A few dozen pictures and a handful of short, almost always blurry films: there are no other recordings of the murder of millions of Europe's Jews. Photography was forbidden both in the execution pits of the task force and (and even more so) in the death camps in German-occupied Poland. The few known photographic documents of the Holocaust are shown again and again.
For decades there were no photos of the largest single such massacre, the shooting of at least 33,771 Ukrainian Jews on September 29 and 30 in Babyn Yar northwest of downtown Kyiv, in a ravine next to the old Jewish cemetery. For this reason, recordings that were clearly not made there were often incorrectly identified as Babyn Jar.
Then, first in the 1960s and again in the 1980s, black and white images emerged showing the crime scene shortly after the murders; including three photos showing the bodies of those who had been shot. But until the mid-1990s, these recordings were known almost exclusively to experts.
That changed with the first Wehrmacht exhibition by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research (HIS), which started its tour of Germany in Hamburg and Berlin in 1995: There, prints of these and other motifs from Babyn Jar were again on display in black and white. The exhibition triggered a fierce controversy because although the facts shown were known per se, the initiator Jan Philipp Reemtsma underestimated the effect of the hundreds of photos.
Because of some erroneously labeled pictures, the patron and then HIS boss Reemtsma withdrew the first version of the exhibition and had it completely reworked by another research team - with hardly limited funds. In this context, in June 2000, the HIS acquired the originals of the now known photos of Babyn Jar. In fact, they were colored slides.
In the second version of the Wehrmacht exhibition, eight of these photos were printed in color. But there weren't eight or ten or twelve recordings, but a total of 29, all taken in Kyiv at the end of September and beginning of October 1941. For the commemorative publication for Jan Philipp Reemtsma on the occasion of his 70th birthday on November 26, 2022 ("The presence of violence and the Power of Enlightenment". Verlag zu Klampe. 2 vols. 1006 p., 68 euros), the historian Andrej Angrick, who is closely connected and associated with the HIS, has now researched the history behind this series of photos and also analyzed the previously largely ignored photographs that do not consist of Babyn Jar come from.
This series was made by the photographer Johannes Hähle. Born in Chemnitz in 1906, the trained businessman joined the NSDAP in 1932, i.e. before Hitler came to power. In 1940 he was drafted into military service and the following year he was sent to the Eastern Front as a photographer for a propaganda company. These units were subordinate to both the Ministry of Propaganda and the Wehrmacht.
The fixed principle of these special units (which also included many later well-known journalists such as Peter von Zahn, Lothar-Günther Buchheim, Walter Henkels and - at times in a special propaganda group of the Waffen-SS - Henri Nannen) was that photographers had to hand over their exposed films . Hähle felt the same way about at least 108 films; at least that's how many have been preserved. But not with three series, one in color and two in black and white. On them he recorded the conditions in and near Kyiv, the preparations for a mass shooting near Lubny and the conditions in Kharkov.
He didn't give these three film canisters away, but hid them at home. Hähle was killed on June 10, 1944 in the fighting in Normandy after the Anglo-American invasion; Ten years later his widow sold the films to a West Berlin journalist because she lived in the GDR and feared persecution by the State Security because of the pictures.
So far the history of the pictures was already known. But Angrick expanded the knowledge considerably. He traced the recordings from Kyiv in detail and reconstructed the route that Hähle took through the Ukrainian metropolis in 1941. To do this, he identified all 16 places where the photographer had pressed the shutter button on his camera in addition to Babyn Jar.
The first images of the series show the approach of Jewish citizens along Shevchenko Boulevard near the Galician Market and the Jewish Bazaar in the direction of Babyn Yar. "It is striking that in Hähle's pictures, no guards of the HSSPF (Higher SS and Police Leader - actually Heinrich Himmler's deputy in occupied territory; in Kyiv in autumn 1941 Friedrich Jeckeln, d . Red.) deployed police battalions can be seen,” writes Angrick and concludes: “This circumstance possibly confirms the statement that at least the majority of people were unsuspecting, believed in real resettlement or at least hoped for it.” A deadly mistake.
After the well-known recordings from Babyn Yar, Hähle made two recordings again in Kyiv. It shows two dead Red Army soldiers, without shoes, lying on the curb. Passers-by pass by impassively. This refers to the habit of public deaths that have been deliberately caused in Ukraine since 1932 at the latest, the beginning of what is now known as the Holodomor.
But Angrick notices one detail in both photos: a small cross can be seen on a door of the house in the background. Apparently a marker - but for what? In the absence of sources, the historian can only speculate. “This can mean many things: a protective symbol (Christians live here and not Jews); a sign from the Order Police that this house (as a former residence of Jews) has already been inspected and the items in it have been released for requisition; a mark by the city administration that here (due to the mass murder) no longer occupied living space can be reallocated.”
Hähle also used two photos to document the Uspenski Cathedral, which was blown up shortly afterwards. Furthermore, the main train station in Kyiv, which had been damaged in battles and the city fire shortly beforehand but was rebuilt after the war, as well as the baroque St. Andrew's Church and the party palace in Kyiv, the largest new building in the city from the Stalinist era.
Like those of the other contributors to the commemorative publication, Andrei Angrick's essay is an academic form of congratulations on Reemtsma's 70th birthday on November 26, 2022. It shows what, given sufficient time and sources, one can get out of apparently irrelevant accompanying photographs of well-known photo series. Of course, Hähle's recordings from Babyn Jar remain historically more important - but now their context is known.
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