Behind the Iconic Kerch War Image
Many who have read about or studied the Second World War in the East will recognize the iconic photograph below. Over the years, I have seen this photo in endless publications. It is easily one of the most powerful and moving images of the war. The photo captures so well the horror of the war on the Eastern Front and toll it took on civilian populations. Recently, a colleague asked if I had any information on the identity of the bodies in this photo, since a museum wanted to know if this was actually a photo of Holocaust victims and not Soviet POWs or Red Army soldiers killed in battle, as has generally been assumed. I realized I knew absolutely nothing of its origins — for me it was always the image in the field with the foreboding sky. Out of professional courtesy and personal curiosity, I decided to take a look and see what I could find out about the photo.
The photo, titled “Grief,” was taken by the Soviet Jewish photographer Dmitrii Bal’termants in the early of days of 1942 near Kerch. Kerch, a Crimean city, was occupied by the Nazis for six weeks in late 1941, before being driven out by a Soviet assault on December 31. Bal’termants, along with other Soviet photo-correspondants like Mark Redkin and Israel Ozerskii arrived in Kerch with the Red Army to review the newly liberated Soviet territories. What they found is what you can see the photograph above: a field littered with corpses and grieving Soviet citizens. A photograph by Redkin of the massacre was first published shortly thereafter in Ogonek in February 1942, followed by two pages of photos of the same massacre by Bal’termants and Ozerskii in a March issue (I have not seen the Ozerskii or Redkin photos yet). It is no surprise the Soviet government found immediate use for these photos, given the war of extermination they were fighting against the Nazis and their desire to show the world what was happening in occupied territory. The initial markings of the photos gave little information on the identity of the dead, since of course, everyone was a labelled as a “peaceful Soviet citizen.”
After the war, Bal’termants’ famous photograph lay dormant for two decades, until the Italian photographer, Caio Garrubba, rediscovered it in Bal’termants’ personal collection when visiting Moscow in the mid-1960s. Finally, in 1975 on the 30th anniversary of the victory over Germany, the photo was displayed in a photo exposition in Moscow for the first time. Ever since the Italian visitor pulled this photo from the archival obscurity, it has become known the world over, displayed in countless places, not to mention many, many publications. We have also learned more about the photo itself in recent years, namely that it is actually a composite — the dark sky in the background is a result of an overlaid negative (Bal’termants supposedly did this since the original photograph was damaged).
As for the bodies themselves, it does seem very likely they are in fact, Holocaust victims. Historian, David Shneer, has recently argued that given the Jewish identity of one victim’s family, which he discovered in one of the other corresponding photographs, these bodies are mostly Crimean Jews. How do this play out with the archival record? We do know somewhere between 4000 and 7500 Jews were killed during the first week of December by Sonderkommando 10b of Einsatzgruppe D. For more on the German documentary evidence one can read Andrej Angrick’s Besatzungspolitik und Massenmord: Die Einsatzgruppe D in der südlichen Sowjetunion 1941-1943. There are more photos here (warning: graphic) and a translated text of the relevant Angrick passage in English.
The Soviets appear to have confirmed the killings early on in Jan. 1942, as is evidenced by this Molotov note and TASS report, though neither mention their Jewish identity. From the Soviet side of the documentary evidence, Holocaust historian Mikhail Tyaglyi has used post-war Crimean investigation files to link these bodies to the aktion and the subsequent discovery during the Soviet operation. Tyaglyi writes the shootings took place 4 km outside of Kerch in Bagerovo and that the Nazis had planned to execute a few thousand more people had it not been for the Soviet advance. Another method of verification not yet taken, to my knowledge, might be simply to compare the Soviet operation with location of these bodies (confirmed by Soviet and German docs). Allegedly, the bodies were actually found in the field where the military units landed carrying Bal’termants and the others. I haven’t seen any info on the operation yet, but that certainly be the last piece to the puzzle.
As Shneer notes, this is in fact one of the first encounters of the Soviet authorities with the Holocaust on occupied territory, so it is certainly noteworthy to remark on their policy to downplay the ethnicity of the Jewish victims even at this early stage of the war. Even more complicated is the fact that the majority of photographers were, in fact, themselves Jewish. This is the topic of Shneer’s new book, Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust, which I’m looking forward to reading. His book will tell you a lot more about people like Bal’termants and his experience in the Soviet Union. You can hear an interview here with Shneer about the book.
Of course, the Holocaust was not the only story of Kerch during the war — the Germans reoccupied Kerch again in 1942 and managed to take even more innocent life. In total, some 15,000 people were killed during the occupation, and another 14,000 deported. Over 160,000 Red Army soldiers were also killed in the Battle of Kerch. For its unbelievable losses and sacrifice, Kerch was designated a Hero City after the war. As we can see with many other aspects of the war in the East, there sometimes exists quite a lot of history behind just one item like a photograph. Once you start digging, you’ll often find a voluminous web of stories and intrigues that sprawls decades. I suppose it’s no surprise we’re still trying to piece together this complex history some 70 years later.
For more photographs by Bal’termants’ look here.