A Closer look at a German "Atrocity Photo"

Published: 1999-02-14

German with rifle shooting at woman croppedGerman with rifle shooting at woman uncropped


The following list is of various versions of the famous photograph which shows (in its cropped version) a German (?) soldier sighting in his rifle in the standing position, allegedly about to shoot a woman who is clasping a baby to her breast and facing away from him.

The uncropped version gives a different scenario, and the comments below are offered after brief examination.

Many thanks to Mark Weber of the IHR (Institute for Historical Review) for locating copies of the photo and sources where it has been published. People seeking specialized info like this should not hesitate to call on IHR for help. They have the double treasures of a large library of reference materials, and Mark Weber's impressive store of personal knowledge and files regarding the Holocaust and WWII history in general, particularly from the German point of view.

This is an evolving set of photos and comments, revised as better copies were obtained. Arrangement is chronological, newest photos and comments at the top. All graphics are JPEG format, 300dpi, varying degrees of accuracy, including a ridiculous 8.6 MB version.

3/20/99: USHMM; Adds Two Rifles, One Body

German with rifle — additional rifles
The photo used to be displayed on the USHMM Website, but has been (re?)moved since (http://www.ushmm.org/kovno/mass/mass.htm, 3/20/99)

2/19/99: Centerfold Minimized, Full Left Side Inserted

Arguably best screen view of picture, slight sepia tone.

  1. Large – 67K
  2. Medium – 45K
Notes, 2/19/99:
  1. The object to the right is certainly not a weapon, as guessed earlier. Perhaps it is a small cart or wheelbarrow.
  2. At least one person appears to be standing in a hole, perhaps removing a stone. If, as the Time-Life caption says, they are digging agrave, where is the removed material? Why would they scatter it about rather than piling it right next to the hole?

2/18/99: Better Quality Copy

From Time-Life, WWII, 1967, with a slice missing in the centerfold that will be added later. Corrects several misassumptions above:

Notes, 2/18/99:
  1. The group to the right is two or three men, some shovels and an object I cannot identify. The Time-Life text says that they are digging a grave for the woman.
  2. It now appears that the soldier was added, the woman, probably. Again, note the absence of shadows on her face, neck and legs as compared to the soldier.

More comments to follow.

  1. Full size, high quality – 8.8 Meg
  2. Half size, med. quality – 190K
  3. Quarter size, med. quality
  4. Eighth size, med. quality

2/14/99: First Comments on the Photos

Notes, 2/14/99:
  1. The item on the far right may be a machine gun or small cannon with fold-out shields. The person crouching appears to be a soldier.
  2. Note the shadow cast by the thin vertical item (shield from end-on view), and then study the shadows on the other characters, particularly the woman. Note that the back right side of her face is not in deep shadow, as are the other two. Also, the crouching man and the bundle next to him cast a proper shadow, but the woman and the standing soldier cast none. The soldier might be standing behind a raised ridge of earth, hiding his shadow, but no so the woman. You can also see a light line denoting the bottom edge of her sleeve, on a dark dress in shadow. The "raised ridge of earth" could also be the marker line where the photo of the soldier was superimposed on a larger picture.
  3. The woman's right heel projects back too far, and is solid black as if it were a shadow. Note the white line around the heel of the raised right foot.
  4. Lay a straight-edge along the rifle barrel and note that it either misses entirely or barely intersects the top of her head. If the rifleman had his sling on, you might be able to claim that he's settling down into the shot, a normal aiming procedure. But without the sling, the normal way of sighting is to raise into the sight picture. The sling produces an over-tight brace that you must lower your arm into for it to be effective, you have to move down to pull against its force. With no sling, you're just lifting a weight, and you have to pull up against the force. You would always be opposing a retarding force on the gun barrel when moving into a sight picture, not going with any force since that will encourage over or under shooting.
  5. Compare the size of the soldier's head and the woman's. Hers (and the crouching person's too) is 20% or more larger. She seems to be standing closer to the camera than the soldier, but not that much.

My take on this is that the woman was added to a photo that included the items on the right and may or may not have included the soldier. What is fairly certain, even it the whole thing is real, is that he's not shooting at the woman and child.

David Thomas, 2/16/99

All the pictures are in JPEG or jpg format, 300 dpi, with quality levels varying from 100% to 25% for "reduced quality." The original scan was made on a German language brochure using blue ink and thin paper, criticizing Goldhagen and Spielberg. The thin paper caused the letters on the reverse side to appear in the sky and no attempt was made to remove them on the first pass. All the pictures with "2" in their address name have had these ghost letters removed. Don't attach any significance to the shape of the horizon line on these, it just reflects the hand-drawn selection of the area that was modified. Ditto any fine distinctions of the profiles of the people in the sky area, ignore the fine area close to them that has a slightly different texture as that is left over from the modification.

Cropped and Uncropped Versions, with text, original blue:

  1. Full size, full quality, blue – 2,798K
  2. Same as above, gray scale – 2,300K
  3. Full size, reduced quality, blue – 204K
  4. Same as above, gray scale – 187K
  5. Half size, reduced quality – 58K

Uncropped Version Only, gray-scale, text in sky removed:

  1. Full size, full quality – 635K
  2. Full size, reduced quality – 49K
  3. Half size, full quality – 158K
  4. Half size, reduced quality – 16K

Among the many books in which this photo has appeared:

  1. The Holocaust, Martin Gilbert, 1979, pp82-83 (Uncropped)
  2. Genocide: The Jews in Europe 1939-45, Ballantine (Cropped?)
  3. Hitler's Willing Executioners, D. Goldhagen (Cropped)
  4. Time-Life Books, WWII, The Nazis, 1967 (Uncropped)
  5. This Century, Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster, 1998, p260 (Cropped)

A typical caption reads:

"A member of the Einsatzgruppen targets a mother and child at point-blank range. Women were often ordered to hold their children so that one bullet could do the work of two." – This Century

A Further Modified Version of the Cropped Picture

The cropped picture, as shown on page 260 of This Century has shadows added to the rifleman and the woman, shadows that go the wrong way, directly into the source of light clearly indicated by both the uncropped version and also by features in the cropped photo to which they were added. This explains the dark blobs that appear at the bottom of the cropped version in the first listing above. With these shadows added, the perspective is shifted so that now it appears even more as if the soldier is aiming at the woman's head. Also, with the shadow now around her feet it becomes even more obvious that the woman is not standing on the ground because of the distinct white border at the bottom. From the poor quality photocopy I have of the uncropped picture shown in Gilbert's book, the shadows appear to be shown there as well. An attempt will be made to access the book and scan in the photo from there.

"Shadows added" version – 20K

Additional information about this document
Property Value
Author(s): David Thomas
Title: A Closer look at a German "Atrocity Photo"
Published: 1999-02-14
First posted on CODOH: Feb. 12, 1999, 6 p.m.
Last revision:
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