Patrick Desbois is a Roman Catholic priest from France who has dedicated his life to ensuring the Holocaust is never forgotten.
Inspired by his grandfather, a French soldier who was deported to a Nazi prison camp in Ukraine, Father Desbois developed a lifelong interest in Jews, Judaism and the Holocaust.
After being ordained in 1986 at age 31, Father Desbois became an advisor to the Vatican on Jewish issues. Together with other French Catholic and Jewish leaders, Father Desbois formed Yahad-In-Unum (“together” in Hebrew and Latin). The group’s mission is to improve relations between Catholics and Jews.
In 2002, Father Desbois went to Ukraine to visit the site of his grandfather’s imprisonment. He was shocked to find not a single marking or commemoration to 1.25 million Jewish Holocaust victims in all of Ukraine and Belarus.
He made it his mission to find and mark their graves. Not all Jewish victims died in concentration camps; many were shot and dumped in mass pits. Father Desbois estimates that in Ukraine alone, there are 1 million victims buried in 1,200 graves. He has uncovered many of them, sometimes by using a metal detector to unearth German bullets.
Father Desbois travels tirelessly through Eastern Europe, interviewing elderly residents, many of whom witnessed – or even participated in – the massacres. Many of these people have never talked about what happened. Talking to a priest has made all the difference.
One woman was 16 when she watched from the porch of her mud hut in 1941 as thousands of Jews were shot, thrown into a pit and set on fire. She said those who were still alive writhed “like flies and worms.”
In one town in Ukraine, the villagers asked him, “Why are you coming so late? We have been waiting for you.”
For his tireless efforts to make sure Holocaust victims are not forgotten, and his work on improving interfaith relations, we honor Father Patrick Desbois as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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