footnotes) from: Father Patrick Desbois, The Holocaust by Bullets,
pages 171 to 179
On the morning of
April 16, 2006, I went to pray in the Latin Armenian church of Lviv.
The crowd of believers was dense, even early in the morning. Svetlana always
accompanied me to the church. She often placed a beeswax candle before an icon.
Without these moments of recollection and celebration, we would not have been
able to keep going. The sun was shining but the air was cool. It was Palm Sunday,
in a week, it would be Easter.
Back in Busk, many
people were not able to enter the Greek Catholic church with their beautiful
highly decorated palms. The latecomers were outside, listening in silence to
the account of the passion of Christ. Children were wearing their smartest
clothes. We were celebrating Jesus's entry into Jerusalem. The affable priest had asked us to
be present at this mass, during which he was going to announce that we were
trying to find out how the Jews were killed, here in Busk, 63 years ago. When
we contacted him, he had replied: "It's only right that the Jews should
have a tomb. Our bishop himself saved many Jews during the war. I will do
everything I can to help you. Com to the Palm Sunday mass; a lot of people will
be there. You will be able to meet those who saw the executions."
The children came out
first, happily running and jumping about, a blessed palm in their hand. A
large, austere wooden cross stood at the entrance of the church. It had been
decorated for the holiday with a large crown of green boxwood. As soon as the
mass was over, we were approached by a horde of elderly people, mainly women.
Witnesses who saw the ghetto and the executions of the Jews streamed out of the
mass one after the other. There were so many that we could not possibly
interview them all. Svetlana took note of their names and addresses on the
blank pages of a little diary.
How moving it was:
All these Ukrainians who, alerted a few minutes earlier by the parish priest,
cut short the Palm Sunday holiday so that the truth about the genocide of the
Jews could be known and communicated.
One of these people,
dressed all in black, a mantilla fixed to a little round black hat, was
absolutely determined to speak. She continued to repeat: "I saw
everything. I saw everything!" She finally made her way through the crowd
and came up to us. Her name was Lydia.
Her family practiced
the same profession as mine: butchering animals and selling them in a shop. As
traders, they had numerous encounters with the owners of Jewish shops in the
center of town. Every witness saw part of the genocide. None of them can
recount the whole thing. That is the limit of visual memory. Lydia saw
horse-drawn carts bearing the bodies of Jewish women killed in the ghetto. She
believed that these women had been hiding or tried to escape. She remembered
having run behind these carts full of bodies as a child, all the way to the
door of the cemetery. She supposed that the Germans had killed a lot of people
in the ghetto. She also saw trucks full of women and Jewish children, who were
Lydia followed all our investigations in town. But
it was only much later that she would finally say what she really saw,
encouraged by he daughter who kept telling her: "Mama, you must tell the
whole truth!" One day she arrived without warning in the Jewish cemetery,
and showed us where all the communal graves were.
We also met a civil
engineer, who had been given to the task, after the war, of recycling the
houses of the Jews; she told us that she found bank notes and candlesticks. We
also found people who came at night to give food to the Jews of the ghetto in
exchange for clothes. Lydia
told us how people could get into the ghetto without getting caught by the
In addition to
gathering testimonies on the ground, we continued with our research in the
Soviet archives at the Holocaust Memorial Museum
in Washington D.C. There, far from the geese and horses of
Busk, we spent hours sitting in front of microfilm readers. We found several
names of other Ukrainian witnesses from Busk who had given evidence in 1944 to
the town district attorney. The Soviet archives are proportionate to the size
of the country they come from: 16 million pages. In 1944, the district attorney
of Busk had interrogated Ukrainian witnesses who lived in Chevtchenko Street, that long street that
bordered the Jewish cemetery. Without realizing it, in 2006 we had knocked at
the same doors as the district attorney did 62 years earlier.
The degree to which
the testimonies dovetailed with each other was astounding, in terms of both
form and content. The Jewish cemetery had had a caretaker, Yvan, before the
war. His house next to the cemetery at 13 Chevtchenko Street no longer exists.
When I read his testimony contained in the archives I discovered that he not
only recounted the same facts as Anton but that the very tone of his narrative
was similar: "The Ukrainian police and four to five Germans transported,
for over a week, Jews in a truck to a pit that had already been dug. The naked
Jews had to sit down in front of the pit, facing it, and they were killed with
machine guns. They killed a lot of Jews; I don't know how many. All the Jews
are buried in 10 or more pits next to the Jewish cemetery in Busk. I know all
We found the
testimony of a cleaning lady who worked for the Germans. She heard them talking
about the executions every evening. Her testimony is the most complete because
she remembered all the executions, with their dates and circumstances. She
recounted in particular that the Germans came back every evening, very proud of
what they had done, boasting about it.
Stanislav, lived at number 25
Chevtchenko Street. He was a desiatnik.
Most of the witnesses had been requisitioned in Busk to assist the Germans in
the execution of the Jews stated that it had been the desiatnik who
had come to take them from their homes, under the orders of the mayor. In Busk,
the assassins from the Reich used the Soviet structure for the requisitions. In
his testimony, Stanislav clearly named Lehner, the head of the German
gendarmerie, as the one who had taken charge of the executions. He said:
"During the German occupation, I worked as a desiatnik in Busk,
in Chevtchenko Street.
In May 1943, I don't remember the exact date, German gendarmes came to my house
on the orders of Lieutenant Ludwig Lehner who was head of the German
gendarmerie, and also German commander of the town of Busk. These German gendarmes demanded, under
threat of death, that I bring citizens to dig pits near the Jewish cemetery.
Under that threat, I followed the orders, and when the pits were ready, a
German gendarme by the name of Maier and other German gendarmes and Ukrainian
police transported the Jews from the ghetto to the pits where they were forced
to undress completely. They had to put their things in a pile and, in groups of
10 or more people, they had to kneel before the pits. Then they were killed
with machine guns. The executions lasted more than a week. More than a thousand
Jews were killed before the eyes of the citizens, but we couldn't approach the
pits … In total, in the Jewish cemetery there are almost 10 pits where the
bodies of the Jews were buried.
We could have ended
things there. The simple comparison between the oral memory we had gathered in
2006, and the testimony recorded by the district attorney of Busk in 1944, was
enough to confirm our certainty and out knowledge of the execution of the
Jewish community of Busk. But an unexpected event turned around and enriched
Jacques Fredj, the
director of the Holocaust Memorial in Paris,
had long expressed the desire for archaeological research to be carried out on
an extermination site, so that no one could object that we didn't have material
proof. I thought the idea a good one but difficult to implement. To my
knowledge, no archaeological research on a mass grave had been carried out
since 1990. I then decided, with my team, to organize an expert study in Busk.
Why Busk? Because the inhabitants had told us that the graves had never been
tampered with. They agreed that all the houses in the villages had a
"view" of the graves, and so since the war no marauder had dared to
open them in search of gold.
We decided we would
insist in the presence of an orthodox rabbi so that the excavations would not
contravene Jewish law. Meshi Zahav, the founder of Zaka, accepted to come from Jerusalem in person to
oversee the work in its entirety. I called on the dean of the archaeology
department in Lviv because I wanted the work to be carried out by an Ukrainian
organization. The excavations were organized in August 2006 and were to last
three weeks with the help of archaeologists.
The challenge was
doubly complex. On the one hand we had to respect Jewish laws and on the other
hand we wanted to obtain scientific results as precise as possible in terms of
the identity of the victims, their number, and the cause of death. The Jewish
law, the Halakha , specifies that bodies must not be moved under any
circumstances, particularly the victims of the Holocaust. According to Orthodox
Jewish tradition, these victims are resting in the fullness of God, and any
movement of the bodies would disturb that peace. Hence the archaeologist could
only uncover the first layer of bodies, taking care not to move any bones. In
addition, the bodies had to be covered up again as soon as the archaeologist
finished working. Svetlana therefore spent the month of August not interpreting
but looking in all the textile shops in the area for white sheets that she
bought every day by the dozen, so as to be able to respect that tradition.
We thought that in
Busk there were at most seven communal graves. When the archaeologist began
inspecting the relief of the terrain, he estimated the number of communal
graves at 17. This was not even the site of the execution of all the Jews of
Busk who were assassinated by the Reich. Busk is situated not far from Poland and the
ghetto was the target of various German Aktions. A large part of the
Jewish community was taken by train to the extermination camp at Belzec, in
The graves therefore contained only the last Jews of Busk, around 1,750 people.
Most of them were women and children who had hidden after the German attacks in
the ghetto. They were found in cellars, imprisoned in the gendarmerie, and
The bodies appeared
one after the other. We were able to establish whether it was a man, a woman or
a child and above all the cause of death. The impact of the bullets and the
position of the bodies showed that they had all been shot and buried alive.
Many of the women's bodies were found holding a baby, to protect it from the
flow of sand. It was three weeks of macabre discoveries.
Before we arrived,
the villagers had used the green, flowered fields over the pits for their geese
and horses to graze in peace. Our undertaking involved numerous negotiations. A
couple of farmers were in the habit of crossing the village with their cows,
passing through the Jewish cemetery and the site of the communal graves. They
came one evening to ask us politely if they could continue to pass through
there, otherwise they would have to take a long detour. I devised a pathway
through the communal graves so that every morning and evening, at milking time,
men and animals could pass.
Of course the site
also had to be guarded at night because many of the dead still had gold teeth
and all too often the inhabitants of the village would come to ask us the same
question: "Have you found gold?"
After three weeks,
all the graves had been opened. It was impossible to carry out a typical
scientific study because we had to respect Jewish law and could not move any of
the bones. We could therefore only observe what appeared on the surface. The
missing information, though, appears in the German and Soviet archives of 1944,
which explicitly mention the execution of the Jews in the cemetery. These were
also confirmed for us by our 10 witnesses, who identified the grave sites with
The research was very
difficult to undertake, particularly because of the indifference of the village
people. A single villager came, dressed in black, with a little bunch of red
and yellow flowers from her garden. She placed it in front of the mass grave
and then withdrew a little and stood in silence for a while. She left without saying
Before closing the
graves again, I hired a helicopter (the one that monitored the oil pipelines
crossing the region) to take aerial shots of the ensemble of graves. When I saw
the helicopter land, I thought that only its paintwork looked recent. There
were no seatbelts. Undeterred, Guillaume climbed into the helicopter without
hesitation. Thanks to this means of transport, we were able to measure the
extent of the massacre: 17 graves next to the Jewish cemetery, which seemed
very small in comparison to them. I imagine that if we could open all the mass
graves we would have to take aerial photos of the whole of Ukraine. A mass
cemetery of anonymous pits into which men, women and children were thrown. Not
a camp but a country of graves.
archaeological study was finished, we had to cover these graves with a
particular kind of tar used for airport runways so that the dead would not be
disturbed in their rest by people looking for dental gold. The assistant mayor
of Rawa-Ruska, Yaroslav, came to our aid by coordinating the work.
On September 1, 2006,
after the graves were finally covered, the great rabbi of the yeshiva of Belz,
Rabbi Bohl, arrived from Lviv in a grey car, accompanied by 10 young members of
his religious community, to recite the kaddish .
veyitkadach chemé raba
Bealma di vera
The unchanging words
seemed to resonate and take us back to a time when, long ago, the kaddish
must have been recited often. Despite the constant difficulties, I had
astonishingly felt nothing during the whole excavation. But when the kaddish
resounded through the Jewish cemetery, before the communal graves that had been
forgotten and denied since 1943, my emotions spilled over. For the first time
in a very long time, I had the feeling that the boat was coming into harbor.
Finally, a Jewish prayer was being pronounced for these young mothers and these
little Jewish children who had been killed and buried like animals beside the
On the morning of
September 2, 2006, we left Busk, moved and tired. For three weeks we had been
shuttling every day between the hotel and the graves. Early in the morning -
the landscape was already filled with fog although August was just over - we
went back and, for the last time, looked at the 17 grave sites. We were
surprised to see several locals, whom we had barely seen before then, moving up
the slope with wheelbarrows, on their way to collect the leftover bags of
Footage of the Busk excavations (graphic!) is included in the film clip Shoah Par Balles
scoured the German archives. He often went to Ludwigsburg where he gathered testimonies,
decades-old affidavits from the policemen who had participated in the
executions. He sorted and translated them, thereby providing us with very rich
documentation that allowed us to prepare and better understand each trip. It
was also he who, before each departure, located the extermination sites,
estimated the number of victims, and determined the date of events according to
the German and Soviet archives, and the work of historians
Pages 52 f:
On my return to Ukraine I was
possessed by a single obsession: to find those spend cartridges. I called on Micha to help me.
The first time I took him with me to track down cartridges, it was in
Khvativ. I was a little skeptical. Micha walked round with a metal detector,
making large circles of about a 300-meter radius around what we knew must have
been the place of execution. Then these circles decreased until he reached the
point where the shooter had stood. I quickly got used to the sound of the
detector, waiting for its background noise to change into a signal. Without
understanding his way of working, I left him to it. Suddenly, Micha stopped and
started lifting the earth with his spade. He leaned down and picked up a little
object as one would pick up a mushroom. He turned toward me and lifting his
hand, he said in a loud voice: "Niemetska Ghilse!" Svetlana
looked at me, surprised, and translated: "A German cartridge". I ran
over. Micha was indeed holding between his fingers a spent cartridge covered in
"How do you know it's a German cartridge?" I asked him.
"Look," he explained. "A Russian cartridge has a very wide
base but not German ones. German ones also have a manufacturing mark." As
he was speaking, he grabbed hold of a cloth and rubbed the base of the cartridge.
One could see a mark and date of manufacture: 1938. The circles began again, of
300, 350, and then 200 meters. The dance went on for hours. Three hundred times
I heard: "Niemetska Ghilse!"
As for me, I waited, leaning against a tree, soaked under a rain that fell
relentlessly through the branches. Despite everything and despite myself, my
eyes and my tired mind darted between the bones spread across the earth where
marauders had dug, and the German cartridges strewn over the ground, further
away on my left. Micha had been piling them up on a piece of newspaper. When he
found the 300th cartridge, I asked him to stop for a while. I was
filled with revulsion and discomfort: "A bullet, a Jew. A Jew, a
cartridge" [Footnote, page 224: "Words spoken by the head of Einsatzgruppe
D, the SS-Gruppenführer Otto Ohlendorf, who ordered a great number of
executions in Moldavia, southern Ukraine and Russia in his conversations with a
psychologist during the Nuremberg trial of the Einsatzgruppen
members.] The Germans did not use more than one bullet to kill a Jew. Three
hundred cartridges, 300 bullets, 300 people executed here. My sense of unease
did not go away. No Russian cartridge. The proof of genocide was so flagrant
and so real. There was no longer a distance or a barrier between me and the
reality. I was faced with the evidence of the horror, leaning against a tree,
freezing cold under a rain that formed little rivulets on the ground.
We took a break of 20 to 25 minutes. No one spoke. Micha began again,
explaining to me that at a certain period the Germans had no more good metal to
make the cartridges, and that is why there was difference in the amount of
damage in the ones we were finding. From the position of the spent cartridges,
we could identify the position of the shooters, who were standing not far from
where the pit for their successive shootings. When they had finished, they had
covered the cartridges with a bit of earth: we were finding them at different
depths separated by a little mud. We had to dig deeper, as trees had grown, and
cartridges had lodged among their roots. With each new discovery we recorded
distances between the pits and spent cartridges using the GPS (Global
It was late and we had to go back. In the morning, discreetly, Micha had
asked me how Jews were buried … usually. I saw him move off and place, one by
one, the scattered bones that had been thrown into the oven hole of the
plundered pit, cover them with earth, place a stone and then, cut several green
branches, and make a Magen David (Star of David) on the grave.
Pages 54 f:
That day in the
restaurant we counted 600 cartridges. Guillaume got up on the table to
photograph them from above. I understood that we had to record all these
traces, the traces of the assassinations, and collect all these cartridges that
constituted the proof of this Shoah by bullets. No gas chambers, no automation,
no so-called "mechanization". A man assassinating another man. In the
archives, we discovered other traces: records of German battalions of which
each member had been obliged to kill at least one Jew. Everyone had to be
implicated, so that no one could say "I didn't kill a Jew". It is
recorded that Paul Blobel, the man who had coordinated the executions in Kiev, had obliged his driver,
who had not wanted to kill, to assassinate several Jews. One day, Blobel had
him stop the car and told him to kill some. The driver had gotten out of the
car, and shot, once, ten times, and more for several long minutes. When Blobel
had decided that his driver had killed enough, they got back in the car and
With the cartridges, we also found hundreds of rusted, empty cartridge
clips. Most of them were clips for Mauser rifles that could contain five
bullets. That explained why the Nazis had made Jewish families come forward in
groups of five people. Many witnesses subsequently told us that they had seen
the assassins reload their rifle between two families. Micha also found other
objects: a rather dented metallic aluminium goblet, apparently lost by a
German; the metal frame of a Walther pistol, rusty and almost fossilized;
little metal chains used to clean the shaft of machine guns when they
overheated; and some handles of cartridge boxes.
Micha always had with him a catalog describing the equipment used by the
units of the third Reich during World War II. We also found the metal hoops of
a barrel. A rather elderly shepherd came to see us with his brown and white dog
while we were looking for cartridges and told us that at the end of the killing,
one of the Germans had placed a barrel of quicklime over the bodies on a plank
laid across the pit. He then shot at the barrel to make it explode.
comprehensive archival research was vital for my work. One cannot simply
saunter nonchalantly into a Ukrainian farm without having first carried out
solid historical research. It is a conditio sine qua non for a
successful interview with a witness, as it allows one to ask the right
questions and to decipher the answers.
For years, Andrej Umansky, a small archive genius with an acute intuition,
has studied the archives of the German courts that form the basis for legal
rulings. He went to Ludwigsburg, near Stuttgart, where the
historical depositions and rulings of the German courts are kept. The
information they provide can never be complete but nonetheless it allows us to
find out the dates of the big executions, the identities of the units in the
villages - police, SS, Feldgendarmerie - or indeed references to the
pogroms. When I met with witnesses, I already had a framework in place,
detailing the circumstances of the killings. During the interview, I would
therefore gently confront the witnesses with the information culled from the
archives, using very frank questions.
Before going to meet witnesses, we asked ourselves about the topography of
the place. Before each trip, Andrej studied and reported on the narratives of
German policemen or SS officers who explained how they had watched or
participated in the shootings of Jews in a specific village or town in the Ukraine.
He also went regularly to the Holocaust
Museum in Washington to work with the museum's
scholars and to study the Soviet archives. For example, when we had to go to
Kovel, in the region of Loutsk, we already knew that some of the assassinations
had been committed by a police battalion, the Ordnungspolizei
battalion 314. Most of the police in that battalion were of German origin.
searched the archives of the police and the SS who had worked in Lisinitchi.
Even if numerous people acknowledged that they were present at the executions
in these records, their assertions remained fairly vague. I went to the Holocaust Memorial
Museum in Washington D.C.,
where massive archives concerning the Holocaust since 1944 have been
microfilmed. It is a virtually inexhaustible bank of data that represents 46
million pages that are open to public access, in which one can find also the
documents of the extraordinary Soviet commissions of 1944. As soon as the Germans
left a place, the Soviets, village after village, opened the ditches,
interrogated neighbors, the priest, the mayor, and the survivors, and drew up a
document in which they established the facts. They sometimes even drew a sketch
indicating the site of the mass graves. But how much could one rely on the
Soviet documents, which, although used during the Nuremberg trials, had lost much of their
credibility since the revelations about the Katyn affair? Nonetheless, we
dissected all the texts of the Soviet commissions. One of them related the
order to open all the mass graves at Lisinitchi.
Fifty-seven mass graves were listed. Bodies had been burnt there and the
commission indicated that the ashes had been found very deep down in the
ground. These statements confirmed the content of the testimonies of Miron and
I already had many
elements of proof: the rather sparse German archives, the archives of the
Soviet commission which had opened the graves, three direct witnesses - a
witness who had seen the executions, the member of a requisitioned family, and
a Jewish survivor who had "worked" on the site. From tallying these
proofs, I could establish the place of assassination. I knew that we had just
identified one of the largest extermination sites in Ukraine. Ninety thousand people
executed, the majority Jewish, but also Soviet and Italian prisoners …
We collected this
information and found other witnesses who confirmed the site of the
assassinations. Using GPS, we marked down the coordinates of the mass graves,
in case the area had been modified by the construction of a house or the
installation of irrigation channels … Then we carried out ballistic enquiry.
Micha explored the area around the pits and found several cartridges - not many
because the field had been thoroughly worked over every year. Micha identified
the cartridges and put them in different bags. We also took photos and recorded
the GPS position for every cartridge. Thanks to the information gathered from
Soviet and German archives, we knew that there had been assassinations; we also
knew the approximate number of deaths, but we did not know exactly where, when,
and how they had taken place. All this was clarified by Ivan's and his wife's
On April 6, we were in
Bakhiv. We knew that more than 10,000 Jews had been transported there in cattle
cars. The train had moved forward until the first compartment had neared a
gaping and immense mass grave, dug several days earlier. The doors had opened.
Armed guards with dogs had hurried the Jews' descent from the train. The Jews
had shouted, cried, and screamed at the sight of the pit that awaited them. They had been surrounded and taken to be killed.
Sixty years later we found ourselves in a revolting place. The soil had been
recently turned over. Gaping holes surrounded the memorial. Ridges furrowing
the earth exposed long white marks: chalk mixed with blood, thrown into the pit
by requisitioned neighbors. Pieces of railway track and nails lay on the ground.
A channel had been dug, apparently for water to run along it. All the way along
the channel there were human bones: femurs and scattered skulls. Indecent and
unspeakable. A gold ring, a woman's, was barely covered by sand. She must have
thrown it away in desperation, so that the Germans wouldn't get hold of it. I
picked it up. My gesture, 60 years later, united me with hers, This ring that
escaped the hands of the marauders will become, in museums, the only trace of
this unknown woman. We felt nauseous. For the first time, the interpreter went
to rest in our blue van. It was too much … All was mixed up with a great deal
of trash, as always. We found traces of a picnic, a half-empty jar of large
gherkins pickled in vinegar. Micha summed it up with a look: "pilfering,
pilfering." The site had been ravaged by the hands of those who are still
looking for the Jews' gold and who had scattered all over the place, like
trash, the bones of children, women and men who were shot here 60 years ago.
Earlier that morning we had met two witnesses. A woman, Solomia
Stolartchouk, pale and tired, had told us that if she spoke about it, she would
die. Her hands trembled on her chair. She asked if she would be arrested for
having told us what she had seen.
An hour later, we entered a low, dark house. A girl with a weary and rather
helpless air had been chopping yellow spaghetti on a wooden board. I had gone
into the room where a man named Timofei Ridzvanouk had been sitting, with his
white, cropped hair, and a bucket of trash beside him. Illness and poverty
seemed to go hand in hand here. He had searched his memory, his words confused.
"I was a shepherd. I couldn't escape the requisition. I filled pits with
chalk. They mixed chalk and blood." He talked about the train compartments,
the doors that opened, the shouts, the barking, and then the shooting, bang,
bang, bang … bang, bang. "Then silence. Another compartment door
The images of the assassinations had appeared in all their horror. Under his
windows, the Germans had killed at least 10,000 Jews in three days, one by one.
Sataniv, the town of
immurement. In this town, the Germans did not shoot people. They decided to
proceed differently, as an example, from lack of time, or through the evil
genius of the squadron leader. In this town there were large cellars under the
central market that housed small shops, or rather stalls, around a dilapidated
building: the former synagogue. They were called the
On my return to Washington,
I discovered in the Soviet archives that the immurement, carried out by
Ukrainian police, took place on May 15, 1942. According to these archives, the
smoke asphyxiated the imprisoned. The Ukrainian witnesses state that the ground
moved for days.
Pages 129 to 131
On October 5, 2006,
early in the morning, I set off for London
with Marco Gonzalez, the coordinator of Yahad-In-Unum's activities. I did not
know that the crossing of the English Channel
would be so quick; it is like going through a long tunnel, with no view other
than grey cement. I took my first steps at the large Waterloo station, where a black and yellow
taxi was waiting for us. We traveled 20 or so miles, to a Jewish Orthodox
neighborhood of small brick houses. I rang a doorbell. A young, friendly man
welcomed me, and with a simple gesture beckoned me to sit down at a large oval
wooden table. Then a dozen officials of the Jewish Diaspora came to join me. We
waited. The president's seat was vacant. Several minutes later, the very
elderly Rabbi Schlesinger arrived. All his disciples got up.
The Rabbi sat down slowly, silent and serious, and started to study the
several handwritten documents in Yiddish on yellow and white paper that had
been previously placed on the table. They were Rabbinical Court decisions that came from
various Orthodox courts throughout the world regarding the laws and rules
applicable to the bodies of Jews killed during the Holocaust. Picking up a yellow
paper, Rabbi Schlesinger raised his eyes and explained to me in English that it
had been ruled that the Jews assassinated by the Third Reich were tsadiqim,
"saints", and that the plenitude of eternal life had been granted
them. Because of this, their burial places, wherever situated - under a
motorway or in a garden - should be left intact so as not to disturb their
I listened attentively, concentrating hard, so as to understand as best as I
could, the Jewish religious position on the dignity of the victims of the
Holocaust, as well as the halakhiques consequences that ensue.
He repeated his explanation vigorously, while his disciples silently
acquiesced by nodding their heads. Then he fell silent. Everyone turned to look
at me, and I understood that I had to speak.
The situation was in a sense unprecedented. I had been called to meet in
this schul, as a Catholic priest and the representative of Christian
religious tradition to examine the sensitive issue of the violation of the
burial sites of the Jews killed in the Holocaust together with Orthodox Jewish
legal experts, people determined to scrupulously respect the prescriptions
emerging from the laws of Judaism. How could we work together in a practical
way to ensure that the places where the Jews assassinated during that horrific
century had come to rest would finally be respected?
The debate went on for hours. They examined the legal cases one by one and I
explained how I viewed, from the perspective of Christian tradition, what they
I am well aware that it is hardly the most normal thing in the world for a
French priest wearing clerical attire to be examining cases in the light of the
framework of Jewish law. Suddenly, I had an intuition. I asked Marco to show
them photographs of the various images of the mass graves opened by marauders.
When they saw the bones of their ancestors scattered in all four corners of
fields, strewn about like little more than trash, it was a terrible shock. They
didn't know that several pits had been opened by "gold diggers." They
didn't know that the construction of irrigation channels had disemboweled the
That evening, it was decided to set up a religious and judicial cooperation
so that I would know what rites to perform in the light of Jewish tradition
when I came across graves that had been disturbed.
It was raining over London
as my associate and I set off on our return journey. As we were making our way
station, I thought of the incomprehension, contempt, pogroms, and expulsions
that had marked the centuries of relationships between Catholics and Jews,
preventing the coming together of our two traditions. I also remembered the
beautiful faces of the men and women who, whether Jewish or Christian, had made
efforts to ensure that such encounters would be positive, after two millennia.
As soon as I got back, I called Cardinal Lustiger to tell him what had