by Roland Binet (Braine-l’Alleud, Belgium)
I know persons within my circle of acquaintances who refuse to look at the terrible pictures that this video exhibits. Photographs of Jewish victims of beatings, slayings. Pictures of dead Jewish victims. Pictures of local collaborators in the process of helping the Nazis in killing Jews.
These persons find those historical pictures too offensive, too terrible, too awful, for their taste. They are not able too look at them, they are far too sensitive to put up with such awful scenes.
I pity them. I am ashamed of their lack of empathy for these Jewish victims who, quite unwillingly, are depicted in these scenes of pogroms, genocide on a huge scale. Depicted sometimes just moments before dying, depicted sometimes as they are already corpses on the ground or in mass graves.
I personally have never been fascinated by this kind of pictures. I do not relish looking at them. Yet, I have always felt that it is my duty as a ‘thinking’ human being, a democrat, someone who has an awareness of what is right and wrong, to be aware of what happened to the Jews during the Second World War. Not only in my own country, France or Poland, but I have always felt I had to be aware of what happened in the former USSR Republics during the Holocaust period. And being aware, remembering, makes me a better human being. Someone linked to the world and its tragic history. Not someone only immersed in a prolonged ego trip.
It may be thought of as morbid or lugubrious to look at pictures of people just instants before the bullet would strike them, the rope hang them, or instants after their death. Only that here, these pictures are not taken from ‘gore’ films, they are historical fragments and mute testimony of what has been the worst experience in mankind.
There has of course been quite a lot of verbal, filmed and written testimony from the few survivors of these slayings in the former USSR Republics or in Poland, survivors from the killing pits, the concentration camps, the work Kommandos or the death camps.
But, when you look at an actual picture taken during those moments of mass or individual killings, you don’t have to use your imagination in order to make up for the missing details. Those ugly, bestial, awful, terrible details are in front of your eyes. You cannot escape the reality of those brutal ‘time capsules’, they are forever frozen and imprinted in your memory. You don’t have to be a great thinker, writer or philosopher to understand the absolute, naked, anguish that the young woman – holding her tiny child to her chest -, one fine day in Ivangorod, must have felt while that arrogant German SD lackey of Hitler aimed his gun at her, while other poor Jews were digging their own grave a bit farther. You don’t have to be a Nobel Prize of Literature to understand the total helplessness of the ‘last Jew from Vinnitsa’ moments before a bullet would strike him and make him topple in a pit already half full of corpses.
Some of these pictures are the only ones in existence, as for example those relating to the pogrom in the Kaunas garage court or the ones relating to the Babi Yar mass killing.
I think therefore that we have a sacred duty to keep alive the memory of these victims, and spreading these pictures is one of the manners in which we can remember the scope and importance of the crimes committed by the Nazis and their willing helpers.
I think it commendable that the Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem (Dr. Efraim Zuroff) has asked Germany to prosecute around 80 former Einsatzgruppen members. We should also have extended that rule of complicity to war crimes, crimes against mankind and genocide, to all members of local police battalions who participated in the killing of Jews, whatever their capacity, grade, role. Even to civilians as was the case in Kaunas, they also deserved to be punished for the pogroms they committed. And we should have done so a long time ago already.
The picture before last on the video shows two well-dressed and clean soldiers (‘Sauberkeit’ one of the main German qualities! Typical of anal-retentive personalities which were legions under the Nazi regime). The one on the right side of the photograph bears shoulder-patches that seem to display the national colors of the Latvian flag. They are looking at corpses and it is easy to guess that the picture was taken during the revolt of April/May 1943 of the Warsaw Ghetto. Strange isn’t it?
The Latvian historian Andrew Ezergailis wrote that the Latvian soldiers (of the 22nd and 227th Police Battalions) only had guard duties in the Warsaw Ghetto: ‘For month and a half the Latvian 22nd Daugavas Schutzmannschaft Battalion, 556 men strong, and the 272nd Daugavgrivas Schutzmannschaft Battalion, 403 men strong, served as guards in the Warsaw Ghetto. Both battalions arrived in Warsaw on July 31, 1942, started work on August 1, and were gone by mid-September 1942.’[i] Yet, we know that although the round-up in summer 1942 was brutal, there were no ample demolitions of buildings, nor the kind of corpses could be seen as in said photograph.
Yet when you consult the website ‘Aktion Reinhard Camps’, you can read under the general article ‘Volunteer Auxiliaries’ the following regarding the police battalions from Latvia ‘In Warsaw, two battalions assisted in the rounding-up of Jews for transport to Treblinka, guarding the Umschlagplatz and taking part in the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.’[ii] The question still needs to be answered: were men from one or those two Latvian police battalions involved in the repression of the Warsaw Ghetto?
[i] The Holocaust in Latvia 1941-1944 by Andrew Ezergailis, p. 327.