included translators and forensic experts, Desbois visited villages in Ukraine including Rawa-Ruska, Rata, Belz, Busk, Lviv, Sataniv, and other locations where Jews were reported to have lived and were subsequently murdered. Reminiscent of the interviews used by Claude Lanzmann in his epic documentary, Shoah, Desbois elicited from elderly Ukrainians their eye-witness accounts of the manner in which Jews were rounded up, killed, and buried. It seems that Jews were not killed in nearby forests but in the center of the villages in which they lived. Many Ukrainians not only witnessed the murders but were forced in some villages to aid the Nazis in different aspects of the killing process.
It is one thing, however, to be told that Jews were shot and thrown into pits, but another to locate the killing sites. Desbois from his research of the Holocaust knew that the “cost-conscious” Nazis did not use more than one bullet to kill a Jew, consequently he employed metal-detectors to search for empty cartridges. Once Desbois’ team detected empty cartridge-casings, they began to dig, and that is how the team uncovered one mass grave after another throughout the villages of Ukraine. As Desbois writes after uncovering one gravesite, “ I was filled with revulsion and discomfort: A bullet, a Jew, a cartridge. Three hundred cartridges, 300 bullets, 300 people executed here.…”
If the Nazis had had their way, there would have been no evidence of the mass shooting and burial of the Jews. In a remarkable chapter, Desbois describes the relatively unknown Operation 1005. In 1942, Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, set up this operation, which lasted from the summer of 1942 to the end of 1944 and involved digging up all of the Reich’s victims in Eastern Europe and burning the bodies in special furnaces that were designed to fit up to two thousand bodies. The purpose was to hide all traces of the executions, particularly those perpetrated by the Einsatzgruppen, with the objective of making the bodies of all the Reich’s victims, principally the Jews, disappear. The operation was placed in charge of SS — Standartenfuhrer Paul Blobel, the same Nazi who had previously been responsible for the execution of the Jews at Babi Yar. Under Blobel’s command, a large number of Nazi personnel had the task of identifying the communal graves of the Jews, digging up the bodies, counting them, and then burning them, Desbois discovers,
“…following the technique developed by Blobel…the bodies were placed on wooden crosspieces, themselves positioned on metal beams. Women’s bodies were placed below to feed the fire…I understood later that the SS responsible for burning bodies had underestimated their work and had got bogged down in destroying the mass graves of the large towns. The advance of the Red Army had interrupted their plan.”
This is not a book for the faint of heart. Desbois does not spare the reader the gruesome facts of his discoveries. But for those who think they know everything there is to know about the Holocaust, Desbois’ book will shed new light on the Nazi genocide in the Ukraine.