The Ravine by Wendy Lower

“This book is about the potential discovery that exists if we dare to look closer. It is also about the voids that exist in the history of genocide. Its perpetrators not only kill but also seek to erase victims from written records, and even from memory. When we find one trace, we must pursue it, to prevent the intended extinction by countering it with research, education, and memorialization” (20). 

Wendy Lower’s The Ravine: A Family, A Photograph, A Holocaust Massacre Revealed (Harper Collins 2022) is a blend of historical exposé and true crime, outlining Lower’s research of one rare action photograph of Nazis murdering Jewish people in the Ukraine. Though Lower’s book is built around this one photograph and its reverberations through many years, The Ravine expands its scope far beyond its initial discovery, exploring additional open-air massacres in Ukraine and ultimately making an explicit connection between genocidal violence and its effects on kinship and family units. 

One of the things I appreciated most about this book—and something that I think is likely to draw many readers in—is the pacing of the narrative. Lower’s discoveries unfold as though in real-time, giving readers a sense of how Lower felt and what she thought as she discovered each new piece of information: 

“In my decades of researching the Holocaust, I had seen thousands of photographs and closely studied hundreds, looking for images that captured killers in the act. Too many…got away with murder and lying about it under oath. If the perpetrators shown in a photograph could be identified, it could serve as incontrovertible evidence of their participation in murder. These were my impressions and thoughts within seconds of first seeing the photograph” (3). 

The photograph that became the subject of The Ravine

Lower, a Holocaust scholar, goes on to explain that while photographic record of the Holocaust are “greater than that of any other genocide,” photos of Nazis committing crimes are rare (4). Her contextualization of this photograph within the greater historical record is important for the reader, as is her narrative that allows the reader feel as though they have been immersed in her investigation. Lower describes the photo itself as “astonishing evidence, clearly showing local militia shooting side by side with German in wartime Ukraine,” and goes on to analyze and research every aspect of the photo, leaving no stone unturned (5). 

While I think this text will naturally appeal to history buffs, I think it will equally appeal to true crime fans as Lower’s research of the photo in many ways mirrors a criminal investigation. It is ultimately Lower’s intention to identify the murderers pictured and bring them to justice; she begins this search by researching the photographer. Lower explains that when mass killings of Jews began in 1941, Nazi leaders initially “forbade soldiers” from taking pictures of “specific events…fearing their explosive potential as counter-propaganda that could stoke resistance” (14). Obviously, the fact that this picture was taken at all was significant, and more significant still were the intentions of the photographer. Lower says of the photographer that: 

“I assumed that the photographer of the atrocity at Mirapole was a collaborator, standing at close range in military uniform, helping to prevent the Jewish families from fleeing, and humiliating them by taking their photos at such a moment. In fact, I learned that later in the war, in May 1943 in Bratislava, he was denounced to the Nazi-allied authorities for ‘making photos that were not permitted’ and that ‘worked against the new order in Europe’” (65). 

Lower proceeds to paint a complex picture of the photographer via the historical documents and information from his family. This is one of my favorite parts of the book because it displays not only Lower’s intricate and careful research, but it also shows the limit of such research: there is no one way to feel about what the photographer did by taking the photo, and what he did and said about the photo in the years after it was taken. Lower mentions that the photographers taking of the photo “was both an expression of defiance and a turning point,” but she seems to understand that readers will come away from the documents she’s provided with their own feelings about his intentions (91). In this section, we as readers see Lower’s perceptions and feeling growing and changing alongside our own, making this one of the most intimate sections in the book. 

Beyond her investigation of the photographer, Lower also goes to great lengths to identify the murderers in the photograph. Lower travels to the site of the photograph, interviews many family members and residents of the small Ukrainian town where this mass murder took place, and is able to create a chronology of the day in which the murders took place, again immersing readers in a real-time narrative. Although Lower is ultimately able to identify the perpetrators, the knowledge that is gained from this text is one that goes beyond this identification. Lower assists the reader in understanding the immense collateral damage that extends from a crime like this and implores us to always look deeper and further than the official historical record. 

Please add The Ravine to your Goodreads shelf.

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About the Writer: 

Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature. Her work on women in twenty-first century true crime has been published in Crime Fiction Studies. 

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