Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed - Wendy Lower


I don’t read many books about the Holocaust because they tend to leave me feeling upset and depressed about the cruelties that people are capable of inflicting upon their fellow human beings. But after reading a short blurb somewhere about Wendy Lower’s The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed, I knew I had to read this one. 


One day in 2009, author Wendy Lower was shown a photo that had only just recently arrived at this country’s Holocaust Memorial Museum. The picture shows the instant that a Jewish family is being murdered by two German officials and two collaborators from the Ukraine. The eye is immediately drawn to the woman and little boy whose hand she is holding, but the more that Lower looked at the photograph, the more she saw — including another small child partially hidden between the boy and the woman. Lower would go on to study and investigate the photograph for the next ten years, hoping to identify everyone in the picture, including the murderers, but especially the victims whose names had escaped history. The remarkable story that she tells in The Ravine is the result of her dedication to that task.


Despite the impression that most people have nowadays, just over a dozen photographs similar to this one exist. The Germans forbade them being taken, and they were generally careful to make sure that no such self-incriminating evidence was left behind. What makes this particular photograph so important is that”…the photographer testified about this event in the 1950s, stating emphatically that the local killers were Ukrainians who knew some of the victims.” 


“This book is about the potential of discovery that exists if we dare look closer. It is also about the voids that exist in the history of genocide. Its perpetrators not only kill but also seek to erase the victims from written records, and even from memory. When we find one trace, we must pursue it, to prevent the intended extinction by countering it with research, education, and memorialization.”


When she began her investigation, Wendy Lower did not know for certain which country these particular murders occurred in, but her diligence and investigatory instincts eventually led her to Miropol, a small town in the Ukraine, and what happened there on October 13, 1941. And as she puts it, “Using hundreds of testimonies of Germans, Slovakians, and Ukrainians who passed through or resided in Miropol, and of the one Jewish survivor, I was able to reconstruct events just before, during, and after the photograph was taken on October 13.” 


One of the saddest aspects of Holocaust massacres like this one is that roughly half of the victims have never been named, much less ever appear on any list of the missing. Simply put, no family members survived them, so no one was looking for them after the war. Thus, millions of people disappeared without a trace as if they never existed. But the killers in the photograph did not go missing when the war ended, and Lower reveals what happened to each of them — and whether or not they ever paid a price for what they did.


Lower realizes that photographs like the one in the book are not easy to look at and that they can be used for the wrong purposes, but she also recognizes their power:


“Atrocity images, especially the rare ones that attest to acts of genocide, the crime of all crimes, offend and shame us. When we turn away from them, we promote ignorance. When we display them in museums without captions and download them from the internet with no historical context, we denigrate the victims. And when we stop researching them, we cease to care about historical justice, the threat of genocide, and the murdered missing.”


Bottom Line: The Ravine is more than an impressive study of what one dedicated investigator is capable of revealing under even the most difficult of circumstances. It is a reminder that even though this kind of thing has happened throughout human history, and that the likelihood of it happening again — as it so often has since World War II - is always out there, we cannot close our eyes to it. It will not go away.


Wendy Lower


8 comments:

  1. Reading books like this one is always hard, but important, too, because I don't think we should ever forget what happened back then. Or else it might happen again. But they do always break my heart a little when I read them. And I will definitely be reading this one!

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    1. Lark, one of the author's main points is that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people disappeared in an 18 month period of 1941-1942 who have been completely lost to history because their entire families were wiped out. The locals then looted their property and finished the process of erasing all traces of their very existence. She does this kind of work to find and recognize as many of them as is humanly possible. It is certainly not comfortable reading, but it needs to be done.

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  2. Wow, this sounds like a powerful book. I hadn't heard of it before, but it definitely sounds interesting.

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    1. It is very powerful, Susan - and equally fascinating. What one photo ultimately revealed to this woman and her team of investigators is amazing. Luckily, she was able to track down some witnesses before they died. She was able to tell the whole story of what happened that day. Her writing style can be a little dry, but the story itself kept me turning pages.

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  3. This research would be tough for me to pursue, just the emotion of it. I'm so impressed that she succeeded in recreating the reality that many would wish stay hidden. An unemotional or dry writing style might be necessary coping mechanism.

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    1. I hadn't thought of the style that way, but I think you may very well be right about it. It's more like she is writing a report of her findings - like a crime folder in a police station - than investing real emotion in the victims. Even then, however, her anger is fairly obvious.

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  4. Difficult reading, but imagine the research itself. I agree that I deal better with a style that stays professional rather than one that focuses too much on the emotional for this kind of thing. It is already emotional and horrific enough.

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    1. It really is, Jen. I started to include the photograph in my review, and then decided we really didn't need that in order to understand the horror of neighbors who had known each other for generations turning on each other that way. I think that's what bothers me most. This kind of genocide was, to me, even more horrific than the Germans killing people they did not know. The millions killed in the small towns were the victims of people who began to loot their possessions and homes even before they actually killed them. That often happened as soon as they were marched away to their final doom. I just can't comprehend that level of inhumanity.

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