Back in 2009, when historian Wendy Lower was doing research in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum archives in Washington, DC, a colleague directed her to a photograph that made her jaw drop. A specialist in World War II, Lower had seen thousands of Holocaust images. The war was the most photographed conflict in history. The Nazis encouraged their soldiers to memorialize moments of victory. But this photograph was a smoking gun.
Taken by a Slovak soldier who was disobeying orders—the Nazis explicitly forbade taking pictures of atrocities, fearing their power to stoke resistance—the photo shows the Nazis and their Ukrainian partners murdering a Jewish woman and her two small children at the edge of a ravine.
In the frame, the German soldier and Ukrainian militiamen are standing side by side behind the woman, their rifles pointed at her back. Her head is hidden by a cloud of smoke.
Holding onto her is a small barefoot boy who looks away from the camera. After further investigation, using advanced digital imaging techniques, Lower discovered another child clutching her feet. These children would soon suffer the same fate as their mother. All around this doomed family is the evidence of mass murder—shoes, boots and bullet casings.
Dated October 13, 1941, the photo was taken just outside of Miropol, a small Ukrainian town where Jews had lived for centuries.
Lower immediately wanted to learn more about the story the photograph was telling. “The photograph captures an event locked in time…,” she points out. She wanted to know the fate of each of the people in the photograph.
Digging into the past
She went to work. After a decade of research, which included trips to Ukraine, Germany, Slovakia and Israel, Lower—who is now John K. Roth Professor of History at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California—recreated the events of that terrible day in her new book entitled The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph and a Holocaust Massacre Revealed.
The Ravine introduces us to another side of the genocide, the so-called “Holocaust by bullets,” which took place in the early years of the war when the Nazis and their collaborators gunned down millions of Eastern European Jews just miles from their homes.
As Lower explains, mass murder requires careful orchestration, and these massacres took on a terrible pattern. First, the Nazis and their collaborators forced the Jews out of their homes into the public square, where they were beaten and publicly humiliated. After that, they were marched outside of town and gunned down.
Yad Vashem’s central database containing the names of victims of the Shoah indicates that every fourth Jew murdered in the Holocaust was from Ukraine, including many children. Shockingly, half of them have never been identified.
In 2014, Lower visited Miropol, hoping to locate the site of the murder depicted in the photograph. It wasn’t easy. When she approached the town’s elderly residents to ask them if they recognized anyone in the picture, most of them shook their heads and turned away. That reaction wasn’t unusual as most former collaborators wish to obfuscate their past. Some villagers told Lower that one day the Jews simply disappeared, offering no explanation for how that came to be.
But other villagers were more forthcoming, describing the day the Germans arrived in their town looking for Ukrainian volunteers, which they had no trouble finding. Some recalled the screams of the Jews as they were marched off to the killing site and how the sound of gunshots rang out for hours.