Ukrainian Jewish Heritage Book Review: The Holocaust by Bullets

Father Patrick Desbois

In this edition of Ukrainian Jewish Heritage, we will be discussing The Holocaust by Bullets – A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews by Father Patrick Desbois.

In 2004, Father Patrick Desbois began to research the story of the Jews, Roma and other victims murdered in Eastern Europe during World War II by Nazi mobile killing units called the Einsatzgruppen. As the grandson of a World War II French prisoner held in the Rawa Ruska camp on the Poland-Ukraine border, Desbois wanted to know more about his grandfather’s traumatic wartime experience. His findings are documented in the very insightful book, The Holocaust by Bullets.

Father Patrick Desbois has devoted his life to researching the Holocaust, fighting anti-Semitism, and furthering relations between Catholics and Jews. The Holocaust by Bullets documents his very first efforts to uncover the truth about events in Ukraine during the years 1941-1944.  Much has been written about Nazi concentration camps, but little has been written about the Nazi massacres of Jews on Ukrainian soil and the peasants who witnessed these horrific events. The first few chapters of this book describe his early life in France, his call to the priesthood, and his need to explore the history of his grandfather Claudius, who spent time in the Rawa Ruska internment camp during World War II. “I have always sought to understand what happened, what the tragedy was that my grandfather had been forced to witness.” (p. 8)

After discovering that his grandfather witnessed mass murders of Jews, Desbois decided he needed to seek justice for these people. “We cannot give a posthumous victory to Nazism. We cannot leave the Jews buried like animals.” (p. 34) He began his search for the mass graves of those killed by the Nazi mobile killing units called the Einsatzgruppen. With a dedicated team of volunteers, Desbois travelled through Ukraine interviewing aging witnesses who described the horrific massacre of the Jews. Mass graves were found throughout Ukraine in places such as: the forest of Lisinitchi near Lviv, Busk, and Romanivka. Bullet casings, archival materials, and witness accounts all provided evidence of events that have long been hidden from world view.

Desbois and his team also found that those individuals who had been “requisitioned” to help the Nazi killing teams were traumatized for life. “It seemed impossible to imagine that this bucolic landscape was the backdrop to such a massacre.” (p. 165) Elderly Ukrainians told stories about how they were requisitioned by the Nazi soldiers to help kill or bury the Jewish victims. “Not only were they present at the event, but they had also been forced to participate – with their spade, their cart, their bag, their saucepan, their sewing needle, or their tambourine, depending on the task imposed on them by the Germans.” (p. 82) Witnesses were ashamed; some were traumatized; and some were initially reluctant to speak about their experiences fearing Soviet retribution.  However, their stories were remarkably consistent. “Every testimony of someone who had been requisitioned plunged us further into the horror of the murder of the Jews and the everyday reality of the Holocaust by bullets.” (p. 82)

Father Desbois speaks at the dedication ceremony for the mass grave site in Rawa Ruska, Ukraine

The Holocaust by Bullets is a heart-breaking but intensely compelling book.  Readers will not be able to put it down, despite the horrific atrocities described.  Desbois is a masterful writer who captures the imagination and draws readers into his experiences. His sense of justice for those who cannot speak for themselves is compelling.  His painstaking methodology is thoroughly documented with witness statements and photographs as well as useful footnotes at the end of his book.  It is a story of dedication to the cause of justice to the memory of those killed in a genocide which could not be hidden from the world by intimidation, secrecy, and fake news.  It is a lesson for our own time, or in the words of Father Desbois, we are all, “A single human race, created in the image of God. Each person is unique. In my eyes, they didn’t kill Jews, they killed Ossik, Tania, Anna…” (p. 121)

Father Desbois is a Catholic priest and Professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization. He is President of Yahad–In Unum, a global humanitarian organization dedicated to identifying and commemorating the sites of Jewish and Roma mass executions in Eastern Europe during World War II. His groundbreaking work on the Holocaust has been recognized with the Humanitarian Award from the US Holocaust Museum, the Lantos Human Rights Prize, and the French Légion d’Honneur. The Holocaust by Bullets won the 2008 National Jewish Book Award. His most recent works include: In Broad Daylight: The Secret Procedures behind the Holocaust by Bullets (2015), and The Terrorist Factory: ISIS, The Yazidi Genocide, and Exporting Terror (2018). He currently lives in Washington D.C. and Paris, France. Father Desbois has written a powerful account of his search for justice in The Holocaust by Bullets which will resonate with readers for years to come.

The Holocaust by Bullets is available at Chapters/Indigo and Amazon.

–Written and narrated by Myra Junyk in Toronto.

Ukrainian Jewish Heritage is brought to you by The Ukrainian Jewish Encounter based in Toronto, Ontario. To find out more visit their website (here) and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

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3 thoughts on “Ukrainian Jewish Heritage Book Review: The Holocaust by Bullets

  • My pleasure, Pawlina!

    Interestingly, ‘Holocaust by Bullets’ came to mind while recently reading around the first 40 % of ‘Sliding on the Snow Stone’ that you recommended in 2014. Each book that you recommend that I read is a foundation for additional books you recommend.

    In Sliding on the Snow Stone’, when locals were requisitioned by the German Nazis occupying a village during WWII near Vinnitsya, they were ordered to dig large holes. I immediately thought about those requisitioned to dig pits that Jews would be buried in after being shot by Nazis. This is something that Father Patrick Desbois went into depth about in ‘Holocaust by Bullets’

    To my surprise, it turned out that the large holes that locals near Vinnitsya had to dig were for the purpose of bringing plenty of the rich soil of Ukraine to Germany. I previously was aware from other books you recommended and interviews you did on Nash Holos that Ukrainian land was valued by the German Nazi Government, in very large part because Ukraine is the breadbasket of Europe. What I didn’t know until reading part of ‘Sliding on the Snow Stone’ is that plenty of soil was removed from Ukraine and that many Ukrainians were ordered by German Nazis to help remove the soil.

  • I’m glad you enjoyed the books and found them informative. Interesting how you found Hitler’s Basement such a good foundation for Holocaust by Bullets. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, David!

  • I decided to begin reading the ‘Holocaust by Bullets’ book you recommended on your show. This ranks with the best informative books ( that’s also well organized ) that I have read. Father Patrick Desbois’ heavy focus on the Requistions, a facet of the Holocaust that previously was not looked at enough, is what jumps out to me in the first half of the book.

    The different forms of ‘government’ in these various areas under Nazi occupation, and different methods to carry out the Holocaust by Bullets, also are illustrated in the first half of the book. The ‘Hitler’s Basement’ book greatly helped prepare me for the content of the Holocaust by Bullets book.

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