Father Patrick Desbois is on a mission to record eyewitness testimony about every Holocaust-era mass grave site in Eastern Europe. But his efforts have taken on a new urgency
What began 16 years ago as a straightforward effort to document Nazi war crimes has taken on a new urgency. Not only is the generation that lived through the Holocaust passing away, Holocaust denial is on the rise, entrapping many young Jews who know distressingly little about their history and heritage (Photos: Yahad In-Unum archives, Brett Frager, Joelle Elbassy)
ome people turn to religion to escape from reality.
Father Patrick Desbois, a Catholic priest from France, isn’t one of them. For the past 16 years, he has been doggedly documenting a reality that many would like to forget or deny: the Holocaust. His goal is to document every single incident that occurred in what he calls the “Holocaust by Bullets,” the killing of Jews and Roma (Gypsies) by Nazi death squads.
To date, he has visited more than 2,000 cities and villages in Eastern Europe and interviewed some 5,800 non-Jews who witnessed the slaughter. Along the way, he has founded a nonprofit research organization dedicated to preserving and disseminating his findings, Yahad In-Unum — the Hebrew and Latin phrase means “Together, in One”; written an award-winning book; been featured on television news programs such as 60 Minutes; and been honored with a slew of humanitarian awards.
But even though he is approaching the age when many people retire, he shows no signs of slowing down or resting on his laurels. He is too haunted by yet another fear: death. Most of the people who witnessed the crimes have either already passed away or are now in their nineties. With more than a million killings still waiting to be documented, he is, literally, in a race against time.
The summer of 2018 therefore found him once again on the road, as he continued his search for the last witnesses — the frail nonagenarians who still remember, the only ones left who are able to testify about the tragic events they saw with their own eyes.
Father Desbois usually travels with a team of professional researchers, translators, and cameramen, who help him record the lengthy interviews he conducts in the field. These filmed interviews form the basis of Yahad’s Archives and Research Center (CERRESE), which can be accessed by academics conducting Holocaust-related research. But for two days in July he joined a tour to Ukraine and Poland organized by Heritage Retreats, a kiruv organization founded 19 years ago by Rabbi Mordechai Kreitenberg, which Mishpacha was invited to join as well.
While the goal of Heritage Retreats is to introduce assimilated young Jews to intensive Torah learning and open their eyes to their rich Jewish heritage, Rabbi Kreitenberg saw in Father Desbois’s work yet another way to wake up the pintele Yid in their slumbering souls.
“Our current privileged status in North America has weakened our collective memory, but Father Desbois’s work has a message that’s compelling for all sorts of Jews,” says Rabbi Kreitenberg. “If a Catholic priest has dedicated his life to uncovering truths about the Holocaust, shouldn’t we care about our Jewish heritage and history too?”
Unquiet in the Ukraine
“I knew people were being killed. I heard shooting. But I didn’t see it. It was happening behind the wall. I did see three young men who were hanging from a balcony”
he first witness we meet is Lydia. (Yahad doesn’t publicize the last names of the people who agree to be interviewed.) Still vivacious at 90, Lydia doesn’t live in Lviv anymore. But she lived near the city’s Jewish ghetto during the war, and she agreed to return to Lviv to share her memories. A Ukrainian member of the Yahad team, Olga, translates for us.
Lydia tells us that before the war there were many Jews who lived on her street — craftsmen, doctors, and lawyers. That changed when the Germans arrived in the summer of 1941 and the ghetto was established. Because she and her family lived near the ghetto, the teenager had a front-row seat, so to speak, to the new reality imposed upon her former neighbors.
“I saw Jews leave the ghetto to go to the workshops where they made shoes and clothes. The Jews wore stars. They were young and middle-aged men. People could hear them from far away, because they wore wooden shoes, which clattered on the cobblestones.”
I try to imagine the sound of those clattering shoes in the early-morning hours. It isn’t easy. Lviv, at least in its historic center, is a picture-perfect city. The buildings, painted in delicate hues of cream, pink, and yellow, exude an old-world charm, as do the quaint cobblestone streets. The immaculate city squares are filled with people enjoying a midday meal in an outdoor café or simply soaking up the sun.
“Pictures about the Holocaust are in black and white, but I always say the Jews were killed in color,” comments Father Desbois, putting into words the dissonance that at least some of us are feeling on this first day of our trip. How do we reconcile this sunny, colorful city with the black-and-white photographs from the summer of 1941, when Lviv was the scene of several horrific pogroms where more than 4,000 Jews were savagely humiliated and killed? And how do we respond to Lydia, who saw but… did what?
Father Desbois mentions that unlike the Soviets, who usually did their dirty work at night, the Germans committed genocide in broad daylight. They wanted the local populace to see. This tactic was used to intimidate some people into silence and obedience, but in Lviv some of the inhabitants welcomed the Nazis with open arms. To understand why, we need to review the history of this area.
Lviv had been a center of Torah and Jewish commerce since medieval times. Along with periods of stability and prosperity, there were times of persecution and economic hardship. But the first decades of the 20th century were especially tumultuous and grim.
In 1914 the city, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and called Lemberg, was conquered by the Russian Army, only to be retaken by the Austrians in 1915, and then captured by the Poles in 1918. Under the Poles, the city was called Lvov. However, Ukrainian nationalists claimed the city as well. Tensions between the Poles and Ukrainians grew and, as usual, the Jews were caught in the crossfire. When pogroms erupted in 1917 and 1918, more than 100 Jews were killed and hundreds more were wounded.
During the interwar years, Lvov became one of Poland’s most important Jewish centers, but more bad times were on the way. The city became part of Soviet Ukraine in 1939, and the Ukrainians living in Lviv (the Ukrainian name) were no fans of the Soviets. They were particularly bitter about the Great Famine of 1932–33, the Holodomor, when millions of their fellow Ukrainians, who had come under Soviet rule after World War I, died of starvation.
According to some historians, the Great Famine was deliberately caused by Soviet economic policy, which explains why Ukrainians welcomed the Nazis when the Germans occupied Lviv in 1941; believing they were victims of a Soviet attempt at genocide, they saw the Germans as liberators from the Soviets. When Germans accused Lviv’s Jews of having collaborated with the Soviets, some Ukrainians expressed their fury in the pogroms that killed thousands of Jews.
And what of Lydia and her family? Did they see the brutal beatings and other atrocities? What did they say when the Jews were herded into the hastily erected ghetto? Did they do anything to help their former neighbors? How did they feel about the Nazis?
Our group of about 20 frum Jews from the United States and Israel — most are children of Holocaust survivors — are eager to ask Lydia these questions and more. But Father Desbois quickly silences us.
“Either you want to investigate and find out the truth about the crime, or you want to tell her she is a bad person,” he tells us, explaining that if you make a witness feel bad, they won’t talk.
“And you cannot ask someone who lived under the Soviet Union how they feel,” he adds, referring to the fact that Ukraine only gained its independence in 1991, after the dissolution of the USSR. “You can ask only factual questions. Where were you? What did you see? It’s like you are a policeman at the scene of the crime. You don’t ask the witness, ‘How did you feel when you saw the person being shot?’ You ask only about facts.”
We therefore hold our tongues and listen to the rest of Lydia’s story. Her memories of going to Belzec to buy food: “The train station wasn’t far from the Belzec concentration camp. I could smell the odor of burning bodies.” The glimpse she got of the last day of the Lviv ghetto, when she heard shooting and saw three bodies hanging from a balcony.
We thank her, and Lydia leaves.
I don’t think it’s my imagination, a certain sense of letdown in the group. Despite Father Desbois’s admonishment, and even though we realize it’s no small thing for a 90-year-old woman to travel to speak with us, I think we were expecting something more — tears, perhaps, maybe even the words “I’m sorry.”
“My question is not, is someone guilty or not guilty,” Father Desbois insists. “Violence was already a way of life for the Ukrainians. Stalin killed a lot of people. The problem is to save the memory of the dead. There were 2.4 million Jews living in Ukraine when the Nazis invaded. More than 220,000 people were killed in just this region. There are mass graves everywhere. But no one comes to say Kaddish. In Ukraine, I would say that 75 percent of the graves have been reopened — people are looking for gold teeth, jewelry. The people know the Jews aren’t coming back.”
A Walk in the Forest
“I saw trucks arrive. I saw soldiers dig here. They were here a week, maybe more. I was five or six years old. A child could go everywhere”
—Iossyp, Lysynychi Forest
ome of Lviv’s Jews died in the ghetto. Others were murdered at Belzec or sent to the nearby Janowska slave labor camp to die there from hunger, disease, or exhaustion. Or they were transported by truck to the Lysynychi Forest, our next destination, where they were shot.
After we leave the comfort of our air-conditioned bus and enter the wooded area on foot, we are greeted by a blast of hot and humid air and a swarm of mosquitoes. Along the way we pass by an elderly man, who doesn’t greet us. He just stares as we continue deeper into the forest.
When we reach a certain point, Father Desbois tells us to stop. We have arrived. But where are we? There is no monument, no signpost to give us a clue.
He points to a clearing, a small area where the ground is a bit higher. It is a mass grave, he tells us — one of about 29 that he and his team have located since they began coming to this place around ten years ago. According to German and Soviet archives, between 46,000 and 92,000 people were shot and buried here. Most of them are Jews, but there are some Italian soldiers, prisoners of war, who are buried here too.
It’s up to Father Desbois to tell us the story of this place, because the witnesses he was able to locate and interview have since died. One of them, Adolf, was a teenager at the time. From a perch in a tree, he saw the graves being dug. Afterward, he saw trucks filled with Jews arrive.
Pointing to the top of a hill, where a narrow path leading downward can still be seen, Father Desbois relates what he heard from Adolf. “Most of the Jews came from the Janowska labor camp or the ghetto, and so they weren’t very healthy. There were wooden boxes so people could undress and put their clothes in the boxes. Then the Jews were forced to run down the hill to the mass graves, where they were shot.”
The shooting was done by the Einsatzgruppen, German killing squads. It’s estimated that in Ukraine alone there were some 2,000 mass shootings. The most infamous occurred at Babi Yar, where practically all of Kiev’s Jewish population — some 33,000 souls — were shot and killed over a two-day period in September 1941.
But the mass shootings were only half the story. When the Germans realized they were losing the war and would probably be tried by an international court for their crimes, they rushed to destroy the evidence, using Jewish slave laborers to open the burial pits and burn the bodies. The code name for the large-scale campaign, which lasted from June 1942 until late 1944, was Aktion 1005.
“It was terrible for the Jews who had to burn the bodies,” says Father Desbois, who located three Jews who were forced to do the work in this forest. One was Leon Weliczker Wells, who moved to New Jersey after the war and wrote an account of his experiences, The Janowska Road. Father Desbois, recalling what Wells told him in their interview, says, “The commander would say to them every day, ‘Are you happy?’ And they had to say they were happy and joke and sing. Anytime someone was tired or not happy, he was shot. Afterward, most of the Jews who did the burnings were killed.”
After the Soviets arrived, they went to the various sites and opened the mass graves. They documented their findings — there is a copy at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and another copy at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem — but the report is millions of pages long and some of it is handwritten. One of the things Father Desbois would like to do is have the entire report, as well as the German archives, translated into English, to make the archives more widely available to future Holocaust historians. They would also like to translate into English the thousands of eyewitness testimonies that Yahad has filmed. He estimates this translation work would cost about $500,000. Although the organization has received funding from dozens of American and European foundations, including the Azrieli, Cummings, and Rothschild Foundations, and has an “American Friends” fundraising arm, to date the focus has been on funding Yahad’s work in the field as they document the testimony of the witnesses. Translation of the material archived in their Research Center is the important and necessary next step.
Part of the reason why no one knows exactly how many people were buried in this forest — or other places — is because the German and Russian archives don’t always agree, or they’re incomplete. Yahad doesn’t open the graves they find, out of respect for Jewish law. They also don’t use ground-penetrating radar, which is not against halachah, but is very expensive. They do record the location of the graves, so other historians will be able to find them, and an interactive map of their findings is on the Yahad website. But the main work of the Yahad team is to try to fill in the gaps by interviewing the locals. Of course, not everyone is willing to talk, and no one witness can provide a complete picture of what happened.
“You must crisscross from the testimony to the archives,” Father Desbois explains. “You cannot ask a survivor what happened in a Gestapo meeting, because he was not there.” He adds that they use a lot of material from survivors, in addition to the testimony of non-Jews, to document what happened. But it is the testimony from non-Jewish witnesses that he feels is the stronger ammunition in his fight against Holocaust deniers. “If it is only Jews who talk about the Holocaust, people will say it is Jewish propaganda.”
And when he says “people,” he isn’t talking about just a few cranks.
According to a survey conducted last April for the Claims Conference, which negotiates reparations on behalf of survivors and provides them with social services, 41 percent of millennials (young Americans in their twenties and thirties) believe that only two million or fewer Jews were killed during the Holocaust. Approximately 66 percent of these young people couldn’t name a single concentration camp or ghetto. Not even Auschwitz.
And it gets worse.
A 2014 study conducted by the Anti-Defamation League, which interviewed more than 53,000 people in 100 countries, discovered that only a third of the people interviewed believe the Holocaust has been described accurately in historical accounts, with some of the doubters believing the number of deaths has been greatly exaggerated and others claiming the Holocaust is a myth. The study also found that people under 65, regardless of their religious affiliation, were more likely to believe that facts about the Holocaust have been distorted.
The decline in knowledge about the Holocaust can be attributed, at least in part, to the passage of time. For most young people, World War II is the story of their “great-grandpa,” in the words of Father Desbois; it isn’t relevant to their lives.
The increase in the number of people casting doubt on the historical record, on the other hand, can be traced to the work of Holocaust deniers, who have successfully used the Internet and social media to disseminate false information.
To help combat this growing trend of Holocaust denial and distortion, and create a new generation of Holocaust scholars, Father Desbois teaches a course at Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization about the forensic study of the Holocaust. Forensics is a discipline that collects and identifies physical remnants to draw conclusions about the “who, what, when, and where” of a crime. He and the Yahad staff also offer field courses where American and European students can meet with witnesses, as we are doing on our trip, and see some of the killing sites with their own eyes.
We retrace our steps and return to the entrance of the forest. The elderly man is still there. Apparently, he has been waiting for us. He begins to speak, in Ukrainian. Fortunately, Olga is still with us to translate.
Iossyp tells us that his family arrived at a nearby village after the war, when there was a population exchange between the Poles and Ukrainians. He saw the Soviet soldiers come in their trucks and open the graves. He was only five or six years old at the time.
He seems relieved to have shared this memory of long ago. We don’t ask how often he comes to the forest, or what he thinks about when he is there. We are beginning to think like Father Desbois and his team of forensic detectives — this is one more small piece of evidence to add to the gigantic jigsaw puzzle called the Holocaust, one more voice declaring the crimes really did happen.
Remember =The Children
“The trucks were opened, and the children started to fall down. They were falling on heads. They were falling on arms. They were all shouting and crying”
—Zygmunt, Zbylitowska Gora
n the second day of the trip, we meet with two witnesses at the mass grave site near Zbylitowska Gora, a Polish village near Tarnow; Tarnow was home to 25,000 Jews before the war. Michal Chojak, Yahad’s deputy research director, serves as our translator.
Jan, the first witness, says he was forced to become part of the Baudienst labor force when he was 20. According to Father Desbois, the Nazi policy of forcing the locals to work for them is one reason the Poles don’t feel guilt. They feel they were just a tool, not the perpetrators of war crimes.
Jan spent only one day working at this killing site. Along with the other members of his team, he had to drag already dead bodies to a mass grave and assist with the killing of a truck full of Jews who were still alive. He didn’t personally witness the slaughter of Tarnow’s children. But a friend saw it and described to him how the Germans grabbed the children and smashed them against trees, before throwing their now lifeless bodies into the pit.
At the age of 95, Jan is frail and walks with a cane. But as he speaks, his face becomes animated and his words, even in translation, become more urgent. It’s clear there is something more he wants to say, something more he wants us to hear.
He describes a scene he witnessed when the Jews of Tarnow were being deported. His job was to search the now-deserted homes for valuables. Anything of value had to be given to the Germans, who shipped the items back to Germany. The locals got what the Germans didn’t want. While he was transferring the valuables to a warehouse, he passed a building where he heard some Jews screaming.
“I heard people asking for water,” he tells us. “They were suffocating inside. There was a well nearby. I decided to bring a bucket of water to the people. At that moment there was an SS officer who saw me. He kicked me, and he told me that if I do it one more time he will shoot me.”
After Jan leaves, Father Desbois explains, “You must know that in Ukraine every German commander was free to do as he pleased. He had a general order to kill Jews, but he could shoot them, suffocate them, or kill them with knives. He didn’t have to explain how he did it. That is why we have filmed 5,800 witnesses. Because after these witnesses are gone, there will be no trace of the crimes.”
The second witness, Zygmunt, was seven years old when he saw a truck filled with Jewish children pull up to this field, which was near his family’s farm. After telling us about the way most of the children tumbled out of the truck, he adds, “I don’t know what happened with one child, but he couldn’t walk. A German took him by the leg and started to drag him in the direction of the pit. At that time there was a kind of barrier that led to the field, and this German took this child and smashed his head on the barrier. The child was maybe nine or ten.”
Ever dispassionate, Father Desbois comments, “What was not resolved for me as an investigator, when I first heard testimony about this site, was how you could make children stand still and not move. You cannot put children near a mass grave and say, ‘Stand still, while I shoot you.’ The children will try to run away.”
The testimonies we have just heard resolve that question. But it raises another: How can he remain so unmoved by the stories he hears?
As it turns out, his unemotional “just the facts” veneer is not the entire story. His commitment to locating Jewish mass graves — not a usual occupation for a Catholic priest — has its source in the very strong emotional connection he still has to his now deceased grandfather, Claudius Desbois, who was a French prisoner of war during World War II. The elder Desbois was incarcerated in a prison in Rava Ruska, a Ukrainian town located near the border with Poland.
“I knew nothing about the Holocaust until I was 13,” Father Desbois explains. “No one talked. My grandfather only said that although conditions in his camp were bad, it was worse outside.”
As a youngster, Father Desbois would wonder what could be worse than being a prisoner, with little to eat or drink. Later he realized his grandfather must have been referring to the Jews. “I am certain he saw what was going on — outside the camp they shot 15,000 Jews.”
In 2002 he traveled to Rava Ruska to see the place where his grandfather had been imprisoned. When he realized there was nothing to commemorate the spot where the Jews had been murdered, he was determined to rectify the situation. How did that turn into a 16-year odyssey that has taken him all over Eastern Europe?
“I don’t know,” he says. Then he adds, “I still feel the presence of my grandpa.”
From Generation to Generation Father Desbois’s work has won him many accolades and honors, including the Légion d’Honneur (France’s highest honor), the Humanitarian Award by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the National Jewish Book Award for his 2008 book Holocaust by Bullets, an account of his search for the mass graves of Eastern Europe.
Naturally, he has his critics as well. Historian Omer Bartov, for example, a professor of European history and German studies at Brown University who is considered an expert on genocide, has criticized Father Desbois for being too accepting of his witnesses’ testimony, especially when it comes to absolving them of guilt. In reply, others make the same point that Father Desbois made to us: Once you start blaming people, they shut up.
Indeed, the Catholic priest’s recurring criticism about the Jewish People’s lack of interest in visiting and setting up memorials at Ukraine’s mass grave sites has made more than a few members of our group uneasy.
In truth, his criticism isn’t 100 percent accurate. Ohalei Tzadikim, Lo Tishkach European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative, and the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities (VAAD) Ukraine are three examples of Jewish organizations working to find and preserve Jewish cemeteries and mass graves.
Yet there is no escaping the fact that of the many Jews who come to Ukraine to daven at the kevarim of tzaddikim such as the Baal Shem Tov or Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, very few will hike out to the fields where the mass graves are located and say Kaddish. As for the hundreds of mass graves filled with ordinary and nameless Jews scattered across Ukraine and other Eastern European countries, they are mainly untended and forgotten, unless a family with a connection to the site has put up a marker.
To learn why more Jews don’t visit Ukraine, I turn to Rabbi Aubrey Hersh, a protégé of renowned British historian Sir Martin Gilbert, who has been invited by Heritage Retreats to provide a Torah and historical perspective to our group. In addition to being senior lecturer and projects director at London’s JLE, a social and educational center for young Jews, Rabbi Hersh has taken 150 heritage tours to Europe.
“If people are traveling to Eastern Europe with the intention of seeing firsthand the places where the Holocaust happened, it is very important to incorporate Ukraine into the itinerary,” Rabbi Hersh comments. “The difference between Ukraine and Poland is that for most people Poland is about the larger, more mechanized, more impersonal factories of death, where the numbers are staggering but the process was somewhat at arm’s length. In Ukraine, as in Lithuania and Latvia, the killings were face-to-face. The Jews found their end in the very places where they had lived. But there are a number of difficulties that exist — technical and historical.”
While there are a few Ukrainian cities where Yiddishkeit is thriving, such as Kiev, Odessa, and Zhitomir, in general, the tourism infrastructure isn’t as well developed in Ukraine as in Poland. This means the logistics of a kosher tour are harder to organize, and a trip can cost significantly more. An even larger problem is what Rabbi Hersh calls “the absence of a narrative.” The mass graves are scattered across the countryside. Even if a group were to make the effort to visit some of the sites, in most places there is nothing to see, other than an empty field or forest clearing.
“You often don’t know in any great depth the particular narrative of the village where the killings took place,” he says. “Unlike the sifrei zikaron that exist for large towns, you won’t find anything specific for the smaller ones. Father Desbois’s work gives a broader picture, but not all of it is available in English. All this makes it much more demanding to create a trip.”
Later in our trip, when we are having dinner in Krakow, at the site of Sarah Schenirer’s Bais Yaakov Seminary, Rabbi Hersh will address an even larger question: Whether it’s Poland or Ukraine, why are we visiting places where our people suffered and were destroyed? Why come here?
“I came to Poland once with Rav Moshe Shapira ztz”l, whose grandparents were killed in Lithuania in a mass grave,” says Rabbi Hersh, who explains that Rav Shapira was visibly distressed when they arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau and was unable to bring himself to enter the camps. Later, when he was asked to give a shiur, Rav Shapira said he wasn’t in a frame of mind where he felt he could teach. “But he did give us one thought. Basically, he posed the question I just asked: What are we doing here? What do we hope to achieve?
“He said there is a pasuk in Sefer Devarim that tells us about how we merit the Geulah — how we merit Eretz Yisrael and the Beis Hamikdash. It says that it’s not as a result of your righteousness and your straight path that HaKadosh Baruch Hu is disinheriting the non-Jews of Eretz Canaan and giving it to you. It’s because of what they have done to you.
“So we have to be ‘mishtayech’ — we have to be linked to what has occurred to our people — in order for us to say to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, ‘Higi’a zeman. Bring us the Geulah.’ That is a reason to come to these places, to understand how deep the galus is, how much suffering we have been through, whether that galus happened to our direct ancestors or whether it happened thousands of years ago. We have an individual destiny and a national destiny. The route can be circuitous, depending on the choices we make as a nation, but our national destiny gets us from A to B to Mashiach.”
Gathering the Missing Links
t a roundtable discussion, Father Desbois brings up a few topics that are on his mind: the new Holocaust law in Poland (“It will have a bad effect. We see that more people who don’t like the Jews feel freer to say it.”); the situation in Europe, where Jews are once again being killed because they’re Jews (“The enemies of the Jews don’t sleep. I would say that 80 percent of the planet has a positive memory of Hitler.”); the mass grave sites of the one million Jews that still need to be investigated.
“I’m the old guy, but my team is young,” he says, cracking a rare smile. Then he quickly becomes serious again. “A third of my students at Georgetown University are secular Jews and even they are beginning to doubt the scale of the Holocaust,” he says. “Because they know nothing.
“We need to prepare the new generation — teach a new generation how to investigate for themselves. The new generation won’t meet survivors or witnesses. There will only be memory and history.”
Yahad has several educational initiatives in the United States and Europe, including college and teacher-training courses, traveling exhibitions, and a website with an interactive map showing the sites of mass graves. There are, of course, many other Holocaust studies programs. But the nagging question remains: Who will be the guardians of Holocaust memory and history?
While we’d like to think it will be serious scholars in search of the truth, Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld, emeritus chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, wrote back in 2007 about the ways Holocaust memory is being distorted. He listed 11 of them, including: Holocaust Equivalence, which today we are seeing in countries like Ukraine, where some have made an equivalence between the Nazi brutality toward the Jews and the Soviet brutality toward Ukrainians; Holocaust Deflection, like the right-wing nationalists in Poland who insist Poles were also the victims of Nazi aggression and therefore shouldn’t be blamed for the crimes they themselves committed; Holocaust Trivialization, where the word “Nazi” is used to describe any politician or authority figure you don’t like and “genocide” becomes a catch-all description of any act of aggression; and Holocaust Inversion, which has been taken up by a small but noisy group of American Millennials belonging to student groups like If Not Now, who claim that Israelis are the new Nazis and they are committing genocide against the Palestinians.
“We should have hakaras hatov for the work Father Desbois is doing,” comments Rabbi Mordechai Kreitenberg, who has seen with his own eyes the toll that ignorance and apathy has taken on young Jews. “But preserving the memory of the Holocaust is only one aspect of the war we Jews are presently fighting. We have broader concerns. We have to ensure the future of Klal Yisrael as well.”
Rabbi Kreitenberg is himself the child of Holocaust survivors. Pictures of some members of his father’s family arriving at Birkenau — only his father and one uncle survived — are hanging on the walls of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum. They also hang in Rabbi Kreitenberg’s office.
“I grew up in Los Angeles,” he says. “About 95 percent of the kids in my high school were Jewish. When I went back for my tenth-year reunion, I looked around the room and saw that no one cared that they were born Jewish or realized what a gift they had been given. My response, as an observant Jew and the son of Holocaust survivors, has been to be involved in Jewish education, specifically focusing on the unaffiliated. We have to save this generation of assimilated Jews from self-imposed obliteration.”
Heritage Retreats, the organization founded by Rabbi Kreitenberg in 2000, combines an outdoor camping and hiking experience at one of America’s gorgeous national parks with an intensive Torah learning program led by leading rabbanim. While the retreats may be only one week, Rabbi Kreitenberg says the impact is very often long-lasting. Many of the young people go on to learn in yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael and the United States.
“One young man was recently offered a six-figure job at Amazon, but he deferred it to learn in yeshivah for a year,” says Rabbi Kreitenberg, who adds that many of the earlier participants of the program are today very involved in their respective frum communities.
Five years ago, he added a trip to Poland.
“I’m always searching for tools to engage young people to explore their identity,” he says. “Possibly, as a result, they will let Hashem and Torah into their lives. I saw Poland as one of those tools.”
Many of the young professionals who sign up for the Poland trip have already done a Birthright trip to Eretz Yisrael. What does a trip to Poland add?
Rabbi Kreitenberg explains that unlike our tour with Father Desbois, which focused on the historical aspects of the Holocaust, the tour for these young people is geared toward seeing the heroic nature and perseverance of the Jewish People and the vibrancy of Jewish life in prewar Europe.
“Many have told me afterward that the trip to Poland awakened their Jewish pride — they saw how we have prevailed as a people, getting from the Holocaust to where we are today. Because of the political situation in Eretz Yisrael, the picture has become blurred and doesn’t have the same impact.
“We live in a world that is so out of focus,” he adds. “This generation has pretty much grown up with a silver spoon in their mouth. When there is so much material comfort and almost no adversity, they can lose perspective. So when you take people to a concentration camp or a mass grave, it makes them stop and think about what’s important. It creates a call to action. I’ve had a number of people say they never valued having a Jewish family, or even having kids, but after being in Poland they have a new appreciation of the value of life. It’s the same with keeping mitzvos. When they learn about how our people kept the mitzvos while under such duress, it makes them realize, ‘I should keep them too.’ ”
When asked how he would respond to Father Desbois’s charges that the Jewish People aren’t doing enough to preserve the memory of the mass graves, Rabbi Kreitenberg replies, “Father Desbois’s message that we must not forget the dead is meaningful, but his way of remembering is different from ours. His idea is about the sanctity of the place, what transpired.
“But the education I received from my rebbeim has to do with the sanctity of the person and the growth that is supposed to take place. Our response is that our remembrance of how these people died has to translate into how we are going to live our life differently.
“I once heard a shiur from Rav Moshe Shapira during the intifada about how we all had to do something. I walked up to him after the shiur and asked, ‘What should I do?’ And he said, ‘If I tell you what to do, it’s worthless.’
“You have to figure it out on your own. When I think about the sacrifices my parents and their families made during the Holocaust because they were Jewish, I know I have to do something. So for me, it’s my kiruv organization. For others, it might be making a better Shabbos, or becoming a better parent, or having a stronger commitment to ahavas Yisrael. But the Holocaust requires a response from all of us. It requires us to breathe new life into ourselves.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 727)