Searching for the Truth from the Eyes of the Witness

A couple of weeks ago, I came into the room and my boyfriend was watching 60 Minutes. This is not a show we typically watch, but the subject matter this time around was one that captivated both of us. The story was called The Hidden Holocaust, and told the story of a French Catholic priest who has made it his mission to find forgotten victims of the Holocaust whose remains lie in unmarked mass graves in the former USSR.

(Featured Image Photo Credit: CBS News/60 Minutes)

I bring this story to my blog today because of the implication of what this man is doing. The Holocaust was an attempt by one group of people to silence another, to eradicate them. And in a lot of ways, they very nearly succeeded. It doesn’t surprise me to learn that the records kept of just how many victims were executed and where these executions took place is not accurate or even available.

Father Patrick Desbois has been working for 13 years trying to piece together the stories and to find these grave sites. And while he is working to correctly catalog the records of these people, he is also doing something else. He is tracking down witnesses and taking down their stories. He listens to what they witnessed. Everyone he speaks to, of course, was a child during the Holocaust. And they witnessed unimaginable atrocities. But they are also the key. They witnessed the horrors and they help the priest find grave sites that were not recorded. They also tell a story of the holocaust that comes from a perspective that many haven’t heard before.

One such story is the fact that the executions were spectacles, at least according to this news story. From what I understand, a lot of the photography was cropped in such a way as to suggest that they were done in secret when this was actually not the case. This is a new idea to me. I don’t remember hearing about such a thing in school. Some of these people had never told a soul what they’d witnessed and the show comments that some of them seemed to have been waiting for the priest to find them.

Finding these voices who were behind the lines and wide-eyed witnesses to the atrocities of this attempted mass-extermination is an extraordinary accomplishment and it means so much in many ways to history, to the witnesses themselves and to those who were lost. The Holocaust is something that matters a lot to me personally as my grandfather helped in the fight against the Nazis as a member of the U.S. Navy. It’s something that will always make me turn my head.

But I do want to turn this idea toward literature and writing a little bit, if I may. I’m not historical expert, but the story told through the photographs, propaganda and words of the Nazis and even the allies who fought against them is sometimes so different from the truth. They say history is written by the winners. But the documentation left behind by the losers did not give the winners, if you will, an accurate picture of the atrocities they had committed. The people. The survivors. And you can think of them what you will for they did not stand up and try to stop the villainy they witnessed. Father Patrick Desbois does not judge them. He listens and records their stories. But he doesn’t judge them. Remember, that everyone he is speaking to at this point was a child during the Holocaust.

Witnesses are important for storytelling. They can make a difference in a court of law between a proclamation of innocence or guilt. This is why many of them are frequently swept under the carpet so that the truth can never get out. In a work of fiction, a witness can make all the difference and can provide a really fascinating perspective through which to tell a story. I would argue almost that The Great Gatsby is written in a similar way. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire is another great perspective on a classic tale. Told from the perspective of an unexpected character, the insight into the traditional story is anything but. Cinderella’s story is told by one of her step-sisters. One person is telling the story of another person from their own perspective, from what he or she has witnessed is a fascinating way to do it. It’s certainly not an easy way to tell a story. I’ve attempted to do it.

The witnesses in this case are also, arguably, victims. What they saw 70 years ago cannot be unseen. They carried it around for all that time and even though they survived, I’m sure most of them lost something that day that could never be retrieved.

The work of Father Patrick Desbois is fascinating and it means a lot historically. But I think it also shows us as writers something important. Honestly, it surprises me that there were as many witnesses to the executions as there appear to be. But witnesses mattered to the Nazis. It was a way of exhibiting control over people even though it also was a risk. As a writer and a reader, learning about this new tactic of ground zero type of work has really gotten my mind turning about my own writing.

3 thoughts on “Searching for the Truth from the Eyes of the Witness

  1. It’s scary, isn’t it? Knowing there were that many witnesses. I try to stay alert to anything similar going on around me — an atrocity that I’m witnessing but not putting a stop to.

  2. Wow. This is really fascinating, and I love how you’ve considered the implications of it — both for history and for literature. Great post.

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