- Unearthing the Holocaust on the Russian Front
The Nazi penchant for violence never fails to outstrip our collective imagination. Even now, with all we have unearthed and learned, the burden of such knowledge is unfathomable. The details challenge the limits of nightmarish horror: gas chambers; mobile gas vans; open air massacres engulfing millions of innocent Jews, Poles, Roma, and homosexuals, to mention four of the most prominent categories of victims. Yet among educated people who have some idea of the scale of the Holocaust there has long been an unbalanced understanding of how the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews evolved to engulf Jewish communities throughout Europe. The fate of Anne Frank, a teenage girl who together with members of her family tried to hide in an attic apartment in Amsterdam, has come to symbolize the fate of the Jews: targeted for persecution, they were chased down, herded into cattle cars from cities and towns in Western and Central Europe, then shipped to killing centers in Poland, where they were murdered on an industrial scale in places like Auschwitz, Treblinka, Chełmno, Sobibór, Majdanek, and Bełżec. Anne Frank and Auschwitz—if you can recognize these names and what they represent, then you can claim at least some idea of what happened.
But what about German-occupied Soviet territory? Did the Nazis send their victims to Poland as well? How many Soviet Jews were captured and [End Page 409] killed? For decades, the Holocaust on the Eastern Front was an opaque dimension to the catastrophe: Soviet archives were closed to Western and even Soviet students of history; Cold War attitudes inhibited recognition of the role of the Red Army in defeating the Wehrmacht, the full-scale suffering of the Soviet people, and the specific fate of Soviet Jews. It hardly mattered that the murder of 33,771 Jews at Babi Yar (by the killers’ own count!) outside Kiev in September 1941—three months and a week after the German invasion of Soviet territory on June 22—was widely recognized because of the poem by Evgenii Evtushenko and the symphony by Dmitrii Shostakovich. It is necessary to understand that the open-air massacre at Babi Yar was one of thousands of such atrocities and that, in fact, the mass murder of the Jews began with the German invasion of Soviet territory. Many students of history regard the Wannsee Conference on 20 January 1942, when the Nazi party leaders informed the High Command of their plans to annihilate the Jews of Europe, as an initial step toward the mass killing. But by that time, the Einsatzgruppen (mobile shooting units), which followed the Wehrmacht into occupied Soviet territory, along with numerous other German police units and local collaborators, succeeded in killing nearly a million Jews. Over such an immense area, under the conditions of active warfare—the Soviet regime was the only government in a German-occupied country in Europe that continued to resist—the Germans decided it was not practicable to send the victims to the killers; it made more sense in their demented minds to send the killers to the victims, where, like locusts descending on a wheat field, the killers could assemble and murder the Jews wherever they found them.
There is little in the personal background of Father Patrick Desbois to suggest the direction that life has taken him. Born in 1955, raised among farmers and shopkeepers in central France, he initially pursued mathematics at Dijon University before a personal revelation led him away from atheism. He taught mathematics at a high school in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) and volunteered for Mother Teresa in Calcutta before returning to France to enter a seminary; for several years, he was a parish priest. But a family memory always haunted him: his beloved Grandfather Claudius had been deported by the Nazis...