Expert on Holocaust, genocide to speak in Omaha

A French priest has been working since 2002 to bring to light a previously little-known aspect of the Holocaust in World War II.

Now, Father Patrick Desbois is bringing his findings and insights to Omaha, along with the message that such genocides continue to this day.

As founder of Yahad-in-Unum (Together in One), a nonprofit organization dedicated to discovering and documenting genocides wherever they exist, he has investigated and documented what he calls a “Holocaust by Bullets.” During this pogrom the Nazis rounded up and executed more than 2.5 million Jews and others at more than 800 sites throughout eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

The author of several books on this and other massacres, Father Desbois and his work have been featured twice on the CBS-TV news program 60 Minutes. 

He will speak March 28 at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) Strauss Performing Arts Center at 7 p.m., sponsored by the university’s Sam and Frances Fried Holocaust and Genocide Academy.

Locating and documenting the killing sites and mass graves has become Father Desbois’ mission, and a way of memorializing those who perished.

He was originally motivated by a desire to learn about what his grandfather – a French soldier and prisoner of war in a Ukrainian camp during World War II – would not talk about. 

During his research, Father Desbois talked with local inhabitants, many of whom were children at the time, and found that many of these executions were public spectacles. 

“I learned a lot about humanity,” he told 60 Minutes. “I learned everybody can be a killer, anybody can be a victim. I learned that you like to see other people dying in front of you, killed by other people, when you are sure you will not be killed.”

This disturbing aspect of a fallen human nature is one reason Yahad-in-Unum’s mission includes vigilance to avert modern-day mass killings.

In addition to Father Desbois’ UNO presentation, members of the Yahad-in-Unum investigative team will present a two-day workshop March 28-29 for high school and college educators, cosponsored by the Fried Academy and the Leonard and Shirley Goldstein Center for Human Rights.

The workshop will provide tools and resources for teaching about the Holocaust by Bullets, and emphasize its connection with the violence and human rights violations still happening around the world, such as the recent Islamic State persecution of the Yazidi community in Iraq.

“We are making a link between the past and the present,” said Patrice Bensimon, Yahad-in-Unum’s director of research, based in Paris. “As more time is passing by, and we are farther from the period of the Holocaust, the young generation may say, ‘Why should I learn about something that happened so long ago?’”

“It’s because we see similar patterns today,” he said.

In Iraq, members of the Yazidi religious minority were arrested with the help of neighbors. Men were forced to convert to Islam or were killed, young boys were kidnapped and trained to become Islamic State warriors, and women and girls were sold as sex slaves, Bensimon said.

Another mass killing took place during the Guatemalan civil war when hundreds of thousands of Mayans were killed in the 1970s and 1980s, he said.

Yahad-in-Unum now operates a museum there where educators and students can learn more about the Holocaust by Bullets and other genocides.

UNO also has been hosting a Holocaust by Bullets exhibit in the Criss Library on the main campus, said Mark Celinscak, a professor of history and executive director of the Fried Academy.

“The exhibit allows the viewer to see, step-by-step, how the crimes committed against Jews and Roma (generally referred to as gypsies) were perpetrated by Nazi Germany and their collaborators,” he said. “It offers the public an opportunity to learn about a lesser-known aspect of the Holocaust through eyewitness testimonies and archival photographs.”

The exhibit began Jan. 7 and runs through April 4. Celinscak said tours of the exhibit, guided by student docents trained by Yahad-in-Unum staff, are available by request. 

The academy is sponsoring Holocaust by Bullets to “promote and facilitate the scholarly study of the Holocaust and other genocides and provide students, faculty and community members the tools to assist in the prevention of crimes against humanity,” he said. 

“Issues such as hate, antisemitism and violence are still very much a part of our world today,” Celinscak said.

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