Johannes Hähle: Kharkov, Lubny, Baby Yar

Ten photos have been published in these days on the Russian net, on several sites within a short time, ten rather faded color photos from October 1941, on the Baby Yar mass murder, two weeks before the seventieth anniversary of Baby Yar.

True, Baby Yar cannot be linked to just one single date. The German troops occupied Kiev on 19 September, and in the months that followed, mass executions went on continuously in the ravine in the outskirts of Kiev. It is estimated that by the end of the German occupation the SS executed here at least 150 thousand people, Ukrainians, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, Jews, Gypsies, patients of mental hospitals and civilian hostages. However, the first and largest mass murder – which was also the greatest single massacre in the occupied Soviet Union and in the history of the holocaust – was when on 29-30 September 1941 the 33,771 Jewish citizens of Kiev were gathered, executed and buried throughout two days in the ravine.

[By passing along the corridor of soldiers, in groups of ten,] one after the other, they had to remove their luggage, then their coats, shoes, and overgarments and also underwear … Once undressed, they were led into the ravine which was about 150 meters long and 30 meters wide and a good 15 meters deep … When they reached the bottom of the ravine they were seized by members of the Schutzpolizei and made to lie down on top of Jews who had already been shot … The corpses were literally in layers. A police marksman came along and shot each Jew in the neck with a submachine gun … I saw these marksmen stand on layers of corpses and shoot one after the other … The marksman would walk across the bodies of the executed Jews to the next Jew, who had meanwhile lain down, and shoot him. (Statement of truck-driver Hofer)

The photos were taken on the next day, October 1. We see no executions on them, just German soldiers searching for valuables in the piles of clothes, Soviet prisoners of war covering with earth the bottom of the ravine, and dead people laying on the streets of Kiev, who could not keep up with the march. Neither their source, nor their author is indicated. But whoever saw the Wehrmacht exhibition in Berlin – opened first in 1995, stirring a great debate, following which it was reorganized in 2000, and since then is open in the Deutsches Historisches Museum –, may remember, that some of the pictures were on display in black and white, under the name of Johannes Hähle.

Johannes Hähle was a professional photographer of the German army. In 1932 he joined the National Socialist Party, and at the invasion of the Soviet Union he was sent together with the 6th Army in the bonds of Propagandakompanie (PK) 637 to report from the East. In the summer of 1942 he was wounded, and was sent back for treatment to Potsdam, so he avoided, together with his photos, the fate of the 6th Army in Stalingrad. In 1942-43 he reported on Rommel’s Afrikakorps, and later he was commanded to the Atlantic coast where he photographed the Atlantic Wall. He was also photographing on the D-Day, just some hundred meters from Robert Capa, but facing him. In contrast to Capa, he did not survive this shooting.

As a honest war correspondent, Hähle handed over all his photos to the Propagandakompanie. According to the records of the PK, on 30 September 1941 he delivered 108 photos with the title "“insatz im Osten”, and on 13 October 7 further photos entitled “Umfassungsschlacht ostw. Kiew”. However, the Baby Yar film roll was not among them. Neither two other rolls, whose existence was discovered only much later.

Last February the Spiegel’s appendix Einestages published an archive series of black and white photos, originally uploaded to the forum by a member nicknamed “Bachelor” from an ex-Soviet republic. The photos were partly taken on a Focke Wulf Fw 189 reconnaissance aircraft and its personnel, most probably in the spring or summer of 1942 around Kharkov, and partly on a group of Jews immediately before their execution somewhere in the Ukraine – as it turned out later, in Lubny, on 16 October, just two weeks after Baby Yar.

The Spiegel’ question concerning the authorship and date of the pictures were answered much later by the director of the Archiv des Hamburger Instituts für Sozialforschung, Reinhard Schwarz, who recognized in them the photos of two further rolls by Johannes Hähle preserved by them. The pictures were hitherto unpublished, and Schwarz assumed that the copies uploaded to the net were made when the photos were lent some years ago to Kharkov for a city history exhibition.

The three rolls which Hähle never handed over to the PK had a long way to the archiv of Hamburg. The widow of Hähle sold them in 1954 to the Berlin journalist Hans Georg Schulz, who tried to publish them a number of times, but he was always refused by the editors who supposed that they would sensitively affect the German public. Finally the widow of Schulz sold them in 2000 to the institute of Hamburg who exposed the black and white copies of some of the color photos on the Wehrmacht exhibition. All the pictures of the roll – and not only the ten ones which now appeared on the Russian sites, but twenty-nine – were finally published in color on the Aktion Reinhard Camps site. We also take them over from there together with their captions.