Shining Souls – Champions of Humanity

Father Desbois: We have to teach the Holocaust as a personal crime.

Our Memory: Paneriai (Ponary), Lithuania, where up to 100,000 Jews were murdered between July 1941 and August 1944 (photo credit: INNA ROGATCHI)
Our Memory: Paneriai (Ponary), Lithuania, where up to 100,000 Jews were murdered between July 1941 and August 1944
(photo credit: INNA ROGATCHI)
Father Patrick Desbois, a French Catholic priest honored recently by The Rogatchi Foundation, believes that Holocaust denial and ignorance must be countered with the right kind of education.
“We have to teach the Holocaust as a personal crime: Who killed whom? Where? How?” Father Desbois tells The Jerusalem Report in an exclusive interview. “We must educate about the evidence of each crime and its location because time is running out and deniers are increasingly attacking Holocaust history as a lie. The majority of the planet denies or ignores the Holocaust.”
Desbois is one of the heroic personalities highlighted in artist, filmmaker and writer Inna Rogatchi’s Shining Souls – Champions of Humanity exhibition.
Asked about the best way to combat rising antisemitism in Europe today, Desbois says, “Actual antisemitism has changed because it has become criminal. In France, in Germany, in Britain, over the past 10 years, Jews have been killed because they are Jews. We have to denounce antisemitism from the ultra-right, from the ultra-left and from Islamist ideology.”
The Shining Souls – Champions of Humanity exhibition is both powerful and unique because public displays featuring the Holocaust both on the premises of the European Union and in Finland are still very rare today.
It was displayed on International Holocaust Remembrance Day at the European Parliament in 2017, and in Finland’s Parliament in 2018, encouraging the public not only to reflect on the evils of the Holocaust but on the worrisome signs of a reemergence of virulent antisemitism in Europe.
With her husband, renowned artist Michael Rogatchi, Inna Rogatchi conducts philanthropic activities via the charity bearing their name, The Rogatchi Foundation, which supports Holocaust education, awareness and remembrance.
Shining Souls is the flagship project of The Rogatchi Foundation’s Outreach to Humanity series conceived by the Rogatchis in 2012. Inna, who lost many close relatives in the Holocaust, has for decades worked on various themes dealing with the Shoah and post-Shoah, paying special attention to the Righteous Among the Nations, gentiles who helped save Jewish lives.
This art project aims “to awaken her audience to reflect on the core matters of humanity,” says Rogatchi, who lives both in Finland and Italy, and is a member of the board of the Finnish National Holocaust Remembrance Association.
The multidisciplinary art exhibition consists of 40 pieces of art and photography, with the number in the collection growing as the artist continues to work on her project, making new additions for every major exhibition. After Brussels and Helsinki, exhibitions are planned for Austria as well as the UK and the US. The heroes to whom Inna Rogatchi pays homage are presented in an integrated way, with each presentation including a fine art photography collage, mini-essay, selected photographs and a short biography.
“Among my protagonists, the people whom I have brought to the spotlight are those whose life and work have had a key impact on documenting the Holocaust, such as Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, poet Paul Celan, writer Primo Levi, judge Fritz Bauer, as well as those who were prompted by the Shoah to devote their entire life to uprooting evil such as Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal,” Rogatchi says. “Each Jewish character in the collection is paired with a person whom I have chosen among non-Jewish heroes, those who fought against Nazism and the genocide of Jews, rescued the victims or were compassionate and devoted to maintaining the memory of the Shoah, such as Raoul Wallenberg, diplomats Carl Lutz and Chiune Sugihara, or Father Patrick Desbois.”
Desbois founded Yahad – In Unum (Hebrew and Latin for “together”) and has dedicated his life to exposing and documenting the slaughter of Jews during the Holocaust.
Most of the crimes of mass murder were carried out in Nazi concentration camps in Poland; but many were murdered by Nazi killing squads (Einsatzgruppen) in thousands of small towns and villages in 10 countries in Eastern Europe, notably Lithuania and Ukraine. Assisted by the local populations, Jews were rounded up – house by house, village by village – expelled from their homes, which were then looted, taken to a nearby ravine, or a specially dug pit, and shot, murdered or left to die in mass graves, many buried alive.
“It is terribly important that we deal with the Holocaust, the Nazis,” Desbois says. “When six million people are murdered and it happens to be the biggest number in one shot, we have to remember that. We are just protecting our hides. The Nazi program of village-by-village elimination of Jews (‘One bullet, one Jew’ was the frugal formula) killed 2.4 million of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.”
The Rogatchi Foundation, which was established in 2004, presented its 2018 “Humanity of the Year” awards to four laureates it said had “contributed in a unique and meaningful way to the cause of humanity in different areas of arts, science and education.” They are:
• Father Desbois, who was given the award for “his personal quest for truth, unlimited compassion and determination and ability to build up a serious organization defending humanity on matters of the Holocaust and persecuted Yazidis, for his exemplary books and for his outstanding and unwavering humanity;”
• University of Haifa faculty member Dr. Rachel Perry “for her profound research on the destinies and art of the Jewish artists from the Ecole de Paris, who perished during the Holocaust;”
• Saulius Berzinis, a Lithuanian filmmaker, “for his ongoing tireless and noble work of uncovering and restoring the truth about the tragedies of the Holocaust,” and
• Prof. Domenica Taruscio, chairwoman of the International Rare Diseases Research Consortium, for her “delicate and enriching creative care of people suffering from rare diseases and their families.”
Asked by The Jerusalem Report for his response to the award, Desbois says, “The Rogatchis are a family of light and vision. It is a great honor to be associated with their very special vision of the world.”
THE TORCHBEARERS of humanism featured in Rogatchi’s art exhibition represent a dozen different nationalities. The artist says she “wished to underline the nature of humanism as a universal value, and to emphasize its key role in the ethical sustenance of a society.” Rogatchi says she personally knows or knew most of the people she has presented in her project, while her own family – the musical dynasty of Rose who were close relatives of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler – are also among her heroes.
“It is only natural, but I must admit, I do feel emotional when looking at this work and the photographs of the members of my family, extremely talented people who became the direct victims of the Holocaust,” she says. “It does get directly to your nerves, but most of the time, I do feel that each and every one of the six million Jews who were murdered was a member of my own family. I think that it is the sensation familiar to all scholars of the Holocaust. Otherwise, these people would not devote their lives to such a grim subject.”
Rogatchi’s award-winning documentary, “The Lessons of Survival: Conversations with Simon Wiesenthal,” is also a part of her multidimensional project.
She stresses that the title of the project, Shining Souls, comes from the Talmud. “There is very clear understanding about it in the Talmud. Shining are those souls who have had stronger potential, higher qualities and unshaken commitments,” she says.
“Their shine spreads forward even after the physical life of the body that bore their soul is terminated. The light of these champions of humanity is still felt by us today. I believe in it strongly and I feel it. I also think about those six million of our people whose lives were terminated prematurely, by an extremely cruel form of evil. The souls of those people were forcibly prevented from fulfilling their missions. And that is why the crime of the Shoah still reverberates with us today, almost 80 years after it started. It still cries out. And it always will.”
Asked what her ultimate goal is, Rogatchi says, “My intention is to look at the essence of humanism and its role in contemporary history through the work of metaphorical art and by applying personal features of the people whose lives and deeds sometimes were incredible, sometimes utterly tragic, sometimes extremely brave, but always very meaningful. We can learn from their outstanding lives and deeds every day. The core fact here is that their lives, all of them, had been marked and often defined by the Holocaust. From a distance of almost eight decades, this note of remarkable humanism coming out of the abyss of tragedy and despite despicable crime sounds even louder.”
Inna Rogatchi’s exhibition shows deep respect and understanding for people affected by the Holocaust. This rare project reaches far further than a conventional exhibition usually does. The aesthetically fine and delicate art works, masterly mini-essays, specially selected photo-portraits of the heroes, and essential biographical notes, along with video and film materials – all created by Rogatchi – speak volumes to viewers.
Moshe Dann contributed to this report, which is an updated version of an article that originally appeared in HaKehila, the magazine of the Helsinki Jewish Community