Soviet photojournalists working for the country’s most important newspapers were among the first to document the unfolding Holocaust in their homeland, and they were also witnessing and recording the slaughter of Soviet citizens who, like the photographers themselves, were Jewish.
But the extent to which the Nazis targeted Jews was obscured in the dominant Soviet press during World War II and was suppressed in the Cold War era, during which the Soviets dwelled on the depravity of “fascist troops” murdering “peaceful Soviet citizens.”
The Soviet Union’s collapse allowed scholars to see a fuller picture of what happened, and to understand the overlapping narratives of Soviets and Jews.
David Shneer, associate professor of history and director of the Program in Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado, benefited from that openness. He began researching this issue in 2002, when he visited a photography gallery in Moscow.
The exhibition was titled “Women at War,” and Shneer noticed that the photographers’ names sounded Jewish. He asked the curator, who said, “Of course they’re Jewish. All the photographers were Jewish.”
Before the war, many of those developing the profession of Soviet photojournalism were Jewish, Shneer noted.
The German Army invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Within days, the leading illustrated magazine, Ogonek (the Life magazine of the Soviet Union), published its first atrocity photo. That picture, retrieved from the camera of a dead German soldier, showed Nazis forcing Jewish victims to dig a grave for a pile of corpses.
As Shneer notes in a recent issue of the American Historical Review and in his forthcoming book “Through Soviet Jewish Eyes” (Rutgers University Press), the Soviet Army regularly urged its press to publish stories and photos of Nazi atrocities.
This material would function as visual evidence of the Nazi crimes and as propaganda to rile up the anger of the population,” Shneer writes.
But the photo caption did not specify that the victims were Jewish. Instead, it said, “Those sentenced are forced to dig their own graves.”
During World War II, the Soviets framed the Nazi assault as being against the entire nation, not just Jewish people. As Shneer observed, there was a rationale: “Do you think a bunch of Russian peasants wanted to go fight a war because of Jews?”
Professional Soviet photographers, many of whom were Jewish, first witnessed the mass-murders of Jews in late 1941. The first photographs of Nazi killing fields came after the Soviet liberation of the city of Kerch in southern Russia. The Germans occupied Kerch for about six weeks before being driven out by the Red Army.
While in Kerch, the Gestapo registered 7,500 Jews. In the first week of December, the Nazis moved the victims to an anti-tank ditch on the outskirts of town and murdered them.
On Dec. 31, Kerch was one of the first Russian cities with a significant Jewish population to be liberated from Nazi occupation, “which meant that the city was one of the first places where Soviet soldiers, journalists and photographers saw what we now call the Holocaust with their own eyes.”
In February 1942, Ogonek published photos of the carnage. One showed a barren, winter landscape strewn with bodies and lifeless except Soviet soldiers surveying the dead. Another photo showed a close-up view of some of the dead: a mother surrounded by children.
The photographer, Mark Redkin, was Jewish.
As Shneer notes, the photograph’s caption said Hitler’s “bandits” and “thugs” were ordered to “annihilate the peaceful Soviet population.” The Nazis were called Hitlerites or Germans, but the victims’ identity was obscured. “No mention is made of the fact that most of the dead women and children so grotesquely splashed across the pages of the magazine were Jewish women and children.”
Still, the truth was discernable.
A 1942 photo of the Kerch atrocities carried this caption: “V.S. Tereshchenko digs under bodies for her husband. On the right: the body of 67-year-old I. Kh. Kogan.” Shneer notes that the Jewish-sounding Kogan (Russian for Cohen) was married to the Ukrainian-sounding Tereshchenko, adding:
Although this multi-ethnic marriage reflected the Soviets’ idealized notion that their diverse empire was a happy, integrated ‘brotherhood of nations,’ the fact could not have been lost on the reader that after the Nazis left town, the Ukrainian Tereshchenko was alive and the Jewish Kogan was dead.”
After the war’s end in 1945, the Soviets seldom discussed Nazi crimes because, as Shneer notes, the former “Hitlerites” and “bestial Germans” were now “liberated German people” who would be eventually become part of the Soviet constellation in East Germany.
Even as the Soviet press covered the Nuremburg Trials, the victims were again portrayed as peaceful Soviet citizens or as humanity itself. “Jews were included in both of those rubrics, of course, but only implicitly.”
After the war’s end the Soviet press simply “stopped talking about war in general and Nazi atrocities in particular,” Shneer writes. In the 1960s, however, Soviet leaders strove to reinsert World War II into the nation’s memory.
However, “By 1965, Germans were liberated friends, not barbaric enemies, and the Great Patriotic War, as World War II was called in the Soviet Union, was figured as a battle of ideologies, not peoples, Soviets against fascists, not Germans against Jews, Russians and others.”
The collapse of the Soviet Union facilitated yet another shift in national memory—one that explicitly acknowledged the centrality of anti-Semitism in Nazi atrocities.
Shneer emphasizes that as a historian, his interest is in determining what happened during the war and to pose a question: How did the journalists’ position in the state lead to their position in forgetting?
Additionally, Shneer notes, his intent is to explore the relationship between individual and collective memory, which he terms inseparable.
“Returning iconic photographs to their original news context shows how photographs function in the creation of narratives and memories,” Shneer writes. “Soviet Jews, (the photographers) among them, saw the war as many tragedies in one—personal, family, communal and national.”
Read more about this story in Colorado Arts & Sciences Magazine: http://artsandsciences.colorado.edu/magazine/