Grief

1942
Photograph by Dmitri Baltermants

War is, above all, grief.

Dmitri Baltermants

Grief

  • Dmitri Baltermants
  • 1942

The Polish-born Dmitri Baltermants had planned to be a math teacher but instead fell in love with photography. Just as World War II broke out, he got a call from his bosses at the Soviet government paper Izvestia: “Our troops are crossing the border tomorrow. Get ready to shoot the annexation of western Ukraine!” At the time the Soviet Union considered Nazi Germany its ally. But after Adolf Hitler turned on his comrades and invaded the Soviet Union, Baltermants’ mission changed too. Covering what then became known as the Great Patriotic War, he captured grim images of body-littered roads along with those of troops enjoying quiet moments. In January 1942 he was in the newly liberated city of Kerch, Crimea, where two months earlier Nazi death squads had rounded up the town’s 7,000 Jews. “They drove out whole families—­women, the elderly, children,” Baltermants recalled years later. “They drove all of them to an antitank ditch and shot them.” There Baltermants came upon a bleak, corpse-choked field, the outstretched limbs of old and young alike frozen in the last moment of pleading. Some of the gathered townspeople wailed, their arms wide. Others hunched in paroxysms of grief. Baltermants, who witnessed more than his share of death, recorded what he saw. Yet these images of mass Nazi murders on Soviet soil were too graphic for his nation’s leaders, wary of displaying the suffering of their people. Like many of Baltermants’ photos, this one was censored, being shown only decades later as liberalism seeped into Russian society in the 1960s. When it finally emerged, Baltermants’ picture allowed generations of Russians to form a collective memory of their great war. “You do your work the best you can,” he somberly observed, “and someday it will surface.”

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