Two New Looks at the Holocaust, Through a Photograph and “Memory Work”

Book review: The Ravine, by Wendy Lower & Those Who Forget, by Geraldine Schwarz

In her new book The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed, Wendy Lower, a historian with extensive work around the Holocaust, is put onto an intriguing research journey: Lower encountered an extremely rare photograph depicting the murder of a Jewish woman and young boy at the edge of a ravine in Ukraine, part of the SS Einsatzgruppen’s vicious campaign of mass killings in Eastern Europe.

We know that these mass murders happened — the graves have been found, there are numerous witness accounts and some remaining official records. Some, like the multi-day massacre at Babi Yar, have become infamous, immortalized in poetry by Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Erica Jong, and literature like D.M. Thomas’s The White Hotel (a deeply weird novel but one of my favorites).

And yet, despite all this — the elimination of 50,000 lives, according to Lower’s estimates — there are very few photographs. So the mere existence of this one, clearly depicting a Nazi officer and a Ukrainian police collaborator engaging in the murder, is rather incredible. Lower sets out to learn everything she can about the circumstances around the photograph, the Slovakian photographer and his motivation for capturing it, and the identities of those depicted.

It’s fascinating to see so many of Lower’s initial assumptions, based on established historical precedence as they are, get challenged and disproven. The Ravine is a significant document just for its demonstration that despite the massive breadth of research and literature on the Holocaust, we still don’t know it all. Lower is surprised several times during her detective work, and her writing around genocide and the circumstances that the photographer, in particular, were operating under are the strongest elements.

It goes without saying that this is disturbing material, but Lower makes an eloquent, informed argument for investigating and preserving this history and for not shying away from what the reality of genocide looks like. Still, it was at times hard to sit with.

There’s also a certain distance evident in the author’s voice and structure, and although I understand the necessity, it does read a bit drily because of it. Almost report-like. It’s valuable for the new information it reveals, for its ability to put faces to numbers almost too massive and overwhelming to comprehend, and at times for the stark, straightforward way Lower presents unsettling truths. published February 16, 2021 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

Those Who Forget: My Family’s Story in Nazi Europe – A Memoir, A History, A Warning, by Geraldine Schwarz, translated from French by Laura Marris (published 2017; in US September 22, 2020 by Scribner)

Journalist Geraldine Schwarz’s parents were born during the Second World War, her father in Germany, her mother in France. In Those Who Forget, Schwarz takes a hard look at the Mitläufer – “those who followed the current,” used to refer to citizens who went along with what was happening during the war. Schwarz analyzes the actions of her French and German grandparents in a very unique sort of memoir, considering she wasn’t alive for the most pivotal events and most of those directly involved spoke little about it before their deaths.

Schwarz is provoked into action when she finds, in a basement filing cabinet of her family’s Mannheim apartment building, documents indicating that her paternal grandfather Karl Schwarz exploited Nazi policies that allowed German gentiles to buy Jewish-owned businesses at discounted prices. The sole survivor of the Jewish family affected, who’d been forced to relinquish their business and perished at Auschwitz, had pursued reparations after his resettlement in America. Schwarz’s grandfather denied any wrongdoing. From here, Schwarz explores concepts of ethically engaging with history (“memory work”), collective guilt and responsibility, and an incisive look at the changing political tone currently in Germany and Austria.

This occasionally read like a textbook in parts, possibly a translation difficulty or maybe the duty of recounting history for readers who may be unfamiliar. I wasn’t sure I’d stick with it from the first few chapters, which introduced such a plethora of people and family webs that I gave up on even trying to figure who was who and what was what and did some Mitlauf-ing of my own, hoping it would all clear itself up eventually. It gets better, but it was easy to lose track of the many familial branches — mother and father’s sides, grandparents from each, I don’t even remember who else. I was always confused.

BUT, and this is a big but — it was completely worth it for the last several chapters, particularly concerning Schwarz’s take on the GDR and reunification of Germany, and countries that haven’t done the “memory work” — I love this term and how she uses it and establishes its importance. In particular, everything she wrote about Austria is, from my experience living there, so very true. I can’t believe what they’ve gotten away with and am haunted by disturbing things I heard people there say.

She writes that Austrians “hid” behind Nazi Germany’s crimes, a cowardice that’s not shocking: the more unbelievable part is that it worked. Eventually they developed the FPÖ, a far-right party that currently governs Austria in a coalition and gave rise to a similar party in Germany that’s the first populist party to get this much support since the Nazis. When the FPÖ was first elected as part of the coalition government in 2000, it drew negative attention worldwide; when they were re-elected in 2017, hardly a stir. What she writes about the rise of right-wing populism across Europe, and of course, in America, which she also analyzes deftly, is alarming but important, and some of the best writing I’ve yet to read on the topic.

Austria is often overlooked — on the world stage, it’s not a major player, and yet it’s a bit of a canary in a coal mine, having been the genesis of the events that would lead to both world wars. Ignoring unrest and sea changes in the country’s politics comes then at our own detriment (again, Alternative for Germany, the populist party currently holding seats in the German Bundestag, originated in Austria). Schwarz minces no words about these developments, and this is why nonfiction in translation (by a woman!) is such a necessary genre. I have yet to read an English-writing journalist on this topic, and certainly not one with the critical understanding of memory work Schwarz brings.

And her analysis of the refugee crisis and what Merkel had in mind when opening Germany’s borders was outstanding. Sections describing her own experiences are lovely too, it’s just the density of much of the text that gives a sort-of walkthrough of the Holocaust I found less captivating. I’ve read a lot in that area though, maybe if it’s a less-explored subject it won’t feel as dull for others. Aside from her emphasis on the importance of memory work and comparisons of this between Germany and France, plus the analysis of current politics in Germany and Austria, it felt like a standard, well-trodden-ground history.

When there was something new, it was excellently informative — like that the US television series Holocaust, released in Europe in 1979, actually stoked a wave of anger in West Germany, as citizens “accus[ed] the powers that be of not fulfilling their task of commemoration. This ire was combined with a certain shame, the shame of neglecting a monstrous crime though its memory had always been within reach.” It’s a resounding warning, on multiple fronts, of the importance of remembering.

25 thoughts on “Two New Looks at the Holocaust, Through a Photograph and “Memory Work”

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  1. I, too, like that term, “memory work.” When that far-right Austrian party gained seats in 2000, i was alarmed and have loosely followed their politics since. You’re right about them flying way under the radar and their re-election in 2017 going without comment doesn’t surprised me. These are still dangerous times.

    Excellent reviews💜

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Jonetta, glad you enjoyed reading them! I think people tend to not take Austria seriously because they’re not that involved with global issues – not in NATO, for all intents and purposes “neutral,” etc. But the sentiment in Austria tends to be a good barometer for what’s going on in Europe in general. They were sliding further and further right in the years I lived there and it was disturbing to witness, especially because as loud as some were screaming about it, the world didn’t seem to be listening. Austria hasn’t done the memory work the author describes and that doesn’t bode well.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Those Who Forget sounds really important and interesting, despite its flaws. You’re right that Austria goes under the radar on the world stage. I did know about the re-election of the FPO, but only because I studied nationalism in Austria during my German A-level and have been peripherally aware of the story ever since. It’s not something that tends to make front-page news over here, in contrast to the AfD, which does – despite the similarities between the two parties.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think I knew you’d done that in your studies, how fascinating! Was it a requirement or were you just interested in it?

      Austria really is a place that flies under the radar, which struck me as odd because their views can be very extreme and they’re not shy about voicing them, plus there’s such a clear, deep-seated difference with Germans who have had to confront history very differently than Austrians have. And the AfD was an offshoot of sorts from the FPÖ, so it’s also odd to me that this originating party doesn’t make headlines as much. I can only assume it’s because Austria’s overall influence isn’t as far-reaching, but nevertheless they managed to seed this party in Germany and tend to be a sort of barometer for a lot of negative sentiment in Europe, so I think downplaying them is never the right course.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I can’t honestly remember if it was mandatory – it’s been a long time since I was 17! I do remember looking at the history of propaganda in German-speaking countries, which I think was a requirement, and I imagine that studying nationalism in Austria came out of that. I had a great German teacher and it was a really interesting A-level. I learnt a lot about the history of European politics but sadly I’ve forgotten much it now.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That just sounds completely fascinating. But I’m right there with you, I’ve forgotten so much of what we studied at that time! I went through some boxes last year that had some school papers and they were just completely foreign to me at this point.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating review. Both sound appealing in their own way, but I think I particularly need to read Those Who Forget because of the ‘big but’ around Austria. It’s an area I’m trying to explore more, but you’re right that there isn’t much writing on it. I hadn’t thought this would be a book I’d find it in, so I’m really grateful for your insightful analysis.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would love to read more about it as well. The section in this book was fairly short but totally worthwhile, in my opinion, given that it’s hard to find any material on this in English elsewhere. The way she ties it into the importance of memory work and repercussions of not doing it is excellent. Glad I could introduce you to it when it’s something you were looking for!

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  4. The Ravine sounds really interesting. Lower’s search reminds of a book called Dora Bruder, by Patrick Modiano who won the Nobel Prize for literature a few years ago. Modiano recounts his current-day search to find out what happened to a Jewish teenager who was living in Paris with her parents during the Nazi occupation.

    Modiano became interested in Dora Bruder after coming across a classified listing in a Parisian newspaper from 1941. The listing was posted by Dora’s parents who were looking for their missing daughter. Since they were Jewish, they took a huge risk by placing the ad. Modiano’s book describes his efforts to find out what happened to Dora, her mother, and father.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I think you’d be interested in the film (based on a book) that I wrote about last week. When you have time, check it out. Both are not widely known in the United States but they are right up your alley.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. there is a photograph of a woman trying to protect a child from a german poitng a rifle at them seconds before he fires. it is totally unbearable to look at

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  6. Both books sound interesting. Speaking of New Looks and Remembering, you might be interest in a documentary short from France that is nominated for an Oscar. I watched “Colette” last night, available for free on YouTube. A young graduate student leads the 90-year old Colette into Germany. For the first time in her life, Colette faces the reality of what happened to her brother who was a member of the Resistance, was captured by the Germans, and died in a concentration camp. Sad, moving, powerful.

    Liked by 1 person

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