Father Desbois, Braman Endowed Professor of the Practice of the Forensic Study of the Holocaust, teaches the course “The Holocaust by Bullets” with Rev. Dennis McManus at Georgetown University. One of the leading universities in the United States, Father Desbois has taught at Georgetown University since fall 2014. The course explores the Holocaust by bullets and Father Desbois draws upon Yahad’s original research and sources, including witness testimonies and our interactive map, to teach this difficult subject matter to undergraduate students.
This past spring, students who completed the course were given the opportunity to participate in an educational trip to Ukraine and Poland with Father Desbois and Yahad researchers, organized by Yahad-In Unum, where they sat in on witness testimonies, visited mass grave sites as well as the extermination camps of Belzec and Auschwitz. The previous year, students traveled on the field with the Yahad-In Unum team to witness how research was conducted in Moldova and Romania. You can see highlights from the trips in the photos and excerpts from students’ reflections on the research below.
GU Student Educational Trip in Belarus and Poland, Organized by Yahad-In Unum and Accompanied by Seton Hill University – March 2017
From March 4-10, Father Desbois and Yahad-In Unum team members guided 33 students from Georgetown University and Seton Hill University on the third annual Spring Break Field Course to visit places of Jewish memory in Poland and Belarus. This field course is unique in that it enables students to learn about the Holocaust by Bullets through field experience, where they meet with witnesses that Yahad-In Unum has previously interviewed and discover sites of memory that were identified by our organization. Moreover, the Field Course is the culmination of the annual course that Father Desbois teaches in the fall at Georgetown University as it enables students to put in practice what they have studied in the classroom.
Father Desbois explained the significance of this field course: “I train the students to investigate the genocide as a series of crimes because each Jew faced his killer. This path of study is a powerful method of fighting against negationism. It has helped Jewish students to reconnect with their origins as many of them have now been able to say Kaddish on mass graves, in towns where this prayer has not been uttered for more than 70 years.”
During the trip, students visited the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau as well as the lesser-visited site of Auschwitz I, were guided through the Jewish history of Oświęcim, toured the fortress of Brest and met with witnesses as well as visited a mass grave in Bronnaya Gora.
What Father Desbois and Yahad-In-Unum are doing is essential to securing the memory of these victims, lost in the deep chasm that is the Holocaust. When you walk through the gates of Auschwitz you see cases filled with shoes, hair, and suitcases, but when you walk into the shooting site of Bronnaya Gora, you are faced with the horrifying realization that few people remember the Jews of Brest.
GU Student Educational Trip in Ukraine and Poland, Organized by Yahad – In Unum – March 2016
Between March 7 – 11, 15 Georgetown students who had previously completed Father Desbois’s “Holocaust by Bullets” course at Georgetown University joined him and the Yahad investigation team in Ukraine and Poland for an educational trip focusing on the Holocaust in the East. Over the course of these five days, the students visited mass graves in Busk and sat in on witness interviews in Sokolivka, Ukraine, saw the protected mass grave in Rava-Ruska, and visited the Belzec extermination camp and the Auschwitz Memorial Museum in Poland.
From these contrasting experiences, the question arose within me: did Nazism win here? It was only upon reflection of Father Desbois’ work that its answer unfolded – and that the battleground to be won persists to this day, not in a physical actuality but in the battleground of memory that continues to be fought. The horrific story of the massacres of the forest, witnessing the mass graves themselves struggling to be seen injected the often spoken phrase ‘We must never forget’ with a renewed, aching immediacy.
GU Student Educational Trip in Moldova, Organized by Yahad – In Unum – March 2015
Between March 5 – 19, a group of 11 Georgetown University students joined the Yahad team, which included Father Desbois, for a research trip in Moldova. These students completed a course, led by Father Desbois and Reverend Dennis McManus, at Georgetown during the fall semester of 2014.
Many communities we visited had expunged their centuries-old Jewish communities in a day of hatred and violence. In all likelihood, I was probably the first Jew to come back. Saying Kaddish at an unmarked mass grave not far from the Ukrainian border was my way of removing the veil of secrecy under which genocide thrives. It was the continuation of a personal journey integral to my Jewish identity.