What is the meaning of the Waiting in Line photograph?
"The women do not act as if they are about to die." Lubomyr Prytulak

September 4, 2000

Irving Greenberg, Chair
United States Holocaust Memorial Council
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
100 Raoul Wallenberg Place SW
Washington DC      20024-2126

Irving Greenberg:

The Waiting in Line Photograph

Does the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum perpetuate the Jewish tradition of inciting fear and hatred of Ukrainians?

The photograph below was published on the 20th Century History web site, and came with the caption shown, spelling mistake included.  So as to facilitate discussion, I will refer to this photograph as the Waiting in Line photograph:

Photograph from the Main Commission for the Investigation of Nazi War Crimes, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives.

Naked Jewish women, some of whom are holding infants, wait in a line before their execution by Ukrainian auxilliary police.  (October 14, 1942)

Why is the Waiting in Line photograph degraded?

Anyone attempting to understand the above photograph might immediately be frustrated by its small size which makes it difficult to see details.  Examining the HTML code behind the 20th Century History page reveals that the photograph is being presented at a forced width of 400 pixels, whereas the underlying image is really 480 pixels wide, and can readily be presented at that larger width, as is done below:

The same image as above, but shown at the full 480 pixel width at which it was scanned.

Although looking back and forth between the two photographs might leave the viewer unconvinced that much has been gained at the higher resolution, I can say that in the smaller version, I had been unsure whether there was anyone standing beyond the line of women and facing to the right, whereas in the larger version it became clear that there was.  Once having seen this individual in the larger version, he becomes apparent in the smaller version, even though he had not been so before.  Obviously, every increment in resolution gives us an increment in interpretability, and obviously a small increment in resolution may give us only a small increment in interpretability.

The 20th Century History site does not recognize this principle, or perhaps does not wish to give its viewers maximum interpretability, as it gratuitously throws away 80 pixels of detail along the width dimension, and of course some proportionate amount of detail along the height dimension.  Taking our argument further, we may say that even a 480 pixel width is needlessly small.  A 700 pixel width readily fits the vast majority of screens, and would add substantially to clarity.  At the same time, for the reader who is particularly interested in detail, an alternative image at much higher resolution could have been made available say in the range of 1,000-2,000 pixels in width.  Many screens will not accommodate all of an image this wide, but that doesn't matter, as all screens will permit different parts of the image to be scrolled to.  Any web site which is genuinely interested in historical truth would have provided this capability; and any web site which offers only a single degraded image might be suspected of either incompetence or of serving the cause of disinformation, if not both.

One might note parenthetically that when it has been possible to satisfy the viewer who wants high resolution, the Ukrainian Archive has attempted to do so, as by providing high-resolution alternatives to the Trawniki ID card used in the John Demjanjuk show trial (which UKAR makes available at widths of 599, 998, and 1837 pixels), and to the Wallowing Girl photograph published by Time magazine (which UKAR makes available at widths of 428, 600, and 949 pixels).  It is unfortunate in the latter two cases that increasing resolution brings diminishing gains in clarity because of the blur in the photograph which UKAR was scanning; had UKAR had access to the original Trawniki ID card, or to the original photograph of the Wallowing Girl, then still greater detail would have been captured and made available to the viewer.

Where is the chain of custody?

A photograph such as Waiting in Line would have difficulty gaining credence in a court of law without a chain of custody.  The court would want to know who had taken the photograph, where the original negative was, and whose hands the photograph and negative had passed through between then and now.  In the absence of such a chain of custody, it would be thrown open to question whether the photograph is what it purports to be perhaps it had really been taken in a different place and at a different time, and perhaps it represents an event quite other than the one proposed.  Perhaps it has even been tampered with or forged.  Of course a chain of custody will assist in establishing the significance of a photograph outside a court of law as well.  Such a chain of custody could have been outlined in two or three sentences on the 20th Century History web site, but was not.

Mention of the Main Commission for the Investigation of Nazi War Crimes as one link in the chain of custody hurts the credibility of the photograph rather than helping it.  This can only be the Polish Main Commission, whose anti-Ukrainian credentials were fully established in the course of the Demjanjuk trial during which it threw open its archives to the Israeli prosecution while closing them to the Demjanjuk defense.

Where is this event supposed to have taken place?

No geographical location is provided for the Waiting in Line photograph, leading the viewer to wonder how it is possible to know the date down to the exact day of the month, but not the place.

The thought comes to mind that knowing the place of the photograph makes it easier to verify.  That is, if the photograph were represented as having been taken at such and such a village, then one could today go to that village, and show the photograph to its inhabitants, and ask them what they thought it represented and where it might have been taken, and one could make enquiries as to the existence of a mass grave in the vicinity of that village, and one could search for a ravine resembling the ravine shown in the photograph, and one could attempt to locate a mass grave within that ravine.

Conversely, omitting the location for the photograph presents a nearly-insuperable obstacle to its verification.

What we have so far, then, is that the 20th Century History web site has presented us with a degraded photograph lacking not only a chain of custody but also key information which would render it verifiable.

Where is the internal corroboration?

The photograph is represented as having been taken on 14-Oct-1942; however, nothing in the photograph confirms this date.  The women in the photograph are represented as being Jewish; however, they could as easily be Polish or Ukrainian or Turkish.  It is implied that the scene is within Ukraine; however, it could as easily be within Germany or Lithuania or Greece.  The men who appear to be in a supervisory capacity are represented as being Ukrainian; however, they could as easily be Russian or German or Jewish (all except for the one who appears to be wearing a German military hat, and who will be discussed below).  The scene is represented as being one of mass execution, and yet the photograph shows not a single body, not a single weapon, no burial pit, and no fear on the part of the lined-up women.

In short, the viewer is asked to take the offered interpretation of the photograph on faith.  The photograph does not show a scene of mass execution it shows a puzzling scene, and depends for its impact on the viewer not being able to think of any explanation of it other than the proposed one of imminent execution.

Where are the names of the women in the photograph?

If the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum knows the exact date of the Waiting in Line photograph, and what it signifies, then it must also know where the photograph was taken.  If it knows the location of the photograph, then it is a simple and natural next step to go there, and ask local inhabitants to identify the people in the photograph.  In a Ukrainian village, everybody knows everybody else, so that such an investigation has a strong chance of bearing fruit.

The Waiting in Line photograph, one assumes, has been in the possession of Jewish-holocaust workers for decades.  The motivation for the substantiation of the photograph is powerful.  Means are not lacking the Jewish holocaust has been a multi-billion dollar industry for decades.  Why, then, has this simple and obvious and inexpensive step not been taken?  How can the Holocaust Memorial Museum rest content to offer unconvincing evidence without taking steps to bolster it?  If the truth is that nobody knows where this photograph was taken, and so that there are no local inhabitants that can be questioned concerning it, then why hasn't the photograph been displayed in ads in Ukrainian newspapers asking whether anybody has knowledge of what it portrays (assuming of course that Ukraine is the best place to ask)?

And if one knows the place and the date, one has some chance of identifying the German officer in the photograph as well, and one has some chance of identifying the photographer and then the natural next step would have been (probably it's too late today) to track down this German officer and this photographer and obtain statements from them.

In the absence of such simple and obvious attempts at verification, one is left with the impression that the Jewish-holocaust industry takes in its vast income without re-investing much of it in a substantiation of the story on which it feeds, a conclusion which has been arrived at on the Ukrainian Archive more than once before, as for example in a discussion of the Treblinka death camp.

The women do not act as if they are about to die

The Waiting in Line photograph shows us approximately 20 naked women standing in line.  Understandably, they are embarrassed at being naked in public, and so tend to hold their hands across their breasts and to huddle together.  The one to the far right appears to be hurrying to join the line.

In addition to the 20 women, perhaps five children are visible, four in arms, and one, maybe a girl of about 7 years, standing on the ground clinging to her mother, possibly also out of embarrassment at being naked in public:

First in line, mother and daughter looking forward. Girl of about 7 years standing on the ground clinging to her mother. Infant held facing backward, mother's hand cradling its head. Little girl sitting on her mother's forearm. Possibly visible is the back of a baby's head, where the baby is facing to the right, toward the back of the line.

What would we expect if this was an execution scene?  We would expect the women to be quickly led to the edge of a burial pit, or to be led down into the pit, and immediately gunned down.  However, we do not see anybody being gunned down.  We do not even see any pit.

What we do see is a bottleneck there must be some delay up ahead, and these women have lined up waiting their turn.  What delay?  It would have to be the delay of others being shot ahead of them only an obstacle that insurmountable would cause the killers to keep their victims waiting.  But in that case, what would we expect from these women who are lined up?  We would expect to see signs of extreme distress and panic.  They should be covering their eyes and averting their gaze.  They should be bent over or crouching down, terrified and weeping.  They should be collapsing or fainting.

However, we do not see anything of the sort.  The first in line is a mother holding her young daughter, and the daughter is not frightened by any gun fire in front of her, and she does not cling to the mother in fear, and the mother does not turn her daughter's eyes away from any slaughter just ahead of them.  They both stand calmly, mother looking forward, and daughter turning forward.  The same calmness typifies the other women.

In a situation in which flight might be expected, these women do not appear to have their hands bound, and do not appear to be tied to each other.  They are not contained by guard dogs.  They give no indication of being prisoners.  Nothing that we can see in the photograph prevents them from scattering in panic.  Nothing prevents them from putting the young children on the ground with the instruction that they should run away when the opportunity presented itself.  At the moment the picture is taken, the men are not looking at the women, and the children could be placed on the ground on the side away from the men, and told to flee toward the rear of the line but nothing of this sort seems to be happening.  Instead, four of the mothers hold their children so that they have no chance of an independent escape.  As the chief escape route would be backward, we would expect the women to be looking backward to estimate their chances, or turning backward in readiness for flight, and yet none appear to have any interest in the direction which would constitute their sole avenue of escape.

The men do not act as if they are about to kill

We can see two men (possibly three) on the far side of the women, and they do not give the appearance of guarding the women.  They are not looking at them.  They do not form a perimeter around them.  They do not brandish weapons.

Man with white armband facing left.

Let us start with the man who is facing left, looking down, wearing a white arm band on his left arm.  The arm band indicates that he is playing some official role at this event, but as he is in civilian clothes he needs an arm band to signal this official status.

At first glance especially in the degraded photo he might be taken to be wearing a brimmed hat which could be a military hat.  However, the back of this hat would then be very high on his head, and the top of the hat would be so thin that it could be doubted whether it added anything to the height of the silhouette of his head.  Such a hat would perhaps be atypical of any hat civilian or military worn in Ukraine in 1942.  More likely, this is not a hat at all, but two dark spots on the grass beyond the man, one dark spot in front of his head and one behind, giving the impression of the brim of a hat.  A higher-resolution image would have helped to confirm whether this individual was in uniform or not, whether or not he was wearing a hat and what sort of hat it was, and perhaps even if anything was written on his armband.

Neither is there any indication that this individual is guarding the women or that he is interested in monitoring them or preventing their flight.  Rather, he is looking forward in the same direction they are, except rather downward, and in fact somewhat away from the women rather than towards them.  Perhaps just as the women are embarrassed at their nakedness, so is he, and he is taking care to avert his gaze so as to avoid giving the appearance of taking a prurient interest in them.  We expect a guard to stand removed from his prisoners and to look at them, whereas this man stands close to the women and looks away from them from which we might be drawn to the conclusion that he is not acting like a guard.

And neither does he appear to be armed.  But if he is a guard, then we would expect him to be armed, and if armed, then we would expect it to be with a rifle, and one that would most likely be either strapped on his back, or else held upright, neither of which is the case.

Man with military hat facing right, and possibly one other.

And then we have one possibly two men facing the man with the white armband, and thus also facing toward the rear of the line of women.  Of these two, let's dispose of the one without the hat first the one a little to the left (our left) of the hatted one.  If there is a man there at all, then he is either blond or bald, and too indistinct to make anything of, and so no more will be said of him.  Higher resolution, the ally of truth, would have helped.

But of these two men facing to the right, the one with the hat is of considerable interest, as his hat appears to be a military one, and which to some might look German.  Perhaps, then, we have here a major incongruity between the photo and the caption that is recommended for the photo where the caption says that the women are about to be executed by Ukrainians, the photo appears to show a German officer to whom all civilians whatever their nationality would be subordinate.  And a German officer does not work alone among foreign civilians whoever they may be rather, where there is a German officer at work, there must also be at least some German soldiers at work alongside him, and every German soldier will outrank and will command every civilian helper whoever these civilian helpers may be.  From what we can see in the photograph, then, it does not seem accurate to describe this as a Ukrainian action.  The presence of a single German officer is all that it takes to make this a German action, and that single German officer we do seem to have.

And here is where, perhaps more than anywhere else, higher resolution would have come to the assistance of truth.  With higher resolution, we might more definitively have been able to say whether this was a German officer or not, and perhaps even what his rank was.  But perhaps that is exactly what those who disseminate this photograph-with-caption wish to avoid they want this to be a Ukrainian action, not a German one, and a degraded photograph is needed to obscure the truth.

And even if this picture was taken in Ukraine, the presence of civilian assistants does not point to the conclusion that they were Ukrainians the foremost collaborators with the invading forces were German settlers in Ukraine the Volkdeutsche.

But if not mass execution, then what?

But we are left with the irreducible fact that women do not normally line up naked, especially not in the presence of men, and especially not outdoors in a ravine.  If there is a German officer present, then of course he will carry a handgun, and of course there must be armed German soldiers nearby.  If these women are not about to be executed, then what in the world can they be doing there?

Two lines of speculation occur.  One is that in time of war, epidemics erupt.  Epidemics among the civilian population must be put down not only because they subtract from the civilian labor force, but also because they threaten to spread to the occupying army.  Preventing or containing epidemics requires extreme measures, among which might be mass de-lousing.  De-lousing, in turn, might require people to strip because of the separate treatment that needs to be given their persons and their clothing.  Thus, perhaps these women are about to be subjected to de-lousing, or some sort of hygienic or sanitary procedure having to do with disease prevention or containment.

Another line of speculation has to do with the fact that Ukrainians were widely conscripted by the Germans for slave labor.  I am thinking mainly of massive deportation of Ukrainians to Germany to make up for manpower shortages there.  In such a case, it would be necessary to determine who was fit for such deportation and who wasn't.  Nakedness would expose some diseases or abnormalities to view, and would facilitate the discovery of others.

Thus, it may be that the women are calm and cooperative because they can see that the procedure they are about to undergo is harmless.  Resistance might have been quieted by promising the women good working conditions in Germany, generous pay which could be sent home, and (as Germany appeared to be invincible) greater safety from the dangers of further fighting than could be hoped for in Ukraine.  As there may not have been any building in the village in which such a mass screening could have been conducted, it is conducted in part outdoors.  If there was a ravine close at hand, this would have afforded the women some protection from the eyes of the rest of village.  As the men and the women would have preferred to be screened separately, we see only women in this one gathering, the men being processed at a different time.  In any event, bathing or swimming naked the sexes separate was not an uncommon practice among villagers in Ukraine at that time, so that their having to appear naked as in the Waiting in Line photograph would not have been as traumatic for them as it might be for today's Canadian or American urbanite.

Perhaps it should be underlined that the apparent segregation by sex is more compatible with the view of prophylactic treatment or fitness screening than of mass execution.  When villagers are about to be killed, nothing is gained by killing the sexes separately, and time is wasted in the process of segregation.  If nakedness is required in some harmless procedure, however, then segregation of the sexes will be practiced out of consideration for the sensitivities of those who are required to appear unclothed.

Why are the women naked?

If the procedure in question is a prophylactic measure or a fitness screening, we can understand why the women would be naked but what would be the reason to strip them naked prior to execution?  Commanding victims who are about to be executed to strip offers both time and provocation for emotional outbursts and mass panic.  Prisoners must be searched at the time of arrest so as to dispossess them of weapons and it is at that time, and not at the time of execution, that valuables or identification would have been confiscated.  An invading army has neither the time nor the inclination to participate in the recycling of used clothing.

The detail of fabric objects being scattered on the far wall of the ravine does not appear to support either the interpretation of a harmless procedure, or of mass killing.  These objects are too large to be articles of clothing, seem to have been carelessly strewn about even up the side of the far wall of the ravine, and are possibly unrelated to the proceedings at hand.

Where are the old women?

One final observation supports the view that these women are being screened to determine eligibility for deportation to Germany.  It is that there are no old women among them.

As we have already noted, the women in the photograph are typically mature, and among them are about five children which to the Germans would be an advantage, as these could be brought up in the service of the Third Reich.  Kidnapping non-German children to be brought up as Germans is known to have been practiced by the Nazi regime, and welcoming the children of slave laborers may have been expected to bring a similar benefit.  The woman at the far right of the picture could be pregnant which might make her more useful to the Third Reich than otherwise shortly her newborn can be taken from her to be brought up as a German, while she herself is channeled into the German work force.  A few of the women could well be pre-teenagers, or teenagers, or in their early twenties:

Unusually tall and thin woman with pigtails who could be 20 years old occupies the middle of the photograph fragment above.  Immediately in front of her are visible the legs of a girl who might be about 10. Perhaps a young woman.  Higher resolution would help.

But old women, there are none.  If this is a scene of the mass execution of Jews, however, then old Jews would be executed along with younger ones.  In fact, as there was an evacuation of Jews eastward in front of the German advance, it was predominantly old and poor Jews (who lacked economic or military significance, and so who would have been unable to contribute to the Soviet war effort if evacuated, and unable to contribute to the German war effort if left behind) who were abandoned to be executed by the Einsatzgruppen.  Thus, if this is a scene of Jewish women being executed, not only would we expect to see some old women, we would expect to see a preponderance of old women.  And if it is a scene of a de-lousing or other medical procedure, then again we would expect to see the old being treated along with the young.  It is only if these are Ukrainian women being screened for deportation to Germany that old women would be excluded.

The bottom line

Such alternative interpretations as the above are not presented here as certainties.  It is merely pointed out that the interpretation that the Waiting in Line photograph is one of mass killing presents difficulties, and that other interpretations might present fewer difficulties.

At the very least, it must be admitted that the Waiting in Line photograph is ambiguous.  The photographer apparently did not take the trouble to provide disambiguation by pointing his camera farther to the right if trailing the women were a bunch of armed guards, then this would strengthen the interpretation of mass execution; if no armed guards, then this would strengthen the interpretation of a harmless procedure.  And neither does the photographer appear to have taken the trouble to point his camera farther to the left which would have permitted us to see whether what awaited the women was a burial pit or something like a tent for medical screening.

Anyone pursuing the meaning of the Waiting in Line photograph would of course question whether it had at any time been cropped to exclude such peripheral information.  The leftmost mother and daughter give the impression of gazing at something just in front of them which, were we permitted to see it too, might reveal to us the secret of what was happening but maddeningly, and suspiciously, our gaze is not allowed to travel farther left than the daughter's elbow.

And more importantly, anyone pursuing the meaning of the Waiting in Line photograph would go on to question whether other photographs from the same series, and which did provide such peripheral information, might have been suppressed.

Reflecting further on the photographer, there occurs the possibility that at the time of the photograph, his position would be at the rim of the ravine where to the men below he would appear silhouetted against the sky, and thus where he would be readily noticed and his photographing stopped and his film confiscated.  If he was not stopped, then perhaps this can be explained by the men below understanding their actions to be blameless.

The present statement should not be taken as a denial that mass shootings of civilians, especially of Jews, took place in Ukraine, as it appears to be indubitable that they did take place.  However, neither should it be denied that the Jewish holocaust has been the subject of wholesale misrepresentation, of which the present Waiting in Line photograph may well be one small instance.

Lubomyr Prytulak