Father Patrick Desbois Receives HUC-JIR's Highest Honor; Roger E. Joseph Prize Recognizes Individuals Making Lasting Contributions to the Causes of Human Rights

Thursday, May 1, 2008

([From left] Rabbi David Ellenson, President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, awarding the 2008 Roger E. Joseph Prize to Father Patrick Desbois, who has devoted his life to confronting anti-Semitism, furthering Catholic-Jewish relations, and preserving Holocaust memory. [At right] Sarah and Jesse Leopold and Roger Joseph, the grandchildren of Roger E. Joseph.)  

Rabbi David Ellenson presented the 2008 Roger E. Joseph Prize to Father Patrick Desbois, who has devoted his life to confronting anti-Semitism, furthering Catholic-Jewish understanding, and preserving Holocaust memory, at a ceremony during Ordination and Investiture Services at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York on Sunday, May 4, 2008. The Joseph Prize ceremony preceded the ordination of 18 rabbis (of the 55 rabbinical graduates of the Class of 2008 in New York, Los Angeles, and Cincinnati) and the investiture of 6 cantors. 

Rabbi Ellenson stated, "In capturing the evidence of the Shoah, before the last eye-witnesses are gone, Father Desbois reminds the world that genocide is the murder of individual victims, one by one, by one. Father Desbois's mission reinforces our own commitment to combat all forms of racial, ethnic, and religious hatred and to advance the cause of education, tolerance, and human rights for all." 

Since 2001, Father Desbois, advisor to the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews and President of Yahad - In Unum: Catholics and Jews Together, has led a truly historic undertaking. In cooperation with scholars from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, he and his team have been crisscrossing the countryside in Ukraine trying to locate every mass grave of Jews from the time of the Holocaust. 

Father Desbois's documentation of the mass killing sites in the Ukraine during the Holocaust sheds light on the brutality of the Nazi regime and their collaborators. With the German Army's invasion of Soviet territory on June 22, 1941, army units were accompanied by Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing squads. Jews in hundreds of small communities were rounded up, herded to the nearby countryside, and shot -- one by one -- by the 3000 men in the four Einsatzgruppen, their support troops, local Ukrainian police, and collaborators - all with the assistance of the Germany army. About 1.5 million Jewish men, women, and children were individually killed in this way - before the implementation of extermination by gas as a more efficient means of mass murder. 

Using the Museum's archives to inform the search, to date Father Desbois and his team have visited about a third of the country and identified 800 mass graves and execution sites. Father Desbois estimates more than 2,000 sites exist, most never before acknowledged. Father Desbois is marking the sites, collecting the artifacts and, most significantly, recording video testimonies from people who as young teens witnessed the murders and in some cases were recruited to perform tasks at the killing sites. Now, for the first time, they are sharing their experiences and their historic testimonies will become part of the documentation of the Shoah

As a boy in France, Father Desbois was haunted by his grandfather's experiences as a prisoner in an Ukrainian labor camp during World War II. Driven by this childhood memory, Father Desbois told the NBC Today Show on January 18, 2008, "If we don't establish the proof of these crimes, other killers can decide to do the same. It's my personal prayer to say to God, remember. Remember David, Isaac, Daniel. Remember what happened." 

In accepting the Joseph Prize, Father Desbois said, "We have uncovered 800 mass graves thus far, and know that these represent only 40% of the mass graves of Ukraine. We will soon begin to do the same research in Belarus, and hope to do so in Russia, too. My motivation for this sacred task was best expressed by Pope John Paul II when he told the Jews of Rome during his historic visit to their synagogue: 'You are brothers of faith.' Throughout the fields and forests of Eastern Europe, I have heard the echoes of God's question to Cain, 'Where is your brother?', and I have heard Abel's cry. We cannot keep silent." 

The 2008 Roger E. Joseph Prize Citation, which accompanies the $10,000 honorarium, states:


Loyal son of the Catholic Church 

Inspiring example of a man governed by memory and conscience who has long waited to pay singular homage to his grandfather and to all the Jews who were caught in the Nazi abyss 

Inspired by the perennial battle between good and evil, courage and cowardice, generosity and greed, Father Patrick Desbois has kept his personal pledge to depict the nightmare that has haunted him while everlastingly recalling his grandfather's words as he sought to interpret the misery that had befallen the Jews 

Who has been relentless and selfless in his devotion to methodically record the extermination of the Ukraine's one and half million Jews with a completeness of detail giving each victim a concrete identity - removing their repression, degradation and murder from the realm of abstract evil to that of the wrenchingly particular 

And whose personal gifts of mind and heart have earned him the gratitude and respect of seekers and pursuers 

Barbara Friedman, Chair
Board of Governors
David Ellenson

4 May 2008 - 29 Nisan 5768
The City of New York

The Roger E. Joseph Prize was established thirty years ago by a generous gift from Burton M. Joseph and his sister, Mrs. Betty Greenberg, in memory of their brother, a lawyer, World War II hero, and polio victim. Although almost completely paralyzed, he resumed his law practice and advanced causes of social justice, inspired by his own exceptional personal courage and passionate devotion to principle and justice. 

The first Joseph Prize was awarded in 1978, to Victor Kugler, who risked his and his loved ones' lives to shelter Anne Frank and her family. Over the past thirty years, the Joseph Prize recipients have included:

  • the people of Le Chambon, a Huguenot village in France which rescued thousands of Jewish children during the Holocaust;
  • Helen Suzman, a leader of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa;
  • The Center for Legal and Social Studies, the most prominent human rights group in Argentina;
  • Rosa Parks, the "mother" of the American civil rights movement;
  • Vu Than Thuy and the Boat People SOS Committee, responsible for the rescue of thousands of Vietnamese refugees stranded in the South China Sea;
  • the First Congregational Church of Billings, Montana, and the Montana Association of Churches for their moral and spiritual conviction in combating prejudice and anti-Semitic hate crimes.
  • The Center for Victims of Torture and the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture;
  • Morris S. Dees, and the Southern Poverty Law Center;
  • the Humanitarian Law Center and Natasa Kandic for their courageous research and dissemination of the documentation of genocide in Kosovo;
  • Daniel Pearl, posthumously, and the Daniel Pearl Foundation, to honor the memory and mission of this inspiring and courageous journalist, of blessed memory, whose integrity was grounded in a commitment to justice and a love for humanity;
  • Jan Egeland, Under Secretary General of Humanitarian Affairs at the United Nations, for rescue efforts in Darfur and around the globe;
  • Clementina Cantoni, the Italian CARE International aid worker who risked her life to aid the women of Afghanistan;
  • and last year, the Whitwell Middle School Holocaust Memorial and Paper Clip Project, for teaching tolerance and commemorating the ultimate consequences of racism and discrimination.

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's first institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu