The Ravine: A Fam­i­ly, a Pho­to­graph, a Holo­caust Mas­sacre Revealed

Wendy Low­er

By – September 10, 2021

I am a cam­era with its shut­ter open,” Christo­pher Ish­er­wood famous­ly wrote of his time in Berlin, record­ing the heady days before the Nazis came to pow­er. A decade lat­er, Ger­many was ruled by Hitler and Europe was at war. On Octo­ber 13, 1941, a pho­tog­ra­ph­er stood at a ravine in Miropol, Ukraine, the shut­ter of his cam­era open, and took a close-up of a woman at the moment she was shot, hold­ing on to the hand of a small boy, with anoth­er child bare­ly vis­i­ble. The rifle is point­ed close to her head, hid­den by the smoke from the blast. The pho­to doc­u­ments a sin­gle instant in the mass mur­der of Jews in Nazi-occu­pied Ukraine. It is a moment both hor­rif­ic and intimate.

Who were the vic­tims, who were the per­pe­tra­tors, who were the bystanders, and who was the pho­tog­ra­ph­er? These are some of the ques­tions that came to mind when Holo­caust schol­ar Wendy Low­er first viewed the pho­to in 2009 at the archives of the U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Muse­um. Two jour­nal­ists from Prague had just brought it to the Wash­ing­ton, D.C., muse­um. There are, Low­er knew, a great num­ber of pho­tographs who doc­u­ment­ed the Holo­caust, but, she notes, very few like this one who cap­tured the pre­cise moment of killing.

Inves­ti­gat­ing the pho­to took ten years of research as she probed each fig­ure and every detail the cam­era cap­tured, result­ing in the sto­ry she tells in The Ravine. She offers this sim­ple title for a com­plex piece of his­to­ry that goes beyond the bor­ders of the pho­to­graph­ic image itself.

The detail she uncov­ers is remark­able, as she worked relent­less­ly to piece togeth­er the atroc­i­ty, just one of a num­ber of mass shoot­ings of Jews. Some of it is exceed­ing­ly dif­fi­cult read­ing, in par­tic­u­lar her vis­it to the ravine and its scarred landscape.”

There is no Nazi doc­u­men­ta­tion of the mas­sacre at Miropol, but eigh­teen Ukraini­ans who agreed to be inter­viewed about events they had wit­nessed or tak­en part in pro­vid­ed impor­tant evi­dence. Using hun­dreds of tes­ti­monies of Ger­mans, Slo­va­kians, and Ukraini­ans who passed through or resided in Miropol, and of the one Jew­ish sur­vivor [of the mas­sacre], I was able to recon­struct events just before, dur­ing, and after the pho­to­graph was tak­en on Octo­ber 13,” Low­er writes.

She suc­ceeds in iden­ti­fy­ing the per­pe­tra­tors — Ger­mans and Ukraini­ans — and the pho­tog­ra­ph­er, a Slo­va­kian sta­tioned in Ukraine who took the pho­to in what she con­cludes was an act of defi­ance, and lat­er joined the Resis­tance. Sad­ly, the vic­tims remain name­less. They are, as Low­er phras­es it, the miss­ing missing.”

Gila Wertheimer is Asso­ciate Edi­tor of the Chica­go Jew­ish Star. She is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has been review­ing books for 35 years.

Discussion Questions

Wendy Low­er focus­es on one pho­to­graph of the shoot­ing of one fam­i­ly at the edge of a ravine, a sin­gle act in the whole­sale mas­sacre of Jews in Ukraine, to pro­vide the read­er with a much broaderand unique — under­stand­ing of the Holocaust.

This rel­a­tive­ly short schol­ar­ly work reads like a detec­tive sto­ry as we fol­low the author through more than ten years of metic­u­lous research in archives all over the world — in Ukraine, the Unit­ed States, Israel, Ger­many, and Slo­va­kia — to track down infor­ma­tion about the moth­er and her chil­dren who were the vic­tims, as well as the Ukrain­ian killer who fired the shots, the Ger­man offi­cials who were watch­ing and super­vis­ing the shoot­ers, and the pro­fes­sion­al pho­tog­ra­ph­er who cap­tured the scene of the mur­ders as an act of resistance.

It is a riv­et­ing sto­ry that reveals the faces and lives of those who were the inno­cent vic­tims in this pic­ture, at the same time that it unmasks the faces of the killers who per­pe­trat­ed these hor­ri­ble crimes.

All of this is accom­plished in a book that is both read­able and a work of excep­tion­al scholarship.