To Toronto Star | 12Oct2010 | Orest Slepokura

Uncovering the hidden Holocaust

Martin Regg Cohn:

Re: "Uncovering the hidden Holocaust," Toronto Star, 12 October 2010.

In the film Lawrence of Arabia, one episode portrays Lawrence leading a band of fighters crossing the desert and using the element of surprise to capture the Turkish-held port of Aqaba. The Turks' big guns had been bolted down to face the sea to defend it from attack by the British Navy; hence they were useless against the fighters streaming in from the desert behind it.

That's how I see the Holocaust story: With its big guns bolted down facing the sea to fend off the "Holocaust deniers," ready to blast them out of the water. But meanwhile Hollywood and the Quentin Tarantinos, Oprah with her billboards hoisted up above Sunset Boulevard mawkishly proclaiming "Oprah Goes to Auschwitz," hoaxers looking to score with bogus memoirs, and on and on are consecutively and concurrently debauching the traditional Holocaust narrative and Weimar-izing its moral currency.

When you read a movie review in the newspaper's entertainment pages calling Inglourious Basterds  "a Jewish wet dream" and when the phrase "Holocaust comedy" is no longer an oxymoron, you can reasonably expect that a soft-core Holocaust porn flick, with S&M in 3D, will, before this decade is out, make a splash at the Cannes Film Festival. (Say, wasn't that what the Night Porter was about?)

Toronto Star | 12Oct2010 | Martin Regg Cohn

Cohn: Uncovering the hidden Holocaust

Stark images of human skeletons in mass graves. Video testimony about mass executions. Then a jarring speech from the man in a clerical collar.

The questions from the floor are unexpected: One after another, people ask Father Patrick Desbois why he doesn’t take his Holocaust message further afield.

On this night, in this synagogue, his Jewish audience seemed to be telling this Catholic priest that he was preaching to the converted. In plaintive tones, they asked him to broaden his reach -- exposing more non-Jews to his harrowing account of Eastern Europe’s hidden Holocaust.

In an age of Holocaust denial, with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad disdaining the evidence, they beseeched him to get his message out beyond the walls of their synagogue. Many in the hall had survived the genocide that claimed 6 million Jews, and already knew the details in their bones.

One of them was my mother. She had been following the priest’s work from a distance, but now wanted to hear his story in person. And then share her own.

History had brought them together: her birthplace, in Rawa-Ruska, on the Polish-Ukrainian border; and his life’s work in that same small railway town.

As Desbois told the audience, his grandfather had been held in Rawa-Ruska as a captured French soldier in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp. But he’d always told the young Desbois that “others” had suffered far more. It was a telltale clue that launched the priest’s lifelong obsession with the fate of the 10,000 Jews slaughtered in the vicinity of Rawa-Ruska.

Desbois went to Rawa-Ruska in 2002 to see for himself, but found nothing visible: The local mayor kept running interference, insisting there were no traces of mass graves. Yet Desbois knew from his own upbringing in rural France that villagers always know where the bodies are buried. He returned year after year, until a new mayor took power and provided the key that unlocked Rawa-Ruska’s dark secret.

He was led to a mass grave for the last 1,500 Jews of Rawa-Ruska. It became ground zero for his research as he fanned out across Ukraine. Interviewing witnesses, the priest says little but listens closely, allowing his clerical collar to loosen people’s tongues in the heavily Catholic countryside. But the encounters are not especially priestly; no one ever asks him to take confession, even when confessing to the most heinous acts.

He uses teams of forensic and ballistics experts, translators and diggers. And more recently, bodyguards, due to death threats from Holocaust deniers -- the fallout from getting his message out.

Despite the denials, it remains one of the best-documented events of recent history. And yet Desbois continues to uncover new details about killing fields that had seemed lost forever.

To date, Desbois has uncovered more than 500 mass graves across Ukraine and Belarus, aided by Soviet archives and new testimony from nearly 800 eyewitnesses. The forensic, ballistic and human evidence adds up to what Desbois calls a “Holocaust by bullets” -- a grim epilogue to the traditional narrative of gas chambers and concentration camps.

After his talk last week, Desbois listened patiently to audience members who mobbed him at the podium, still asking about mass graves in distant villages. One of them was my 84-year-old mother, who made her way past the crowds to tell the priest that she was one of the last living survivors from Rawa-Ruska -- the town of his grandfather’s internment, and my own grandparents’ death.

Fearing the worst, my grandparents had made arrangements to smuggle my mother out of Rawa-Ruska. She obtained false papers identifying her as a Catholic teenager -- one of many who survived the war in Nazi Germany until the Russians liberated them.

We don’t know how my grandparents perished. Nothing more was heard from them after late 1942, when they last wrote to my mother. Did they die of typhus, brought on by the inhuman conditions Jews were subjected to by the Nazi occupiers? Or in the killing fields that Desbois has documented?

It is a story still without answers. But a story no Holocaust denier can take away from us.