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Atrocity exhibits Two photographs, and the Holocaust stories behind them

BRYAN CHEYETTE

THE RAVINE

A family, a photograph, a Holocaust massacre revealed WENDY LOWER 257pp. Apollo. £20.

GRIEF

The biography of a Holocaust photograph

DAVID SHNEER 192pp. Oxford University Press. £22.99 (US

$29.95).

“O

NE’S FIRST ENCOUNTER with the photographic inventory of ultimate horror is a kind of revelation, the prototypically modern revelation: a negative epiphany.” This was Susan Sontag’s response, in retrospect, after seeing images of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau in 1945 as a twelve-year-old. “Something broke. Some limit had been reached, and not only that of horror … To suffer is one thing; another thing is living with the photographed images of suffering.” Wendy Lower and David Shneer, in contrasting books, attempt to fathom the “negative epiphany” of atrocity photographs as well as the historical resonance of “photographed images of suffering”. They write in opposition to Sontag, who believed that one ultimately becomes desensitized to such images after repeated viewings. An enduring knowledge of the “history and content” of an atrocity photograph, Lower contends, can enhance the viewer’s awareness rather than diminish it. The Ravine and Grief are both written in this didactic spirit.

Each book contextualizes a micro-image of the Holocaust in different ways. The Ravine begins with Lower in an archive reading SS police reports. She is interrupted by a Ukrainian specialist who shows her a photograph of a woman and a boy being shot on the edge of a ravine in October 1941. This leaves Lower with an ethical dilemma. “What does one do upon discovering a photograph that documents murder?” The mother and child are surrounded by two German soldiers and three Ukrainian auxiliaries whose rifles are almost touching their recently

FEBRUARY 26, 2021

shot victim. The viewer cannot see the woman’s face as it is covered in smoke from the gun fire. But we can see some of the killers smirking. Lower, who is best known for Hitler’s Furies: German women in the Nazi killing fields (2013), immediately recognized the rarity of the image. Although the Second World War was the most photographed conflict in history, there are only a handful of extant “incriminating photographs”. Producing documentary evidence in the act of mass murder was severely prohibited (although soldiers often had cameras), as it was regarded as threatening the “security of the Reich”. There were, instead, plenty of images of people and communities before they were murdered and, afterwards, as “piles of corpses”.

The Ravine reads like a compelling detective novel as it confines much of its historical detail to the endnotes. It records the author’s quest to uncover every aspect of the photograph. What do we know of the murderers and victims? Who took the picture? How was the small Jewish community in Miropol destroyed? Can we still find bodies in the ravine? Lower’s pursuit of the truth is both captivating and meticulous as she attempts to find answers to these questions. She knows that the two massacres on the outskirts of Miropol, killing 960 civilians, were part of a much wider pattern of genocide and mass murder on the “killing fields” of the eastern front. But details matter. The police unit that shot Jews in Miropol in September 1941 continued onto the ravine at Babi Yar, near Kiev, where 33,000 Jews were annihilated soon after. Within six months of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, half a million Jews were slaughtered in what is known as the “Holocaust by bullet”. When Vasily Grossman, the renowned war correspondent, entered the Ukraine in 1943, with the liberating Red Army, he wrote an article entitled “Ukraine without Jews”. His mother had perished in the Berdichev ghetto. By the end of the war, a million Jews were killed in the Ukraine with, to this day, only about half of those missing accounted for. Most of the culprits remained free.

Given the vast numbers of victims on the eastern front – 27 million Soviet citizens died in all – Lower focuses on individuals and families. Personalizing the casualties, and finding justice for some of the

TLS

Left: the subject photograph of The Ravine. Right: “Grief” by Dmitri Baltermants

Bryan Cheyette’s latest book is The Ghetto: A very short introduction, 2020. He is currently working on Testimony: Slaves, camps, refugees perpetrators, gives a human face to the vertiginous statistics. Discovering the German killers is her first priority, as previous war crimes trials in West Germany were fantastically inadequate. She has success in finding some of the Germans who followed the Wehrmacht and carried out the genocide. In a small town such as Miropol, murders are intimate. Neighbours betray neighbours, the killers grew up with their prey, steal their belongings and occupy their houses. Unlike West Germany, the Soviet Union was rather more ruthless in bringing the Ukrainian auxiliaries to summary justice. The Vaselyuk family in the photograph are identified and includes the young boy who was holding Khiva Brontzovskaya Vaselyuk’s hand. After a painstaking analysis, a baby was discovered under Khiva’s clothing and was, presumably, still alive when she was shot. Their history and extended relatives are part of Lower’s dazzling forensic excavation. The remains of those massacred are also found as a result of the gruesome signs of geological disruption over seven decades. Most unusually, the Slovakian photographer, Lubomir Škrovina, turns out to be a maverick who was by no means a supporter of the Nazi project. His dissident biography chimes with the rarity of his evidentiary photographs which he managed, at great personal risk, to preserve for posterity.

The photographers in the two books could not be more different. Dmitri Baltermants, a Red Army Lieutenant, and official war photographer for Izvestiia, was not a dissident. His iconic image “Grief ” was one of many atrocity photographs designed to rally a population that was valiantly blocking the German army from making inroads east of Stalingrad, Moscow and Rostov. Such pictures demonstrated what the Germans would do to the Russian population if conquered. They were both an incentive to fight and a call for revenge. “Grief ” was produced in 1942, a few weeks after the massacre of around 7,000 civilians in a ditch – about a mile long, six feet deep and fifteen feet wide – on the outskirts of Kerch on the strategically important Crimean peninsula. The picture was one of the earliest demonstrations of just how bloodthirsty the Germans were. It was made possible by the successful but short-lived Soviet counter-offensive, which took back the peninsula in January

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