Patrick Desbois, born in 1955 in Chalon-sur-Saône, France, is a Roman Catholic priest, head of the Commission for Relations with Judaism of the French Bishops' Conference and Consultant to the Vatican. He is the co-founder and President of Yahad-In Unum.
In 1977, Father Desbois graduated with a degree in Mathematics from Université de Dijon. In 1981, he entered the Grand Seminary of Prado, where he was ordained in 1986. During the same year, he obtained a masters in Theology from the Catholic University of Lyon, France. In 1991, he published his Masters on religious history at Université Lyon II, which studied the memoirs of Antoine Chevrier.
In 1978, Father Desbois worked as a math teacher for the French government in Africa. He later worked for Mother Teresa in Calcutta, where he helped set up homes for the dying.
After being ordained in 1986 at the age of 31, he became the Superior of the Grand Seminary in Prado, Lyon in 1992. From 1992-1999, he served as Secretary of Jewish Relations for Cardinals Decourtray, Jean Balland and Cardinal Louis-Marie Billé. In 1999, he requested to work with the Jewish community of France, and was appointed secretary to the French conference of Bishops for Relations with the Jewish community and an advisor to the Vatican on relations with Judaism.
In 2004, he joined leaders in the French Catholic and Jewish community in founding Yahad-In Unum ("together" in Latin and in Hebrew.) The organization's purpose is to further relations between Catholics and Jews. Its largest and most ambitious initiative is to locate the sites of mass graves of Jewish victims of the Nazi mobile killing units, the Einsatzgruppen, in Ukraine and Belarus.
He is currently Director of the Episcopal Committee for Relations with Judaism, which is connected with the French Conference of Bishops. His work has been sanctioned by the Pope, recognized and encouraged by the President of France and supported in Europe and the United States. Desbois has been internationally recognized for his extraordinary efforts; his awards include the Medal of Valor by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Roger E. Joseph Prize by Hebrew Union College, the Humanitarian Award by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Jan Karski Award by the American Jewish Committee, the B'nai B'rith International Award for Outstanding Contribution to Relations with the Jewish People and more recently, the National Jewish Book Award for his 2008 book Holocaust by Bullets (Palgrave-Macmillan). In 2013 he received the LBJ Moral Courage Award from the Holocaust Museum Houston.
Work with Yahad–In Unum
Father Desbois's interest in the Holocaust started at a young age, because his grandfather, who helped raise him, was a French soldier who been deported to the Nazi prison camp Rawa-Ruska during World War Two. His grandfather did not speak much of his time in the camp, and Father Desbois remained curious about the Holocaust and its Jewish victims
As a consequence of his childhood interests, Father Desbois studied the Jewish faith while preparing for his ordination as a Catholic priest. He studied anti-semitism at Yad-Vashem, and later Jewish religion and culture with Dr. Charles Favre, a leader in the French Jewish community.
In 2002, he traveled to Ukraine, so he could see where his grandfather had been imprisoned during the war, and to pay respects at a memorial to the lives lost. Upon his arrival, he was shocked to discover that there existed not a single marking or commemoration to 1.25 million Jewish victims in all of Ukraine and Belarus. Speaking of his initial experience, Desbois narrated how:
In 2002, while traveling in Ukraine, he visited the site of his grandfather's imprisonment, Rawa-Ruska. Desbois knew that before World War II more than 15,000 Jews had lived in the town, but when he asked to see where they had been murdered, the major brushed him off and said no one knew anything about it. "How could more than 10,000 Jews be killed in the village and nobody knows?" he says. "I knew I needed to find out what happened. So I came back two times, three times, four times to Rawa-Ruska. And then the mayor lost the election and a new mayor was elected, much less Soviet."
The new mayor led Desbois to the forest where, Desbois says, approximately 50 elderly men and women of the village were gathered in a semicircle. "You are standing on the graves of the last 1,500 Jews of Rawa-Ruska," the mayor said. One by one the villagers stepped forward and told of their experiences during World War II. They told of how the Jews were marched out to this clearing, forced to dig steep pits and hand over their valuables before being shot. They recounted stories of how the Germans had forced them-children or teenagers at the time-to guard the Jews to prevent them from escaping, to cover the corpse-filled pits, to serve the German soldiers food and even bring them a gramophone so they could listen to music.
Desbois recalls one woman-"an old lady with a blue scarf"-who tearfully told him, "I was at my farm, I was 14, and they told me, 'Come, come' and I had to climb in the trees and pick up pieces of corpses and hide them with branches in the grave so that the next Jews will not see them. And, after, arrived trucks and trucks and trucks of Jews from Rawa-Ruska."
Following these revelations, the villagers told Desbois they had never before publicly spoken of what had happened. Many asked the priest before he left, "Why are you coming so late? We have been waiting for you."
In order to right the egregious wrong, Father Desbois helped found Yahad-In Unum in 2004. The organization collects information about the mass killing of Jews and Roma in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Moldova and Romania between 1941 and 1944. Local contemporary witnesses are interviewed about the mass shootings which took place next to their home and the mass graves are located. Desbois estimates that there are no less than 1 million victims buried in 1,200 graves in Ukraine.
Desbois conducts many of the interviews with the witnesses himself (and with translators). Using metal detectors, Desbois and his team have unearthed German cartridges and bullets from the pits where bodies were thrown, as well as jewelry belonging to the victims. Criticisms leveled against Father Desbois include his acceptance of the confessions of complicity in war crimes by those who he interviews. "Desbois doesn't ask a lot of the people that he speaks with...He gives the impression that it was the Germans doing all the killing, but in fact much of the organization of the genocide had a lot to do with auxiliary and local police forces. He is not interested in that," Professor Omer Bartov has stated. Paul Shapiro of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has countered that "Some people have been critical of his methodology, but no one else is going out and doing this kind of work. It is easy to be critical; it is much harder to have the drive, stamina and commitment to go again and again to these places." In March 2014, the French president, François Hollande praised the work of Father Desbois:
A moment ago, you honored Father Patrick Desbois. Through his own family history, he discovered the tragedy of Ukrainian Jews. He worked for the recognition of the 'Holocaust by Bullets' because the Holocaust had begun even before the camps, and furthermore, not only in the Ukraine. It is very important to know how the genocidal process began, and how it came to the extermination camps.
Bishop's committee for relations with Judaism
Due to his position as Director of the French Episcopal Conference's Committee for Relations with Judaism, Father Desbois has had to deal with the controversy following negationist comments made by SSPX bishop Richard Williamson. However, since Desbois has positive relations with the Jewish community, he has been able to maintain a great deal of trust during an otherwise difficult period.
- May 1, 2007: he was honored by the American Jewish Committee with its "Jan Karski Award" for his "efforts to identify the mass graves of Jewish victims of the Shoah" and "his dedication to furthering understanding between Christians and Jews" .
- May 4, 2008: Rabbi David Ellenson handed over the Roger E. Joseph Prize to Desbois in New York .
- May 7, 2008: At the annual National Tribute Dinner the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles presented the Jewish Medal of Valor to Desbois for his commitment to religious tolerance and cooperation .
- June 12, 2008: He received the Légion d'honneur for his work on the Holocaust 
- October 9, 2008: He won the Shofar of Freedom Award 
- May 12, 2009: honorary doctorate from the Bar Ilan University (Israel) 
- June 7, 2009: honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University (Israel) 
- May 16, 2012: honorary doctorate from the New York University (United States) 
- May 3, 2013: honorary doctorate from the University of Winnipeg (Canada) 
- 2013: LBJ Moral Courage Award from the Holocaust Museum Houston.
- March 4, 2014: he was honored by the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (Conseil Représentatif des Institutions juives de France) with its Award .
- The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest's Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews, English translation by Catherine Spencer. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. ISBN 978-0-230-61757-5 (trade paper edition)
- Sarah Breger (November–December 2011). "A Priest Bears Witness". Moment Magazine. Retrieved November 9, 2011.
- "LBJ Moral Courage Award". Holocaust Museum Houston. Retrieved 1 September 2014.
- Talking to the willing executioners
- Speech of François Hollande, march 2014
- La Croix article
- The Holocaust By Bullets"
- Horn, Jordana (January 23, 2009). "How Father Desbois Became a Holocaust Memory Keeper". The Wall Street Journal.
- Yahad-In Unum's site (French/English)
- Shoah par balles (French)
- Holocaust by bullets (English)
- Article in The New York Times
- Interview with Father Desbois from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
- Priest uncovering beginnings of Final Solution