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‘People Are Ready to Die or Go to Jail in Order to Kill Jews Today,’ Warns Fr. Patrick Desbois, Pioneer of Catholic-Jewish Understanding

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Father Patrick Desbois. Photo: Embassy of France.

“I will tell you a story,” volunteered Father Patrick Desbois, during a conversation with The Algemeiner on Thursday morning. “Twenty five years ago, I was in Poland, speaking to a high-level Catholic functionary, and he said to me, ‘Hitler made a mistake.’ I asked him what this mistake was, and he told me, ‘Hitler built Auschwitz.’ And why was that a mistake? He said, ‘because the Jews came back. They never came back when they were executed in the forests.'”

As brutal as that comment must have sounded, it made sense to Fr. Desbois. For the last fifteen years, the French Catholic priest — a former director of the French Bishops’ Committee for Catholic-Jewish Relations and now a professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization — has devoted his life to identifying the mass graves of Jews murdered by Nazi mobile killing squads across occupied eastern Europe. What Desbois calls the “Holocaust by bullets” — the execution by shooting of up to 2 million victims of the Nazi extermination program — is also, he said, a “paradigm” for understanding the nature of antisemitic hatred today.

An individual that has studied the Holocaust in the depth that Desbois has doesn’t make such an observation lightly. “For me, the Holocaust by bullets was Pittsburgh every day,” Desbois remarked, in a reference to the Oct. 27 massacre of 11 Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue. “As well, people are ready to die in order to kill Jews today. They are ready to die or to be in jail, they don’t care. They think they are super-heroes.”

That was certainly the case with Pittsburgh shooter Robert Bowers, who expressed satisfaction with his murder spree after being taken alive by police. As for dying oneself while in the act of killing Jews with bullets, Desbois noted that this option was chosen by Islamist shooters in his native France — Mohammed Merah, whose victims in Toulouse in March 2012 included a Jewish school principal and his two small children along with a third child, and Amedy Coulibaly, who executed four Jewish hostages during the Jan. 2015 siege at a kosher supermarket in Paris.

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Today’s “mass killers” have reached the same conclusion as the first generation of criminals behind the “Holocaust by bullets,” Desbois said.

“No camps, no barbed wire, no trains, nothing,” he continued. “The shooters are moving to kill people in their synagogues and in their streets. And then the public sees it as just one more shooting.”

What the public should see, Desbois argued, is a manifestation of an antisemitic ideology that inevitably leads to the committing of atrocities, whether in the USSR in 1941 or Pennsylvania in 2018. “I knew it before CNN said it,” Desbois commented, when asked about the global broadcaster’s worrying survey this week of antisemitic attitudes and Holocaust awareness in Europe. “It is a part of our life, and it’s not only in Europe. In most of the planet, a great many people will deny that there was a Holocaust, or they will call it a trick by the Jews to make money.” So concerned is Desbois about the “dark shadow” of contemporary Jew-hatred that the organization he launched to research the shooting executions of Jews during World War II — Yahad – In Unum — is now turning its attentions to hate crimes against Jews in western Europe in the present.

“For the last ten years in France, we have had Jews who have been killed, or harassed, or robbed, and so we want to develop our own investigation,” Desbois said. “Also, as an advocacy organization, we can explain that this is a criminal ideology. In my last book, I wrote about my full-time team of 29 researchers, how we discovered the mass graves of 1.4 million Jews, how we conducted more than 6,000 interviews. Through that work, we unmasked the process of the mass killing of the Jews – how it begins with propaganda and ends with murder.”

Desbois’ continued efforts to promote Holocaust education have therefore taken on an added urgency. Earlier this week, he accompanied 20 prominent members of the French Catholic clergy — among them the recently-appointed Archbishop of Paris, Michel Aupetit — on a visit to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City. The visit gave the delegation an opportunity to understand that “what the Jews lost in Europe was not just six million of our people, but the civilization that these people represented – folk traditions, music, literature,” Jonathan Brent, YIVO’s Chief Executive Officer, told The Algemeiner following Tuesday’s encounter.

Father Patrick Desbois in New York alongside YIVO CEO Jonathan Brent (l). Photo: YIVO.

“Our goal is to train leaders to be strong for tomorrow,” Desbois said, when asked about his twin focus on the Holocaust and contemporary antisemitism. That same perspective informs his energetic advocacy on behalf of the Yazidi minority in northern Iraq, who suffered a genocide at the hands of ISIS in 2014. In Desbois’ view, the assault on the Yazidis in many ways reflected the methods of the Nazis against the Jews. “It’s the same methodology, whether it’s an ISIS unit or an Einsatzgruppen (Nazi death squad) unit. They arrive at six o’clock in the morning, they leave in the evening, and everybody is either dead or enslaved.”

Desbois also accented those aspects of the Nazi slaughter of the Jews that made the Holocaust a unique mass atrocity. “The Nazis wanted to eliminate every last Jew, even the babies and the old people,” he said. Today’s antisemites, he continued, have adopted a similar strategy.

“They say to the Jews, ‘get out of France,’ ‘get out of Germany,’ ‘get out of Britain,’ ‘get out of Palestine,'” Desbois said. “And at the end, who will stay?”

Desbois offered sage advice to those combating the latest antisemitic wave, whether in Europe or in the US.

“Study your enemies,” he said. “Study what they did in ’42, ’43, ’44, study their crimes, and” — at this point Desbois let out a regretful chuckle — “don’t sleep.”

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