The scene: A city street, somewhere in Ukraine. A line of civilians stretches out of the frame, force-marched by soldiers with arms at the ready. It’s easy to imagine the distant crackle of machine-gun fire, or terrifying rumors of what’s taking place on the outskirts of town. If you’ve been following the war in Ukraine, you’ve probably seen such scenes yourself. In an age when viral images are as potent as cluster bombs, bystander-shot footage is arguably the defining visual medium of the current conflict.
That’s why a little-known incident from a previous war—the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941—feels so prescient. Back then, a handful of snapshots might have helped vulnerable Jewish populations prepare for, if not evade, the coming Holocaust. Instead, those images, which now reside in the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), became a mere footnote, a reminder of what’s changed since then—and what hasn’t.
The story begins in 1939, when Axis-aligned Hungary accepted a “gift” from a magnanimous Adolf Hitler: the region of Czechoslovakia then known as Carpatho-Ukraine. But the Hungarians faced a dilemma: The actual number of ethnic Hungarians—on whom the annexation was predicated—was outnumbered by that of Jews, mainly the Orthodox ones, who were particularly ripe targets of antisemitism. And the new Hungarian commissioner, Miklós Kozma, wanted them out.
As Randolph Braham documented in The Politics of Genocide, an encyclopedic account of the Holocaust in Hungary, these luckless Jews were consigned to a sort of stateless limbo. But in 1941, the German-led invasion suggested an opportunity to outsource the problem. Reasoning that the removal of these rural Jews would raise few eyebrows back home, the Hungarian authorities rounded up entire communities, packed them into trains, and took them east to a collection point at Kőrösmező, on the very edge of German-occupied Ukraine. As survivors would later recall, there they joined thousands of other deportees rounded up for lack of documentation—many of them Jews who had fled Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland for Hungary—and were either marched, taken by truck or, in an awful foreshadowing, by cattle car to Kamianets-Podilskyi, ninety miles east.
German and Hungarian troops had occupied the picturesque fortress town in mid-July. One of their first actions was to round up some sixty Jewish men, march them to the quaint Old Town and shoot them there against the ancient stone walls. Soon the town’s Jewish population was confined to a hastily prepared ghetto. Overcrowded and lacking basic sanitary services, it was already a place of abject misery. Now, as the Carpatho-Ukrainian refugees arrived, it became a nightmare.
Members of a Hungarian Army unit passed through town in mid-August; their testimony was later published in The Einsatzgruppen Reports, an account by Yitzak Arad-Shmuel and Krakowski-Shmuel Spector. The soldiers described entire families literally crawling on the road, collapsed from hunger and fatigue. Women in rags begging for bread, their faces festooned with garish red lipstick in a hideous parody of a come-on, ready to give anything for a bite to eat. Bloated corpses lay here and there on the banks of the nearby Smotrych River; the water was manifestly unsafe.
By late August, some 16,000 Hungarian Jews had joined the thousands already crammed into the ghetto. Ironically, the Germans didn’t even want them: The SS demanded that Hungary halt the deportations until a solution could be found. It came in the form of Higher SS and Police Leader Friedrich Jeckeln, who arrived in Kamianets-Podilskyi on August 26, 1941, to personally conduct the coming Aktion.
With German Police Battalions, Ukrainian Police Auxiliary and Einsatzgruppen units under his command, Jeckeln ordered the more able-bodied inhabitants of the ghetto taken to the flat fields outside town, where they dug a number of large pits. Beginning early in the morning on August 27, troops began rousting the inhabitants of the ghetto, loading them into trucks or marching them to the outskirts of town. From here it was only a short walk out into the fields.
Over the course of just two days, the Germans and their proxies killed some 23,600 Jews at Kamianets-Podilskyi. It marked a grim milestone: the first mass killing of the Holocaust to reach five digits.
But here’s where the story takes on a distinctly modern cast. In mid-1941, photos taken by German military personnel and circulated privately, if at all, were the only hard evidence of such killings. But a Hungarian transport unit passed through Kamianets-Podilskyi in late August, and a truck driver named Gyula Spitz saw what was happening. Spitz acted quickly: Positioning his camera so that it was half-hidden behind the steering wheel, he snapped a handful of photographs of the refugees on their final march.
Spitz was a taxi driver in civilian life, but he was something unusual in the Hungarian military: A Jew. Jews were technically barred from military service, but for whatever reason–whether simple clerical error or the Army’s dire need of personnel–Spitz remained with his unit and witnessed at least the preamble to the killings. According to the USHMM, Spitz served in this capacity from 1940 to 1942, and it’s speculated that he may have received preferential treatment because he was transporting goods plundered from Axis-occupied territory.
Spitz wasn’t the only one to witness the killings. Gábor Mermelstein, another Hungarian Jew serving as a truck driver, was actually an eyewitness. Alerted by weeping local women to what was happening, he went to investigate. Mermelstein, quoted in The Politics of Genocide, later said:
“We were passing a row of maple trees…suddenly we glanced at a square-shaped ditch, at all four sides of which people were standing. Hundreds of innocent people were machine-gunned down. I’ll never forget what I saw and felt: the scared faces, the men, women and children marching into their own graves without resistance.”
What happened next—and what didn’t—is a tragedy in and of itself. A few stragglers from the deportation managed to make it back to Hungary, and Mermelstein himself went home on leave at least twice. It’s plausible if not probable that they told family and close friends about what they’d seen. And Spitz’s photographs made it back to Hungary, though it’s impossible to say what effect they had. One Hungarian deportee, Rabbi Baruch Jehoszua Rachmiel Rabinowicz, later testified that he saw photographs of the killing site taken by “Hungarian officers.” But it’s not known whether these were Spitz’s photos, or if they were even taken at Kamianets-Podilskyi.
What is certain is this: Evidence of Hungary’s outsourced killings in Ukraine filtered back home, both in the form of Spitz’s photos and testimony from deportees who’d managed to give their guards the slip. But lacking social media or other channels of rapid dissemination, the story essentially died there.
Could things have been different? Probably not. Even before the Germans occupied Hungary in March of 1944, eyewitness accounts of Auschwitz had reached Budapest.
But leaders of the German-appointed Jewish Council, either disbelieving the reports or fearful of stoking panic, buried or ignored them. As a result, Hungary’s Jewish population was completely unprepared for what was to come. When deportations began that spring, roughly 434,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to Auschwitz in the span of only fifty-six days. Gyula Spitz, the truck driver who’d captured evidence of what was being done in his country’s name, would himself perish at the death facility at Mauthausen. His son, Ivan Sved, later donated the photographs from Kamianets-Podilskyi to the USHMM.
What’s changed since then? Today, the ubiquity of cell phones and drones puts the tools of documentation into everyone’s hands. But as a result, we’re so flooded with content it’s hard to determine what’s meaningful and what’s noise, or even to know what is real (as in the case of deep fake footage of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky supposedly urging Ukrainian troops to surrender). Eighty years ago, photographs were the gold standard in evidentiary matters. But as the story of what happened—and what didn’t happen—at Kamianets-Podilskyi illustrates, even when the evidence is incontrovertible, we often don’t act until it’s far too late.
Top photo: German guards oversee the assembly of Jews in Kamenets-Podolsk prior to their transportation to a site outside of the city for execution on August 27, 1941. Photo taken by Gyula Spitz in secret. Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Ivan Sved.