The Phoenix Holocaust Association, in coordination with other organizations, is bringing “Holocaust by Bullets” to the Valley from Jan. 26 through April 27. “HBB” showcases the work of Yahad-In Unum (translation: together as one), a non-governmental organization based in Paris and its founder, Father Patrick Desbois.
Father Desbois, a French Roman Catholic priest, founded YIU to research and uncover genocidal practices around the world. His first book, Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews, is based on this work. His second book on this topic, In Broad Daylight: The Secret Procedures Behind the Holocaust by Bullets, was released in 2018.
Working closely with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s staff and archives, Yahad-In Unum identified and documented the murders of more than 2 million Jews and Roma in the former Soviet Union at 2,700 execution sites in seven countries and facilitated 6,700 videotaped eyewitness testimonies. Of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, about 40% were killed in mass shootings by Hitler’s mobile killing squads, the Einsatzgruppen.
Sheryl Bronkesh, president of Phoenix Holocaust Association, spearheaded the endeavor to bring “HBB” to the Valley. She has a personal connection to the work Father Desbois is doing.
“My grandfather and great grandparents were murdered by one of the Einsatzgruppen killing units,” says Sheryl. “Father Desbois himself has been to my mother’s hometown, and they’ve made multiple trips there. It was a very large massacre – there were between 14,000 and 18,000 Jews killed in two days.”
Sheryl continues. “My mom and her mother and sister survived because they left. In the town, they had made a ghetto and then they moved everybody to a big soccer filed near the hospital, which is still there today, so everybody had to have seen it.”
She admits she didn’t always believe her parents’ story because it just wasn’t a story you’d hear about the Holocaust. When Father Desbois’s first book came out, she shared it with her mother.
“My mother read this book and she kept saying to me, ‘See I told you everything I told you was true,’ ” remembers Sheryl. Her mother even wrote a note in the book, “Bronia Bronkesh, Scottsdale, Arizona, 2008. Born in 1921 in Sarny, Ukraine, now formerly Poland.”
“My mom died almost four years ago,” says Sheryl. “Two years ago, I went and I met Father Desbois. I had this book with me, and I asked if he would autograph my mother’s book, even though my mother was dead, and he wrote, ‘In the name of Jews of Sarny.’ It was hard to hold it in.”
That was Jan. 29, 2018, when Father Desbois spoke at Northern Arizona University for International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Sheryl and a group of 25 other headed up north from Phoenix. “After we heard him speak, every one of us on the bus on the way home said we’ve got to get him,” she remembers.
John Liffiton, director of the Genocide Awareness Conference held annually at Scottsdale Community College, upon hearing Father Desbois’ moving words at NAU, agreed that the conferences needed Father Desbois. Now, he will be the opening night speaker to kick off the 2020 Genocide Awareness Week on April 20 at 5 pm at the Franciscan Renewal Center.
Father Desbois’s talk will be near the end of the three-month run of “Holocaust by Bullets.” At the core of the program is a 2,000 square-foot exhibition that showcases YIU’s thorough and carefully curated research, enabling visitors to learn about this lesser-known facet of the Holocaust using eyewitness video testimonies, photographs and quotes. The exhibition opens Jan. 26, at Burton Barr Library, Noble Library on the Tempe campus of Arizona State University, and a smaller exhibition at the Arizona Capitol Museum. The exhibition opens with a reception and lecture sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum featuring Dr. Wendy Lower, Ph.D., Academic Committee Chair, Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, USHMM, John K. Roth Professor of History and George R. Roberts Fellow at Claremont McKenna College.
Students and the general public have the opportunity to learn about “Holocaust by Bullets” by touring YIU’s exhibit. School field trips will be scheduled at Burton Barr Library, where students will be led through the exhibition by trained docents, hear local Holocaust survivors speak, and participate in an art project. Docent-led school tours will also be available at the Capitol Museum.
“Burton Barr Library is the most wonderful place with the most wonderful people,” says Sheryl. “They’re giving us all the space we need. We’re going to have an art area so the kids who come through the exhibit will have the ability to make posters that they can take back to share with their school.”
Lectures, films and book talks will also take place throughout the Valley. The lecture series, which will take place at the Burton Barr Library during February, will feature professors from Arizona State University, the Martin-Springer Institute at Northern Arizona University, as well as a Holocaust expert and daughter of a survivor.
Sheryl imagines her mother’s hand guiding this project. She remembers when she visited Ukraine with her daughter and mother in 2009. At the edge of the mass grave site, her mother produced a plastic bag and told Sheryl to dig.
“I said, ‘What do you mean, dig? I’m in a foreign country,’ ” she says. “My mother said, ‘Fill this up.’ You didn’t argue with my mother. I filled it up and I said, ‘What are we doing with this?’ and she said, ‘I’ll tell you later.’ ”
When they returned from their trip, Bronia had Sheryl send some dirt to her sister and her cousin. Then when she passed, Sheryl sprinkled some on her mother’s casket.
“She wanted her father and her grandparents to have a burial in a place that has a tombstone,” says Sheryl.
The care and research put into this exhibition by Father Desbois and Yahad-In Unum represent incredible efforts to bring peace to other families whose relatives remain in those unmarked graves.
For a full schedule of the events for “Holocaust by Bullets,” visit holocaustbybulletsphoenix.com.