The man who photographed the Holodomor

The corpses laying on the streets of Kharkiv looked like carelessly abandoned rags, the trouser legs fluttering around their fibulae and tibias like raspberry-coloured flags on Kremlin masts.

The first things that catch the eye are the unnaturally large finger joints. Do they look like rings? Not at all. They look like beans: white, nutritious, steaming when spooned out of a bowl of borscht. The last button of an old jacket looks like a dumpling, a bit overfried, round and dark. And a willow leaf, blown by the wind onto the pavement, light and arched, is like a crust of bread, cracked and lined with sweet flesh.

The fashion for coloring archival photos has taken from us the ability to recognize colors in a palette of gray and black. Hence it takes a moment to realise that a strange, flabby shape is in fact a dirty linen sack. A dozen cabbages, crunchy, juicy, could easily fit into it. Or a dozen loaves, round and smelling of meadows. Or a pound and a half of beets, or turnips, or slippery, hardy, pearly grains of wheat. Or entire armfuls of nettle or pigweed, or handfuls of various young leaves, torn straight off the tree branches, together with their buds and young fibrous bast. Grubs, river mussels, maybe a trapped mouse?

But the sack is empty, crumpled, pressed against the pavement, with the opening at the top thrown back. Eyes, one by one, recognize: swollen ears, a small nose, hair turned white because of anguish, and finally the source of silence: "overgrown lips of human hunger" [a quote from A "Treatise on Poetry" by Miłosz, Czesław, translated by Czesław Miłosz and Robert Hass, New York: Ecco Press, 2001]. This is a photo taken by Alexander Wienerberger, the man who photographed the Holodomor.

Field research on the Ukrainian famine

Hunger, purchased today in installments by city dwellers in search of an effective diet, is a common human experience, one of mankind’s oldest weapons and the cause of one of the most painful deaths. Knut Hamsun won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his description of the sufferings caused by hunger. The team of doctors that undertook systematic research of hunger in the Warsaw Ghetto did not receive the Nobel Prize in medicine. The results of their research were kept safe during the war by Polish internist Witold Orłowski. Five members of the group survived the Holocaust. After the war, one, the cardiologist Emil Apfelbaum, published the team’s research in a volume entitled "Hunger Clinical Study".

The volume is a monument to a special kind of courage and a source of knowledge for those who would like to describe such an experience in scientific terms. Changes in the functioning of internal organs, atrophy ("self-eating") of the pancreas or leaching of electrolytes from the body can’t be seen with the naked eye. Without a stethoscope one cannot hear how the heart rate slows down. One cannot know anything about hallucinations, acute sense of smell, obsessive thinking about one thing: the mouth full of food (although Hamsun has written about it).
Victims of famine, Kharkiv, 1933. Photo by Alexander Wienerberger from the collection of Cardinal Theodor Innitsir (Archives of the Diocese of Vienna). Photo: Wikimedia/ Central State Film, Photographic and Phonographic Archives of Ukraine H. Pszechynyja
With the naked eye, or through the viewfinder of a camera, one can see irritability turning to apathy. Enlargement of the salivary glands (that's right, the girl in the black country shawl has such chubby cheeks!), starvation edema (webbed white hands and feet, too large to fit in the bast shoes, scattered on the road like blobs of mixed dough), finally, the atrophy of muscle and fatty tissue. The latter can best be seen seen in Wienerberger's photographs: The corpses laying on the streets of Kharkiv look like carelessly abandoned rags, the trouser legs fluttering around their fibulae and tibias like raspberry-coloured flags on Kremlin masts.

Three aims of genocide

We already know a lot about the Great Famine in Ukraine, a crime of genocide, that took place 90 years ago and today is increasingly known by its native name of Holodomor. The scale and strategy of the operation, which began in 1930, is well known. It had, so to speak, three aims: to obtain the maximum amount of agricultural products (mainly grain) for export; to destroy the structure of the Ukrainian countryside, which passively (and sometimes actively) opposed the collectivization of agriculture; and finally, to get rid of a significant part of the Ukrainian community, which in the eyes of Stalin constituted a social and national threat.

  A number of the aims of genocide overlapped perfectly: the effective atomization of rural communities, the destruction of social bonds and the effective eradication of cultural patterns, traditions plus any thought that resistance might be possible could only be tackled by the physical elimination of the population on a gigantic scale.

The further aim seemed somewhat different. Dozens of eyewitness accounts attested to the requisitioning not only of grain for sowing, but everything else that might be fit for consumption (chaff, oilcake, pomace from the oil mill). However, they also describe rotting fields of grain, piles of vegetables left for worms, warehouses and trains, guarded by the army, in which the grain turned black. Tellingly, this attests not just to the weakness of the Stalinist state but also reveals how it prioritized ensuring the suffering of the dying millions over a positive trade balance.

We know to the day the sequence of successive orders issued either by the authorities of the Soviet Ukraine or directly by Molotov [Vyacheslav, the Soviet politician and diplomat] and Kaganowich [Lazar, the Soviet politician and administrator]. On August 7, 1932, the "Decree on the Protection of Property", the so-called „Law of Five Ears of Grain" was issued, according to which, anyone picking the smallest amount of grain on a kolkhoz field would receive a sentence of 10 years in a labor camp or the death penalty. On November 18, 1932, Ukrainian peasants were ordered to return all the grain advances, and on November 20, the confiscation of livestock began.

On November 28, a system of "black boards" was introduced: villages that failed to meet their delivery plans were ordered to hand over 15-fold more. On December 24, the action of confiscating all grain reserves, led by party activists, the Red Army and the internal troops of the OGPU [the government's secret-police organization] began. Three years later, in order to avoid a mass escape of the rural population from death by starvation, the so-called passporting, i.e. de facto assignment to land, was introduced. It meant an effective ban on leaving villages under the threat of exile [to Siberia]. Army cordons were placed around the borders of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic [SSR].

How to count the dead?

We know the extent of the disaster, which, in addition to today's central and eastern Ukraine, also affected Kuban (the historical and geographical region of Southern Russia, then mostly Ukrainian] and the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (then also within the borders of the Soviet Ukraine), as well as Western Siberia and Kazakhstan. We also know the names and fates of the main decision makers and direct executors.

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Attempts to establish the exact number of people who died as a result of the disaster have not been successful. It remains a great challenge because of the Stalinist practice of getting rid of witnesses, destroying files and falsifying data. Demographic reporting in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s was, if not distorted, highly imperfect. The labor force was counted but births were not recorded. The existing records were concealed and fabricated by the NKVD, and the results of the 1937 census were falsified.

Also, the question arose should those who died in labor camps because they broke the Law of Five Ears of Grain be included? Or should the record show only those who starved to death within the borders of the Ukrainian SSR? Should the count be confined to the deaths that took place during the terrible autumn, winter and pre-harvest of 1932-1933, or should account be taken of all the cases of starvation since 1930? What about the victims of devastating malnutrition who died in the following years? What about babies fed on gruel made of willow leaves and bark? What about the demographic collapse experienced by Ukraine in subsequent generations?

What about the forcibly displaced people who never returned to their home villages? Not surprisingly, loss estimates vary widely, ranging from 2.4 million (according to Timothy Snyder) to 7.5 million (according to David R. Marples). The numbers, including the most commonly accepted average of 4 to 5.5 million, are beyond our comprehension, beyond the limits of imagination.

Even if someone is willing to talk about their experience from this period, is it possible to explain it? Yes, we have survivors’ accounts, but they are related 60 years later, still in the hushed whispers of trauma and everlasting fear. How accurate can they be?

Literature can usually help when ot comes to naming the unnameable. But even here it is not easy to find a faithful account. "The Yellow Prince" ["Zhovtyi Kniaz"] by Wasyl Barka, a novel written in Ukrainian in exile during the 1960s, was published in Poland just this autumn by the College of Eastern Europe. It is like a box into which the author packed dozens of experiences from the Holodomor years as well as biblical images and parables. It is an important, necessary and moving book, but not a masterpiece.

The neighboring village is howling

These sentences from the novel "Everything Flows" by Vasily Grossman [published by New York Review Books Classics, 2009, translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler and Anna Aslanyan], one of the most astute Russian witnesses of communism, are guaranteed to remain in the memory forever: "The village started howling as it saw death approaching. All over the village peasants were howling -- it was not the voice of reason or soul, it was like the rustling of leaves in the wind or the rustle of straw. (…) Sometimes I would go out into the field with my assignment and listen: they would be howling. I kept on walking, well, it looked as if it calmed down, but I would take a few more steps and hear it again – it would be the next village doing the same -- howling. And it would seem to me that the whole earth was howling along with people. But there is no God, so who would hear?"

Another shocking scene comes from the Soviet author and dissident Lev Kopelev's memoirs: a woman on her knees collecting milk with a spoon from where it had spilled from a broken bottle into a frozen hoofprint in the ground. However, perhaps the strongest depiction of starvation in literature that I know of are these few lines by Wisława Szymborska [the Polish poet and recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature] in her poem "Hunger Camp near Jasło":

"…There is a forest nearby
To chew wood, to drink from under the bark --
Portion of everyday view,
Until he goes blind. A bird above,
Who moved a shadow over his lips
Nutritious wings. Jaws opened,
Tooth hit on tooth."

(The great irony is that Szymborska dedicated this poem to the memory of Soviet prisoners of war tortured to death by the Germans. The greater irony is that it is quite possible that those who in 1932 requisitioned grain in Ukraine and those who by some miracle managed to survive the Holodymor were subsequently mobilized [to fight the Germans] in 1941 and might well have found themselves together behind the barbed wire of the camp near Jasło. And a further irony could be that the lines that follow -- "August flashed in the sky at night and harvested dreamed bread. / Hands flew from blackened icons, / With empty chalices in their fingers” – suggest that the poet knew more about the Holodomor than she dared to write.
But who reads poetry today? A picture speaks with the power of a thousand words, books and articles need illustrations, an anchor for helpless words. How to fit hunger cramps, diarrhea and agony into kitschy “Ukrainian” scenography, which is suggested to us by our lazy imagination (black-browed women in white scarves, sunflower fields, suburban street flooded with summer sun, clay jugs on the fence rails)?

And this is where Wienerberger comes in with his Leica.

SS photojournalists

He wasn't the first. The theme "Photography and Genocide" is a subject of books and seminars, far from closed. It is possible that Armin T. Wegner stands foremost among the group of photographers to focus on a nation being liquidated. Wegner was a military doctor, who was assigned to the German Medical Corps supporting the Ottoman Sixth Army’s activitiees in Syria and Mesopotamia. In 1915 Wegner photographed the "death trails" along which the Armenians wandered towards their destruction. Transferred under pressure from the Turkish authorities to Europe, he managed to smuggle negatives in his uniform belt. They have given us an idea of Mec Jeghern, the first genocide of the twentieth century.

Of course, the most extensively photographed was the Holocaust. It was unabashedly documented by officers from the Politische Abteilung Erkennungsdienst (probably the most widely known is a photo of a boy in a short coat, aimed at by SS-Rottenführer Josef Blösche). Others were taken by Polish prisoners in Auschwitz: Wilhelm Brasse, a photographer from Żywiec, and Mendel Grossman, who had been locked in the Łódź ghetto. But the Holodomor? Where did the equipment, film, determination, and the cloak of invisibility come from?

Alexander Wienerberger's biography , at least in the first years of his life, follows Central European biographical 'matrices'. Born in 1891 to a wealthy Viennese family, nominally Czech-Jewish, he considered himself Austrian. A proud student of the Faculty of Philosophy, he went as a one-year volunteer to the Carpathian front and was taken prisoner by the Russians in 1915. VISIT AND LIKE US Like many Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war, he had no particular attachment to the declining monarchy, but he was impressed by the momentum and ideals of the two revolutions he experienced in Russia in 1917, the first of which already brought him freedom. He did not become a communist fellow-traveler like the carefree globetrotter, the Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek , nor a communist official and politician like the Hungarians Béla Kunand and Mátyás Rákosi. However, he did decide that he could build a life for himself in Moscow, where he settled and married.

A little stabilization à la Russe

He started with a small chemical laboratory, founded with friends in the summer of 1917, in what was to prove to be a fluctuating life style under the war time conditions of communism, and later the Soviet Union’s New Economic Policy (NEP) as proposed by Vladimir Lenin in 1921. Sometimes relatively prosperous, at other times life was a struggle (in 1919 he tried to escape to Austria and spent three years as a prisoner of Lubyanka). Eventually the Soviet authorities appreciated his engineering talents, despite the fact that he was a self-taught chemist. In the second half of the 1920s, he was in charge of production in a paint and varnish factory, and at the turn of the decade – was made responsible also for the production of explosives!

In 1928, he was granted the rare privilege of being allowed to go to his family in Austria. On his return, he brought his second wife, Lilly Zimmermann, with him, his first marriage having broken up a year earlier. In 1932, he was nominated as the technical director of the plastics factory in Lubuchany [close to Moscow], and in the first months of the following year he was assigned to a similar position in Kharkiv.

We really don't know what made a self-made man, a cheerful bourgeois who had brought a camera from Austria to record the image of his little Margot on a sleigh and a gramophone to dance with Lilly in their five-room apartment, to direct the lens from his daughter's chubby cheeks on the swollen face of an unknown girl. His account in his memoirs published in 1939 ("Hart auf hart. 15 Jahre Ingenieur in Sowjetrussland. Ein Tatsachenbericht") is written in the language of pathos, as if tailored to the tastes of the audience.

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The book’s first sentence is: "While I was rummaging under the hood of my car with a flashlight, a man came up to me, stopped and asked me if I was a foreigner". When Wienenberg confirms that he is, the man appeals to him: "Dear comrade, (…) you are a foreigner, compared to us, you are omnipotent, you have the opportunity to leave this dungeon. Tell the world what they are doing to us! Europe must help us! (…) Do not leave here until you promise me that you will shout about it!" And he answers: "Yes, I promise you: here is my hand!" Of course, that's not how people talked on Kharkiv streets in the winter of 1933. But that's not important.

Candy wrappers

What is important is the more than one hundred photos taken by Wienerberger. In the postcard-sized gray pictures you can see children -- village children who somehow were able to crawl into Kharkiv and can be seen squatting on a pile of crushed stones by the roadside, homeless and dazed. They have forgotten their names and villages. All they can remember is the feeling of satiety they once had a long time ago. In a busy street, under the rustling leaves of an orchard, the bodies of the dead lie by the wooden fence. This fence is put together so neatly and accurately, its planks – so evenly spaced -- as if someone was measuring the distances between them for coffins. But we know there were no coffins. The corpses were forked over onto waste removal carts.

There is a photo of such a cart, with rocking pairs of bare heels. Another shows corpses in oversized clothes, scattered on a clean Kharkiv street like giant wrappers of the brittle candies Comrade Stalin [the Soviet political leader from 1924 to 1953] was so fond of. Yet another photo is of an elegant, mass-produced signboard that has been nailed to a tree trunk. Its very factual inscription reads: "It is categorically forbidden to organize funerals in this place" ("Zdies' kategoriczeski wosprieszczajetsja proizwodit' pochorony").

The monochromatic nature of the pre-war photos presents a problem, making it impossible to ascertain when a particular photo was taken, to determine, for example, whether the whiteness in the background is a blooming blackthorn or a series of snow caps. Perhaps it is just that "On a black track falls / Shadow of the broken apple tree."

And we have to contend with issues not just about the photos, but also about Wienerberger.

The photos were probably smuggled to the West in the Austrian or German diplomatic pouch. The engineer, along with his wife and daughter, was allowed to go to Austria in 1934. There he quickly handed the photos over to Cardinal Theodor Innitzer [Archbishop of Vienna]. Thanks to his close associate, Dr. Ewald Ammende, the coordinator of Catholic aid missions during the famine in the Volga region in 1921, Innitzer was able to show the Kharkiv photos to the Secretariat of the League of Nations.

This proved to be one of the earliest testimonies about the Holodomor to fall into the hands of Western politicians. A month later, a photo-illustrated brochure entitled "The Truth about Russia" ("Rußland, wie es wirklich ist") was published by the Fatherland Front [Vaterländische Front, the Austrian right-wing conservative and nationalist political organisation, established in 1933 by the Christian Social Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss]. A year later, the pictures were published in a separate propaganda publication "Must Russia Starve?" by Dr. Ammende. Yet again, the name of the photographer was not revealed.

Alexander Wienerberger was not a Nazi. In 1938, on the eve of the Anschluss, he sent his family to Great Britain. An anti-communist, he adopted a crude version of anti-communist ideology that happened to be one of the most prevalent among the European Right of the 1930s and widely popularized through the propaganda of the Third Reich. In this version, the creators, executors and beneficiaries of Soviet communism were almost exclusively Jews and Bolshevism was represented as nothing more than a "Jewish conspiracy".

What Walter Durranty didn't do

In his memoirs published in 1939, Weinerberger outlined his beliefs. He cursed the "Judeo-Communism", condemned the "Jewish commissars" and boasted of how his photographs were included in traveling exhibitions around the Third Reich that aimed at "unmasking the Jewish threat".
Alexander Wienerberger and his camera at an exhibition in Kiev, November, 2022. Photo: Volodymyr Tarasov / Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images
Such ugly language, so reflective of the crass conformism of 1939, is absolutely unacceptable in the post-war world. The photos show carts, laden with corpses as though laden with grain after a successful harvest. Often the photos were taken from within the opening of the photographer’s coat, while driving or from behind a screening newspaper. These were the kind of photos that neither Walter Durranty [the Anglo-American journalist who served as Moscow bureau chief of The New York Times from 1922 to 1936] nor any of the English, French and Polish diplomats who were in Kharkiv (the capital of the Ukrainian SSR until 1934) at that time had managed or chosen to take. Moreover, not even the valued Austrian engineer, regardless of his knowledge of casein and ebonite and his usefulness to the light industry of the Soviet Union, would have gotten away with it had he been caught with using his Leica at such a time.

What to do with such a witness? Oleksandr Zinchenko, a Ukrainian historian, publicist and documentary filmmaker, dealing with the contemporary history of Ukraine and the USSR is opting to publish the 1939 Weinerberger memoirs. Zinchenko is responsible for the documentary film and book entitled "The Parrot's Hour", one of the first Ukrainian publications about the Katyn massacre (the series of mass executions of some 22,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia prisoners of war carried out by the Soviet Union in 1940).

"This is a difficult book about a complicated historical reality," he writes in his essay, explaining his decision. He recalls how, when in 1933, politicians of the Third Reich spoke publicly about the crime of the Ukrainian genocide, the presidents of the United States and France remained silent. "The fact that it's the Nazis who publicized the issue of the Holodomor, does not discredit the memory of its victims,” Zinchenko insists, while emphasizing the cynicism of the politicians of the Third Reich and the propaganda game they had played in using the Great Famine and the Katyn massacre.

The clash of relations, the clash of Leica

The words written by the engineer who witnessed the genocide will have to be dissected through referral to a variety of contexts ranging from pre-war anti-Semitism, through the "realism" of Western politicians unwilling or ill-prepared to confront Stalin or to intervene on behalf of the millions of his victims, to Austro-Germanic relations on the eve of the Anschluss.

Wienerberger's memoirs are soon to be published by the "Istoriczna Pravda"portal and publishing house. Meanwhile, in Kiev, at the Holodomor Museum, visitors to the exhibition entitled "Leica that saw the Holodomor", that ran from 22-to-27 November, were able to see Wienerberger's camera, a photo album from Kharkiv and Moscow that he had compiled and the specific device he had used in order to secretly take photos. All had been brought to the Ukrainian capital by Samara Pearce, the engineer's great-granddaughter, who lives in Great Britain.

Wienerberger titled his album ironically "Das Arbeitparadies" ("Workers' Paradise"). The name, drawn perfectly in white crayon on the red canvas of the cover, has not faded a bit for 90 years. The album contains photos of Kharkiv slums, shreds of dried fish, and once again features that girl in a black scarf, whose swollen knees look like gourds. Additionally, there again are the carts full of corpses, hands scattered on the pavement and rags on which street dust, as fertile as the local soil, is falling.

Wienerberger's irony was scathing but even it cannot compare to the fact that in this year, the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor, Russia is again exporting half a million tons of grain from Ukrainian silos.

–By Wojciech Stanisławski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

–Translated by Agnieszka Rakoczy
Main photo: A Leica that has seen the Holodomor. Exhibit from the exhibition in Kiev, November, 2022. Photo: Volodymyr Tarasov / Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images
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