The Unseen Holocaust – H2 (History Channel 2)

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It’s a shame that this programme, made a few years ago but repeated for Holocaust Memorial Day, wasn’t on one of the more mainstream channels, because there really is a problem about the lack of attention paid to the murders carried out by the Einsatzgruppen (Nazi death squads).  It was decided before Euro 2012, which was hosted jointly by Poland and Ukraine, to make a film about the three Dynamo Kyiv players murdered at Babi Yar (Babyn Yar), which, if done properly, might have drawn attention to the subject, but it all went wrong because the director insisted on following the inaccurate Soviet propaganda version of events rather than the facts … and that sums up a lot of what’s gone on with the evidence about what the Einsatzgruppen did in Eastern Europe.  The countries mostly affected were the modern-day states of Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and parts of western Russia.

It should also be noted that Romanian troops were responsible for the massacres carried out in Odessa; and that Hungarian troops were involved in the Kamianets-Podilskyi massacre, in a region of Ukraine horribly fittingly named after Bohdan Khmelnytsky.  I find the fact that Ukraine makes a hero of Khmelnytsky, the man responsible for the horrific massacres of 1648-57– there’s even a huge statue of him outside St Sophia’s Cathedral in Kyiv – rather sickening, and the guidebook I took to Ukraine with me in 2008 said that a lot of visitors feel that way, but that’s beside the point.

The year before, I’d been to Poland.  As soon as I said I was going to Poland, before I’d even said that one of the places I’d be going to was Krakow, people said that they assumed I’d visit Auschwitz whilst I was there – which I did.  Going back to Euro 2012, as soon as it was announced that the England squad would be based in Krakow, the press said that they assumed that some of the players would visit Auschwitz – which they did.  Everyone, hopefully, knows about Auschwitz, and the other death camps, and it’s very important that they should do so.  But it’s also important that people should know about the murders carried out by the death squads, and, as this programme emphasised, those killings aren’t really spoken, or written, about.  Krakow is a lovely, lovely city, incidentally, and it should never just be associated with visiting Auschwitz.

I’d always wanted to see Kyiv – or Kiev, seeing as it’s still better known in the West by its Russian name.  Kyiv the Golden.  The Golden Age of Kievan Rus.  Vladimir the Great.  Incredible city.  Cathedrals, gates, the Dnieper.  And, whilst our group was there, the tour guides said that they could arrange for a visit to Babi Yar (again, better known in the West by its Russian name, rather than as Babyn Yar) for any of us who felt that we’d like (if that was the right word) to see it.  When, I got back, and was boring people with holiday stories as you do (this was before everyone was on Facebook on their phones whilst on holiday), I got a lot of blank looks when I mentioned Babi Yar.  Hardly anyone had ever heard of it.  This is a site where up to 150,000 people were killed, including almost 35,000 people in one two-day massacre alone.   That was just one site.  There were many others.

When the Red Army began to regain ground, war cameramen and camerawomen took films and photographs of what they found, and this programme showed some of those. Bodies upon bodies.  Local people, traumatised by what they’ve found, mourning their dead.  The narrators of the programme also read out some of the testimonies of the few people who’d miraculously survived and of the local people and Soviet soldiers who found the bodies – those bodies which hadn’t been destroyed – afterwards. The camera personnel deserve huge credit for what they did: it’s thought that twenty-five per cent of them were killed in action.  It didn’t make for easy watching.

Jeremy Hicks, the main narrator also made the interesting point that, in a way, this has even more relevance to today than the death camps did.  It was a fair comment. There are no gas chambers operating today, but there’ve been plenty of reports in the last few years of groups of people, many of them civilians, being taken away and shot in Syria and Iraq.  Over 8,000 people were murdered at Srebrenica in 1995, and that was only a year after the genocide in Rwanda.

So why doesn’t everyone know about this, in the same way that everyone knows about the death camps?  The photos and the film reels are there.  Why hasn’t everyone seen them?  They were broadcast as part of Soviet news reels at the time – admittedly more to arouse the anger of the population against the Nazis even more than simply as a public information service, but the same’s true of a lot of official broadcasting in wartime.  But then they were pretty much shoved into a Soviet film archive and ignored for over sixty years, until they were shown to British film historian Jeremy Hicks in 2006.

Two main reasons were suggested.  On the Eastern side of the Iron Curtain, Stalin canned them because they didn’t fit with the image of the war’s impact on civilians which the Soviet Union wanted to present – the heroics of the Siege of Leningrad, the Siege of

Stalingrad, etc.  On the Western side of the Iron Curtain, even though some people must have known that there was film/photographic evidence of what had happened, there was so much distrust of the Soviet Union that no-one would have been sure how much of what they were seeing was what it looked like and how much was … well, “fake news”, to use the term we hear so much about these days.

What a tragedy.  Did Donald Trump junior hold clandestine meetings with Russian officials or not?  Does it really matter that much?  But something like this, something so important not being made available because of a desire on the one hand to manipulate the popular view of history, and on the other hand because of an inability to trust something that really is rather obviously what it looks like … that is very frightening.  However, even without this coverage, surely this is a subject about which more should have been known.

After Kyiv was liberated, in 1943, the Red Army took a number of Western journalists to Babi Yar, and also arranged for them to interview survivors.  Anatoly Kuznetsov’s documentary novel about Babi Yar was published over fifty years ago.  He defected from the Soviet Union to the UK, with evidence from survivors and even with photographic film.  And that’s looking at what was made known about just one site.  Why aren’t these massacres more widely known about, talked about and studied?  Why is the focus so much on the death camps?  Maybe it’s because what happened in the death camps, the scientific, industrialised killing, was the darkest chapter in human history, because mass shootings had been carried out before and have been carried out since, but the victims of the Einsatzgruppen deserve to be remembered too, as everyone involved in this programme repeatedly pointed out.

There was also some talk about how the suffering of some groups of people is emphasised more in the West, and the suffering of other groups more in the East.  That is something that’s been an ongoing issue in Poland, in particular.  It seems rather distasteful to look at the Holocaust like that.  Many different groups of people were persecuted by the Nazis and their allies.  It’s hardly a competition as to who suffered more or who deserves the most attention.   But the victims of the death squad, the “bullet Holocaust” to use a term which I think was coined by Jeremy Hicks, deserve to be remembered, and there doesn’t seem to be anything like the same awareness of their fate as there is of those who were killed in the camps.  I’d like to see this programme shown on prime time TV on one of the main channels.  Everyone needs to see this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “The Unseen Holocaust – H2 (History Channel 2)

  1. Chris Deeley

    Shouldn’t we also be aware of the bullet holocaust perpetrated by the Soviet NKVD against the Poles? More than 111,000 Poles murdered in 1937-38, plus at least another 22,000 at Katyn. The Germans were not the only baddies. One might also ask: if Germany’s invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 justified declarations of war by the UK, etc., why was there no similar response to the Soviet invasion of Poland a few days later?

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