Visu­al Arts

Grief: The Biog­ra­phy of a Holo­caust Photograph

  • Review
By – February 8, 2021

The pho­tographs of sur­vivors being lib­er­at­ed from the Ger­man con­cen­tra­tion camps at the end of World War II have become part of our shared con­scious­ness and the basis of our col­lec­tive mem­o­ry of the Holocaust.

In this vol­ume, David Shneer traces the com­plex biog­ra­phy of a dif­fer­ent but equal­ly shock­ing pho­to­graph that he con­sid­ers to be one of the first wide­ly cir­cu­lat­ing Holo­caust lib­er­a­tion pho­tographs. The image was tak­en in Jan­u­ary 1942, some three years before the end of the war on a frozen land­scape out­side Kerch, a port city on the Crimean penin­su­la, after the Red Army forced the occu­py­ing Ger­man Army, the Wehrma­cht, to retreat from the city.”

Just before they left, in an action that took them three days, the Ein­satzkom­man­do round­ed up the esti­mat­ed 7,000 Jew­ish inhab­i­tants of the town — men, women, chil­dren, babies and old peo­ple — and machine-gunned them to death in a deep trench eight kilo­me­ters from Kerch near a vil­lage called Bagero­vo. As their final act, they also shot and killed non-Jew­ish Sovi­et par­ti­sans and pris­on­ers of war, but in their haste to leave they left these bod­ies lying out in the open in pools of blood across a frozen field.

Dmitri Bal­ter­mants, a Jew­ish pho­to­jour­nal­ist work­ing for the Sovi­et news­pa­per Izves­tia, took a series of pho­tographs of the full scale of the hor­ror he encoun­tered, but it was Grief, a pho­to­graph that focused on a non-Jew­ish woman, P. Ivano­va, dev­as­tat­ed at the dis­cov­ery of her non-Jew­ish husband’s dead body that came to rep­re­sent this mass killing. At first the image was used in the USSR to doc­u­ment the atroc­i­ties that were car­ried out by Ger­man fas­cists against peace­ful Sovi­et civil­ians, and then lat­er it was used to rep­re­sent the uni­ver­sal hor­ror of war. This, rather than the sto­ry of the ide­o­log­i­cal­ly-dri­ven Nazi mass mur­der of Jews. That sto­ry — until twen­ty first cen­tu­ry exhi­bi­tion cura­tors began to return the icon­ic pho­to­graph to its his­tor­i­cal con­text — lay hid­den for decades in the trench in the back­ground of the photograph.

David Shneer tracks the com­pelling after­life of this pho­to­graph through almost eight decades, telling the sto­ry of how a pow­er­ful com­mu­nist anti-war pho­to­graph that had been used for polit­i­cal pur­pos­es over many decades evolved into a cap­i­tal­ist art com­mod­i­ty for com­mer­cial use. In so doing, he also tells us about Sovi­et-era aes­thet­ics, World War II, Holo­caust mem­o­ry, the Cold War, and how the con­tem­po­rary art mar­ket pro­duces and cre­ates value.

Grief: The Biog­ra­phy of a Holo­caust Pho­to­graph is an impor­tant, lucid, and thought­ful engage­ment at the inter­sec­tion of his­to­ry, pol­i­tics, and visu­al cul­ture that sig­nif­i­cant­ly con­tributes to our under­stand­ing of pho­tog­ra­phy as noth­ing more or less than evi­dence and mate­r­i­al for inter­pre­ta­tion. We come to see how an image has the pow­er to res­onate beyond its moment of cap­ture in much broad­er pub­lic and polit­i­cal spheres, and that at any time can be spir­it­ed out of its place in the world to act and make mean­ing in many oth­er contexts.

Ter­ry Kur­gan is an artist and writer based in Johan­nes­burg. Her work fre­quent­ly explores the medi­um of pho­tog­ra­phy. Her recent book Every­one is Present won the 2019 Alan Paton Award (South Africa), was select­ed as a final­ist for the 2019 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Awards (USA), and was short­list­ed for the 2019 Pho­to Arles Book Prize (France). 

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