A Mother, a Child, a Death Pit. The Search for the Truth About the Holocaust in Ukraine

American Holocaust researcher Wendy Lower has devoted an entire book to the picture taken at the mouth of a death pit. She tells Haaretz about that horror and others in Nazi-occupied Ukraine

Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked
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Ukrainian and German soldiers killing a Jewish woman and her children during the Holocaust, the focus of Wendy Lower's book 'The Ravine.'
Ukrainian and German soldiers killing a Jewish woman and her children during the Holocaust, the focus of Wendy Lower's book 'The Ravine.'Credit: Security Services Archive, Historický fond StB
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked

Prof. Wendy Lower, the head of the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College in California, remembers her first visit to Ukraine very well. It took place over 25 years ago as part of her research on the Holocaust. “I remember the warm welcome I got during my visits to the country’s state archives,” she says. “I remember the help they offered, the access to wartime documents that dealt directly with the collaboration between the various Ukrainian government agencies and Nazi Germany.”

In 2014, she returned to that archive but encountered a very different spirit. “Suddenly, I didn’t have free access to all the documents on the Ukrainian wartime police that I wanted to see,” says the American historian, referring to the first signs of a change in policy, a turning inward in an attempt to obscure in any way possible what for decades was known to any Holocaust researcher.

Earlier this month, in a first vote less than a week after the release of her new book on the Holocaust, “The Ravine,” Russia’s parliament advanced a bill that would fine anyone 3 million rubles ($41,000) for “deliberately disseminating false information on the activities of the Soviet Union during World War II.”

The focus of the book is a photo that came into Lower’s hands while she was doing research at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, trying to find details on the person considered the most senior SS officer still free. This was Bernhard Frank, who certified killing orders issued by SS chief Heinrich Himmler.

In the picture, two Ukrainian soldiers (a third soldier took part but wasn’t in the photo) are seen beside two German soldiers executing a Jewish woman by shooting her point-blank. This happened at midday on October 13, 1941, in a forest at the town of Miropol, Ukraine.

The photo rattled Lower. It was different from the thousands of photos she had scanned over her long academic career. “Even though the photographic documentation of the Holocaust is more extensive than the documentation of any other genocide, incriminating photographs capturing the shooters in action are rare,” she writes in “The Ravine,” which is unlike any of the thousands of research books on the Holocaust. The book’s hundreds of pages are all devoted to the story of this one photograph.

The face of the woman in the photo cannot be seen. She was bending over just before she collapsed into the pit that local Ukrainians had been forced were forced to dig. With her remaining strength, she is holding on to her small son, who is sitting on the ground, which is soaked with the blood of the victims.

The cover of Lower's book.Credit: Mariner Books

He is sitting on his knees, shoeless. Later, using digital technology and many hours of research, Lower discerned that another child is obscured in the image, on the woman’s lap. The two were buried alive by the Ukrainian soldiers. “The procedure included not wasting expensive bullets on children,” Lower says. “Later, they’d walk to the pit and if one of the victims tried to escape, they’d shoot him.”

Taunting the victims

Lower has devoted years to studying the circumstances that led to this execution, to the hours during which hundreds of Jewish residents of Miropol were led to the pits. She wanted to establish the identities of the executioners, the story of the photographer, and mainly, the name of the woman and two children. Among her efforts, she met with a ballistics expert who analyzed the photo.

“He told me that the smoke in the air attests to two things,” she says. “First, that woman wasn’t the only one who was murdered that day. Other Jews had been shot to death in that location moments earlier. You can see the smoke from those murders hovering in the air.

“Second, they fired in a coordinated fashion and probably simultaneously. You can see that the Ukrainian soldiers in the photo are wearing Red Army coats with armbands. In the fall of 1941, they didn’t have their own uniforms and had been recruited on the spot. They played a central role in the event, shooting that woman alongside the German soldiers.

“There's a clear collaboration here between German and Ukrainian soldiers who did not speak the same language, who had nothing in common, who didn’t know one another but had come together for the purpose of murdering as many Jewish families as possible.”

Besides about 100,000 Ukrainians who served in the German police forces in places such as Miropol, municipal workers provided organizational support, and local peasants including young women were forced to dig mass graves, cook to feed the German killers and mend the bloodstained clothes of the Jewish victims.

Wendy Lower, a history professor at Claremont McKenna College in California.Credit: Jonathan Petropoulos

“After the war, hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens were put on trial for collaborating with the Germans,” Lower says. “This is far larger than the number of Germans and Austrians who were charged with crimes related to the Holocaust.”

She adds that “from the testimony given by the photographer, the Ukrainian soldiers in the photo called the Jews by their first names. They knew them.”

In her book, she details how the soldiers knew the victims; the dentist, the shoemaker, the farmer. “They taunted their victims, calling them by name. They dragged small children by their feet, smashing their heads against tree trunks.”

How do you explain such cruelty against people who for many years had been their neighbors? Was it antisemitism or fear of the Germans?

“One should look at the power of antisemitism as an ideology that is driven by an extreme and violent hatred. There were other factors behind the willingness of Ukrainians to participate in the massacre, such as an attempt to improve their economic situation following the dire events they had experienced under Stalinism. People would enter the death pits after the executions and look for victims’ jewelry to remove. Some looted Jewish homes, taking kitchenware and bedsheets.

“One local woman described how she entered the store of a Jewish merchant and was delighted to find a tube of toothpaste on the floor. Material need, envy, fear and antisemitism were fused with the fascist campaign to fight communism. Ukrainians who had suffered the Holodomor [Stalin’s terror famine], purges and deportations were looking for a scapegoat that could be blamed for causing all their troubles, and they found the Jews.”

The photograph was taken by a Slovak soldier named Lubomir Skrovina, who had been sent to Ukraine as part of the Axis forces that invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. Skrovina, who wanted to document the cruelty of the Nazi occupation, joined the forces resisting the Nazis after he returned to Slovakia.

In this undated photo a Jewish man is being shot over a pit in Vinnitsa, Ukraine. The photo was captioned on the back side in German: 'The Last Jew In Vinnitsa.'Credit: AP

“He took a series of seven photos that day, five of which I managed to trace,” Lower says, noting that he had access to the location because he wore a Slovak army uniform. He had witnessed anti-Jewish pogroms before, was very upset by what he saw and wanted to collect evidence.

The shooters were later executed

The five photos that Lower traced were taken in sequence to explain how events unfolded that day. Skrovina photographed the dead Jews who lay on the path to the forest; they had been killed for refusing to go to the execution site. “Then he snapped the images of the murder,” Lower says. “Then he documented the death pit with many bodies inside it, with one photo showing the same woman still holding the hand of her barefooted boy.”

In her book, Lower writes that the identity of the Ukrainian shooters is known. They were exposed in 1986 as part of an investigation by a former KGB prosecutor. Following the investigation, they were put on trial. Two were executed and one received a 15-year sentence; he was a juvenile in 1941. Only the identity of the woman and two children remains unclear, and it may never be known.

According to Lower, nearly half the 1.4 million Ukrainian Jews who were murdered during World War II have never been identified by name. When the Germans deported Jews from Western Europe to the killing centers, they were much more organized and pedantic in their work, she explains.

“They meticulously recorded the names of the Jews they took from their homes, noting their businesses and assets; those registered in the labor camps received ID numbers and even tatoos etched on their bodies,” she says. “In that respect, there is much more documentation for Jews who had emigrated or who were forced into the camp system.”

The Jews of the Soviet Union, by contrast, were taken from their homes at night and were quickly executed – in city centers, markets or forests, as in the photo. “Jews were taken from their beds half-asleep,” Lower says. “It was a much faster evacuation, with little to no documentation. Jews who refused to march were shot on the paths to the murder sites.”

The Babi Yar Memorial in Kiev.Credit: Shutterstock

Another reason the woman in the photo was never identified is the scarcity of survivors among Ukrainian Jews. Lower says the number of survivors in small towns like Miropol was less than 1 percent.

“The chances of surviving the death pits were minuscule,” she says. “In Miropol one woman managed to crawl out of the pit, but where could she go from there? Where could she have hidden? To survive she would have needed the assistance of the local population, who would have had to hide and care for her for months, until the war ended years later. Entire families were wiped out, leaving behind no documentation.”

What do you say to claims that showing these photos is a further insult to the victims?

“For me, the core of the book is the claim that we have to take responsibility for what we can see happened in places such as Miropol and face history, instead of looking the other way. I believe we have an ethical obligation to try to learn what we can from this photo, to try to identify the victims, to restore their lives, to determine what happened to them and the significance of this history.

“Furthermore, these research efforts help in uncovering further details, gathering evidence that was unknown and expanding our knowledge about the Holocaust. It’s of great importance because the number of survivors and witnesses is decreasing daily and they saw things that the genocidaires and their accomplices sought to suppress and deny.”

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