At the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2009, historian Wendy Lower was shown a disturbing image of a Jewish mother and child being executed by several men. Lower immediately knew she was looking at rare visual evidence related to the open-air shootings in Nazi-occupied Ukraine. During this phase of the genocide, Germans and their collaborators massacred Jews in broad daylight.
The single photograph from the so-called “Holocaust by bullets” reveals many aspects of the Nazis’ genocidal ideology, according to Lower. The image was initially held in the security files of the Czech Communist regime.
In “The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed,” Lower meticulously probes the background of the photo, which was dated October 13, 1941 and labeled “Miropol.” During a decade of research, she unearthed eye-witness testimony to clarify the image, a process recounted in Lower’s new book, published on February 10.
“In The Ravine, I combined this micro and macro approach, zooming in and out on the photograph as a singular source that spoke to the larger phenomenon of testimony, the family, material culture, acts of resistance, and memory,” said Lower in an interview with The Times of Israel.
Lower, who directs the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College in California, has authored several books about the Holocaust in Ukraine. Since 1992, she has visited sites of “Einsatzgruppen” massacres in Ukraine on numerous research trips.
Although Miropol was a town with only 1,500 Jews on the war’s eve, it achieved notoriety as the location of the legendary “Dybbuk” tale about a malevolent spirit. Lower visited Miropol several times and — at the Holocaust site — she searched for bullet shells and found human bones.
Researching perpetrators and victims alike, Lower compiled the names of 450 Jews murdered that day in Miropol. She determined the killing spree took place between 9 am and noon, and that the “ravine” in her photo was actually a pit, dug at the last minute because there were more Jews to shoot than expected.
From eye-witness testimony, Lower learned how Jewish homes were immediately plundered by neighbors, many of whom taunted Jews by name as they were herded to the massacre. The historian came across harrowing testimony about babies bashed against trees and an immobile woman dumped into the pit from her bed.
The perpetrators of the massacre, Lower learned, were not SS “Einsatzgruppen” men, however. Based on examining uniforms in the image and the timeline of Germany’s occupation of Miropol, Lower realized that three of the men were Ukrainian. Among the collections of photos taken of Holocaust killings, Ukrainian shooters almost never appear in the frame.
Perhaps most significantly, Lower used a highly resolved version of the photo to determine the presence of a second child in the woman’s lap. The child’s presence is somewhat hidden in the image, but her addition makes the photo even more important for historians, as it shows a Jewish family of three being murdered together.
The photo also confirms what Nazi leaders in Berlin ordered: Do not waste bullets on children. During the “Holocaust by bullets,” in which 1.5 million Jews were murdered close to their homes, children suffered prolonged and agonizing deaths because of this “economical” policy.
The Miropol massacre photo was taken by Lubomir Skrovina, a photographer stationed in town with the Slovakian Security Services. After capturing the image from 20 feet away, Skrovina left Ukraine to join the resistance in Slovakia, where he was denounced for taking the photograph and survived several rounds of interrogations during and after the war.
Before Skrovina died, he donated the original camera — which Lower held in her hands — to a Jewish museum in Bratislava, requesting that it appear in an exhibit on the Holocaust.
Although Lower did not definitively identify the Jewish family in the photo, she uncovered a likely possibility by examining records from Yad Vashem. In an interview with The Times of Israel, the historian spoke about the evolution of Holocaust research in Ukraine since the start of her career, including the nascent use of “Big Data.” Lower also shared a seemingly easy step to improve Holocaust education almost immediately.
You have been interviewing eye-witnesses to the “Holocaust by bullets” in Ukraine since 1992. What can you say about the evolution of these encounters?
Returning to the locations with the witnesses helped them recollect what happened in their communities, and often in vivid detail. They could point out significant spots, such as the buildings of the Jewish community and ghettos walls, paths to mass shooting sites, and former Nazi headquarters.
I realized that much of this information was not known because it was not recorded in the contemporaneous Nazi documentation, which for decades had been the privileged source among historians who deemed it more reliable than eyewitness accounts and the stories recounted by Jewish survivors and Ukrainian peasants.
Yet the Nazis sought to cover up their crimes in official records and perpetrators sought to erase their tracks in places such as the killing fields of Ukraine, so these local memories were extremely valuable.
In terms of the people of Miropol — Jewish and otherwise — what did you learn about how they remember the events of October 13, 1941?
In “The Ravine,” I noticed that the Ukrainian witnesses were part of a community and wartime generation of storytellers living among each other in a small village. Multiple witnesses gathered and recollected events in dialogue with each other, challenging each other and helping one another recall what was seen from various angles — as a peasant boy who had been working in the fields near massacre site, or as a girl who had been seized by Nazi officials and ordered to dig the mass graves. They were bystanders and participants.
By contrast, the few Jewish survivors from Miropol were dispersed in Israel, Russia, and North America, not enough to compose a Yizkor Book to document their community history and the Holocaust.
What are the challenges of interviewing German perpetrators? Are they similar to ones faced when interviewing Ukrainian collaborators or eye-witnesses?
The willingness of witnesses to share stories depends on the individual’s experience in the Holocaust. Former perpetrators or German occupiers and operatives from the war were less willing to speak and respond to direct questions about the crimes. They hung up on me when I called them on the phone, or refused to speak with me when I knocked on their doors.
Jewish survivors and Ukrainian witnesses responded differently. Ukrainian witnesses came forward eager to speak the truth in freedom. Many cried as they revealed their secrets of what they saw happen to a former Jewish classmate. They mourned a loss that they could not fully understand since the Soviet version of the Great Patriotic War that they had been taught universalized the suffering of all “peaceful Soviet citizens,” and suppressed the uniqueness of the Nazi genocide against the Jews and Soviet anti-Semitism. Jewish survivors were committed to getting the truth out on behalf of their victimized family members and community.
How has the process of researching Nazi atrocities changed since you began in the field?
My career has spanned these two eras of pre-internet and current-day research methods and tools. During my first trip to Ukraine, everything was negotiated and done in person and on the spot. The most high-tech aspect of my research was done via facsimile. I spent weeks trying to secure toner to make Xerox copies. I traded whatever I had in my suitcase to obtain these copies, and transcribed documents by hand into several notebooks.
In “The Ravine,” I write about the pros and cons of Big Data in our search for documents and witnesses. These days it can feel like roulette when you enter a place name or person in a database of testimonies and archives. One hopes for a match. And sadly, when there are no returns, one can erroneously assume that nothing is there. You have to be creative about how you conduct the search, using different terms and spellings. In this crowd-sourcing world and network of researchers with common cause around the globe, one receives help and input from strangers, descendants of wartime witnesses, and scholars who usually work in isolation. The internet has created virtual communities of researchers.
As you know, Holocaust education has not prevented the spread of “denial” and other forms of anti-Semitism, including in the United States. What can be done to improve the situation?
Critical to the future of Holocaust studies and memory is the engagement of young adults in the stories and story-telling, and the preservation and accessibility of the vast historical sources. This engagement can be accomplished through the use of these sources in creative projects, experiential fieldwork, academic studies, public rituals, and classroom learning that foster critical thinking and raise new questions about how and why the Holocaust happened and the events’ resounding impact.
Students of all backgrounds should be able to discover and study the Holocaust as European history as well as a global phenomenon of genocide, of behavior and suffering that can occur anywhere and anytime. The Holocaust teaches us a lot about other past and future genocides, and vice versa.
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