Father Desbois’ newest accolade fittingly earned

We always remember the Holocaust. How could we not? But today, Yom HaShoah, it should be at the top of our minds. And it’s the right day to think about Father Patrick Desbois, the Roman Catholic priest who received something special last fall: The Human Rights Prize, given annually by the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice.
What did the cleric do to earn this honor? Well, his life’s work, post-Holocaust, has been recognizing more than a million unknown victims of the Nazis. Writing in the Times of Israel, Eric Cortellessa reported that the honoree “has focused on the Jews who were killed by mass shootings by Nazi units in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Moldova and Romania, between 1941 and 1944.”
Father Desbois now teaches in the Center for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. This made it easy for him to attend the reception on Washington’s Capitol Hill, where he was lauded as “a vital voice standing up for the values of decency, dignity, freedom and justice.” The honoring Foundation is that of Annette and Tom Lantos, who both survived the Holocaust. You may recognize Tom’s name: a Democrat from California who died in 2008, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives – the only Survivor ever to be a member of Congress.
Yahad-In-Unum is the French organization Desbois founded 14 years ago to locate mass graves of Jewish victims. He documented its results in his first book, The Holocaust by Bullets, which was published in 2008 and won that year’s National Jewish Book Award; its subtitle is A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews. At that time, he was credited with “virtually single-handedly undertaking the task of excavating the history of previously undocumented Jewish victims of the Holocaust.”
One critic assessed his book realistically as “… not particularly well-structured or well-written, but its importance far outweighs its narrative flaws,” because Desbois is credited with using “wartime documents, interviews with locals, and the application of modern forensic practices on long-hidden gravesites” in his work. More recently, he wrote “In Broad Daylight: The Secret Procedures Behind the Holocaust by Bullets,” also based on research and firsthand accounts. Another reviewer, not put off by writing style, was inspired to say its author “…might be one of the greatest detectives of all time.”
Father Desbois, ordained in 1985 at age 31, first worked as a math teacher for the French government in Africa, then moved to Calcutta, where he helped Mother Teresa establish her homes for the dying. His priestly work includes directing the church’s Episcopal Committee for Relations with Judaism, which connects to the French Conference of Bishops, and serving the Vatican as a consultant on relations with Judaism. He was also a personal aide to the late Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger, the Jew who converted to Catholicism and became a priest.
(So soon after Easter, it’s interesting to consider Lustiger’s epitaph, which he wrote himself, as a sidelight to Desbois accomplishments: “I was born a Jew. I received the name of my paternal grandfather, Aaron. Christian by faith and by baptism, I remained a Jew, as did the Apostles.” Lustiger also retained his surname, which may ring the bell of recognition for those of us who know even a little Yiddish: in that language, “Lustig” means “fun,” and those of us who grew up with grandparents whose native tongue was Yiddish, and who sang holiday songs to us in their first language, surely remember “Oy Chanukah,” which calls the holiday both a “freilicher” and a “lustiger,” comparatives that translate to happier than just plain happy, more fun than ordinary fun.)
Father Desbois is in good company as a Lantos winner: prior recipients have included both the Dalai Lama and Elie Wiesel. But the prize presenter offered this chilling introduction: “There is nothing more human than the capacity to kill.” Should we believe that? Do we want to believe that?

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