I avoided reading this book, entitled “The Holocaust by Bullets,” when it was published in 2013. Perhaps I felt understandably over-exposed to the suffering of Jews in Europe during WWII. But, this book by Patrick Desbois and its successor “In Broad Daylight,” the English translation of which has just been published, reveal a unique insight into the murders of European Jewry before the gas chambers and the ovens of Auschwitz and the other extermination camps had been conceived and built.
There are two unique aspects of this book, first the author is a French Catholic priest, not the usual author of books about the Shoah. Second, he has done original and extensive research into the program of extermination of the Jews in the lands occupied by the Germans early in WWII, in the period, 1941-43.
When The Germans occupied Poland in 1939 they started killing Jews, but they needed to consolidate their conquests and they needed Jewish labor to continue and expand their war effort and so they left the intended exterminations until later when they could get organized. But, by the time they launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, by then they were ready, they had a plan, they were organized to carry out genocide.
The program consisted of four mobile Special Commando units (Einsatzgruppen) that fanned out across the Soviet Union days after the German troops advanced. They each consisted of from 500-1000 German personnel, drawn from the SS and various Wehrmacht groups, under the orders of Heinrich Himmler. They were quite simply death squads, their job was to round-up and massacre Jews wherever they found them. This much was known, but exactly how they went about their task, how they carried out the executions, how they disposed of the bodies, and so on, very little was known. There were even daily reports that were found in the German archives from the four groups detailing their locations and the number of Jews they had murdered, but there were very few eyewitnesses, mainly because nearly all the Jews were dead, and the Germans were under orders to carry out the murders in secrecy.
Father Desbois explains how he became involved in the subject of the Shoah. His grandfather was in the French forces and was captured by the Germans and interned in a camp just over the Polish border in Ukraine, called Rawa-Ruska. He intimated to his grandson that he had suffered there, but he always said that the Jews suffered much worse. When Patrick grew up and chose to be a priest he wondered what his grandfather had meant. He set out to learn about Judaism and eventually managed to visit the site of Rawa-Ruska, where he learnt the terrible truth. In visiting this place he came across people who were actually eyewitnesses to what happened there, to the massacre of the Jews. Later he realized that this was true all over Ukraine, there were local old people, villagers, still alive who had witnessed the terrible massacres. “When we asked them if people had come to the village since the war to talk to them they told us ‘no, you are the first’.” He gradually realized that this was an untapped source of details of one of the greatest crimes in human history.
This realization led to a series of trips, eventually accompanied by a team, that literally went from village to village from town to town, gathering eyewitness testimony to the crimes the Germans has committed, and how they had carried out and organised the massacres. What he discovered, and what was not known until then, was that the Germans had a prearranged plan, depending on the situation. If the number of Jews in any given location was small, they often had them dig their own graves and then simply shot them. But, if the number was larger, or if they were going to bring together Jews from several locations to be murdered together, then they usually requisitioned locals, peasants, farmers, shopkeepers, children, to carry out necessary tasks.
First they would have them dig the trenches (the Germans themselves rarely did this), then they would have them wait until the Jews were brought, under guard in either trucks or carts. At this point the Jews were forced to undress, and the Germans took what they wanted and the rest of the clothes, jewelry, etc. was collected by local people, sorted and transported in requisitioned carts to a central location where it was packed up and sent on further, and what was left behind was left for the peasants. Then the Jews were forced to go to the edge of the pit, or walk into the pit, and they were shot in groups of 4-20, depending on how many shooters there were in the firing squads. When one layer of the pit was covered with bodies, the locals went into the pit and covered the bodies with a layer of sand and lime. They also used Ukrainian children to run across the bodies to tamp them down, they were called “pressers.” Not every one was dead, some people were only wounded, and to avoid wasting bullets, Jewish children were often just thrown into the pit. Then the process was repeated until the pit was full. Then the locals covered the top with sand and earth, and the whole thing disappeared, except that it continued moving for up to three days, until everyone was dead.
The locals were not paid for their work, but they were given chits that enabled them to come and go, and which enabled them to retrieve their carts, horses or whatever the Germans had requisitioned. The Germans evidently trusted the local Ukrainians to keep their secret. This may have worked during the war, but when the Soviets recaptured the territory, they held enquiries that focused on who had collaborated with the Germans. In most villages and towns the local police were arrested and executed. But, the local people kept their secrets, until now.
In this way, crisscrossing the whole of the Ukraine, Desbois discovered massacre sites, some of which were previously unknown. At the edge of one village a man told Desbois that the Germans had dug three big trenches in the forest behind his house and had brought Jews there in trucks from surrounding villages and the shooting went on for months. They estimated that ca. 90,000 people were buried in these mass graves, including some Soviet and Italian POW’s. It is now a small park inside the city of Lviv, where people stroll and have picnics. There are no markers to show what happened there.
It should be noted that the Germans who carried out these massacres were not all hardened SS men. They were mostly ordinary Germans, who nevertheless did their task with dedication. We learn from the book “Ordinary Men” by Christopher Browning that these men did not like shooting people face to face, hence the use of trenches where the shooting was anonymous and the bodies could be covered easily. After a hard day’s work killing Jews the perpetrators had a hearty meal using requisitioned cooks and food from the houses of the Jews and even slaughtered cows from the farms of the Jews they had slaughtered. They drank vodka and sang sentimental German songs. They also set aside pretty young Jewish girls, and usually requisitioned a house where they raped them and kept them sometimes for months, until they were pregnant, and then had them shot elsewhere.
The ideas of concentrating the Jews from various locations and killing them in one central place as a more efficient solution than shooting them all over led to the idea of concentration camps. This was formulated at the Wannsee Conference in Jan 1942 in Berlin by SS and German Govt. officials. As the war progressed and things did not look so good for the Germans, the SS decided to cover up the evidence of their crimes. In Operation 1005 under SS Col. Paul Blobel (who had carried out the Baby Yar massacre) they organized units to go into the Ukraine and follow the routes taken by the einsatzgruppen, and using excavators or forced labor dig up all the bodies (each body was counted) and burn them. The Germans were so meticulous that they experimented with the best way to burn thousands of bodies and found that alternating the corpses with wood to form a pyre on a metal (rail) base was best. Then they took the ashes and using requisitioned agricultural equipment they ground the ashes into dust. The idea of gassing the Jews and cremating the bodies directly also made the whole process more efficient.
The Holocaust by bullets murdered 2.2 million Jews in the former Soviet Union. Most of the archives were not available until after the fall of the Soviet Union. Some people are skeptical of the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust they say that 6 million is unimaginable. If you think this then you must read this outstanding book on a terrible subject. Together with the 1.2 million murdered at Auschwitz and the ca, one million murdered in the other camps (Belzec, Treblinka, etc.) that alone makes a total of 4.4 million. As Desbois states in the book “My work is primarily an act of justice towards the dead,” and “a sacred purpose.”
The only quibble I have with this book is that all the Ukrainian peasants that Desbois interviewed had some form of remorse or repressed suffering about the tragic massacres they had witnessed. Not one of them states explicitly that they were glad the Jews were murdered, or that they participated in the process willingly. This is strange given that the Ukrainians were notoriously anti-Semitic, that their Government, such as it was, was anti-Soviet and welcomed the Germans, and that there were large numbers of Ukrainian volunteers who worked for the Germans and the SS, and they were even considered to be more sadistic than the Germans themselves (in Auschwitz the SS complained about the Ukrainians).
This reminds me somewhat of the story of Margaret Mead, the sociologist who visited Samoa and wrote a book based on what she was told by the young women about their sexual adventures. A generation later it was revealed that they had made up these stories. I have no doubt of the authenticity of the revelations of these Ukrainian peasants, which have been checked against the German archives and archaeological investigations. But, that none of them were outright anti-Semites seems strange. However, in the second book “In Broad Daylight,” that I am reading, he does show that the “requisitioned” Ukrainians took more of an active role in the terrible crimes than they often wanted to admit.