When I was a child my sister and I bought my father a large glossy coffee table volume, a history of World War 2 in photographs.
Two images shocked me more than all others. I encountered one of those images again today.
Today my Facebook Newsfeed popped up a Daily Mail article on “Ukraine’s shameful Holocaust of Bullets”, the systemic execution of up to 1.6 million Jews, resulting in around 2000 mass graves located so far, with up to 6000 further sites believed yet to be identified.
A French Catholic priest, Father Patrick Desbois, made it his mission to uncover the human stories behind massacres that took place at four sites near Rava Ruska (Rawa Ruska), near the Ukraine-Poland border, where about 18000 Jews were murdered, and a further 14000 political prisoners and Romanies. Father Desbois’ grandfather Claudius Desbois was a prisoner of war at Rava Ruska. He’d said little except that outside the camp was worse than inside.
His grandson was moved to investigate. According to Father Desbois, as reported in the Daily Mail,
People who were present at the killings wanted to speak before they die.
Many people were requisitioned to dig the mass graves, to fill them, to bring the Jews in horse drawn carts, to bring back their suits, to sell the suits, to put ashes on the blood. Fifty different jobs.
Thirteen German private trucking companies came to work at Rava Ruska.
The Daily Mail reports that eventually, hundreds of eye witnesses provided testimony to Father Desbois, extending beyond the killing centre Rava Ruska to neighbouring towns like Belzec ten miles away and cities like Lvov (Lviv), 31 miles away.
Looking at the photographs that have survived begs the questions, “Who took these photographs? For what purpose? Why were they retained?”
Some of the photos are now part of the Yad Vashem collection, Yad Vashem being Israel’s official memorial to victims of the Holocaust. When I started to write this piece my intention was to comment closely on specific images. But the images largely speak for themselves, so I’ll keep comments brief.
This is the image that first hooked me today. (It’s not the one that shocked me as a child. Fortunately I never saw it as a child.)
She’s young. She’s beautiful. She could be any of the young, beautiful women I see every day. She could be myself younger, or any of my friends. All her clothes have been torn off, except for her rather stylish shoes, and fully-clothed adult men are standing over her, cuffing her on the head, ahead of whatever happens next.
I think she’s been knocked down. I think this because in another photo she’s trying to fend off those hostile adult men. Look at their faces.
This girl could be any girl, any girl in a combat zone, throughout human history. I worked with Bosnian refugees after the Bosnian conflict. I saw photos of women dragged onto the streets, pushed down on the street, raped in Bosnia. Every victim of wartime rape and murder is this girl’s kin.
She’s a hero, but it couldn’t save her. Being young couldn’t save her. Being beautiful did not.
But the crime is not despoiling the young and beautiful. All victims of war are owed their dignity, in memory, even when dignity was taken from them at death.
Here is a mother trying to protect her daughter. Her daughter’s clothes are already partly ripped away.
Here is a group of people, apprehensive, knowing nothing good can happen. Look closely at the woman third from the left. She could be your colleague, couldn’t she? Your sister? Your friend?
You might ask, are there no images of men being brutalised? Yes, there are. They’re excruciating. And boys being dragged down and beaten, and old men, too. But these images of women spoke to me most strongly, just as all those years ago one of the two images that spoke to me as a child was an image of a French female sexual collaborator being publicly humiliated.
(No, this is not that image. This one has the same emotional tenor.)
(You ask, am I drawing an equivalence between Jewish women raped and murdered in Ukraine and French women whose heads were shaved as punishment for consorting with Germans?
I answer: Not an equivalence. But I do see a relationship, as victims of misogyny fuelled by wartime hatreds.)
These images of women being brutalised speak so powerfully it’s almost overkill (boom boom) to quote the eye witness testimonies:
One account from Rava Ruska was of a Nazi officer who spotted a young Jewish woman running out of the ghetto to buy butter at the market. He ordered her to be stripped naked, and demanded the trader smear her with butter after which he decreed her beaten to death with sticks.”
Nikola Kristitch was aged 8 in 1942 when he witnessed a day-long massacre:
“I remembered one of the girls, a young girl. Her panties were around her ankles.
“A German fired at her and her hair caught fire. She screamed and he took an automatic rifle, got into the grave and fired.
“The bullet ricocheted off his knee and he bled everywhere. He bandaged his knee, he was half undressed and then he emptied his round. He even killed Jews who still had their clothes on, he couldn’t wait he was so crazed with rage. He fired at everybody, he was crazy.”
These accounts would be merely pornographic if it were not so crucial to remember.
Father Desbois has established a foundation called Yahad and has worked to ensure a memorial was raised in Rava Ruska and Jewish graves are protected. He says,”Why do we come back to Ukraine? Because one day we will have to go back to Iraq, because one day we will have to go back to the last mass grave in Darfur.
“Tomorrow will be the same story.”
I don’t know if it was seeing those photographs back when I was a child that led 30 years later to me working with post-Bosnia refugees, or that led me to attempt to write a speculative fiction novel on these themes.
The image I will never forget from that book in my youth? This one. It was this one.
(Content credit to Will Stewart and the MailOnline, 24 August 2015 8:12pm)