An update from Denise Gee with SMU News & Communications.
At Berlin’s Topography of Terror Museum we gather to look at one of the Holocaust’s most iconic photographs. Given the name “The Last Jew in Vinnitsa” (from what was written on the back of the picture), it was found in an album belonging to an unknown German soldier.
The picture shows a member of Einsatzgruppe D just about to shoot a Jewish man kneeling before a filled mass grave in Vinnitsa, Ukraine, circa 1942. All 28,000 Jews from Vinnitsa and its surrounding areas were massacred at the time.
To view the image, which some may find unsettling, click here.
The picture is compelling for a number of reasons. It’s among the rare examples of Holocaust-related photos that weren’t taken by Allied forces during or after the liberation of Nazi-run concentration camps throughout German-occupied countries.
“Most people only think about the content of a picture, not the making of it,” our guide says.
This one, he adds, shows the Holocaust from a different perspective – most likely that of a killer.
Or was he? Our guide says, “I’d like you to critical examine this photograph. And ask yourself some questions.”
Was the photographer a willing participant or disapproving spectator? And are all those watching accessories to this crime?
Why do the soldiers at the perimeter of the mass grave appear completely at ease with having their faces shown? And with what’s happening?
Was the photographer officially documenting the spectacle? Or was he secretly capturing the moment?
Was the soldier who owned the image the man behind the camera? Was he one of the spectators? Or friends of one of the spectators?
Is the man about to be executed going willingly to his death? Or does his defiant stance—ramrod-straight posture, dark glare—reflect more dignity than that of the “super men” who held his life in their hands?
Considering the messy work of shooting at close range, why is the supposed executioner wearing polished boots and a relatively clean uniform? (“Notice there are no dirty murderers, only dirty victims,” our guide says.) Was this a staged photo?
Why is his jacket open – and he’s not wearing an under-shirt? Was he drunk (as the Einstazgruppen often were while committing their atrocities)?
Who is his intended target looking at so intently?
The haunting picture lingers in our minds long after the compelling discussion.
It prompts my husband, a professional photographer traveling with us, to recall an apt quote by Honoré Daumier: “Photography describes everything and explains nothing.”