GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY
Rev. Patrick Desbois, Braman endowed professor of the practice of the forensic study of the Holocaust at Georgetown University, received the 2017 Lantos Human Rights Prize in an Oct. 26 ceremony on Capitol Hill.

Rev. Patrick Desbois, professor of the practice of the forensic study of the Holocaust at Georgetown University, received the 2017 Lantos Human Rights Prize in an Oct. 26 ceremony on Capitol Hill for his work documenting Holocaust victims and leading educational programs on genocide.

The prize, established in 2009 by the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice in honor of its founder, the late congressman and Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), is awarded every year to an exemplary advocate for global human rights. Past recipients include the Dalai Lama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and 1986 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel.

Desbois is the founder and president of Yahad-In Unum, an international humanitarian organization that identifies and collects forensic evidence on Jewish and Roma mass execution sites across eight former Soviet countries in Eastern Europe. The group also leads educational programs and outreach campaigns about the Holocaust and contemporary genocides.

Desbois called for greater activism against demonstrations of hate, such as those of last August in Charlottesville, Va., to avoid future instances of genocide. Drawing from experience, Desbois said that leaders have to fight the tendency to become desensitized by frequent public atrocities.

“There is no genocide without a neighbor,” Desbois said during his acceptance speech. “We have to teach people to one day take responsibility. The more you advertise a mass crime, the less people react. You see that in Charlottesville, you see it in the Bundestag. We have to wake up.”

In a video shown during the ceremony, Desbois explained that his work was inspired by the life of his grandfather, a French prisoner held at the Rawa Ruska concentration camp on the Ukraine-Poland boarder during World War II. Since founding Yahad-In Unum in 2004, Desbois has interviewed over 5,500 witnesses of genocides and identified over 2,000 execution sites.

The ceremony, conducted in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill, featured remarks from Annette Lantos Tillemann-Dick, co-chair of the Lantos Foundation Advisory Board and daughter of its namesake, and representatives Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.).

Raskin praised the mission of Desbois’ organization as shining a light on current and historical victims of genocide.

“His project comes down to one word: memory,” Raskin said. “We must once again speak up for human rights here and abroad.”

As Braman endowed professor of the practice of the forensic study of the Holocaust, Desbois teaches the undergraduate courses of “Holocaust by Bullets” and “What Really Happened in the Camps?” through the Center for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown.

The former revolves around Desbois’ forensic work and identification of victims within mass graves, while the latter analyzes the psychological and sociological elements of concentration camps.

“It is difficult to teach, and it is a subject that is difficult to internalize,” said Nicole McCann Ramirez (COL ’18), a former student of both courses who attended the ceremony. “But [Desbois] is coming from a standpoint of teaching this for change and provoking the reality of what human existence is. It is an understanding of history based on the stories of the victims.”

When asked about the difficult, emotional nature of his work, Desbois said the emotional nature of his work is challenging, but he is thankful he does not do it alone. He said he hopes his 29-person team and his students will continue his legacy.

“I would say they are the future,” Desbois said.

Lantos Tillemann-Dick said in an interview with The Hoya that she hoped Desbois’s work would inspire further conversation on how to avoid the repetition of historical patterns due to ignorance.

“I remember asking my parents about the Holocaust and saying, ‘What about America? What about the Americans?’ My dad said, ‘You know, people are living their lives. They did not even really know,’” Lantos Tillemann-Dick said. “So this is my hope that students like you, that newspapers like The Hoya will feature these stories, will pursue them, will follow up on them and build the volume of protest.”

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