Sunday, April 4, 2021

Memories From a Photograph of Horror

Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel, will begin Wednesday evening and conclude Thursday at sunset. At 10 am sirens will wail throughout the land. People will stand still. Motorists will stop their vehicles to stand beside them. The country will pause for two minutes in silent commemoration of the brutality and widespread world indifference to the annihilation of six million Jews in Europe before, during and after World War II.

Last Sunday, the Book Review section of The New York Times ran a review by Susie Linfield of Wendy Lower’s, “The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed” (

A single photograph dominated one-third of the page. It showed German and Ukrainian soldiers executing a mother holding two children as they stood above a pit into which the woman would fall. Her children would be buried alive.

Anyone familiar with the Holocaust knows this depiction is far from an isolated occurrence, Babi Yar being the most infamous of the horrific open pit massacres perpetrated in Ukraine. The picture’s commonality is what is so devastating, made all the more so not by the involvement of German soldiers but by the active presence of Ukrainian militiamen.

Ukrainians welcomed Hitler’s June 1941 invasion of their territory as many abhorred life under the Soviet Union. Significantly, far too many willingly, eagerly, participated in the murder of Jews—their neighbors—who, on top of their Jewishness, many considered affiliated with Communist Russia.

Jews had lived in Ukraine for more than half a millennia. They had been subjected to periodic pogroms not just because of their religion but also due of their occupations. Jews served as on-location representatives for distant Polish landlords. They were tax and toll collectors. Jews held the “the exclusive privilege of distilling and selling alcohol—lucrative trade that fit naturally with the business of innkeeping and small moneylending,” according to the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research (


As Linfield showed in an excerpt from Lower’s book, the Ukrainians “taunted the victims by name….The victims were known to them from the dentist’s office, the cobbler’s shop, the soda fountain and the collective farm.”

Lower’s penetrating history is of a massacre in Miropol, Ukraine, in October 1941. Miropol is 130 miles southwest of Kiev. Travel another 210 miles southwest to arrive in Ottynia, the shtetl of my father’s family in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in Galicia (though Ottynia is now part of Ukraine, it often shifted between Austria-Hungary, Poland and Ukraine sovereignty depending on results of the most immediate war. After World War I it became part of Poland). 

As recounted in “Remembering Ottynia,” a history of the town compiled by Philip Spiegel whose parents came to America in the 1920s, “The German-Hungarian army occupied Ottynia on July 1, 1941.”

Like the scene from Miropol, Jews were taken to Szeparowce Forest where, on July 7, 1941, Ukrainians, no doubt along with German soldiers, killed 1,200 before an open pit. 

My Uncle Willy was the only member of his immediate family to escape the carnage of that day and subsequent “aktions” against the several thousand Jews who lived in Ottynia (my father had emigrated to New York in 1939). Perhaps his wife and young son, along with his sister and her child, suffered a fate similar to that of the woman in the photograph.

Willy survived the first mass killings because he happened to be away from the village that day. He would sneak back into town to see his mother until she too was murdered with the rest of the known Jewish residents in Fall 1942.

For the next two years he hid out in barns and fields as German soldiers and their Ukrainian sympathizers searched for the few who had managed to escape. 

His existence depended on an ability to stay one step ahead of the Nazis and to find Polish peasants willing to risk their lives to shield Jews. 

He moved from one hiding place to another. He remained stone silent inside a hidden chamber of a potato bin in a barn as a German soldier banged his rifle butt on the side listening for a hollow sound. To avoid other troops he jumped into an open fertilizer pit when Germans came to the barn he was hiding in. 

He joined partisans to fight, eventually being liberated by the advancing Russian army which conscripted him and sent him to Siberia for basic training. To survive, he ate grass for lack of food. 

When his unit was ready to be sent to the Western Front to fight the Germans, they mustered at the base. By Russian military custom, the commandant asked if any soldier had reason not to be sent to the battle lines. 

Willy and several other Jewish soldiers stepped forward. They told the officer they did not fear the Germans. What they feared was getting shot in the back by their fellow soldiers, many of whom were anti-Semitic Ukraines. The commandant kept them in Siberia. Willy always suspected he was sympathetic because secretly he might have been Jewish.

Could be. Some 500,000 Jews served in the Red Army during the war. Here’s a link from Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, that details the participation of Jews in the armed forces of the Allies who fought Nazi Germany: