History'We wanted to restore names to the people captured on film'

Harrowing Šķēde massacre photos help reframe Holocaust in German-occupied Latvia

New multi-disciplinary volume probes Holocaust massacre images taken on Šķēde Beach, where 2,749 Jewish women, men, and children were murdered by German and Latvian firing squads

Reporter at The Times of Israel

The Holocaust in Skede, Latvia, 1941. (Yad Vashem)
The Holocaust in Skede, Latvia, 1941. (Yad Vashem)

When World War II Jewish prisoner David Zivcon discovered 12 photographs of the 1941 massacre of Jews at Šķēde beach in Latvia, the enslaved electrician recognized some of his neighbors undressing before the execution pit.

Zivcon was working in SS Commander Karl Strott’s house when he discovered photo negatives depicting the murder of the Jews of Liepāja, according to the Yad Vashem website. Zivcon secretly copied the negatives and returned the original images, later handing a set to Soviet investigators in 1945.

Following their use as evidence in the Nuremberg trials, the “beach massacre” images became visual shorthand for the “Holocaust by Bullets,” when German SS firing squad units and collaborators murdered 1.5 million Jews in eastern Europe and formerly Soviet-controlled lands.

Last month, historian Valerie Hébert published a new volume of multi-disciplinary essays, “Framing the Holocaust: Photographs of a Mass Shooting in Latvia, 1941,” which offers a holistic consideration of the chilling images.

“My hope with the book is that it will help alleviate the ambivalence scholars commonly feel about using, publishing, and teaching with photographs, by working through the ethical concerns they present and then showing their richness for insight and understanding,” Hébert told The Times of Israel. She envisioned the book while running a workshop at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, she said.

The Šķēde photographs are recognizable to millions of people who’ve seen them in Holocaust museums or documentary films, but until now almost nothing has been published about the circumstances under which the images were captured.

“Each chapter narrates a distinct way of ‘reading’ these photographs,” said Hébert, a professor of history at Lakehead University Orillia and author of the book, “Hitler’s Generals on Trial: The Last War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremberg.”

In her essay, “Not to Tiptoe Away in the Face of Suffering: Why We Look at Holocaust Photographs,” Hébert wrote: “[The photographer’s] victims may look back at the lens, but the circumstances negate consent… Moreover, the images in their immutability extend the violence and degradation in perpetuity.”

The Šķēde Beach massacre in Latvia, December 1941 (public domain)

Topics that Hébert invited scholars to probe included “the ethical problems the photos present, how the images resonate with literary and photographic tropes, and the vulnerability of victim identity when others write captions,” said Hébert.

Although nearly every stage of the Holocaust was documented on film, mainstream historians only recently started to analyze photographs with new approaches. These include Artificial Intelligence (AI), which helped identify people in the Šķēde photos.

The Šķēde Beach massacre in Latvia, December 1941 (public domain)

“The book tells more than the story of the Šķēde Beach massacre images, it also models a way of engaging Holocaust and atrocity photography more broadly,” said Hébert. “I hope that the book shows readers that these photographs, albeit with their sordid history and nearly unbearable content, should still command our careful and sustained attention.”

‘The Perpetrator’s Gaze’

During the December 1941 massacre at Šķēde beach, 2,749 Jewish women, men, and children were murdered by German SS men and Latvian collaborators. The victims were from Liepāja, home to one of Latvia’s most vibrant Jewish communities.

In addition to a dozen synagogues, the Jewish community funded youth Maccabi clubs and a Zionist cultural group. Four of the town’s six cinemas were owned by Jewish families before the Holocaust, and Jews vacationed alongside their neighbors on the Šķēde dunes outside town.

Inauguration of Liepāja’s Maccabi sports field, July 30, 1925 (public domain)

Similar to the so-called “Auschwitz Album” photos of Hungarian Jews discovered by survivor Lily Jacob in 1945, the images of Jews from Liepāja were captured by a photographer with finesse for his craft.

“[The photographer of the Šķēde beach images] centered the subjects in the frame and stood directly opposite; the images are focused; he held the camera level,” wrote Hébert. “His subjects are still and face forward in contrast to the people around them: other Jews in the process of undressing and members of the Latvian [auxiliary police] who oversee and direct the scene.”

Some of the book’s essayists dispelled myths associated with the images, including those caused by contradictory captions the photos have been given by researchers. Compounding the confusion, scholars have long been reluctant to engage with the Šķēde photos for several reasons, said Hébert.

Author and historian Valerie Hebert (courtesy)

“The issues of nudity and the perpetrator gaze commonly serve as the rationale to reject these photographs (and others like them) altogether,” said Hébert. “By identifying and explaining the differentiated ways in which we might view these photographs, we undermine the perpetrator gaze that initially defined them,” she said.

In “The Mystery of an Iconic Photograph,” historian Daniel Newman detailed aspects of the massacre that have never been printed alongside the Šķēde photos.

German SS officers and Latvian auxiliary police “served four functions at the beach: they guarded the area to prevent anybody from entering or leaving, oversaw the undressing of victims, escorted Jews to the mass grave, and carried out the shootings,” wrote Newman.

“In such a manner, three firing squads, two Latvian and one German, rotated over the course of December 15-17, methodically murdering 2,749 Jews,” wrote Newman, who conducted several research trips to Liepāja, which is 10 kilometers south of the Šķēde beach.

The Šķēde Beach massacre in Latvia, December 1941 (public domain)

Compared to other massacres of the “Holocaust by Bullets,” the slaughter at Šķēde beach was not particularly large, although it resulted in a mass grave longer than three soccer fields.

At the Babyn Yar ravine outside Kyiv, for example, 33,771 Jews were murdered in two days, earlier that fall. Only in Šķēde, however, did a photographer systematically capture an “aktion” from start to finish, including the cynical staging of victims to form tableaus.

‘To induce eternal sleep’

As a 15-year-old, Edward Anders narrowly escaped the fate of his Jewish family, friends, and neighbors in the Šķēde beach massacre.

“My father thought of a ruse for saving at least his wife and sons,” wrote Anders, now 96, in the foreword to Hébert’s book.

The Šķēde Beach massacre in Latvia, December 1941 (public domain)

“All three of us looked Aryan: we were blond, blue-eyed, and straight-nosed. My mother was to claim that she was not the biological child of her Jewish parents but a Christian foundling discovered on their doorstep with a slip of paper bearing her name, Erika, and a cross,” wrote Anders.

The “ruse” of passing off Anders as Aryan saved his life, providing him with a literal “pass” to show an official as the town’s Jews were herded to the execution site.

“Some people knew what was coming and tried to round up enough sleeping pills to induce eternal sleep,” wrote Anders, author of “Amidst Latvians during the Holocaust,” published in 2011.

“Eight families succeeded. Their bodies were taken to Šķēde and dumped into the waiting mass grave,” wrote Anders, for whom Hébert dedicated “Framing the Holocaust.”

Memorial to the murdered Jews massacred at Liepāja beach (Liepāja Jewish Heritage)

After barely escaping from Liepāja with his life, Anders went on to study cosmochemistry in the United States. In later decades, he was chosen to examine batches of lunar samples from the country’s moon missions.

About 20 years ago, Anders began intensive research into the fate of each of Liepāja’s 7,140 Jewish residents, determining that fewer than 300 people survived. His father was among a group of Jews murdered one week before the beach massacre.

“Very few people survived mass shootings, and Holocaust deniers refuse to believe them,” wrote Anders.

“But [these] photographs provide undeniable evidence of the main stages of an execution at Šķēde near Liepāja,” wrote Anders. “Three identified Liepāja families appear in these pictures: the Grinfelds and the families of Haim and Jakob Epstein. This evidence is incontrovertible,” wrote the survivor.

The Šķēde Beach massacre in Latvia, December 1941 (public domain)

As Hébert told The Times of Israel, “We wanted to restore names to the people captured on film. In this way, the book serves both a historical function and a memorial one,” she said.

‘A Day at the Beach’

The “rationale” behind a photographer taking the Šķēde pictures was examined by several of Hébert’s essayists, including within a gender studies frame.

“In the photos, we see the victims in a situation they did not create but that documents their murder,” wrote historian Tanja Kinzel in her essay, “Reading Against the Gaze.”

“It bears emphasizing what the photos fail to capture,” wrote Kinzel. “The noise, the smells, the atmosphere of terror. …The photos communicate none of this, not the smell of gunfire or excrement, the wind from the sea, not the damp cold of the beach. Still, they can tell us a lot about that horrible day.”

The Šķēde Beach massacre in Latvia, December 1941 (public domain)

According to Kinzel, who is an expert on photographs taken inside the Lodz ghetto, the Germans and Latvians involved in the beach massacre would have used the photos as “pornographic trophies to keep and circulate, proud works of documentation, and a self-conscious source aware of its incriminating potential.

“Photographing the victims before murdering them, when they were facing their death, not only duplicates the perpetrator’s gaze but also reflects their subjugation and preserves this uneven power dynamic in print,” wrote Kinzel.

In “A Day at the Beach: The Šķēde Massacre and Littoral Photography,” historian Daniel H. Magilow analyzed the images in the tradition of littoral — or seaside — photography.

“The setting of these atrocity photographs is significant because it differs so markedly from a visual imaginary that readily associates the Holocaust with the space of camps, ghettos, forests, bunkers, attics, and cattle cars,” wrote Magilow, whose books focus on the “intersections” of Holocaust studies with photography and film.

After the mass murder of 33,771 Jews at Babyn Yar, Ukraine, October 1941 (public domain)

Contrasting the Šķēde beach’s storied past of littoral photography with the 1941 massacre photos, Magilow called one of the images, “a cruel satire of traditions of beach photography.”

In what might be the most recognizable image from the Šķēde series, four Jewish women from Liepāja were forced to pose with a girl who managed to hide her face from the camera. The group is surrounded by other Jews undressing at gunpoint.

“This is obviously not a group of women posing in swimsuits for a camera on a crowded beach, but the echoes of these kinds of leisure and fashion photographs and Liepāja’s past as a tourist space are disturbingly present in the perpetrator’s gaze,” wrote Magilow.

Following the September 1941 massacre of 33,771 Jews at Babyn Yar, the victims’ belongings were pillaged (public domain)

Hébert is currently working on another book about photos from a “Holocaust by Bullets” massacre. Specifically, she is examining a series of images captured in October 1942 during the liquidation of the Mizocz ghetto in German-occupied Ukraine.

“The book is a continued exploration of what these kinds of photographs can tell us,” said Hébert, who believes primary source photographs from the Holocaust are considerably underutilized by educators and researchers.

“We would do well to remember that youth today are an even more visual generation than we are: their social media is all photo-based,” said Hébert. “They take and consume photographs by the thousand. And I guarantee they have seen atrocity photographs in their online explorations.”

Most Popular
read more: