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From the JFR Library – September 2021

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From the JFR Library

The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews

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.

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