Father Desbois on Genocide, Activism and Hope – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Father Desbois on Genocide, Activism and Hope

“Genocide is public,” said renowned Holocaust researcher and human rights activist Father Patrick Desbois, who reflected on his experiences in documenting long-hidden Nazi atrocities, during the Farash Lecture at Hobart and William Smith. “It’s not secret – it happens in the middle of daylight. Children go to school. People don’t change their lives.”

In his lecture, “Holocaust by Bullets,” Desbois recalled the thousands of first person interviews he conducted and the discovery of several previously unknown mass graves, as he shared the findings of his ongoing investigation of the war crimes committed by Nazi death squads in Eastern Europe.

A Roman Catholic priest and consultant to the Vatican, Desbois is a founder and president of Yahad-In Unum (YIU), a global humanitarian organization based in France that is dedicated to identifying and commemorating the sites of Jewish and Roma mass executions in Eastern Europe during World War II. Desbois and his colleagues hope “to find corroborative evidence, prove the victims were Jews, prove the perpetrators were German, prove that it was during the war,” he said during his lecture, noting the difficultly of the process, especially as the witnesses they interview are nearing the twilight of their lives.

Over the past decade however, his work through YIU, which is committed to “learning from the past and educating in the present, [to] ensure that mass killing will never again be a silent crime,” has been recognized through numerous awards and publicly commended across France and throughout the world.

Desbois’s religious background, he said, taught him “to work with humanity as it is,” which helped him cope with the horrors unearthed through his work with YIU. “You help people to grow to the extent they are able to grow, otherwise you are accepting only the people you like.”

“Perhaps one day you will go to Auschwitz, or to Cambodia, or Rwanda, or Iraq,” he told the audience. “The question that we have to ask: who am I?”

In his introduction of Desbois, President Mark D. Gearan said the Colleges were “honored to have with us one of the world’s leading Holocaust researchers and human rights activists, an international leader in advancing Catholic-Jewish relations and fighting anti-Semitism.”

The timing of Desbois’ lecture coincided with the visit to the United States by Pope Francis. “In addressing the refugee crisis [in the Middle East and Europe] I was struck by what the Pope said,” Gearan reflected. Quoting the Pope’s speech to a joint session of Congress, Gearan said, “‘We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation … to respond in a way that is wholly human, just and fraternal.'”

Looking forward, Desbois said he is “full of hope because I see everywhere, in every country, a new generation who doesn’t think they will spend all their lives with this massive violence, and who try to know what to do. People who realize genocide is a disease in humanity and want to understand how it works, how to cure it, or it will kill you. I am full of hope, but with eyes open.”

During his visit to the region, Desbois also participated as a distinguished guest lecturer in a Reader’s College course hosted by HWS and Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y.

Desbois also serves as an adjunct professor with the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. Throughout his extensive career, Desbois has been recognized for his work, including as the recipient of the LBJ Moral Courage Award from the Holocaust Museum Houston. In 2008, he earned the National Jewish Book Award for his work, “The Holocaust by Bullets.” Other accolades include the Medal of Valor by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Humanitarian Award of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, and several honorary degrees.

As an invited Farash Scholar, his visit to HWS was sponsored by both the Max and Marian Farash Community Lecture series and the Colleges’ annual Human Rights and Genocide Symposium.

The Max and Marian Farash Charitable Foundation is a nonprofit based in Rochester, N.Y., which values education and entrepreneurship, and has deep consideration for civic and religious communities. Through its efforts, grants are made available to nonprofits in Monroe and Ontario counties, half of which are for projects and programs with ties to Jewish life.

Now in its 16th year, the Human Rights and Genocide Symposium was initiated and has been sustained by generous grants from Dr. Edward Franks ’72. The Symposium seeks to improve understanding of all life-annihilation processes present in our world and to help participants learn more about the circumstances in which genocide is perpetrated.