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.