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The Ravine: by Wendy Lower

Halfway through this superb book, historian Wendy Lower quotes the forensic archaeologist Caroline Sturdy Colls, and it’s a quote which could serve as an epigraph for The Ravine: “The Holocaust sits between history and memory; it is neither a closed chapter nor still occurring.” As that period and its victims, perpetrators and bystanders fade from memory and disappear into history — and in a time when people appear on TV news shows wearing T-shirts stating “6 million wasn’t enough” and protestors air grievances about masks and social distancing by wearing a yellow star on their clothing — meticulously researched, passionate and truthful works like Lower’s become ever more important.

The investigation that led to the writing of The Ravine was sparked when the author was shown a photograph of a Jewish woman and children being shot by a group of men and dumped into a ravine full of corpses near Miropol, Ukraine (then part of the USSR). The event happened in 1941, one of many such Nazi-led Aktions across Eastern Europe in that period. “Nazi-led” is an important point, because as Lower chillingly notes, “Mass murder requires a division of labor among a multitude of perpetrators, and in the Holocaust that combined effort cut across ethno-cultural lines” and much as it would be more comfortable to think of the Holocaust as an executive order, carried out by the SS, the fact is that in Miropol, as elsewhere, there was little actual SS involvement. The Nazis and Nazi ideology were certainly to blame, but that doesn’t explain how a handful of German officers — in this case not even soldiers but customs guards and police — could kill the entire Jewish population of a town. To discover even this much required intensive detective work; in the Instagram age we may be bombarded with photographic images as never before, but we rarely truly look at photographs as Lower had to do, examining the image in minute detail, having somehow to see past the horrific scene it depicts, and to focus on the minutiae of its content; different kinds of military and non-military uniforms, clothing, facial expressions, the foreground, the background. It’s a breathtaking piece of research, which led the author to further images and ultimately to the identities and probable identities of everybody in the picture, as well as to the photographer who took it.

The photograph and other related ones — which appear in the book, thankfully in less than perfect resolution — were, it turns out, taken by a Slovak soldier who was also secretly a member of the anti-Nazi resistance. He clearly saw the pictures in part as evidence of Nazi atrocities and indeed was interrogated by the Nazis in relation to other, illegally taken pictures, though he was mysteriously allowed to take these. As luck (ours not his) would have it, he was also interrogated in the ‘50s by the Czech police about the photographs and about his role in the massacre, as part of an investigation into the wartime activities of possible Nazi collaborators. Both the Nazi and Soviet archives are incomplete — and neither, crucially, was concerned much or at all with the identity of the victims — but although sparse, they are crucial for what light they can shed on the occurrences in Miropol in 1941.

By contrast with the two opposed ideologies, Lower puts these victims — and more widely, the Jewish family unit — at the centre of her book, journeying from the USA to Ukraine and Slovakia and back in search of the family in the photograph, any possible survivors or any trace at all of the vibrant Jewish community that had inhabited Miropol for centuries. As with all research into and literature about the Holocaust, The Ravine is all shocking; not just the details of these murders, or the determined attempt to erase an entire people from the earth, but the ways in which this effort was helped by people who may have had little or no personal enmity towards the murdered. When the one survivor of the massacre of the Jews in Miropol returned home after the war, she discovered that not only had the family’s (and community’s) possessions been stolen, there was literally almost nothing left, even the actual fabric of their homes, the floorboards and walls had been taken to enrich other people’s houses. One of the worst horrors of the Holocaust is that the more we know, the more we realize we cannot know. When whole families and communities were successfully erased, more often than not there is little chance of identifying them, what is left is only an absence of people who should be there; but Lower manages, despite the odds, to put forward a convincing case for the identity of the three human beings whose lives were being taken in that split second captured by the Slovak photographer in 1941.

While the main focus of The Ravine is on re-humanizing the family in the photograph, Lower also uncovers the identities of the German and Ukrainian men complicit in taking their lives. There is an element of naming and shaming, as there should be; but perhaps the most shameful thing is that the killers (or at least the ringleaders in the killing) were actually named decades ago, while they were still alive, but never apprehended, or even seriously pursued. And the combination of factors that obstructed those original investigations, in the 1960s and 1980s, were, by and large the same kinds that hamper these investigations now. First and foremost, these are political issues. As Lower points out, in post-war Germany there was, in theory, the will to track down participants in the Holocaust. But in practice, they tended to target more senior figures, or members of the SS, painting a picture of the events that was true in part, but handily obscured the roles of those such as civilians working in administration, or non-military participants like the police, who might still be in those same posts after the war. From the Soviet side too, there was the will to take action against former fascists, not necessarily in the name of the victims of the Holocaust, but in the name of the Soviet state, with a particular focus on Soviet citizens who had aided the Nazis in whatever capacity. And as time passed and the Eastern bloc disintegrated, new versions of history emerged in which the peoples of the newly independent ex-Soviet countries had the tendency to view the USSR as the great villain and did not wish to besmirch the names of those local patriots who fought against it; which inevitably includes an overlap with those who aided the Nazis.

At every point, Lower succeeds in humanizing the victims, but also the killers and collaborators too; virtually everyone nowadays is aware of the mechanized death factory of Auschwitz-Birkenau, but part of the danger is that in knowing about it, we are dehumanized too. Those facts and figures are crucial, but they are also abstract and distancing. This is important, because even at this distance of time we risk to some extent accepting Nazi propaganda. The Ravine reminds us that the famous Nazi pride in the efficiency and industrialized nature of the Holocaust was in itself a kind of euphemism, glossing over the spirit of cruelty, brutality and sometimes enjoyment that routinely marked the Aktions against Jews. Part of the horror of what happened at Miropol and many, many other places, is that the Jews who were killed there were rounded up and shot while their neighbours — people who had grown up with them, knew them, went to school with them and worked with them — watched, and in some cases jeered or looted, or took part in the killings.

As Lower notes, investigating the sites of mass killings infringes both Jewish religious law and the UN Commission on Human Rights, which determined the basic right to rest in peace; but it’s crucial. Not least because, religious and ethical concerns notwithstanding, a group of unidentified people massacred together in a pit and perfunctorily buried can hardly be said to be resting in peace. In many or maybe even most cases, there is no one left to tell the stories of the families who were wiped out, and nothing left of their lives apart from a few documents and, in a minimum of cases, photographs. But there’s a darkly ironic mirroring of that silence with the family stories of those who participated too. As the generation who experienced the war, and even their children, pass on, there are those who understandably don’t wish their own family history to be scrutinized. After all, who would want to learn that their grandparents or great-grandparents had tortured and murdered their fellow human beings or participated in genocide? But while this may be understandable, it’s not necessarily forgivable, as it only deepens the darkness and silence that the perpetrators of the Holocaust wanted in place of the history of its victims.

The Holocaust can seem like a monolith; dark, necessarily forbidding and almost impossible to comprehend, but its great darkness is made up of the absence of millions of human lives. With The Ravine, Wendy Lower does the world a service by revealing, with the precision of a surgeon, but never without feeling, something of those lives which were so callously eliminated. Despite the distance in time between us and the events it documents, this is a timely book too; read it alongside David Baddiel’s recent Jews Don’t Count and the resonances between that time and ours become uncomfortably clear. It’s a book that will educate you, make you angry, but above all make you sad, and it’s worth considering that if every person who was murdered in the Holocaust had their life or death documented in a similar way, their stories would make up one of the biggest libraries the world has ever seen.

Wendy Lower peels back the Holocaust’s layers of statistics, numbing shock and horror to reveal one of the human stories underneath
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Forensic examination

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