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  • Image: Murder of Woman and Child at Ivanhorod July 28, 2013

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback


    Of all the murderous shots taken on the eastern front in the Second World War here is the one that has slowly pushed its rivals aside to become the atrocity picture: it appears on book covers, DVDs and in trailers for TV programmes. This is quite understandable. The shot has the right combination of pathos – a mother and a child – but a lack of nudity and blood: the horror is there in the fact that the photograph was  taken just before the trigger was pulled or perhaps in the same instant. But who took the picture and what were the circumstances behind it? As with many WW2 images there are serious questions, many of which deserve in depth study and if any reader or outside googler can offer further insights than we would be glad to post them: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    First, the official story. The photograph was mailed from the Eastern Front (or perhaps Warsaw) by a German soldier and intercepted in Warsaw by a Polish patriot who took the picture as a record of a German war atrocity. On the back of the photograph are written the words ‘Ukraine 1942 – Judenaktion in Iwangorod [Jewish action in Ivanhorod]’. The picture first appeared in 1969 on the cover of a Polish book, brought out  in several languages, 1939-1945: We Have Not Forgotten. It goes without saying that this was a Soviet era book (published by the Polish government) and that should hang like a health warning around anything that was printed in or on it: though nor is it a reason to dismiss the photograph, a priori, as some, Nazi apologists have tried to do, often with piteous flights of ‘logic’.

    However, official stories are there to be questioned. In 1962 the photograph was, for the first time, labeled a forgery in Deutsche Soldaten Zeitung, a German newspaper in 1962. In Germany, in fact, there was a bubbling dispute about the photograph through the early 1960s. The main allegations were that the picture was cropped in the form usually shown to the public, something which is true, see below. Second, there was also the suggestion that this was not a German soldier but either a man masquerading as a German soldier or even a Soviet killer. Then, third, it was claimed that this did not resemble a German killing: well-organised, preprepared grave and naked victims. There were, in fact, a number of letters to Spiegel to say that the photograph was a Polish forgery: more recent Neo Nazis have argued for a British forgery.  In 1965, meanwhile, one Kurt Vieweg wrote to that magazine and stated that the uniform did resemble those worn by members of the Einsatzengruppen, a formation to which he had belonged in Norway. It is worth taking these three points, one by one: cropping, uniform and ‘massacre technique’.


    First, the cropped photograph. Photographs have been doctored since the mid nineteenth century. But cropping is not necessarily the same as adding or removing something from the visible part of a photograph. Viewers must decide whether the original is fundamentally different from the cropped version in terms of the information and emotions we take away from it. Certainly, the full photograph is not easy to take in visually. A simple question to try and show how difficult the picture is: how many people appear here? We can count 12: though this is very tentative. There are three soldiers, two only shown by rifles. There is a body at the foot of the three soldiers: a woman? There is the woman and her child. Then there are six (?) people to the right. The great difficulty in the picture is the group to the right. What are they doing? Are they digging their own graves (many holocaust sites); hiding in front of a gun carriage (!!); or just diving for cover (Beach)? Is there something in the centre of the group or is this a large person bending?

    Second, the point about uniforms is difficult for the simple reason that there was no standard Einsatzgruppen uniform. Soldiers were seconded from various parts of the Nazi machinery, normally the most blood-thirsty and psychotic, but they kept their own uniforms with a change in insignia. What is needed here is a careful scientific examination of the original to pick out any insignia (notice the dark line on the right sleeve of the killer) or types of uniform and if possible gun type. Of course, these could be another German unit (are those cavalry boots?) on a free-killing spree, see the point below.

    Third, the killing does not look like a standard execution. But one thing that the killings on the eastern front demonstrate is just how often the standard was deviated from. The picture seems to show some ‘spontaneous killing’. Were a group of Ukrainians working in the field when the Germans arrived: note the spades? Perhaps the soldiers approached, all smiles, to a group of understandably anxious peasants. Then, one shot at the woman lying in the foreground and the woman and the child (is she floating after being shot or running for cover, she is in movement) and those to the right tried to save themselves. Looking at the photograph it is quite possible that the killer is actually aiming at those diving for cover on the right. The kill shot of the woman and child probably came from one of the off-stage soldiers. Let’s hope they had nightmares for the rest of their sad, meaningless lives.

    There is a final point. In the best discussion we have been able to find of this photograph it appears that there was a second photograph (Struk, Private Pictures):

    Printed [in Polish magazine Swiat, 25 February 1962] directly underneath this controversial picture [the subject of this post] there was a second image. It showed five armed men, four in uniform and one dressed as a civilian – standing looking towards the camera behind a number of bodies on the ground. We assume them to be dead. The flat barren landscape is identical to that featured in the first photograph. One of the uniformed men, with a weapon slung around his neck, looks remarkable like the man pointing the gun at the woman and the child. On the back of the photograph, in the same handwriting as the first [according to Swiat or Struk?], is written: ‘Ukraine 1942’.

    Given the importance of the Ivanhorod photograph in the historical imagination the following would be useful: (i) the present location of the two photographs (and were they copies or originals?); (ii) an examination of the handwriting on the two original photographs; (iii) a scientific attempt to understand the uniforms of the men; (iv) a copy of the relevant pages from the Polish book to post online; (v) a copy of the Polish article to post online; (vi) a copy of the 1965 Spiegel letter to post online (not in Spiegel search engine?); (vii) some background on killings in ‘Iwangorod’ (we’ve found four different Ivanhorods!); (viii) and some hard thinking about what exactly is going on and how many bodies there are on the right. The more Beach looks the more he is inclined to think that this is an elderly Ukrainian bending. Perhaps she was not able to drop to the ground because of bad knees: certainly the fabric corresponds to the other clothes in the picture.

    This blogger has no reason to think that this was not a German atrocity from 1942, but it would be good to stamp out the little flames of doubt altogether: having said that even the best proof can be denied by those who’ve elevated the swastika beyond truth e.g. evidence for Anne Frank’s diaries. In the meantime, we have several men with guns killing a woman and a child. You can do with that what you like, but the world would probably be a better place if the cropped image could be placed on every billboard in every country for a week every year. What man does to man, and what we CAN’T do to stop it…

    28 July 2013: First up is CS who asks a fascinating question: ‘Are there any examples of similar pictures depicting Allied forces? Short of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden. Something on a personal level like this iconic image.’ The answer Beach would like to give is that the Allies were goodies and so obviously not. But, of course, even a quick flick through the history books will disabuse you of that (or at least any 100% claim). So where are the other images. If not iconic ones at least ones that have potential to be the equivalent. The only ones that stand out for Beach are the images of destroyed German towns, some of which are fairly iconic. Next the great Chris Hale: What a fascinating and chilling post. I don’t have anything to add with respect to the picture itself. It nauseates me that neo Nazis and whoever else tried to use this to imply that Germans didn’t kill millions of non combatants on the grounds that this single image was cropped. Leaving that point to one side – it is true that German EG killings were usually conducted to liquidate a significant number of people. For example: 25,000+ at Rumbula in Latvia in 1941 over three days. These were systematically and efficiently carried out. My stomach turns as I write… I am not an expert on uniforms so wouldn’t feel confident to comment on that. Even if the man with the rifle was not German – he could have been a SS recruited police auxiliary. One correction I would make is that the EG recruits were NOT bloodthirsty psychopaths as I think you say. Many were lawyers, with doctorates – one was an opera singer. This is the core of the moral problem. They were ‘ordinary men’. Thanks Chris and CS!

    1 August 2013: Two emails  about this shot and arguing that it is not the scene of an atrocity, though both accept it may have been a prelude. There are two problems with this: though there are suggested answers below. First the words on the back of the photograph and second the dead (?) woman on the left of the photograph. Finally, an obvious point. The events that this photograph apparently show: the murder of woman and child took place on a daily basis on the eastern front. Anyone who believes they have argued away this photograph and who wants to save the Reich from blame – THIS IS NOT THE POSITION OF THE TWO WRITERS BELOW! – would have to argue with our records of several million more killings. First, Borky, ‘Beach there may well’ve been an attrocity carried out here but this picture isn’t it. First of all the clipped shot isn’t of a soldier shooting a woman and child. The woman’s closer to us than the soldier she’s not at all in his line of sight furthermore her vertical leap’s consistent with someone jumping out her wits as a very close loud bang deafens her and her child. In fact me’n’my sugarplum did exactly the same thing when she was about four when someone set off a percussion grenade which both stunned and deafened us for several seconds and made it very clear to me just why they use ’em in hostage situations. Oddly enough whoever clipped the original clearly had malign intentions and an agenda to promote but they didn’t realise the absence of the visual chaos present in the original picture makes it much easier to concentrate on and see what’s really going on in the clip. As for the original. To my eyes at least the woman on the ground isn’t dead but’s been thrown aside by the soldiers possibly as she was try’n’o obscure their sight or block their shots as some young man or men we never see make a run for it. During the early part of the Toxteth riots the cops’d periodically come on our estate during the morning after the rioting seeking “known individuals” provoking various mothers daughters sisters and girlfriends to block their way and I personally watched a copper throw one of them to one side straight down in the gutter not out of malice but out of sheer terror at getting trapped if the hordes suddenly surged into view the woman even lying there in much the same fashion playing dead to provoke an even greater fuss. The huge shadow flowing down the grass from near her head might be blood but the hill isn’t steep enough and the grass too profuse to justify such massive and copious a flow so quickly especially downhill with little or none of it round the body but aboveall as I rotate the picture through 360 degrees I’m struck by how the right arm still seems sufficiently tensed and therefore alive enough to stop the prone individual rolling over on their face while the other hand seems to be propping up the head sufficiently to allow them to surreptitiously give peripheral glances in the direction of the soldiers at their feet and just behind them. As for the five or six figures near the upright pole or handle they all seem to be ducking as low as they can in the hope of ensuring the bullets will clear their heads especially the big unagile woman in the white headscarf whose back seems unnaturally arched  from a combination of keeping her head as low as possible and scrunching up her shoulders and neck as a result of shock from the loud bang. It may well be the preamble to an atrocity but this picture isn’t the atrocity itself and the use especially of the cropped version suggests to me whoever was using it for propaganda purposes lazily assumed no one’d bother to look at the picture long enough to begin questioning what it really showed automatically accepting the line all German soldiers’re murdering bastards so these must be Jews.’ SM sends in a piece by M Mills from Axis Forum (for original and much more context) ‘The basic argument is this: For what it is worth, I will offer an alternative interpetation of what the photo shows. A group of German policemen (at least five of them, the man shown in the photo, three men with rifles not shown, and the person who took the photo) are guarding a group of civilians (at least seven of them). Two shovels are lying on the ground, and it is reasonable to presume that they had been carried by the civilians, and that those civilians had been given the task of doing some digging. There appears to be some disturbed earth on the extreme right edge of the photo, next to the group of (possibly) five civilians bending over or crouching down, so it may be that the digging task had already commenced. Since the shovels are lying on the ground, it could be that the guards have ordered the civilians to take a break; in any case they are not actually digging. But the civilians are definitely at ground level, bending over or crouching down, not standing in any sort of excavated pit. In this proposed scenario, the policemen guarding the prisoners have ordered them to take a break and to lie down, the latter for the purpose of keeping them under guard. The group of four or five civilians to the right of the photo have laid down the shovels and are in the process od assuming a prone position, as ordered. The one policeman shown in the photo has been guarding two women, one of them holding a child. The two women were standing separately from the other four (or five) civilians; perhaps they were not doing any digging. The policeman was standing behind them. One of the two women has obeyed the order to lie down on the ground. Being nervous and afraid, she presses her face against the ground to show her obedience. The other woman panics and starts to run away. The policeman who had been standing behind her raises his rifle and takes aim at her. Possibly he had ordered her stop and lie down. Possibly the other policemen standing to the left, outside the photo, saw the woman start to run away and also aimed their rifles toward her. What happened next we do not know. Perhaps the woman stopped and lay down. Perhaps she was shot. But how did this dramatic scene come to be photographed. We have to assume that someone in the party of guards had brought his camera and decided to take a photo. Possibly the guards were relaxing after ordering the civilians to take a break, and one of them decided to take a snapshot of the civilians lying on the ground and the other policemen standing in a relaxed position guarding them. It may be that the photographer had taken a shot of the civilians digging (‘lazy Jews put to useful work’), and was preparing to take another shot of them lying down. The fact that the other policemen are outside the frame of the photo suggests that originally the photographer was not aiming at them, but rather at the huddled group of civilians at the right of the photo. Under this scenario, the photographer is aiming his camera toward the group of civilians who have been digging; he is waiting for them to lie down before taking his photo. His police comrades are not in the shot being prepared; they are standing to the left, and so are the two women. As the photographer is lining up his camera, he hears a sudden shout. He swings sightly to the left, still holding his camera in the ready position. He sees the woman with the child running to the right, away from the policeman guarding her; he sees that policeman aiming his rifle at her. Immediately, on impulse, he takes the photo. The result is an unusually dramatic scene that does not give the impression of having been staged. The very drama of the scene, its uniqueness, may be the reason for the photo’s having been sent by mail to Germany. As for the word ‘Judenaktion’ allegedly written on the back of the photo (and there is no way of knowing for certain whether the words on the back of the photo had been written by the sender, or by the Poles who found it), it is entirely possible that the group of civilians consisted of Jews who were in the process of being taken to an execution site. If that is the case, it is unlikely that the place where the photo was taken was that actual execution site, it is more likely that the photo has adventitiously captured an impromptu escape attempt. There have also been several emails suggesting it may have been faked. There are two important objections here. First, who would have done it? As we will argue soon, in another post, faking a photograph like this is not something that the Western Allies would have done. So who do we blame: the Soviets? The free Poles? Second, the photograph is such a mess. Faked photographs usually have a simple narrative. The very confusion indicated above suggests that this was a ‘slice of life’, which was captured by an amateur who happened to be there.’ Thanks SM and Borky!