Beyond Self

Susan Nowak and filmmakers

Susan Nowak '77 (far right), chair in religious studies, worked with a videographer and others from Yahad - In Unum (including Fr. Patrick Desbois, second from left) to record testimony from witnesses to mass murder.

Documenting Evil

Students explore the Holocaust to prevent future violence

by Chris Farnum

“Everybody can be a killer. Everybody can be a survivor. Everybody can be a victim,” said Holocaust researcher Father Patrick Desbois to a Nazareth College audience in March. The author of the 2008 Holocaust by Bullets, which won the National Jewish Book Award, explained: “If your life was threatened, you could become a killer, a bystander, or somebody who tries to help. The good and the evil that people are capable of is as much a concern now as during the Nazi regime,” said Desbois. “It’s a human question.”

Nazareth College is taking on that question and the work of understanding evil through teaching, learning, and international educational trips that touch people at their core and challenge them to make the world better.

To further that work, Nazareth hosted Desbois and four members from Yahad – In Unum (which means “together” in Hebrew and Latin), a Paris-based organization dedicated to systematically identifying and documenting sites of Jewish and Roma (gypsy) mass executions. In two days at Nazareth, the visiting experts presented on the particularities of teaching the Holocaust, met with campus and community leaders, and talked with students and others connected to The March: Bearing Witness to Hope, a nine-day Holocaust educational trip to Poland and Germany for students and faculty from Nazareth College and Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and for community members.

Learning and interning

Until recently, Yahad hadn’t welcomed interns from the United States, nor undergraduate interns. But Nazareth’s deepening connection to Yahad is providing new opportunities for Nazareth student interns to help advance the documentation and understanding of genocide. Holocaust historians estimate that six million Jews were murdered between 1933 and 1945. Of that total, 1.5 million died not by poison gas in concentration camps, but by bullets, which is the focus of Yahad’s research. Following the German invasion of the USSR, Nazi death squads rounded up and shot Jews, Roma, and Soviet prisoners in thousands of forests, fields, and villages across Eastern Europe, often demanding villagers dig graves, transport victims to the execution site, and collect belongings after the execution.

Nazareth students can now help uncover and spread the word about the lesser-known and almost-lost history of the Holocaust by bullets. Interns with appropriate language skills can join a Yahad team in the field, recording and translating interviews with now-elderly witnesses who know the location of unmarked mass graves and can recount what they saw. In its first decade, Yahad has recorded interviews with more than 3,600 people. Interns at Yahad’s Paris headquarters can help post information and video segments onto the organization’s online interactive map, available to families of the victims—some of whom reach out to Yahad for information—as well as historians. Work such as this directly supports Nazareth’s vision to cultivate students into aware and engaged human beings who are committed to upholding a dignified history for a dignified future.

Candice Gage ’14 became Yahad’s first undergraduate intern from the U.S. in February, accompanying one of its teams to Guatemala. According to the official registry, about 250,000 indigenous people were killed or disappeared in Guatemala between 1960 and 1994, when peace accords were signed.

Gage, an anthropology major, helped translate witnesses’ transcribed testimony—some originally spoken in a Mayan language—from Spanish to English. She wrote in her blog that witnesses spoke of “the fear that permeated every village: fear for the guerrilla, fear for the military, fear of the unknown.”

Teaching the Holocaust

Susan Nowak ’77, Ph.D., S.S.J., chair of religious studies at Nazareth, accompanied Desbois and Yahad’s research team to Moldova in August 2013. There, with the team’s videographer, interviewer, translators, and other specialists, she heard emotionally wrenching testimony from aging witnesses—translated from Russian to French to English—about mass murders of Jewish and Roma people. “They’re our only link back,” Nowak says of the witnesses, struck by “the power of their stories.”

Nowak, a Holocaust scholar who teaches about the Holocaust, evil, and ethics, also participated in a seminar in France for teachers from East European countries where the Holocaust is taught very little, if at all.

The March: Bearing Witness to Hope

For more than a decade, Holocaust education at Nazareth has included The March: Bearing Witness to Hope. The trip, which took about 50 people to Eastern Europe last May, combines students, faculty, and staff from Nazareth and from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, along with people from the community. Through Yahad, organizers hope to add to the itinerary a meeting with witnesses to the mass shootings.

At Nazareth in March, Michal Chojak, Yahad’s team leader for Poland and Lithuania, met with about 30 students, faculty, and community members who had been on The March or who were preparing to go. Chojak, who is Polish, explained that many elderly Poles who witnessed mass killings are still afraid to speak.

Nazareth’s participants on The March commit to take action in some way when they return, to help transform how people treat each other on campus and in the broader community, Nowak says. Gage’s experience on the trip in 2012 launched her interest in genocide research and justice, with an eventual goal of working for international tribunals.

A dangerous disease

Yahad now has 24 people working full-time in its Paris office and five research teams, supplemented by local people in the field, but Desbois estimates that there are a million mass execution sites that are still not identified. The work is challenging, to say the least.

“It changes your nightmare,” says Desbois. “Each trip into the field lasts about 17 days and takes days to recover from. You feel like you lost somebody.”

Desbois’ public talk at Nazareth, which received a standing ovation, emphasized the need to understand history to build resistance against today’s violence.

“Everyone has to take responsibility for violence,” Desbois says. “Tuberculosis was a disease that couldn’t be treated until it was recognized. Violence is really a dangerous disease.”

Chris Farnum is the content writer and editor in Nazareth’s marketing department.

How Holocaust History Hooked Them

Father Patrick Desbois

Father Patrick Desbois’ interest in the Holocaust started at a young age. His grandfather, who helped raise him, was a French soldier who had been deported to the Rawa-Ruska Nazi German prison camp on the Poland-Ukraine border during World War II. His grandfather did not speak much of that time, only saying “others” had it worse. Later, Desbois realized his grandfather had seen Jews being shot. From then on, Desbois saw Jewish history as inextricably linked to his own. His passion for his own religion led him to the priesthood at age 31, but he also studied the Jewish faith and anti-Semitism. He became an advisor to the Vatican on relations with Judaism. Around 2000, he traveled to Rawa-Ruska, Ukraine, expecting to pay respects at a memorial to those who were killed. He was shocked to discover there was no marking for the Jewish victims. The mayor gathered 50 people who’d seen the shootings and they told him their stories. The mayor said he could do the same at a hundred more villages. “I will never know why I said, ‘Yes,’” Desbois writes in Holocaust by Bullets.

With leaders in the French Catholic and Jewish community, he co-founded Yahad – In Unum in 2004 to further relations between Catholics and Jews. Its largest project is locating sites of mass executions by finding and interviewing elderly witnesses who were teens or children at the time of the killings. Many say it’s the first time they have spoken of the events that occurred in plain view. Desbois, Yahad’s president, has won numerous honors, and Yahad’s research findings are held in its archives in its research center in Paris and in the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Susan Nowak '77

Susan Nowak ’77, Ph.D., S.S.J., chair of religious studies at Nazareth, has been teaching about the Holocaust and ethics since the 1990s, when her dissertation work opened her eyes to how anti-Semitism ran deep in Christian feminist theology. Addressing and teaching about such unknown chapters of history became part of her own spiritual journey and commitment to promote healing, alongside her work on community interfaith efforts.

Candice Gage '14

Candice Gage ’14 said she’s always been drawn toward social justice. She grew up in a trailer park just north of Binghamton, N.Y. Her family needed to use public benefits at times, and Candice worked at their church’s food pantry. It was clear to her that “not everyone is privileged in the same way.” In 2012, she got interested in genocide research after going with other Nazareth students, faculty, and community members on The March: Bearing Witness to Hope, to learn about the Holocaust onsite in Germany and Poland. She studied abroad for six months in Belize and Guatemala in 2013. In February 2014, she joined Yahad in their research in Guatemala.

To learn more about Yahad, visit

Read about how Sarah Cudzilo Spoto '00 edited the memoir of Holocaust survivor Henry Silberstern at