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Soviet filmmaker Roman Karmen in Majdanek
Publication date: February 2015
The extermination camps, the final stage in the discovery of the Shoah in the East
After the defeats which followed one another since the German invasion of June 22, 1941, the Red Army stopped retreating (end of 1941) and began the reconquest of lost ground (1942-1943), then the conquest of the Baltic countries, of the Poland and the eastern German territories (1944-1945). They often occur several years after the Nazi crimes (the site of the Babi Yar massacre in Ukraine, perpetrated between September 29 and September 30, 1941, was discovered on November 6, 1943), sometimes just a few days later (the pyres of Klooga, Estonia, were found in September 1944).
Among the 27 million victims of World War II on Soviet territory within its 1945 limits, there are around 3 million Jews systematically murdered, but also those killed in action in the uniform of the Red Army, those executed because suspected of being resistant or communist, or finally the Jews tortured as prisoners of war. If most of them were killed in the USSR occupied by the Wehrmacht, a number of them were victims of the "final solution" alongside deportees from all over Europe to the six camps of extermination established in occupied Poland.
Located on the outskirts of the city of Lublin, the Majdanek camp, built in October 1941 and transformed into an extermination camp the following year, was the first to be discovered by the Red Army on July 23, 1944. Indeed, between 1941 and 1945, hundreds of hours of film were shot in order to denounce Nazi barbarism and to attest to the international opinion of the extent of the massacres and destruction committed by the occupier.
Majdanek, the first “factory of death” filmed
Among the many pictures taken in the Majdanek camp, this one stands out with its setting and its composition. Far from the traditional image of the camps, no watchtower, no set of electrified barbed wire or barracks on the horizon; one cannot distinguish either the tall chimneys which mark the crematorium ovens. The scene is indeed located in the immediate vicinity of these constructions, near the constellation of mass graves where Soviets and Poles are gradually becoming aware of the extent of the massacres committed in this killing center. They are the ones who piled up the bones in the heart of the summer wild vegetation and lined up the skulls to make the count. These piles appear in a number of pictures taken in the weeks following the discovery of the camp. To the Soviet public, they can only recall the pyramids of skulls from the famous painting The Apotheosis of War, painted in 1871 by Vasily Vereshchagin after he followed the Russian Expedition to Turkestan, a work considered to be the icon of pacifism in Russia.
At the edge of the image but in the midst of human remains, the only one alive in this death table, a cinema operator, in a simple military uniform, films as close as possible to his object. It is equipped with the eyemo triple rotating lens camera, the most handy and reliable of the time. He is no stranger: he is Roman Karmen (1906-1978), one of the most experienced documentary filmmakers of his generation. Operator, director, journalist and essayist, he enjoys preferential treatment and is often chosen for exceptional shoots, such as that of the surrender of Marshal Paulus in Stalingrad on 1er February 1943. Journal correspondent Izvestia, Karmen in 1944 became one of Moscow’s official voices for United Press. In July, he led the Soviet team sent to document the opening of the Majdanek camp. Although focused on his task, he is no doubt aware that he is being photographed in this highly symbolic pose.
An exemplary case of the media coverage of the Shoah by the Soviets
Crossing their territorial borders of 1940, the Soviets decided to involve the pro-Soviet Poles in the investigation of Nazi crimes. The commission of inquiry set up to carry out the investigations at the Majdanek camp upon its liberation at the end of July 1944 includes representatives of the Polish National Liberation Committee (PKWN), created to administer the territories abandoned by Hitler's troops. Led by Andrzej Witos, deputy director of the PKWN, it comprises local authorities (prelates, doctors, lawyers, professors from Lublin University) as well as three members of the Soviet State Extraordinary Commission, including forensic pathologist Prozorovsky. The first press release figures the victims at 1.5 million, a sign of the deep impression left on men who have yet seen so much evidence of atrocities since 1941. The total number of prisoners is estimated today at around three hundred thousand. passed through this camp, 40% of whom were Jews (sixty thousand murdered).
Warned by the political leadership of the Red Army of the unexpected importance of the site, the first operators very quickly reached Majdanek. Following them, Roman Karmen as well as the Polish Aleksander Ford and his team are sent there to film the investigative work of the commission. The industrial dimension particularly strikes photographers and filmmakers who record as precisely as possible the traces of this “European killing factory”. In order to consolidate anti-Nazi propaganda, the Soviet military authorities organize visits for foreign press correspondents, the local population and German prisoners of war.
The Americans and the British do the same a few months later in Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald or Dachau. However, due to the geography of the operations, they were only able to discover concentration camps. Only the Soviets were able to film the traces of the Shoah in all its magnitude, its systematic nature and the variety of methods of killing. Their initial aim was certainly not to document the genocide of the Jews, but the bodies piled up in mass graves, those tortured in internment camps and ghettos, testimonies during the trials, not to mention the opening of the camps. extermination in Poland are proof of this.
During the Nuremberg trials, the Americans broadcast Nazi Concentration Camps, the Soviets The Cinematographic Documents on the Germano-Fascist Abuses on the Territory of the Occupied USSR. Neither film dwells on what will later be called the genocide of the Jews. At the time, the Soviet film made a very strong impression, both on the accused and on the press. But in the end, it is the images of the skeletal survivor with the emaciated face in striped clothes from the camps located in Poland (Majdanek and Auschwitz), much more diffused than those of other methods of killing, which have imposed themselves in the collective imagination. both in Western and Eastern Europe.
- Concentration camp
- War of 39-45
- soviet army
EHRENBOURG Ilya, GROSSMAN Vassili (dir.), The Black Book on the Villainous Extermination of Jews by German Fascist Invaders in Provisionally Occupied Areas of the USSR and in Extermination Camps in Poland during the 1941-1945 War: Texts and Testimonies, Arles, Actes Sud / Paris, Solin, coll. "Hebraïca", 1995.HICKS Jeremy, First Films of the Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and the Genocide of the Jews (1938-1946), Pittsburg, University of Pittsburg Press, coll. “Pitt Series in Russian and East European Studies”, 2012.HILBERG Raul, The Destruction of the Jews of Europe, Paris, Gallimard, coll. “Folio: histoire” (nos 142-144), 2006 (final ed., Completed and updated), 3 vol.SCHNEER David, Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 2012.WERTH Alexander, Russia at war, Paris, Tallandier, coll. “Texto”, 2010, 2 vol.
To cite this article
Alexandre SUMPF, "Soviet operators and the Shoah"