Searching the past for answers by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Scholars and historians study documents and photographs, visit meaningful sites and interview people connected to the events. Family members search for answers to questions they were too young to have asked when their parents or grandparents were still alive. No matter how much research is done, it will never be possible to discover what happened to everyone caught in the whirlwind of the Holocaust. Memories fade, documents get lost or found, and knowledge disappears as survivors, perpetrators and bystanders age and die. That doesn’t stop people from trying to understand what occurred as can be seen in two new books: “The Ravine: A Family, A Photograph, A Holocaust Massacre Revealed” by Wendy Lower (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and “Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure” by Menachem Kaiser (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). 

Lower, the John K. Roth professor of history at Claremont McKenna College, takes a formal approach to her research. After she is shown a photograph taken during World War II that came to light after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lower feels compelled to learn not only about the people pictured, but the open-air massacres that occurred in Ukraine during the war. The photo offers a rare action shot of the Holocaust, showing a woman falling into a ravine just after being shot and dragging down with her the child holding her hand. Behind her stand four men: two German commanders and two Ukrainian auxiliary members. One of the Ukrainian rifles is so close to the woman’s head it’s possible to see the halos of smoke from the gunshot. On the ground near the ravine is a pair of empty boots. Closer examination reveals another child, partly hidden by the woman’s body. 

Some information was relatively easy for Lower to uncover. For example, it didn’t take her long to learn the name of the photographer. What surprised her was that he was not an official German one, but rather a Slovakian amateur named Lubomir Skrovina, who was later willing to testify about the massacre, even though that put his life at risk. Lower was also able to identify the men in the picture, although it took decades to convict these offenders of their crime. She gives the background of what was occurring behind the scenes, including others who were victimized – for example, civilians who were forced to dig mass graves for the Germans or be killed themselves. More difficult was discovering the names of those who were murdered. Lower believes she may have discovered members of the family, but could not prove definitely whom the woman and children were. What was amazing is that Lower also learned of the one person who managed to escape death: Ludmilla Blekhman, who had lost consciousness during the massacre, but had not been shot. When she awoke, those who were dying helped push her from the pit after which she crawled through the woods until she found someone willing to help her. 

While it seems incredible that Lower managed to gain as much information as she did since so much time had passed, that’s not the only interesting thing about the book: the author also explores the Holocaust with a focus on the destruction of the Jewish family. Most studies feature information about individuals or speak about mass murder policies. Lower, however, sees the family unit as being important to the Nazis, noting that “Nazi policy was two-pronged: family welfare and family destruction.” Family welfare focused on ethnic Germans of Aryan stock. Not only were they encouraged to reproduce, but the Nazis hoped to colonize the world with these ethnic Germans. Family destruction focused on anyone the Nazis deemed inferior, including Jews, Romas and Slavs, and anyone with mental or physical disabilities. This policy included restrictions on marriage, in addition to forced sterilizations and abortions. This was also one reason that whole families were moved to concentration camps at the same time. All members of the family unit were to be destroyed.

“The Ravine” is written in easy to read prose and the sheer range of topics was interesting and thought provoking. What Lower wants to do is give voice to all those whose voices were silenced, during and after the war. She also acknowledges the difficulties that can be caused by displaying photographs such as the one that started her on her search. For her, it is important not just to place them on display; she deems it essential to put them in context so that people understand what happened to the victims and why. Her book successfully accomplishes that.

While Lower’s work is non-personal, Kaiser’s focuses on his own family, at first on the grandfather who died before he was born. He notes feeling detached from him, even though he visits his grandfather’s grave every year with his father and is named after him. Even the stories his father tells of his own father feel generic, as if they could be about anyone. The family actually knew very little about his grandfather’s life before he moved to Canada: He was the only member of his immediate family to survive, but his heirs know nothing of his life before or during the war, including what the author’s great-grandfather did for a living or the name of the concentration camps to which family members were sent. Before his research, Kaiser didn’t even know the names of his grandfather’s siblings. As he notes, “We knew they had died, but we had no idea who they were.”

It is only when Kaiser is in Poland for academic reasons that he begins to look into the family history. His father sends him documents showing that his grandfather had tried to reclaim family property in Krakow. Kaiser finds himself unexpectedly moved by them since this is the first time he’s actually read anything his grandfather wrote. Although his grandfather’s legal attempts were a failure, Kaiser decides to try again to reclaim the property – searching the records for ownership, hiring a lawyer, attending court proceedings needed to declare his grandfather’s siblings deceased, etc. The process is frustrating and irritating, not just because of the restrictions the courts place on those trying to reclaim property, but the ethics of what should be done to the people who have been living in the property for decades.

This would have been a straight forward story about the difficulties of reclamation were it not for a strange fact that Kaiser uncovers: one of his grandfather’s first cousins, Abraham, also managed to survive the war. But Abraham is not an ordinary survivor: he is a celebrity in Poland because he served as a Nazi slave laborer and wrote about his experiences building underground bunkers. It’s not his survival that matters in Poland: instead, his words are mined by treasure hunters searching for Nazi gold and artifacts. To Kaiser’s surprise, he is embraced by these people and not only interviews them, but visits some of the bunkers with them. Although he is irritated that they believe Abraham is his grandfather (and his attempts to correct that never work), he is also amazed at the number of people involved in treasure hunting and the joy they feel from their explorations, even when they are unsuccessful.

What also makes this memoir different is that Kaiser lacks the spiritual connection that many looking into their family history feel. In fact, he refers to himself as cranky because of the legal process, the people he meets and the number of errors he discovers when trying to verify family stories that turn out to be myths. What is the most difficult thing for him to deal with, though, is the way the treasure hunters view World War II. They revise what happened, ignore the suffering of those oppressed by the Nazis and de-emphasize the Jews who were brutally and systematically murdered. He notes that “the moral narrative of the war is thus subverted, inverted, perverted. The Nazi misdeeds are minimized, whitewashed; they become the protagonists, even the heroes. The real bad guys are the forces pulling the strings, the conspirators, the ones hoodwinking the world... And where you have behind-the-scenes powers you have, inevitably, the Jews.” That’s something Kaiser finds extremely dangerous.

“Plunder” is an unusual memoir in that its explorations take two different directions that only rarely intersect. Readers looking for closure – for answers and final determinations – will find themselves disappointed in how, like real life, that rarely occurs. However, it’s what makes the work intriguing, particularly the way it also offers food for thought about how differently people view the past.