Robert Fisk: Ukraine, 1942. What are we seeing?

 

Share
Related Topics

In 1942, in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, a Polish postal official working for the resistance opened a letter sent by a German soldier to his family.

Inside was a photograph which so shocked the man that he forwarded it to the Polish underground; thus it fell into the hands of a brave 16-year-old called Jerzy Tomaszewski, one of whose tasks was to pass on evidence of German atrocities to London so that the Allies could publicise Nazi cruelties in Eastern Europe.

Tomaszewski made a duplicate of the photograph for London and kept the original. He is still alive and, more than 60 years later, allowed freelance documentary photographer and writer Janina Struk to see the precious and terrible evidence – from which she made a perfect copy.

I will let Struk describe the photograph in her own words as they appear in her terrifying new book Private Pictures – about the private photographs taken by soldiers, from the Boer and 1914-18 wars through to the post-2003 US invasion of Iraq. "Somewhere near the small town of Ivangorod in Ukraine," she writes, "a German soldier points his weapon at a woman with a child in her arms. She has turned away from the soldier and wrapped herself around the child. Her foot is lifted from the ground as though she might be moving away from the soldier or perhaps the shutter has caught the moment the bullet has hit her.

"On the left of the frame are the tips of what look like two other guns pointing in her direction and on the right there appear to be three or four people crouching beside an indistinguishable object. The body of another person lies at the feet of the soldier. On the back of the photograph handwritten in German is 'Ukraine 1942, Jewish Action (Operation), Ivangorod'."

The photograph was to become one of the most impressive and persuasive images of the Nazi Holocaust, although its history would be smothered in the kind of "controversy" Holocaust deniers cultivate. In most publications, the picture would be cropped to show only the woman and the soldier pointing his rifle in her direction, thus giving it an artistic reverence while destroying the context of its original form. The Independent today prints the full width.

In her book, Struk asks why soldiers take pictures of their own cruelty. There are countless authenticated pictures of German troops grinning as they stand next to hostages who have been hanged, crowding round mass graves to watch the execution of Jews, Soviet commissars, hostages, men and women. But I have been studying this particular Ivangorod picture for hours this week. Somehow I can imagine the terrible, excited conversation. "Hey, Hans! On your left, they are shooting Jews. Get your camera. Look at that woman run!" SNAP. Or was the cameraman an off-duty killer? We shall probably never know. But the tradition, of course, continues. Look at the videos Americans took of their murder victims in Iraq. I shall return to this subject next week.

I enlarged the 1942 photograph to the highest definition and went over it carefully. Then I called Struk. Surely, I said, the "other person" lying at the feet of the soldier is also a woman. She appears to have a parting in her hair, her arms have fallen to the ground on her right and she is wearing a skirt, on the edge of which you can see her left leg. Struk had already spotted this. And then, I said, surely there are four men in all, three in cloth caps and jackets, and the fourth – who appears bigger because he may be wearing a greatcoat. (There appears to be a deep pocket on its right side.)

There is nothing ghoulish in such a study. The more you find in these images, the more you discover and the more real becomes the Holocaust. It may be – look at the picture carefully – that the soldier is actually shooting at the four men and that one of the other two rifle barrels is firing at the woman with the child. The shadows on the ground to the left suggest there may have been many more killers shooting at that moment. But what struck me was the nature of the earth on the right of the picture.

Struk describes an "indistinguishable object" on the right. It appears to be a wooden stake. To the right of it, I see some disturbed earth. Was the stake a marker? "You will dig your own mass grave, up to this point." Is that what the Germans ordered their victims to do? But then – reader, observe carefully – I discovered what is clearly a metal shovel, upside down, its shaft behind the stake. It is identical to other shovels in other execution pictures I have seen. Had the four men been digging their own graves?

Incredibly, when the photograph was used in a book published by the Soviet-installed Polish communist regime after the war, a right-wing West German newspaper, Deutsche Soldaten Zeitung, ran a headline above it "Achtung Fälschung" (beware falsification). The man pointing the rifle towards the young woman and her child was not wearing German uniform or using a German rifle, the paper said. A certain Professor Otto Croy accused the Poles of fabricating the photograph for propaganda.

Then, mercifully, up popped a former member of Hitler's Einsatzgruppen, the "special action" squads used to murder a million Jews in Ukraine. The soldier in the picture is wearing German Einsatzgruppen uniform, he said, and holding the usual Einsatzgruppen rifle. What more proof do you need? Years later, an exhibition of German atrocity photographs in Eastern Europe was put on in Dresden where an old man stared at the pictures for a long time. Then he began to cry. And as he rushed from the exhibition hall, he shouted: "It's me...It's me."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Argyll Scott International: Service Desk Analyst

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Argyll Scott International: Service Desk Analyst Re...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Executive - Software

£20000 - £25000 per annum + 55,000 OTE + benifits: h2 Recruit Ltd: Software Sa...

Argyll Scott International: 2x Service Desk Analyst

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Argyll Scott International: Service Desk Analyst Re...

Langley James : IT Project Manager; 6 month FTC; Brighton; £400p/d

£400 - £420 per day: Langley James : IT Project Manager; 6 month FTC; Brighton...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Uber app allows passengers to hail a taxi with a smartphone  

Who wouldn’t like a sharing economy? Well, me, for one

Mary Dejevsky
David Cameron spoke about immigration at a press conference in Ipswich  

David Cameron’s big problem is that he has been listening to the wrong people

Alan Johnson
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?