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GriefThe Biography of a Holocaust Photograph$

David Shneer

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780190923815

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190923815.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 23 September 2021

Witnessing Grief: The First Reports of Genocide

Witnessing Grief: The First Reports of Genocide

Chapter:
(p.30) (p.31) 2 Witnessing Grief: The First Reports of Genocide
Source:
Grief
Author(s):

David Shneer

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/oso/9780190923815.003.0003

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter takes up the question of bearing witness to atrocity in words and images. After it discovered mass atrocities on the outskirts of Kerch, the Red Army commissioned investigators to determine what took place. Shneer contrasts official Soviet reports with the German administration’s own memoranda to Berlin describing what took place at Kerch. The writer Ilya Selvinsky also came to report for the Soviet press, but he could only respond to German atrocities with poetry. Several photographers documented the Kerch mass atrocities, including Mark Redkin, Yevgeny Khaldei, and Dmitri Baltermants. The author introduces the reader to the concepts of voyeurism, necropornography, and Aby Warburg’s pathos formula as ways to interpret atrocity images. Finally, this chapter describes the publication and circulation of atrocity photographs from Kerch to Moscow and from Moscow around the world.

Keywords:   testimony, bearing witness, poetry, voyeurism, Aby Warburg, necropornography, ethics, gender

Soviet investigators arrived in Kerch almost immediately after its liberation and began interviewing residents about what had taken place. After all, it was one of the first major cities that had been under German occupation for any length of time to be liberated.1 Because of the location of the area’s airfield near Bagerovo, the antitank trench was one of the first scenes that Soviet investigators who flew into the city came upon.

One sailor, who was part of the Red Army liberating forces then based in Kerch, reported to his commanding officer of the rumors he heard of a mass killing site on the city’s outskirts. The commanding officer asked him to investigate the scene. That morning in early January, several days after the return of Soviet authorities, he and several other sailors drove out from Kerch toward Bagerovo. They approached the site and saw a mound of earth obscuring the trench. Upon going around the mound, they saw a scene stretch out before them unlike any they had ever seen. The ground had some snow on it, but it was mostly wet, a field of semifrozen mud. According to this sailor and other eyewitnesses, a trench—the antitank trench the Soviets themselves dug—that stretched between one and two kilometers in length, four and five meters in width, two meters in depth, was now filled with corpses.

That scene would have been shocking enough. But eyewitnesses did not end their descriptions with the pit full of the dead, because that was not the first image they saw. The trench was so full that the Germans murdered their last victims—a few remaining Jews, partisans, and prisoners of war as well as non-Jewish civilians executed in reprisal for partisan actions against the German occupiers—in late December out on the frozen field along the edge of the ditch. The bodies of those last to be executed lay on the open field, left in haste upon the German retreat.

(p.32) The remaining scene was horrifying: “Around the trench lay frozen pools of blood,” wrote Boris Volfson, who was commissioned to write the earliest official Soviet report of the mass murders of Kerch’s residents.2 One story, which also appeared in Volfson’s report, was quite familiar to the city’s residents. A murdered woman, perhaps thirty-five years old, was shot dead with her young children. That story had other sources, including photographs, to corroborate it, but Volfson’s report also included a story about how the Germans poisoned a school full of children in Kerch, a horrible act almost too shocking to believe.3

The fact that the vast majority of the people murdered had certain collective characteristics was clear to anyone living in the area who had seen Order No. 5 posted in late November. By early January everyone in Kerch understood that the Germans had not simply marched the Jews from Haymarket Square to the city prison and then relocated them to forced labor on a collective farm. One man, when asked more than fifty years later if he could tell that the corpses at the trench were Jewish, replied, “They had Jewish faces, even the woman,” referring to the unnamed thirty-five-year-old with her small children, who was blonde. “She [too] had a Jewish face.”4

Despite the ubiquitous local knowledge of the victims’ collective identity, every official report investigating what took place at Kerch and produced in the months after the city’s liberation obscured the Jewish identities of the victims. On the one hand, this fit into a long history of the communist state universalizing particular anti-Jewish violence. After all, communists view the world through the Marxist lens of class and, in theory, do not believe in biological destiny. This was a primary difference between the Soviet Union and the rest of the Western world, which in the first half of the twentieth century was infatuated with the idea of eugenics and race science. The concept of universalizing anti-Jewish violence had held true ever since the Bolsheviks took power and responded to anti-Jewish pogroms during the civil war of 1919–21.5

On the other hand, the same Soviet Union that emphasized the common human experience and outlawed antisemitism also emphasized an individual Soviet citizen’s membership in a Soviet ethnic group as a way to emphasize communism’s postcapitalist embrace of diversity. German reports had no problem naming the enemies being targeted—communists, partisans, and—the biggest enemy of all—Jews. And yet, here too these reports often conflated the political and military enemies as just another manifestation of the true racial enemy—Jews.

Soviet reports generally referred to those murdered as “peaceful Soviet citizens,” which of course the majority, those who were not fighting as partisans, were. (Among them would have been some Polish Jewish refugees, who would not have been carrying a Soviet passport.) Volfson, however, wrote that “the fascists (p.33) exterminated everyone: Russians, Jews, Ukrainians, Tatars, Karaites, Krymchaks, and Greeks.” His report opens with this universal statement about the fascists’ seemingly indiscriminate killing of Soviet ethnic groups. He even includes Tatars, whom the German occupation forces had explicitly recruited to be Hiwis.

But this begs the question: If the Germans really killed everyone, in the sense of indiscriminate mass murder, then why would Volfson list the ethnic groups making up the victims unless ethnicity was a category through which the Soviet Union understood its own population? His statement on its own could be true if, and only if, among the others killed in reprisal actions, one identified the dead as Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars, Greeks, Karaites, and Krymchaks.6 Volfson himself recognized that even if the above were true, one’s ethnic identity shaped one’s experience under German occupation.

His very next sentence immediately dispelled any sense that he thought that all groups were exterminated equally: “Jews were exterminated with particular ferocity, as revealed in the especially humiliating and brutal torture they endured before their execution.”7 This formulation highlighting the particularly “ferocious” violence that Jews experienced under German occupation, along with the preceding list of other ethnic groups killed indiscriminately, became the common way the Soviet press reported on German crimes on Soviet territory in 1942, the first year after the discovery of those crimes.

Reports also strove for scientific accuracy by declaring a specific number of victims at the Bagerovo trench. Volfson’s essay reported seven thousand victims, a number that he got from the Soviet research commission assigned to investigate German crimes at Kerch. German necrology reports were even more specific. A January 2, 1942, Einsatzgruppe report back to the RSHA headquarters in Berlin proudly proclaims: “Simferopol, Jewpatoria, Aluschta, Karasubazar, Kertsch, Feodosia, and other districts of the Western Crimea have been cleared of Jews. From 16 November to 15 December, 1941, 17,645 Jews, 2,504 Krimschaks, 824 gipsies, and 212 communists and partisans have been shot. Altogether 75,881 persons have been executed.”8

Members of the Einsatzgruppe D, which produced the report, were not the only Germans involved in the mass murder of the city’s Jewish population; the military administration was involved as well. A report sent on December 7 by the town’s Ortskommandatur to Feldkommandatur 553 stated, “The extermination of some 2,500 Jews was carried out on December 1 to 3.” The Ortskommandatur also noted with concern the huge discrepancy between the number of Jews registered and the number murdered and called for additional actions to find those in hiding.9

More than twenty years later, Einsatzgruppe D officers on trial in the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials, which ran from 1963 to 1965, concurred with the (p.34) early report that among the 21,185 people murdered in the region, the sum total of Jews, Krymchaks, Gypsies, communists, and partisans, “only” 2,500 Jews were murdered at Kerch specifically, at least in that first three-day action.10 Even the most dispassionate statistics produced by contemporary historians of the Soviet Jewish experience suggest that the Jewish population of Kerch upon the Wehrmacht’s arrival, and therefore the maximum number of Jewish bodies in the antitank trench, could barely have been seven thousand.11 Perhaps, these scholars insinuate, the Soviet researchers exaggerated their data, because Soviet sources should always have their reliability questioned.

Yet all of these reports mention only in passing that wartime population statistics were constantly in flux, with numbers rising and falling depending on the field of battle and which regime was in control of a given territory. Kerch was a primary destination for Polish and Ukrainian Jews along with hundreds of thousands of non-Jews fleeing the advancing Wehrmacht, and these individuals were likely not officially registered in the city. Despite the desperate need for humility among researchers in resisting the urge to give exact numbers, which obviously one cannot do given the exigencies of war, each one of the reports produced at the time, as well as later historical reconstructions, is more certain than the next about the numbers and accuses the others of over- or underestimating.

In addition to scientific researchers and investigators working with the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD), the Soviet secret police who conducted forensic work and interviewed witnesses, journalists also arrived in the city on the heels of the Red Army to report on the story. Upon arriving in Kerch on January 2, 1942, no one could have known what the story would be. Most assumed that they would be documenting another heroic liberation in the Red Army’s counteroffensive, this one of a key port city after a daring amphibious landing from across the straits.

To be sure, journalists had seen their share of horrors in newly liberated cities. From Rostov, which the Germans occupied for eight days from November 21 to 29, journalists, photographers, and filmmakers reported on the German execution of one hundred Jews.12 From smaller towns near Moscow liberated in the first days of December, like Volokolamsk, writers had written in outrage about German war crimes such as the hanging of partisans in town squares and churches and about other Russian cultural patrimony wantonly destroyed. The liberation of Kerch proved to be different: it was the first place to have anything like the trench on the city’s outskirts filled with mostly Jewish corpses needing to be exhumed.

Many newspapers, including Izvestiia, ran anonymous reports from news sources such as Sovinformburo, the wartime Soviet news agency. But the bare facts of the story, along with the charged language the unnamed author used, (p.35) would have shocked any reader: “Doctors from the city of Kerch, who remained alive after the spectacular atrocities of the German occupiers, published a letter in which they described the heinous acts of the Hitlerite dogs, that garbage of humanity.”13 According to the surviving doctors’ letter (although left unsaid in the Sovinformburo report, those doctors were Jewish), the Nazis kept them alive to take care of wounded German soldiers.

Those “heinous acts” included “Order No. 4, pasted around town, that told thousands of civilians regardless of sex or age to appear at Haymarket Square with three days’ worth of food. The fascists then drove all of them to the local prison. Then several thousand people, among them pregnant and nursing women, the elderly, and the severely infirm were driven to the outskirts of the city to an antitank trench, and at that site were barbarously executed.”14 (Note that the author meant to write Order No. 5.) This Sovinformburo writer found ways of conveying their utter horror, to the point of physical revulsion, at seeing thousands of freshly murdered, mostly Jewish bodies overflowing a purpose-built Soviet antitank ditch.

The Soviet Jewish writer Vladimir Lidin’s short article about the Kerch massacres appeared on page four of the January 31 edition of Izvestiia. The grim opening set the tone for the entire essay: “Whole groups were driven from the Kerch city prison, 7000 of them, shot in Kerch, and this, after the antitank ditch was already overflowing with the dead.” Lidin then searched for psychocultural explanations for such atrocious behavior among the seemingly cultured Germans. Readers might have been surprised to read his answer: Germans were capable of this kind of sadism, he suggested, because of their history of “unbelievable sexual deviance including tolerance and support of homosexuals, who even had their own legal pornographic newspapers.” The author’s main point, aside from the violent homophobia mobilized by both National Socialists and communists to demonize the other, was to argue that only in Germany, where a perverse society of sexual deviance destroyed the classic liberal culture of Schiller and Goethe, was it possible for their troops to execute tens of thousands of peaceful Soviet civilians.15

What does a reader do with that kind of gruesome information about the massacre and its presumptive causes, buried as it was on page four? Assume it was an exaggeration to demonize the enemy and convince those reading the paper to continue fighting? Wonder why the Germans would round up pregnant women and murder them, if that was indeed what happened at Kerch? And then there was the description of the trench literally overflowing with the dead. Was such a thing possible?

Lidin was a well-known author who had become a special correspondent for Izvestiia at the outbreak of war, writing short pieces for the newspaper. (He also (p.36) collaborated with Baltermants on a book about the November 1941 defense of Moscow.)16 Other journalist-writers such as Ilya Selvinsky turned to poetry-as-testimony. Selvinsky was on the scene reporting for Red Star, the Red Army’s newspaper. Out of that experience he produced I Saw It (Ia eto videl), a poetic response to reflect what he had seen in his first few days in the liberated city. Unlike Lidin’s analytical treatment of events, Selvinsky bore witness to the killing site and never attempted to explain how such a crime could have happened in the first place.

There was a long tradition of literary writers being commissioned to produce journalism in the aftermath of atrocities. Then, in the moment of putting pen to paper to write their documentary account, they found themselves turning to their artistic craft to convey the full extent of what they had seen. After the 1903 anti-Jewish pogroms in the Bessarabian city of Kishinev, the poet Chaim Nachman Bialik was sent to cover the story for an Odessa-based newspaper. Although the editor may have expected a journalistic account of the violence, what Bialik turned into his editor was a powerful poema, a long-form narrative poem, called “In the City of Slaughter,” which served as a template for future Jewish responses to anti-Jewish violence.17 Selvinsky certainly worked in the literary genre of the poema; perhaps he even knew of Bialik’s poetic response to anti-Jewish violence in southern Russia.

Semen Rafailov, a Kerch resident at the time of the German occupation, remembered visiting the trench on the outskirts of town and being overcome with sadness at the magnitude of what lay before him. He also met a soldier who urged him to get revenge for what he was witnessing. Rafailov went home and reported what he had seen to his friends, family, and the Soviet authorities, who had been back in the city for only a short time.18 A few days later, he went out to a local club to listen to a military concert. As he reported in his interview with the Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, “I was shocked that the Soviet soldier who told me to avenge the crime was there reading a poem from the stage. It turns out it was Ilya Selvinsky. The next day, his poem titled ‘I Saw It’ was published in [the local newspaper] Kerchenskii rabochii.”19 Readers of the Sovinformburo reports in Moscow might have been suspicious of them given their claims of the mass murder of thousands of “peaceful Soviet citizens,” as the press reported shortly after the city’s liberation. This was one reason Selvinsky turned to poetry.

Selvinsky saw the antitank trench firsthand as he accompanied the troops liberating the city. In January 1942, he recorded in his diary, “I got to Kerch with the second wave of airborne troops. The city is half-destroyed. That’s that—we’ll restore it. But near the village of Bagerovo in an antitank ditch—[were] 7,000 executed women, children, old men and others. And I saw them. Now I do not have the strength to write about it in prose. Nerves can no longer react. What (p.37) I could—I have expressed in verse.”20 “I Saw It” appeared again in the Moscow-based Bolshevik on January 23, 1942, and went on to become one of Selvinsky’s most widely known poems.

The poem opens with a challenge to the reader: “It’s possible to ignore gossip, / or to distrust newspaper stories, / but I saw it with my own eyes. / Get it? I myself.” In this bold poem, Selvinsky suggests that not only did Western press outlets distrust Soviet newspapers given the different standards of evidence-based journalism in the “capitalist” West; so too did Soviet readers.21 He poetically emphasizes the power of sight as a form of documentation, arguing that he alone is a reliable witness. The poet forces us to ask: When mass murder has taken place, what stories do we believe? Only those things we see with our own eyes? What about a reliable witness like Selvinsky? Why should we believe him or the magazine Bolshevik, in which his testimony appeared? Maybe we need a photograph of the site as evidence?

Witnessing Grief: The First Reports of Genocide

“Terror of the fascist occupiers in Poland. Poles imprisoned in one of many concentration camps dig a grave for their executed comrades under the surveillance of the fascist executioners. (American magazine ‘Life’),” Izvestiia, June 25, 1941

But even photographs demand context and can be manipulated to tell stories that might not reflect the reality in front of the camera. Selvinsky understood that the most powerful way of convincing a reader of the truth of one’s words was by having seen the site for oneself and to describe in detail what he saw. He (p.38) transformed an authoritative, third-person journalistic account into a poetic, first-person eyewitness testimony.

Starting on June 25, 1941, just three days after the German invasion, Izvestiia and Ogonek, which was founded in 1923 and served as the Soviet Union’s leading illustrated magazine, along the lines of America’s Life, both began publishing photographs depicting fascist mass violence. Unlike the panoramas of factory workers listening to Molotov or proud soldiers ready for battle, these photographs had not been taken by the Soviet press’s own photographers. These were “trophy” photographs, wartime photographs captured from the enemy that served as a window onto the enemy’s mindset. Trophy photographs were rare commodities during wartime, a high-value propaganda weapon that was intended to damn the enemy. These photographs were just that.

But how did Soviet press outlets have trophy photographs from an enemy with which it had been at war for a mere three days? Izvestiia’s single trophy photograph labeled the source—the American magazine Life. (The same photograph appeared in Ogonek on the same date without attributing it to Life.) The Soviet press would have received the Life photograph the same way Soviet photographs would have reached Life editors in the States—over the wires.22 These photographs seem to have been too gory or graphic for Life to publish, too intense for a readership that editors generally shielded from the violence of war. The Soviet press was not so squeamish.

Even though the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had signed a nonaggression pact, the Allies—and we can include the United States, which, although not yet formally at war, was supporting the Allies—were doing their best to bring the Soviet Union into the war on their side. One form of information Western allies supplied to skeptical Soviet officials was photographic evidence of German atrocities. With the German launch of Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, bringing the Soviet Union unwillingly into the war, German trophy photographs of the mass murder of Poles suddenly took on a new urgency.

(By 1942, the Red Army began capturing its own German trophy photographs that documented the mass execution of their own Soviet citizens in even more horrible fashion than those from Poland, which had only hinted at the horrors that awaited the victims under German occupation. A March 1942 diptych, found on a German soldier named Kurt Seidler, shows off the sadism of the Hitlerites in their treatment of peaceful Soviet citizens, who “were shot in the back and, as they died, they fell into the bottom of a grave, dug out by those sentenced to die on orders of the executioners.”23 The victims’ only crime: “They were Soviet citizens.” The close-up of the grave, which was in fact a long trench, would have horrified any viewer.)

(p.39) The Soviet press, especially Ogonek, published Nazi trophy photographs of German mass killings of Poles (and Jews) throughout the summer of 1941. Even if most of the photographs labeled the victims of atrocities as Poles or Serbs, articles that ran alongside these trophy photographs, occasionally translated from the foreign press, were not shy about naming Jews as victims who received particularly violent treatment. As an Izvestiia article that ran shortly after the German invasion informed readers, “For the Jewish population of Poland, the German fascists established a regime before which every kind of medieval horror paled in comparison.”24

Witnessing Grief: The First Reports of Genocide

Dmitri Baltermants, On Their Way to the Front, November 7, 1941

As readers were coming to grips with the violence of German occupation, Dmitri Baltermants was photographing on assignment on the frontlines. Through the summer and early fall, he followed the Red Army. The images his editor published rarely identified the specific location, so as to avoid revealing to the reading public classified information, especially the fact that the Red Army was generally moving east, in retreat. In one Baltermants photograph from September, his editors labeled the image “the town of N.” Another shows him photographing from high above the battlefield in one of his rare aerial photographs. His editors often published somewhat uninspired close-ups of tanks on the battlefield.

(p.40) Based on his published record in Izvestiia, we know that Baltermants spent most of the fall and winter of 1941–42 on the front, with occasional breaks in Moscow. While he was in Moscow, Izvestiia sent him to photograph the Revolution Day parade on Red Square on November 7; a snow-covered landscape frames the troops, who listened to Stalin encouraging them to fight on and to the cavalry heading off to the front, mere miles from Red Square. After the late November counteroffensive, which liberated several cities to the west of Moscow, the newspaper sent him to photograph that late-breaking news. There, he discovered horrors that would shape his entire war career. None of those pictures appeared in Izvestiia. We do not know why. Then, in December, he was sent south from Moscow to photograph the ongoing events in the Black Sea region.

Shortly after the liberation of Kerch, after the first wave of paratroopers landed on Kerch’s shores on December 29, the local Soviet newspaper The Kerch Worker (Kerchenskii rabochii), reappeared after having been closed down by the German occupation authorities in mid-November. Reports on the mass murder of Kerch’s residents appeared regularly there throughout January.25 On January 24, Red Crimea ran a shocking full-page spread titled “Atrocities of the Germans at Kerch.”26 The writer and the photographer responsible for the story, Mark Turovsky and Izrail Antselovich, both of whom worked for the Soviet news agency TASS (Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union), aimed to recreate for the reader what life under German occupation was like for Kerch residents. Among the five photographs that appeared in the paper, the photo editor published two brutal close-ups of murdered women and children. Although the accompanying text does not specify whether the dead women and children were Jewish, the Einsatzgruppe generally did not murder non-Jewish children.

A few days later, on January 29, Lev Romanovitch Ish, a correspondent for Red Star (Kransaia Zvezda), published “Bloody Atrocities of Fascists in Kerch” and included much more detail about the immediate history of Nazi occupation that led to the mass murder of Jews at Kerch.27 But this series of articles about the Kerch atrocities appeared only in the local and regional press, and therefore had limited impact on broader Soviet and international audiences. Lidin’s “Ryegrass [Plevely]” appeared in Izvestiia in late January, but the newspaper’s editors did not run any photographs.

Mark Redkin, a photographer working for TASS, saw his photos first appear in Komsomol’skaia Pravda on January 20, and then again in Ogonek on February 4.28 The caption suggests how Redkin and the Ogonek editors placed the photograph into an evolving narrative of the war: “Hitler ordered his bandits to annihilate the peaceful Soviet population. Wherever the Germans found themselves, they murdered thousands of women and children. The bodies of the murdered were dumped in a pit (see above photograph). Among the murdered were many (p.41) women and children (see lower photograph). The Hitlerite thugs showed no one any mercy.” The caption writers obscured the perpetrators of the crimes. In one sentence it is followers of Hitler; in another, Germans.29

Witnessing Grief: The First Reports of Genocide

Mark Redkin, “Horrible crimes of the Hitlerite executioners,” Ogonek, February 4, 1942

Yevgeny Khaldei, a young photographer who would be made famous by his World War II photographs of victory in Berlin, also worked for TASS. The press (p.42) agency sent him south after his tour of duty with the Northern Fleet, where he also bore witness to Nazi mass murder in Kerch and documented the massacre with his camera. “The trench was two kilometers long,” opens the section of his diary, emphasizing the vast scale of the massacre. If the size of the killing site was not enough, Khaldei then wrote in his diary the numbers killed, “the 7,000 women, children, and elderly.”30 In order to give context to his images coming from the trench, Khaldei interviewed townspeople and went to the trench to meet with witnesses about the Germans’ forty-five-day occupation of the city and the mass murder of Soviet civilians.31

Baltermants joined Redkin and Khaldei with the second wave of Soviet paratroopers landing as part of the military operation to retake Kerch and its neighboring city Feodosia on January 1. Since he was a photographer, not a paratrooper, he opted against jumping out of the plane and instead went by cruiser across the channel. Baltermants recalled that New Year’s Eve channel crossing with stunning detail. Despite the stormy weather and choppy water, the mood was celebratory. Champagne flowed and sailors cavorted as one would have after liberating Kerch and Feodosia. The date also happened to be the New Year, one of the most celebrated holidays on the secular Soviet calendar.

All was quiet as the ship left the harbor at Novorossiisk. The sound of bombs and the piercing light of morning woke the sleepy and hungover sailors and journalists, letting them know that they had nearly reached their destination of Feodosia. Torpedoes from the water and bombs from the air, however, made further forward motion dangerous. The ship was forced to maneuver abruptly, forward, back, side to side, but finally, when the crew deemed the final destination of Feodosia too dangerous to reach, the ship returned to Novorossiisk.

Most soldiers were likely quite pleased that they did not have to face the heat of battle again, but Baltermants was on assignment to cover the liberation of these two Crimean cities, something he could not do from across the Kerch Straits. He made it to Crimea one day later, on January 2, on a support plane out of Krasnodar that landed at an airfield on Kerch’s outskirts, the airfield located near Bagerovo. As he tells the story, the moment he stepped off the aircraft, he saw the antitank trench.32

Witnessing Grief: The First Reports of Genocide

Unknown photographer, Dmitri Baltermants, ca. 1942

Baltermants, along with other photojournalists, all immediately saw the horror that, as Selvinsky wrote, simply could not be described in prose: “I can’t describe what I saw in mere words.” Selvinsky chose poetry. Baltermants used his camera. Photojournalists arrived just as the Red Army opened up the site to local residents to both identify the dead and begin the long process of burying the bodies. Baltermants saw older women and families wandering around crying, searching the area around the killing field. And then, amid the wailing, Baltermants saw what people were looking at: dozens of corpses littering the (p.43) (p.44) bleak, wintertime landscape. And by early January, when Baltermants and other photographers arrived at the trench, most everyone knew the general outlines of what had taken place there—and most knew that the vast majority of those murdered were Jews.

Witnessing Grief: The First Reports of Genocide

Yevgeny Khaldei, Exhumation of the Bagerovo Antitank Trench, January 1942.

Courtesy of Anna Khaldei and the Yevgeny Khaldei Archive

Every photographer was confounded with how to document the scene in front of their cameras. Redkin aimed to take in the whole spectacle. He captured the overall scene with corpses littering the landscape, a few living figures conducting their investigation, and the white snow of the trench serving as the main subject of the photograph. He also took close-ups of the dead, in his particular case of dead children, which presumably shocked the Soviet newspaper readers at the time as much as it stuns historians today.

At the killing site, in addition to photographing the exhumation of bodies, Khaldei also documented the story of one man, Grigory Berman, head of a middle school in the Jewish agricultural colony of Larindorf, some two hundred kilometers away, whose family had been in Kerch during the occupation. On that day after liberation, Berman discovered his family members murdered at the trench. There are several photographs documenting Berman’s anguish as he comes to grips with his losses.

Witnessing Grief: The First Reports of Genocide

Yevgeny Khaldei, Grigory Berman Finds His Dead Wife and Children, January 1942.

Courtesy of Anna Khaldei and the Yevgeny Khaldei Archive

Khaldei varied his own vantage point, as he took both close-ups of Berman and broad panoramas revealing the desolate landscape in which the killings took (p.45) place, to give context for this lone man’s grief. We see nearly a dozen figures on the horizon, all appearing to be male. Some look at the cameraman and, because of Khaldei’s position, also at Berman. Most are in shadows, rendering them faceless witnesses to Berman’s pain, even though they are clearly on site conducting their own investigation of the scene.

A different version of Khaldei’s photos of Berman discovering his murdered wife and child—this one with grieving women behind him—served as the image illustrating the headline “We will avenge!” that appeared in the February 1942 edition of the Illustrated Newspaper of the Political Directorate of the Red Army.33 (Berman is the only man searching for his murdered family members in any liberation photographs from Kerch. The others are all women.) Red Army soldiers saw the photograph of the Jewish man mourning his dead wife and children, along with the headline, “We will get revenge.” They may have been motivated to fight the enemy even harder as they saw themselves in Berman’s suffering. For his spectacular photography documenting the Soviet liberation of Kerch and other feats of bravery demonstrated by a frontline photographer, the Red Army awarded Khaldei the Order of the Red Star in December 1943 for his work with the Black Sea Fleet.34

Baltermants took a similar approach to documenting the unimaginable scene that, Selvinsky suggested, could not be represented with mere prose. He spent the (p.46) day at the killing site hearing people tell stories as he took pictures.35 Baltermants had already become, in the words of Olga Sviblova, one of the most important art directors and critics in twenty-first-century Moscow, a “master of the horizontal.” His expertise in the panorama and the importance of the horizon gave him a unique ability to visualize the magnitude of what he saw that day and capture it with his camera. He considered the scene in front of him so important that he took two rolls of precious 35 mm film.

One photograph shows a mound of dirt covered with snow and ice. Presumably it is the rise that witnesses—either as survivors of the mass murder or as later visitors to the site—described seeing when they approached the killing site. Baltermants photographed people with shovels, and in a different image two men with pickaxes, breaking up the ice to dig down into the frozen trench and reveal the magnitude of the crime.

After his overview image of the scene, Baltermants photographed the dead bodies of murdered Jewish women and children close up. His photographs of corpses are grotesque as the dead children stare blankly at the camera with eyes open, save for a swaddled baby, eyes closed, lying horizontally across the dead mother.

Whether these photographs are too gruesome to reproduce is a difficult question. On the one hand, Baltermants pictured the horror laid out in front of him with the goal of publishing these photographs for a broad viewing audience. He wanted people to know what the Germans had done at Kerch, and he understood that his camera had the power not only to tell that story but to convince wartime skeptics of what German occupation would mean.

On the other hand, Baltermants photographed the corpses of men, women, and children, and the dead have no power to give consent to the photographer about whether to take their picture. As we know with contemporary accounts about photographers being sued by living family members of terror victims, such as after the November 2015 Paris attack on the Bataclan concert hall, there has always been a tension between protecting the privacy of the dead and the need to tell a story in the public interest.36

These images of the dead also fascinate, in deeply troubling ways. When viewers gain a bizarre sense of fascination, even pleasure, from images of the dead, the photographs become voyeuristic, verging on what we might call “necropornography.” No image is by definition pornographic, even the most sexually suggestive. Pornography is about a representation that becomes embedded in the relationship among the image maker, the subject of the image, and its consumer. Pornography is ultimately about the social relationships created in images’ consumption.37 It is about the photographic moment. What makes necropornography a bigger ethical challenge than pornography in general is the (p.47) fact that the subject cannot give their consent for participating in the moment created among the photographer, the viewer, and the subject: the subject is dead.38

We also have to pose the question about gender and sex. A male photographer is taking pictures of minimally clad women’s bodies, most likely Jewish women’s bodies. If that were not enough, there is the additional issue of religious injunctions. These injunctions—not only those of the dead subjects in the photographs, who may or may not have seen themselves as bound up in a Jewish religious world, but also of you, the viewer of these photographs—may render this killing field a site of “impurity.” In traditional Judaism, this defilement (or impurity) would happen regardless of whether the dead were women or men. But the sparely clad female body (it is important that these are not naked women’s bodies but are women in a state of disrobe) also violates a traditional Jewish injunction on a Jewish woman’s modesty.

And yet, neither systems of ethics nor instincts toward revulsion are universal through time and space.39 Today, the cultural response to death and the ethics of reproducing photographs of the dead are not the same as 1940s Soviet responses to death or to Soviet wartime ethics, which demanded that the reader see, even become witness to, each and every crime the Germans were committing. Perhaps more important, Soviet readers during World War II would have become completely inured to death in living color taking place in their metaphoric, and potentially real, backyards.

In fact, photographing the corpse became an important visual trope in Soviet wartime imagery. Nearly every issue of any wartime newspaper in the period from December 1941 through the spring of 1942 had photographs of dead bodies, including publications from Leningrad during the Germans’ siege of the city. In those publications, the dead were not shot with bullets but were starved to death, resembling imagery from the wartime Nazi ghettos for Jews, Roma, and others.40 The Soviet press encouraged readers to engage with their instinct for revulsion by forcing them to look at dead bodies, including Baltermants’s photographs of women’s and babies’ corpses. But this book will not include photographs that only include dead bodies unless they were published in the Soviet press.

As he thought about what to photograph, Baltermants decided to tell a different visual story from Redkin and Khaldei. If they focused on living men, either as grieving husbands, scientific researchers, or military personnel securing the site, Baltermants was more interested in living women.

Since there were few female military personnel or researchers on site, that meant that a majority of the women, at least those still alive, were wandering the killing field, looking for their dead relatives, and overcome with emotion for their losses. In his multiple photographs of grieving women, they wear long skirts, (p.48) heavy coats, and head coverings as they roam the landscape searching for—Who knows whom? Husbands? Sons?

Witnessing Grief: The First Reports of Genocide

Dmitri Baltermants, Overview of the Killing Field and Antitank Trench, Kerch, 1942. Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth: Purchased through a gift from Harley and Stephen C. Osman, Class of 1956, Tuck 1957.

Courtesy Dmitri Baltermants, Glaz Gallery

Baltermants photographed a lone woman discovering a man with a large rope around him, presumably her husband, whose body is being hauled out of the trench, presumably for a proper burial. Were he alive, this picture might suggest impending horror as we imagine his soon-to-be hanging body. But he is already dead, with a bullet to the head or neck. Since he is at the bottom of an eight-foot-deep trench, we have to assume he is being lifted out by others not pictured. Baltermants points his camera at the victim’s face, but it is not a close-up. He is on top of the trench shooting down at the couple’s interaction taking place at the bottom. He is a short distance from them, as he is in most of his photographs. We cannot see her face, but she clutches a small book in her hands, another act of devotion. Perhaps she reads him traditional rites after a loved one has died, perhaps his favorite poem as a way of saying goodbye.

Witnessing Grief: The First Reports of Genocide

Dmitri Baltermants, The Last Rites, 1942. Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth: Purchased through a gift from Harley and Stephen C. Osman, Class of 1956, Tuck 1957

In addition to these women in a seeming state of calm resolve, Baltermants photographed other women displaying an anguish that builds to a climax of wild gesticulation as they are overcome with emotion. This woman, whom we learn from a March 1942 Ogonek publication, is named V. S. Tereshchenko, spent some time searching the killing site for her husband, an already unimaginable scene. At last, she finds him among a pile of bodies and is grief-stricken, and Baltermants (p.49) (p.50) is there to capture her expression. In this first photo, we see the moment of discovery. She glances down at the pile of corpses, hands outstretched. What adds particular drama to Baltermants’s photograph is the fact that this is also not a close-up. He photographs Tereshchenko on the backdrop of a larger story taking place behind her—of many women weeping with her, quietly, in an act of empathy as they watch the subject gradually become overcome with grief.

Witnessing Grief: The First Reports of Genocide

Dmitri Baltermants, V.S. Tereshchenko Discovering Her Husband, I. Kogan, 1942

In this second photo, she becomes overwhelmed with sadness as she leans over, almost bowing toward the corpses arrayed in front of her. All we see is the top of her head, a torn-up coat, checkered skirt, and her arms stretched out. In contrast to the women’s empathetic tears, Baltermants has included bored soldiers, positioned at the center of the background, as they speak with one (p.51) another, seeming to ignore the horror surrounding them. Framing the left side of the image, we see the frozen trench, which at this point already represents the horror of the mass shooting of Jews and others. Other soldiers contemplate how they have spent their day.

Witnessing Grief: The First Reports of Genocide

Dmitri Baltermants, V.S. Tereshchenko Digs to Find the Body of Her Husband, 1942

That day, Baltermants also took photographs he knew he needed to take for purposes of documentation, perhaps even as evidence of the crime he unwittingly found himself photographing: close-ups of the dead, panoramas of the killing fields. But in none of the cases is he photographing forensically, as a means of using the camera scientifically to document a crime scene for use in future trials, as one might have expected. Yes, this is evidence of fascist, Hitlerite atrocities, but his photographs are not evidentiary. They document, in the words of Julia Kristeva, the “sacred power of horror.”41

But those documentary photographs were not the most compelling visual stories Baltermants wanted to tell. Of the eighteen photographs from the killing site in his archive, which is not the entirety of his photographs he took that day, many of them focus on women in mourning. He photographed the compelling women several times as he tried to capture their changing emotions as manifested in their bodies in various states of gesticulation. His work at the trench echoed a (p.52) whole history of wartime images documenting the aftermath of battle. In particular, he organized his photographs of grieving women that resonate with the art historian Aby Warburg’s concept of the “pathos formula [Pathosformel].”

Using the Aristotelian concept of pathos (meaning “emotion” or “sense”) as a key tool in the art of persuasion, Warburg coined the term pathos formula in the 1920s to describe an ancient Greek mode of representing overwhelming emotion. It was his way of making meaning out of the “primeval vocabulary of passionate gesticulation” as pictured in images of the ancient maenads, female followers of Dionysus, whose name means “raving ones.”42 With their heads tossed back and arms raised, the maenads are emblems of frenzied, orgiastic abandon. Later artists were able to use this pathos formula without regard to its original intention.43 It’s hard to imagine a moment in modern times more ripe for emotional overload than the living encountering the aftermath of mass killing.

When it comes to war, the pathos formula has been a frequently used mode of depicting a postbattle scene, especially one involving the horror of a civilian massacre. There, the optics of death have the potential to look similar to the aftermath of battle, except for one problem: military battle does not usually include mothers with bullets to the back of their heads, with their nursing babies smothered to death, which is what took place at the antitank trench.44 One can think of the pathos formula as the creative aesthetic tension between orgiastic abandon and a viewer in control of the violence pictured.

At the center of the pathos formula is an emotional woman. Even a cursory look at Baltermants’s photographs suggests that he understood the power of the pathos formula and its ability to connect with viewers through emotional appeal. If dead babies generated anger to get revenge and panoramas of the killing fields served as evidence of war crimes, then living women in various states of anguish created an emotional connection with the viewer. Perhaps Baltermants had in mind the Pietà, the classic Christian image of a grieving woman and her son lying dead—or put more accurately, Mary grieving for Jesus, who had been executed by state power.

No matter what visual formula Baltermants had in mind when he took his two rolls of photographs at Kerch, his work fostered relationships not just between the photograph and its viewer, but also among the subject, the viewer, and the photographer.45 Although he has photographs of murdered Jewish women and children as well, most of Baltermants’s photographs from the trench show living non-Jewish women mourning dead adult men. Almost by definition, we know that any survivors cannot have been Jewish, because they would have been dead, save for the Jewish doctors whom the Nazis spared and the occasional survivor of the mass shooting, like Weingarten the fisherman.

(p.53) Baltermants left Kerch a changed person, one who used his photographic skills to tell a horror story. By then an experienced military correspondent working on the front, Baltermants had learned how to set up a mobile darkroom in which he could develop his film. He then sent the developed film, along with his notes about the photo shoot, by plane back to Moscow.46

After that, it was anyone’s guess what would happen with his images. Would they make it to Moscow given the number of Soviet planes being shot out of the sky during war? If they did, would they arrive intact? Even then, who was to say whether or not the Izvestiia editors would like the pictures, although Baltermants was confident that he had taken powerful photographs of what he thought was the most important news story of the day? After all, his own newspaper published Molotov’s “Note on German Atrocities on Occupied Soviet Territory” on January 7. Molotov mentioned the Kerch mass murder of seven thousand peaceful Soviet citizens.47 Baltermants likely knew this and hoped that his photographs could create emotional resonance and serve as evidence of the war crimes Molotov described.

But they never appeared in Izvestiia. Why remains a mystery. According to a colleague of Baltermants’s, his editors told him that they were worried about “offending the Germans.”48 But although Izvestiia’s editors may have been worried about German sensibilities, few other press outlets were. Ogonek followed up its February publication of Redkin’s gruesome photographs from Kerch with a March 1942 two-page photo essay, “Hitlerite Atrocities in Kerch,” which included eight images taken by three photographers—Baltermants, Israel Ozerskii, and Israel Antselovitch. The five photojournalists creating these first liberation photographs of Nazi atrocities at the antitank ditch—Redkin, Khaldei, Antselovitch, Ozerskii, and Baltermants—were Jewish. It is hard to imagine the kind of impact this must have had on them, as opposed to photographers who did not identify or would not have been identified as Jewish. Unlike their non-Jewish Soviet photographic colleagues, the Jewish photographers now knew the fate awaiting their own families, who might be living under German occupation, as was the case for Khaldei.

Witnessing Grief: The First Reports of Genocide

“Hitlerite Atrocities in Kerch,” Ogonek, March 2, 1942

Alongside the eight-image photo essay, the Ogonek editors ran Antselovitch’s short essay, “Vile Murderers,” in which he described the state-sponsored mass murders that defined the German occupation of the city: “The head of the Gestapo in Kerch, the executioner Feldman, developed a precise schedule, based on orders from Berlin, of the extermination of Kerch’s residents. According to this plan, the first to be executed were Soviet citizens of one nationality, after that another, then a third. In all cases, whole families were to be executed together.”49 As a piece of journalism, “Vile Murderers” may be vague on its facts, but that was not the point: it was heavy on emotion, on the pathos reflected in the images. (p.54) Antselovitch obliquely reminded readers that one ethnic group (the name did not need to be mentioned) had been singled out for immediate extermination.

The paragraph introducing the March 1942 photo essay reads as follows: “These photographs were taken at a moment after the German occupiers drove [these people] out to this place. 7,500 residents from the very elderly to breast-feeding babies were shot from just a single city. They were killed in cold blood in a pre-meditated fashion. They were killed indiscriminately—Russians and Tatars, Ukrainians and Jews. The Hitlerites have indiscriminately murdered the Soviet population in many other cities, villages, and the countryside.”50

Unlike other written reports, which emphasize the special persecution of Jews, or even like Antselovitch’s article about “one nationality,” this passage emphasizes that the German occupiers murdered civilians in a horrible wartime atrocity regardless of ethnicity or nationality. Many readers, Jews among them, would have understood which nationality the writer was speaking about; others might not have picked up on the reference. But in wartime, making the photograph too much about specifically Jewish suffering as opposed to national Soviet suffering, which included Jews, ran the risk of having the general readership not see themselves in the photograph. It also risked supporting a Nazi racial vision of the world (p.55) with repeated references to Jews in the captions and potentially undermined their presumably more enlightened Soviet relationship to ethnicity.51

But a photo essay is not primarily about words. It is published because a story needs to be told visually, so an editor’s selection of the photographs is of central importance. That also means that the power of the story about Nazi atrocities at Kerch was no longer in the hands of the photographers but was with the photo editor at Ogonek back in Moscow. He assembled eight photographs by three different frontline photographers to create a powerful visual story of atrocities on a scale unlike anything the world had yet seen. Such a process took time, two months in fact.

The most visually dominant photograph in the Ogonek photo essay is one of Baltermants’s—“Residents of Kerch Search for Their Relatives. In the photo: V. S. Tereshchenko digs under bodies for her husband. On the right: the body of 67-year-old I. Kh. Kogan.” Only with this caption do we know the name of the woman Baltermants found so compelling that he took her photograph several times—a Ukrainian named Tereshchenko. The photo editor overlaid a second photograph of sixty-seven-year-old I. Kogan onto Tereshchenko’s. This allowed the Ogonek reader to assume that Tereshchenko had found her dead Jewish husband (“Kogan” means “Cohen” in Russian) among a pile of male corpses. The editor chose a Baltermants photograph of Tereshchenko that places her at the center of both the photograph and the page layout, thereby minimizing the presence of dispassionate soldiers in the background and the endless landscape of women’s sadness that defined Baltermants’s day at the ditch, as we know from his photo archive.

Tereshchenko is not the only woman pictured in the Ogonek atrocity photo essay. There are photographs of three women, each one photographed by Baltermants. In all cases, the woman has arms outstretched or raised. The editor, possibly following Baltermants’s aesthetic instincts, understood the power of the pathos formula and chose gendered images of female grief that had been channeled into an image that a reader could approach. Tereshchenko’s image dominates the left-hand page. The right page features O. I. Afanasyeva, “searching among the dead for her 18-year-old son.” If Tereshchenko searches for her husband, Afanasyeva’s maternal instincts drive her forward into the frame as she desperately wants, but also does not want, to find her murdered teenage son.

The third image, captioned with the brutally clear description, “P. I. Ivanova, a Kerch resident, found her husband tortured to death by fascist executioners,” brings together the collective tragedy of the first with the individual grief of the second. Here, Baltermants photographed Ivanova, whose head is thrust backward and her body contorted. Her arms are close to her face catching her falling tears, rather than being outstretched, a gesture of intimate sadness. Ivanova is (p.56) alone with her grief and positioned in the foreground as she interacts with the lone corpse in front of her.

Even though we know that there are other women in the background, Baltermants’s composition and the editor’s cropping have made this photograph about one woman’s discovery of her dead husband and her devastating personal loss. We relate to her, empathize with her. We do not get overwhelmed in the cacophony of death of the Tereshchenko photograph or coldly distanced in the almost desert-like, empty surroundings of Afanasyeva.52

The editor has placed these three images of grieving women in a larger context of civilian atrocities. Two photographs on the right page, which Antselovitch and Ozerskii took, depict entire families mourning dead men. In one, three brothers mourn their dead sibling Rakhman, a Tatar name, and in the lower one, a woman and her two sons mourn their husband/father. The older son, Ivan, had survived the mass execution that resulted in his sixty-eight-year-old father’s death.

One of the final two photographs of the dead depicts an excavated pit in which we see a pile of several dozen newly murdered bodies in various states of undress. The other one, by Baltermants, depicts a Jewish mother and her three children, the photograph that visualized the stories that had circulated in the city about just such a horrible scene. The caption to this photograph is telling: “Unidentified family executed at Kerch by the Germans.” Of course, the dead cannot tell their stories of how they ended up there. They also could not tell Baltermants who they were. And he did not find someone grieving for this family, because this family was Jewish and all of its extended family members were also dead in the pit or had fled from the city in advance of the German occupation. Nonetheless, he and the photo editor found the frightening image of an entire family shot dead by the “bestial Germans” too compelling not to capture and then publish.

The March 1942 issue of Ogonek was the only time Baltermants’s Kerch photographs appeared in the wartime central Soviet press. But his and others’ photographs of the Bagerovo trench circulated in other ways during the war. And thanks to Khaldei and his camera, we know that they appeared around the city of Kerch itself. Soviet administrators of Kerch affixed posters produced by TASS, known as Okna TASS (TASS Windows), in several places around the city, giving visually graphic evidence of what the Nazis had done, in case it was not obvious to the city’s residents, who had lived through Nazi occupation.

Witnessing Grief: The First Reports of Genocide

Yevgeny Khaldei, Kerch Residents Look at Wall Newspaper, 1942, US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Courtesy of Anna Khaldei and the Yevgeny Khaldei Archive

Like the Ogonek photo editor, whose vision shaped how the images would be presented to its readership, the editor for TASS Windows (or perhaps the construction worker installing the newspaper on the wall) had ultimate authority in shaping how the photographs would be presented. Popup agitprop street art had appeared during the revolution and civil war period due to a lack of paper, type, ink, and other printing material and because of the general illiteracy of the Soviet (p.57) population before the massive literacy campaigns of the early Soviet period. With the outbreak of war against Germany and the return to scarcity, this news/art form returned to the streets of the Soviet Union.53

The text on this wall newspaper is chilling. At the very top, the headline reads: “Get revenge. Mercilessly take vengeance against the German murderers.” At the top of each column, it reads, “Death to the German Occupiers.” It would not take long for a passerby to understand why the newspaper would be calling for such violent revenge. This particular poster displayed a montage of twenty images, most of which were by Baltermants, taken at the killing fields on the outskirts of town.

Below those two headlines the editor included two more sentences: “7000 Kerch residents murdered by the German barbarians. They didn’t spare old people, women, or children.” After all of that fiery rhetoric bound up in those headlines, each photograph had its own caption, many of which emphasized the murder of mothers and children. In addition, there were grieving women: “Above the corpse of her husband” is the caption to a photograph of a woman bending down toward a corpse as she gestures in anguish. “Executed baby,” with no name attached. “Executed worker, D. Ivanov” (or possibly Zhvanov—the text is hard to read). As we move closer to the visual center, the impact on the viewer increases. Baltermants’s photograph of the executed mother and her children is included, as (p.58) are several landscapes of the trench sporadically strewn with bodies. At the center of this wall-mounted photo essay was Afanasyeva, arms outstretched in a show of unrestrained maternal grief.

There is never anything random about the placement of photographs, either on the page or on a wall. This wall newspaper straddles the boundaries between a publication and an exhibition, and the person who decided on its final appearance was both editor of a newspaper and curator of a visual display. The photographs are carefully arranged in two neat, horizontal rows with the photograph of Afanasyeva mounted vertically in the center. Although not perfectly symmetrical, the left and right flanks of the display mirror each other. Perhaps to resonate with a Russian viewer, the editor who created it may have had in mind a traditional Russian iconostasis, a large screen in a Russian Orthodox church that separates the profane from the holy and is decorated with images of saints framing Mary and Jesus. Afanasyeva hangs in a place where the iconic Jesus would hang. By arranging the photographs to echo a holy experience, the producers may have unwittingly elevated those murdered to the status of martyrs, saints-in-miniature, as they present these mostly Jewish dead in a Russian Orthodox visual context. Moreover, Baltermants may have been gesturing to the Piéta by picturing a woman in mourning over her dead husband or son.

Kerch photographs by Baltermants and others were sent around the world on the wires—to the Office of War Information, the US government’s wartime propaganda division, and to news wire services. This was a two-way street, as images taken by Soviet press outlets traveled across the Atlantic, and American press outlets sent photographs to the Soviet media. It is likely that these Soviet photographers did not know that their January 1942 photographs from Kerch, the first widely circulating liberation photographs of Nazi atrocities of Jews and others, made their way not just to the United States and its state archives but into print around the world.

On May 4, 1942, Life magazine published one such photograph, an Antselovitch photograph from Kerch: “Russian parents lament their dead son at scene of a German execution of guerrillas.” The image of the mourning Russian parents stood in for the mass murder of the city’s Jews that lay buried in the earth just beyond the frame of the picture. The Life editors, like Baltermants, recognized that the wartime story needing to be told was about Afanasyeva’s overwhelming grief and her husband’s need to hold her up, as her body again echoes a crucifixion scene. This was the second time that the earliest wartime liberation photographs were presented using Christian aesthetic tropes.

On June 20, 1942, the British illustrated magazine Picture Post published several Soviet photographs of areas that had been liberated from German occupation and presented them in a large photoessay.54 The headline on the magazine’s (p.59) cover reads “German Crimes in Russia,” and the subtitle hinted at something sinister: “What the Advancing Russians Found.” The photo essay included five images from three different sites the Soviet army liberated during the late 1941 counteroffensive. The opening image was of a massacre at the cathedral in Vereya (which the Picture Post mislabeled “Vereyma”) and the final two photographs showed eight Communist Youth members hanged in the town square of Volokolamsk, both in the Moscow region.

The visual drama of mass violence reached a crescendo in the middle of the essay. A Picture Post reader turned the first page to be confronted by Afanasyeva, who had dominated both the Ogonek photo essay and the TASS Window wall newspaper. The article accompanying the photographs does not mention these two photographs, so the Picture Post editors wrote a separate caption for Afanasyeva: “The Germans came to the village, they looted it, and took some of the men away. The Germans retreated when the Red Army attacked, but they left the bodies of the village men behind them. Now the village women come out to search for husbands and sons. One of them, S. [sic] Afanasyeva, cries for a youth who was only eighteen years old. She searches up and down the rows of dead—if only she could find his body.”55

The fact that the magazine referred to the place from which the photographs came as “Russia,” rather than the Soviet Union, that it labeled Kerch a village, not a city, and that it misspelled the subject’s name shows how the magazine was less interested in the historical details about the photograph. This was likely not done out of a lack of fealty to the truth on the part of the editors, but rather it better fit the particular national needs at a time when the fact of Britain having a communist ally, which was also formerly in a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany, was an uncomfortable truth for the reading public. The Picture Post recognized that the photographs needed to tell a British reading audience a different story than was told to a Soviet audience, given the country’s radically different relationship to the war with Nazi Germany. The nation’s need was more important than the history actually pictured in the photographs.

From an aesthetic point of view, the Picture Post editors selected the most striking image of a grieving woman for its photo essay. The editors were in good company. Whereas Ogonek at least provided the location of the city and historical background of what had taken place, the Picture Post was interested in an iconic image reflecting how England’s Nazi enemy conducted war. With the Picture Post publication in June 1942, the image of Afanasyeva, whose first name now began with “S,” was stripped of its anchors in time and place, which identify V. S. Tereshchenko and P. Ivanova as early witnesses to the Nazi mass murder at the killing site near Kerch.

(p.60) Perhaps the most tragic part of the story is that aside from the most astute readers of the daily news, the British reading public flipping through the Picture Post in June 1942 was likely unaware that Kerch—and likely the mourning families pictured in these early Nazi atrocity liberation photographs—were once again under German occupation when the city fell to the German army for a second time on the morning of May 16, 1942.

Notes:

(1.) Rostov-on-Don was bigger than Kerch in terms of population but was occupied for only one week, and therefore the full effects of Nazi occupation had not yet been revealed to Soviet investigators.

(2.) Boris Vol’fson, “Krovavye prestupleniia nemtsev v Kerchi,” Istoricheskii Zhurnal 8 (1942): 33.

(3.) Volf’son, “Krovavye prestupleniia,” 34. I have found no other evidence corroborating Volfson’s poisoning story, although such stories were told in other cities.

(4.) “Testimony from Efim Smoliansky,” testimony number 32558, USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History Archive, Los Angeles.

(5.) Elissa Bemporad, Legacy of Blood: Jews, Pogroms, and Ritual Murder in the Lands of the Soviets (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

(6.) In fact, a formal list of all of those killed in Kerch prepared by the Extraordinary Commissions in 1944 identified not only the list of ethnic groups that Volfson listed but also included several Bulgarians as well as a lone Estonian, fifty-six-year-old Hans Reiman. See Yad Vashem Archives (YVA), RG M33/ JM/19683.

(7.) Volf’son, “Krovavye prestupleniia,” 35. The Russian original: “Evreev istrebliali s osobym ozhestocheniem, podvergaia osobo unizitel’nym i zverskim pytkam pered kazn’iu.”

(8.) YVA, TR-4/12, Trial of Erich von Mannstein, September 7, 1949, 65. RSHA is an acronym for Reichssicherheitshauptamt or Reich Main Security Office.

(9.) YVA, M-53/106, report of Ortskommandatur 287/1, December 7, 1941 as cited in Yitzhak Arad, The Holocaust in the Soviet Union (Lincoln: University of Nebraska), 207.

(10.) Andrej Angrick, Besatzungspolitik und Massenmord: Die Einsatzgruppe D in der südlichen Sowjetunion 1941–1943 (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2003), 355–57.

(11.) See for example Mordechai Altshuler, Soviet Jewry on the Eve of the Holocaust: A Social and Demographic Profile (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1998).

(12.) Jeremy Hicks, First Films of the Holocaust (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 2011), chap. 2. See also Il’ia Al’tman, Zhertvy nenavisti: Holocaust v SSSR. 1941-1945 (Moscow: Kovcheg, 2002), 274. On the occupation of the city, see Central Archive of the Ministry of Defense (TsAMO), f. 48A, op. 3412cc, d. 760, ll. 38–39, as found in S. Mel’chin et al., Iz istorii velikoi otechestvennoi voiny. Oborona kerchi i rostova-na-donu, noiabr’-dekabr’ 1941 g (Moscow: Izvestiia, 1991), 207. Stalin excoriated the head of Rostov’s administration for his terrible defense of the city. “Telegramma tov. Stalina sekretariu Rostkovskogo obkoma VKP B.A. Dvinskomu,” December 1, 1941, as found in Mel’chin et al., Iz istorii, 207.

(13.) “Chto bylo v Kerchi pri nemtsakh,” Izvestiia, January 9, 1942, 2.

(15.) Vl. Lidin, “Plevely,” Izvestiia, January 31, 1942, 4.

(16.) Dmitri Baltermants, and Vladimir Lidin, Moskva: no’iabr’ 1941 (Moscow, Leningrad: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo “Iskusstvo,” 1942.

(17.) Bialik’s original title in Hebrew is Be’ir ha-haregah. See Steven Zipperstein, Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History (New York: Liveright, 2018), especially chap. 4. For more on Jewish responses to catastrophe, see David Roskies, Against the Apocalypse: Responses to Catastrophe in Modern Jewish Culture (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999). The definitive study on Ilia Selvinsky is Maxim Shrayer’s I Saw It: Ilya Selvinsky and the Legacy of Bearing Witness (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2012).

(18.) “Interview with Semen Rafailov,” testimony number 40910, USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History Archive, Los Angeles.

(19.) Ibid.

(20.) Ilya Selvinsky, Wartime Diaries, January 1942, as cited in Shrayer, I Saw It, 36.

(21.) David Shneer, “Is Seeing Believing?: Photographs, Eyewitness Testimony, and Evidence of the Holocaust,” East European Jewish Affairs 45, no. 1 (2015): 65–78.

(22.) “Terror fashistskikh okkupantov v Pol’she, (Amerikanskii zhurnal ‘Laif’),” Izvestiia, June 25, 1941, 4.

(23.) “V bumagakh odnogo iz gitlerovtsev,” Izvestiia, March 21, 1942.

(24.) “V tsarstve terror i bespraviia,” Izvestiia, June 25, 1941, 4.

(25.) Shrayer, I Saw It, 65–66.

(26.) Mark Turovskii and Izrail Antselovich, “Zverstva nemtsev v Kerchi,” Krasnyi Krym, January 24, 1942, 3, as cited in Shrayer, I Saw It, 59–61.

(27.) Lev Ish, “Krovavye zverstva fashistov v Kerchi,” Krasnyi Krym, January 29, 1942. Ish was killed defending Sevastopol in July 1942 (TsAMO, f. 58, op. 818883, d. 649, http://tombs.sebastopol.ua/missing.php?id=16793). I am grateful to Maxim Shrayer, who has extensively researched the media coverage of Kerch and found these articles in Red Crimea as well as articles in Komsomol’skaia Pravda.

(28.) “Fashisty poplatiatsia za eto golovami! Otomstim za krov’ bezvinnykh zhertv. Fotodokumenty o zverstvakh nemtsev v Kerchi,” Komsomol’skaia Pravda, January 20, 1942, as cited in Shrayer, I Saw It, 69. Ogonek, February 4, 1942, 4. The original photograph can be found in Yad Vashem Archives, photograph 4331_16.

(29.) Ogonek, February 4, 1942, p. 4. For biographical information about Mark Redkin, see David Shneer, Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011).

(30.) Jewgeni Chaldej, Kriegstagebuch, ed. Ernst Volland and Heinz Krimmer (Berlin: Das Neue Berlin, 2011), 77.

(31.) Evgenii Khaldei, “Yanvar’ 1942g.,” Dnevnik Evgeniia Khaldeiia in the Yevgeny Khaldei Archives, Moscow.

(32.) V. A. Nikitin, “Rasskaz ob odnoi fotografii,” in Rasskazy o fotografakh i fotografiiakh (Leningrad: Lenizdat, 1991), 151.

(33.) “Otomstim!,”Fotogazeta glavnogo politicheskogo upravleniia armii 19 (February 1942), in Shrayer, I Saw It, 71–72.

(34.) TsAMO, f. 920, op. 2, d. 275, l. 7955332, 298–99, accessed June 3, 2019, http://podvignaroda.mil.ru/?#id=7955332&tab=navDetailDocument. In January 1945, he was also given awards for his work during the defense of Sevastopol and the defense of the Caucasus.

(35.) Baltermants’s photographs from the trench can be found at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth, which has a collection of about eighteen photographs from Bagerovo.

(36.) For information on the lawsuit, which was ultimately dismissed by a judge, see Dan Bilefsky, “Photo of Paris Massacre Victim Sets Off Press Freedom Case,” New York Times, May 1, 2016, accessed June 3, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/01/world/europe/photo-of-paris-attacks-victim-sets-off-press-freedom-case.html.

(37.) Susanne Kappeler, The Pornography of Representation (New York: Wiley and Sons, 2013). See also Geoffrey Gorer, “The Pornography of Death,” Encounter 5, no. 4 (1955): 49–52.

(38.) On the concept of the photographic moment, see Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography (New York: Zone Books, 2008).

(39.) In addition to thinking about the potential misuse of photographs of the dead as a form of necropornography, I read Julia Kristeva’s ideas about the abject as she helped me understand why I had a hard time looking at Baltermants’s photographs of the dead. She writes that corpses “show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. . . . [T]he corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expel, ‘I’ is expelled.” See Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 3–4.

(40.) Polina Barskova, “The Corpse, the Corpulent, and the Other: A Study in the Tropology of Siege Body Representation,” Ab Imperio 1 (2009): 361–86. Barskova describes the struggle writers living through the Siege had in portraying bodies, both the living and the dead, in a city where a corpse on the street stopped eliciting revulsion and became a normal everyday occurrence. It was a place where the starved and the well-fed both elicited a revulsion, each for radically different reasons. One imagines a scene like the Warsaw Ghetto where the horror of death from starvation and the corpse on the street shifted from one conjuring horror to one becoming so banal as to barely elicit a reaction.

(42.) On how Ernst Gombrich helped create the notion of the pathos formula, see Nigel Spivey, Enduring Creation: Art, Pain, and Fortitude (Berkeley: University of California, 2001), 118.

(43.) Sarah Boxer, “The Formula for Portraying Pain in Art,” New York Times, September 15, 2001. In explaining Warburg’s pathos formula, art historian Nigel Spivey points out, “On early 5th c. BC vases, painters fashioned a certain mode of the female form to indicate a woman gone wild with the cult of Dionysus: head thrown back, hair loose, lips parted, arms akimbo, and garments swirling and slipping from the shoulders. He later analyzes another piece of classical Greek sculpture, the Laocoön, which influenced a whole range of Renaissance artists, to identify the visual markers of the pathos formula, ‘the head; tilting sideways or thrown back, or both of those. Then the arms: as the statue was first reconstructed after its discovery, the right arm reached higher than it is now considered to have been; but in any case, one arm is raised, creating a dynamic axis of the thorax which is maintained by the other arm reaching downwards. Then comes the torso itself, twisting and convulsing and mapped with many lateral and abdominal muscles. Finally the legs; outstretched, the other with raised knee.’ ” Spivey, Enduring Creation, 118–22.

(44.) The massive exhibition War/Photography, which was curated by Anne Wilkes Tucker at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and which traveled to several major art institutions, includes Holocaust photography under broader war-related rubrics like “camps” and, in our case, “civilian massacres.” See Anne Wilkes Tucker (p.220) and Will Michels, War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath (Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2012).

(45.) Azoulay, Civil Contract of Photography.

(47.) The Extraordinary Commission report on Kerch reported the death toll at the Bagerov antitank trench to number seven thousand. See “Spisok—prilozhenie k obobshchenym dannym, kolichestvo zhertv nemetsko-fashistskoi okkupatsii v g. Kerchi, mesta massovykh rasstrelov, Kirovskii Raion, Bagerovskii rov,” RG 22.002.1.1878, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC.

(49.) I. Antselovitch, “Gnusnye ubiitsy,” Ogonek, March 8, 1942, 7.

(50.) “Zlodeiianiia gitlerovtsev v Kerchi,” Ogonek, March 8, 1942, 6–7.

(51.) Zvi Gitelman, “Internationalism, Patriotism, and Disillusion: Soviet Jewish Veterans Remember World War II and the Holocaust,” Holocaust in the Soviet Union, An Occasional Paper published by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, November 2005, 116–17.

(52.) Susan Sontag suggests that viewers exposed to too much violence get overwhelmed and become callous, inured to the “pain of others.” See Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 2004).

(53.) Stephen White, The Bolshevik Poster (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988); Victoria Bonnell, Iconography of Power: Soviet Political Posters under Lenin and Stalin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

(54.) “What the Advancing Russians Found,” Picture Post, June 20, 1942, 7–9. Thanks to Michael Berkowitz for scanning the Picture Post images.