How a barbaric photograph a Jewish mother and two children being executed inspired a historian


The raw horror you are seeing in the photograph below — if you can bear to look — is the very last moment on earth of a Jewish family, teetering on the edge of a death pit as Nazi executioners with rifles fire from behind at point-blank range.

Gun smoke billowing round her head, the mother in a polka-dot dress clasps the hand of a stumbling, barefoot boy. She stands surprisingly upright rather than slumping to her knees. 

This is because — though it is difficult to spot — she is clutching in her lap another child, seemingly a little girl with a scarf round her head.

All three are about to be exterminated, put down as Untermenschen — literally, subhumans — whose lives have no value.

A split second later, we can surmise, the back of the woman’s skull explodes, shattered by a bullet, and she slumps down dead into the mass grave below with the two little ones, their bodies adding to the hundreds of her Jewish friends and neighbours already dispatched. Cartridge casings on the ground show she is not the first to die.

But no bullet is wasted on the children — that was the SS rule. They die quickly from the fall or slowly, buried alive, crushed and suffocated by the weight of corpses thrown on top of them.

The raw horror you are seeing in the photograph — if you can bear to look — is the very last moment on earth of a Jewish family, teetering on the edge of a death pit as Nazi executioners with rifles fire from behind at point-blank range

Here is the Holocaust, close up and personal, as we have rarely seen it before. The despicable murder of millions takes on a powerful, more intimate dimension.

The picture shocked even experienced and expert Holocaust historian Professor Wendy Lower when she first saw it.

She has come across very few photographs — a dozen, no more, she says — that show the moment of murder, the killers caught in the very act of genocide.

She was so appalled she set out to track down every last detail she could about this scene from 80 years ago: who, where, when.

And, after years of research in archives in Eastern Europe, Israel and the U.S. and countless interviews, she lays out her findings in an extraordinary and spell- binding new book, The Ravine, a reference to the forest site in eastern Europe where the killings took place.

It is a brilliant piece of dogged detective work but, more importantly, a deeply moving reconstruction of events that day.

Lower’s quest began a decade ago when two young journalists from Prague brought to her a photograph they had unearthed in security files of the old communist regime in Czechoslovakia. Documentation with it said it was taken on October 13, 1941 outside a small town by the name of Miropol, 135 miles west of Kiev in Ukraine.

That year Ukraine had been overrun as German armies swept eastwards into the Soviet Union in the notorious Operation Barbarossa that ended Hitler’s 1939 peace pact with Stalin. Following the frontline troops came a second wave of SS death squads with orders to eliminate Ukraine’s more than one million Jews.

Unleashed by SS leader Heinrich Himmler, they pursued their sick mission with brutality and thoroughness, with the result that a quarter of all the six million-plus Holocaust victims were Ukrainian.

The picture shocked even experienced and expert Holocaust historian Professor Wendy Lower (pictured) when she first saw it

The picture shocked even experienced and expert Holocaust historian Professor Wendy Lower (pictured) when she first saw it

They enlisted local militias, paramilitaries and policemen willing to join in the dirty work — like the two riflemen in soft field caps and greatcoats in the foreground of the photograph.

The presence of these two men has great significance. These days, some eastern European nations wish to draw a veil over the collaboration of many of their countrymen in the slaughter of the Jews, to the extent, says Lower, of some trying to silence historians who draw attention to it.

Here is proof of complicity. They were there — and they were active, even enthusiastic, participants.

Meanwhile, beyond the militiamen and clearly in charge of the massacre — or Aktion as the Nazis called such deliberate, wellplanned atrocities — are two figures in unmistakable German uniforms of visor cap, jodhpurs and jackboots, one directly behind the victim, his rifle aimed at the back of her head. 

They were from a platoon of customs and border guards who happened to be stationed just outside picturesque Miropol when, on Sunday, October 12, three SS officers arrived and took charge, demanding to know why the town’s Jewish inhabitants were still alive.

They rounded up teenage girls to dig a circular pit in the nearby forest. Then they went to the customs guards’ barracks on the edge of the town and called for volunteers to take part in the mass killing.

Border guards Erich Kuska, a known hater of Jews, and Hans Vogt were among an estimated half-dozen who stepped forward.

That night, Miropol was sealed off, with half of the 40-strong local police force forming a cordon round the town, while the rest stormed from house to house forcing the Jews from their homes and herding them into the market place, on the pretext that they were to be sent to neighbouring towns on labour assignments. 

That year Ukraine had been overrun as German armies swept eastwards into the Soviet Union in the notorious Operation Barbarossa that ended Hitler’s 1939 peace pact with Stalin. Pictured: Hitler and Himmler inspecting SS Guard

That year Ukraine had been overrun as German armies swept eastwards into the Soviet Union in the notorious Operation Barbarossa that ended Hitler’s 1939 peace pact with Stalin. Pictured: Hitler and Himmler inspecting SS Guard 

As the Jews made their way through the streets, they looked back in disbelief as their non-Jewish neighbours — people they had worked with, been to school with — looted their homes, carting away anything that could be carried.

In the square, the Jews were pelted with bottles and stones by locals, while armed Ukrainian militia chased those who tried to escape, bludgeoning some to death and shooting those who resisted or could not walk. One old woman was shot dead in her own bed.

At dawn, the Jews were ordered to line up in a column. Knowing their fate, many were crying and saying their goodbyes to one another. Chants of kaddish, the death prayer, filled the air. Then they were forced out into the forest, harassed by the militia.

Men tried to shield their daughters, wives, sisters and mothers from beatings but  anyone who fought back was battered with rifle butts or shot.

The victims were held in a hut before being forced out in small groups to stumble the 20 yards to the edge of the pit, where they were forced to their knees and shot in the head.

They were taunted by name as Ukrainians unleashed personal resentment against their richer neighbours, their more clever schoolmates, and their bosses in the local paper factory.

Small children and babies were grabbed by the legs and their heads smashed against trees. Witnesses recall an elderly grandmother unable to walk, tipped into the pit still lying in her bed.

As the pit filled with bodies, it became apparent that the Germans had miscalculated the numbers . The remaining Jewish men were made to dig another mass grave and the firing resumed.

The noise alerted a detachment of Slovakian Security Service guards, who were also stationed in town. Their commander sent three men to investigate, including Lubomir Skrovina, a keen photographer, who instinctively grabbed his Zeiss Ikon Contax camera.

When they came to the site, he  shot off five pictures from 20 ft away — one was the photograph that, many years later, launched Lower’s investigation.

Unleashed by SS leader Heinrich Himmler (left), they pursued their sick mission with brutality and thoroughness, with the result that a quarter of all the six million-plus Holocaust victims were Ukrainian. Pictured: Hitler consulting a geographical survey map with his general staff including Heinrich Himmler and Martin Bormann

Unleashed by SS leader Heinrich Himmler (left), they pursued their sick mission with brutality and thoroughness, with the result that a quarter of all the six million-plus Holocaust victims were Ukrainian. Pictured: Hitler consulting a geographical survey map with his general staff including Heinrich Himmler and Martin Bormann

Two of the others showed individual women crouching as they are shot in the head from behind; two were of dead bodies. Lying in the pit, the woman in the polka-dot dress could just be made out, still holding the little boy’s hand.

Skrovina took his photographs surreptitiously, not as some sick voyeur but for a laudable reason. He was an anti-Nazi and had set himself a secret mission to document German atrocities. He would later return to Slovakia and join the Resistance there. 

The killing spree lasted three hours, ending at noon, when Ukrainian policemen took potshots at any bodies that were still moving. But they missed one. 

As night fell , 13-year- old Ludmilla Blekhman regained consciousness. She crawled out of the pit, pushed upwards, she later recalled, by those who were still alive.

She crawled across the moonlit glade strewn with more corpses and fled into the woods, where a forester and his wife agreed to hide her.

Ludmilla is the only known survivor of the Miropol massacre. Meanwhile, back in his barracks, the customs guard Kuska was bragging about what it was like 

to murder Jews — aiming at the nape of the neck and pulling the trigger. He would never be brought to account for what he did, nor would any of the Germans involved. After the war, all suspects denied involvement and put the blame on the SS and the Ukrainians, and cases were not pursued on grounds of insufficient evidence.

Lower tracked down the Kuska family and telephoned them at their home near Bremen.

Whoever answered hung up without a word. ‘They were not interested in dredging up the past,’ she comments.

It was different for the Ukrainian militiamen in the Miropol photograph. They remained unidentified until 1985, when a determined Soviet prosecutor in Ukraine tracked them down.

Nikolai Ryback and Dmitri Gynatuk were convicted, sentenced to death and executed in January 1987, probably the Soviet way with a single bullet in the back of the head and fitting because it was how they had carried out the killings all those years earlier at Miropol.

Dozens of other collaborators also paid with their lives for their atrocities in Miropol, caught and lynched in the streets by Soviet military tribunals when the Red Army took back Ukraine from the Germans in 1944.

In her book, Lower documents all this history in as much detail as she can muster, but one question remains achingly unanswered. Who were the woman and children in the Miropol photograph? They were more than just figures frozen in a brutal landscape. They were real people, with names, personalities and lives to live, until that day the Nazis cut those lives short.

Lower’s research took her closer as she painstakingly trawled through lists of missing-person files held in archives in Israel, the U.S. and elsewhere, fully aware the names of millions who died were not known, particularly the children.

She compiled around 450 names of Jews living in Miropol at the time — just half the number believed to have been killed there in pogroms. But information was sparse.

She narrowed her search down to a dozen or so families and then pinned her hopes on a family photograph she found in an Israeli archive of missing persons reports.

Taken in summer 1941 shortly before the massacre, it was of a group of women, one of whom was Khiva Vaselyuk, a nurse.

There were also two children, one in a sailor suit looking uncannily like the stumbling boy at the edge of the pit.

He was Boris, Khiva’s nephew, her sister’s son. The other child was her son, Roman, wearing a head band. Was this the child with the scarf the woman was clutching in her lap at the edge of the pit? And not a girl (as Lower had thought) but a boy? Lower rang the relative, Svetlana Budnitskaya, who had made the missing person report years before, by then an elderly woman living in Michigan.

The response was an anguished sob. ‘Yes, the fascists shot the little boy Roman, with his mother.

‘And the other child, Boris. There was a pit. It was near the ravine along the river.’

She described how Khiva and the children were forced to the edge of the pit. Below lay the bloody bodies of fellow Moripol Jews. Some still moved.

Many women had jumped in or were shoved in while holding their small children, and were then shot ‘like fish in a barrel’.

Historian Wendy Lower was so appalled she set out to track down every last detail she could about this scene from 80 years ago: who, where, when. Pictured: Himmler during the 1940s

Historian Wendy Lower was so appalled she set out to track down every last detail she could about this scene from 80 years ago: who, where, when. Pictured: Himmler during the 1940s

Svetlana added that her own paralysed grandmother had been carried to the pit in her bed and thrown in alive — confirmation of another part of the story.

Svetlana invited Lower to come to see her, which she did, hopeful that after years of research, she was about to identify the family in the photograph.

At Svetlana’s home in Detroit, they sat together on a couch to go through Svetlana’s collection of pre-war family photographs in Miropol. One was in a forest with a ravine — just like the site where the killings had taken place.

In another, her mother was wearing a polka-dot dress that matched the fabric of the dress worn by the woman at the moment of her death in 1941. Lower felt herself edging closer towards an answer.

But then came the moment of truth, when she pulled out the photograph. ‘Svetlana briefly looked at it and then turned away. She could not, or perhaps did not want to, identify anyone in it. She was growing weary, and wept.

‘I had upset her with this violent image depicting what had happened, possibly to her relatives — the woman might have been one of her aunts and the children, her cousins.’

Lower was forced to admit defeat. She knew the interview was over, and although she had been hoping for a glimmer of recognition — something positive to go on, Svetlana had been just five years old in 1941 and would be unable to make a positive identification.

Moreover, the victims’ faces are barely visible. Tragically, and for all her efforts, the mother and children whose savage slaughter was caught in that heart-breaking photograph remain nameless, lost in time.

Does it matter? After all, this is just one moment. And Miropol was just one town out of many where the Jews were butchered.

‘The massacre there was replicated hundreds of times in the countryside, forests, riverbanks, and ravines of Ukraine,’ Lower writes.

Nor did the slaughter stop there, rather it worsened.

These one-to-one, face-to-face killings proved so time-consuming that they came up with an industrialised method of slaughter: the gas chambers.

Yet one picture can tell a bigger story, and this one most certainly does. Don’t look away, Lower urges, that would mean we don’t care.

It should haunt us and shame us even now. And, as she observes, the perpetrators of genocide ‘not only kill but also seek to erase the victims from memory.

When we find one trace, we must pursue it, to prevent that intended extinction by countering it with research, education and memorialisation’. Here are the Unknown Victims, akin to the Unknown Soldier of World War I, symbolising horrors and hatred of which we still need reminding if we are to avoid going down the same path again.

The Ravine: A Family, A Photograph, A Holocaust Massacre Revealed by Wendy Lower is published by Head of Zeus on March 1 at £20. © Wendy Lower 2021. 

To order a copy for £17.60 (offer valid to 29/1/21; UK P&P free), go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193.    

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