October 6, 2014 – World-renowned French scholar Rev. Patrick Desbois is co-teaching a course at Georgetown that covers an additional and significant number of deaths during the Holocaust and invites students to help conduct research.
The Program for Jewish Civilization (PJC) in the university’s School of Foreign Service (SFS) recently launched a new course – Holocaust by Bullets – that Desbois is teaching with Rev. Dennis McManus, the associate director of PJC.
Desbois and McManus are examining a lesser-known chapter of the genocide of Jews in Europe by exploring the shootings that took place during World War II between 1941 and 1944 across the Soviet territories.
The course, named after the 2008 book Desbois wrote that won the National Jewish Book Award, focuses on the mass executions of Jews in places and in ways that continue to be discovered.
He proposes that more than an additional 2 million people died in the Holocaust.
“The course will help to understand what was going on behind the official reports, to have a real awareness of modern genocides in order to anticipate and fight against them,” Desbois says. “Genocide is a disease of the human species which must named, analyzed and anticipated as much as possible.”
Desbois, who once worked with Mother Theresa, has devoted his life to researching the Holocaust, fighting anti-Semitism and furthering relations between Catholics and Jews.
He has interviewed more than 3,600 witnesses in the former Soviet Union with his association, Yahad In Unum.
Students will help analyze the archival documents Desbois got access to after the Soviet Union collapsed, as well as testimony of those present at the execution sites.
“The whole Yahad team was very excited when they found out that 30 students will study the process of mass violence by crossing-referencing different sources,” Desbois explains. “This will allow us to re-examine and re-evaluate the evidence collected in order to better understand the genocide.”
In conducting research, the organization also found more than 1,500 mass graves of Roma and Jewish victims.
“Students will be at the heart of an investigation that has been conducted in the field,” Desbois explained. “This is a real ‘cold case’ on which light is shed 70 years later.”
McManus saw the interest sparked from Desbois’ visits on campus over several summers, and the idea of the course was born.
“The idea for the course suggested itself from Father Desbois’ superb presentations at the Karski Institute on Holocaust and Genocide Studies in the Program for Jewish Civilization,” McManus explained. “His ability to lecture on the most difficult of subjects and hold his students’ complete attention made it obvious his contributions to the study of this tragedy would be well received by our undergraduates.”
He says the presence of a researcher such as Desbois “signals to our students that Georgetown wants them to study with world-class scholars in diverse fields of investigation.”
“Father Desbois’ expert command of the forensic science that has revealed the truth about the extermination of Jews in the East is, without any doubt, his greatest contribution,” McManus adds. “His work will result in nothing less than revising the historiography of the Holocaust itself. This is a monumental contribution to the field of Holocaust studies.”
Annabelle Timsit, an SFS sophomore majoring in international politics with a concentration in foreign policy, says she decided to take the course because of its research potential.”
“Rarely do we ever have the chance as students to take a class that argues in favor of an earth-shatteringly large claim, such as Father Desbois' argument that 8 million Jews rather than 6 million were killed in the Holocaust,” she says. “The fact that our professor is the one teaching and working on the ground on this issue is fascinating and exciting.”
Jerrod McFarlane (SFS’15) is an international politics major concentrating in security studies.
“The course has been stunning, quite literally,” McFarlane says. “I have frequently found myself bereft of words or thoughts. This is both because of the brutality of what has been presented and analyzed thus far and because of the fundamental questions about humanity it provokes.”
Timsit adds that the professors have “taught us to think beyond the typical class material to the deeper questions of morality, ethic and the role of hyper-nationalism in these mass killings.
Desbois and McManus hope the students come away with a clearer understanding of how the Holocaust happened and how to keep it from happening again.
“At Georgetown, teaching is not only made up of abstract lessons but accompanied by an education to develop a necessary sense of personal responsibility in the studied materials,” he notes. “We must teach the genocide uniquely not just because of the past, but also to deal with the present and build a better future.”