Systematic, coordinated genocide

Father Patrick Desbois details the chilling mechanical nature of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen.

EINSATZGRUPPEN OFFICERS murder Jews in Ivanhorod, Ukraine, in 1942 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
EINSATZGRUPPEN OFFICERS murder Jews in Ivanhorod, Ukraine, in 1942
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Father Patrick Desbois, a French Roman Catholic priest, has devoted the past 15 years to locating the mass grave sites of Jews who were murdered by the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi mobile mass murderers. In his 2009 book, The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews, Desbois documented the shooting murders of 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews.
His second book, In Broad Daylight: The Secret Procedures Behind the Holocaust by Bullets uses interviews, wartime records and forensic methods to locate hidden, mass grave sites to provide yet another account of mass killings, this time of Jews in seven former Soviet bloc countries.
Desbois’s interest in the Holocaust began in childhood after he learned that his grandfather, a French soldier, had been deported to a Nazi prison camp during World War II. After studying Judaism, Jewish culture and antisemitism, he embarked on his quest to visit the Jewish execution sites in Ukraine and Belarus. Shortly thereafter, he founded Yahad-In Unum, an organization that collects information about the mass murder of Jews that took place from 1941 to 1944 in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Moldova and Romania.
Desbois and his organization have interviewed more than 5,700 witnesses and visited more than 2,700 extermination sites. With simplicity, he poignantly describes the timetable, coordination, mechanization and spectacle of the genocidal process committed in broad daylight. His accounts describe how these events occurred repetitively and systematically from village to village. As the Nazis arrived empty-handed, local resources became tools for killing and pillaging. Because every resident in the Soviet Union was required to register, the Germans had an easy time locating all the Jews.
Although many are familiar with the death camps where Nazis gassed millions of Polish and German Jews, fewer are aware of the extermination of Jews by firing squad in eastern Europe. While the deportation of Jews to concentration camps was handled discreetly, the “Holocaust by bullets” was conducted openly with full participation of local communities. The German killers moved from town to town, requisitioning what they needed from the local population, including labor, vehicles, food and other provisions. With clock-like precision and coordination, shooters, police, transporters, diggers, cooks and others worked together as part of a genocidal machine.
As Desbois outlines, the villagers would build the ghettos or provisional prisons with barbed wire on the Germans’ orders. When Jews were removed from their households, villagers then freely searched and pillaged their belongings, which were then disposed of in a community bartering process.
German officers, who had earlier computed the size and volume of the mass graves using available demographic data about Jewish residents, found a suitable location. They paced off and measured the land needed for the mass graves and ordered locals to dig and prepare the graves. The diggers brought their own shovels and carried wooden planks, which they placed next to the ditches for Jews to stand on before they were shot and fell to their deaths. Local police typically supervised the shootings to ensure the work was completed according to plan.
The evening before the killings were to take place and following their 6 p.m. dinner, the Germans discreetly surrounded the ghetto. They ordered all shutters closed and allowed no one to leave. Local police were ordered to stand guard near Jewish houses. Often, on the night before the executions, Jewish girls and women were raped and shot on the spot.
Early the next morning, the diggers prepared the grave site. Jews were forced out of their houses into trucks driven by locals or they walked to their death sites. Any Jew who failed to obey orders was beaten or shot to death on the spot. The Germans kept a strict schedule and demanded local police and villagers heed their orders.
Desbois wrote that all facets of village life continued in a most mundane way beside the gruesome spectacle of genocide. Frolicking children followed columns of Jewish families walking to the shooting site and watched as the murders unfolded during the day. Germans entered schools and simply asked for the Jewish children. According to testimony from teachers, the remaining children were witnesses to the nearby executions. In one stunning case, a witness, who was a 12-year-old schoolgirl at the time, recounted the exhortations of the principal: “Children, if you would like to see how we do justice to our enemies, you can go.” Many Christian bystanders believed the Jews were being held accountable for the death of Jesus.
As the Jews approached the ditches and became aware of their fate, cries rang out from the parents and their children registered alarm. They were hurried along to the grave site by kicks and beatings administered by Germans.
A counter stood graveside and drew a cross for every five Jews murdered for a report to be sent to Berlin. Photographers captured the massacres. In some instances, musicians were requisitioned to accompany the executions. Jews of all ages were forced to dance and were beaten when they stopped. Desbois observes the absurdity of the situation, “A public dance followed by a public massacre.”
Laughter and shouts of congratulations and encouragement were heard amongst the killers. The villagers served not just as transporters, diggers and guards, but also as cooks, ditch fillers, sanitizers, menders and auctioneers. Wood for the cooking fires was torn out of Jewish houses and much of the food stolen from Jewish farms. The locals were preoccupied with the comfort, hunger and thirst of the Germans while they were engaged in killing their Jewish neighbors.
Many of those interviewed reported seeing three feet of blood in the graves that then flowed into the streets. Menders were requisitioned to repair clothing taken from Jews. Villagers responsible for auctioneering entered Jewish homes to gather, sort, classify and clean Jewish belongings for sale.
While interviewing witnesses, Desbois met many villagers who explained their participation in a matter-of-fact manner devoid of emotion, many not even remembering the names of their Jewish neighbors. He also encountered people who refused to dig, tried to shelter Jews in their homes and were visibly upset about the mass murders more than 70 years later.
In his revealing book, Desbois shakes the conscience with his disturbing account of the routine nature of genocide perpetrated by the Nazis and how it was tolerated and willingly facilitated by collaborating neighbors in village after village over several years. He impresses on his readers that there would have been no mass murders without neighbors. In Broad Daylight is a shocking exposé of the depravity of humanity and a warning for vigilance to ensure that “never again” is a reality.