How does one become involved in the study of the Holocaust? How does it become one’s life work? What are the sign posts along the road that lead an individual to dedicate themselves to discovering, trying to understand and warning others of the danger of genocide.
This was the topic last night at a conference in Paris where Father Patrick Desbois joined Serge Klarsfeld for an intensely personal discussion of the respective paths which brought them both to what has been called “man’s greatest inhumanity to man.”
Serge Klarsfeld spoke of the terrible “referential moment” that struck his life as a boy when his father was arrested by the SS and sent to his death in Auschwitz. But he also described the long period which followed the war during which the Holocaust — and even the war itself — was not spoken of, was not part of the public consciousness, was not widely written about and was not a subject of academic study. “There were no courses in the Holocaust; there were no theses submitted on the subject because there were no professors to whom they could be submitted.” It was not until an awakening in the late 70’s and early 80’s and the production of major films such as “Shoah” that the Holocaust received the attention that it has today.
He said the turning point in his life came when he met his wife, Beate, the Christian, German-born daughter of a Wehrmacht soldier, whose fighting spirit was epitomized by her famous public slap of the West German Chancellor who had been involved in Nazi propaganda (see December 18, 2010 blog, “Heroine in the House.”) Together, the Klarsfelds have become international renowned for their activism in documenting the Holocaust and pursuing the prosecution of Nazi war criminals. Gesturing to Serge at his side and Beate in the front row, Father Desbois paid homage to their pioneering role reminding the audience that when they began 50 years ago, “there was no Serge and Beate that prior to Serge and Beate.”
Father Desbois’ story is very familiar to readers of the Holocaust by Bullets who follow Yahad’s activities: his grandfather’s imprisonment as a wartime prisoner in Rawa Ruska, Ukraine; his statement to his grandson Patrick that while it was very hard in the camp, “it was worse for others” outside; Patrick’s chance visit to Rawa Ruska and subsequent discovery of the readiness of eyewitnesses to recount what they had seen, the Nazis’ mass shootings of Jews and Roma; leading to the founding of Yahad – In Unum and the quest to identify the locations of the mass graves that has resulted to date in 1,800 videotaped interviews in towns and villages across Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and Poland.
The title of the conference was “The Combat for Memory,” and both men spoke of a fight not about mass numbers but in terms of giving a name and a face to the Holocaust’s individual victims. Said Father Desbois, “unfortunately, genocide is a story of humans.”