FIRST: This is not "just another" Holocaust film. National Geographic's "Hitler's Hidden Holocaust" actually does reveal untouched secrets of the mass murder of millions of Jews—specifically crimes in the killing fields of eastern Europe.
This is an appropriate time for such a reflection. Wednesday evening, Tisha B'Av (known as "the saddest day in the Jewish calendar") begins. You can read about it briefly in Stephanie Fenton's Seasons column this week. And, you can read a more in-depth look at Tisha B'Av written for us by Jewish novelist Charles S. Weinblatt.
The National Geographic special does not conflict with the actual observance of Tisha B'Av—nor does it conflict with the sabbath this weekend. The film debuts on the evening of Sunday, August 2. Here is National Geographic's home page, presenting more background on "Hitler's Hidden Holocaust."
Babi Yar memorial But, why should we sit through another Holocaust film?
And, how could anything remain a "secret" about this era after more than 60 years? The answer is that serious research into many of these "killing fields" of eastern Europe was almost impossible until recent years. These lands—including regions of the Ukraine, for example—were under the control of Soviets for half a century. The Soviet government always downplayed the unique anti-Jewish nature of the Holocaust in favor of a Soviet version of the story in which the German Fascist threat was more generally directed eastward in Europe. Of course, the Soviets themselves had a long and tragic history of anti-Semitism.
Now that the old Soviet system has fallen, research is unfolding in these regions where Nazi forces murdered 1.5 million Jews—both before the rise of the larger death-camp system and after the camps were in full swing. There's a great urgency to this work because survivors of the late 1930s and early 1940s are dying.
The new film begins with an overview of these actions by firing squads led by the SS and often local police and auxiliary militia in these eastern regions. Experts examine one German film clip, clearly pointing out each group of executioners—as well as big crowds of onlookers.
Most of us who know something about the Holocaust are aware of this record. The film takes us especially to Babi Yar, the infamous "Grandmother's Ravine," where 33,771 men, women and children were killed. As a journalist, I can remember the stunning impact of D.M. Thomas' 1981 novel, "The White Hotel," which took readers through an account of Babi Yar as one of the central horrors of the 20th Century. (Wikipedia also has a helpful overview of the Babi Yar crimes. The memorial shown in the photo at right honors the fallen at Babi Yar.)
2 soldiers sort through clothing after Babi Yar The infamous 1941 photograph (at the top of our story today—and again at left here) is one of many shown in the documentary. It was snapped as a souvenir by a German photographer, a "propaganda commando" on the Eastern Front. It's hard to discern what's happening in the photo—but it shows a vast field covered in heaps of the clothing left behind by the thousands who were forced to disrobe and then were shot in the ravine. If you look closely, you can make out two Germans picking through the piles of clothes.
2 soldiers after Babi Yar From Babi Yar, the National Geographic film shifts to explain that countless other sites of mass murder are left undiscovered and unmarked across the countries of the former Soviet Union. We meet Father Patrick Desbois, a highly respected Catholic priest who has worked since 2004 on a project to find and interview surviving witnesses in the region. So far, he tells us, he has interviewed more than 800 witnesses.
One historian encouraging this priest's work explains that many of the witnesses are dying of old age. "It's one minute to midnight ... if we hope to identify these killing fields" before all knowledge vanishes, the historian says.
The purpose here is not merely to establish a historical record. The research here is important because these were cases of neighbors suddenly rising up and joining the Germans in killing their own neighbors.
Dr. David G. Marwell director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, explains, "They were not witnessing anonymous people being shot. They were witnessing their neighbors, their teachers, pharmacists, physicians—people with whom they had grown up—people they looked up to before this began. This is incredibly unsettling."
In one Nazi film from 1941, children are shown in the crowd of onlookers—brought by their parents to witness the event. There is even an air of boredom as hours of this deadly process roll along. We see a German officer casually stop to light a cigarette—looking weary from the hard work of mass murder. Someone brings a pet dog to romp through the fields in this unexpected day in the open air.
The acceptance of violence was so commonplace that Father Desbois recalls interviewing an old woman who was a little girl when the killers came to her town. A mass grave of 1,000 people was right outside her bedroom window. That memory would haunt her for the rest of her life—and, according to Desbois, she was the sole surviving witness in her town who knew that the beautiful meadow near her home actually was the site of mass murder. (Researchers confirm these sites with methods including metal detectors to find the spent German shells.)
This is the point in the film where it becomes clear why this is not "just another" Holocaust movie. This film is seeking to ask the question: How can ordinary neighbors transform themselves into willing participants and witnesses to horrific violence? This, of course, is the question the world faces now in many areas where terrorist violence explosively arises.
Dr. Michael Berenbaum, a scholar at American Jewish University, says, "It's hard to look at these things. And that's why we must look at these things." We must continue to ask how such violence can arise among otherwise normal neighbors. "If we ever feel comfortable or easy, then something deep within our moral humanity has been shattered and lost."
We are not only remembering, this film tells us. We also are beginning to ask some of the most important questions raised by the Holocaust.