Photos can speak a thousand words but sometimes it is unclear what they said. Take the above photo for instance. In 1993, Time magazine published it with the caption, “Jewish girl raped by Ukrainians in Lvov, Poland, in 1945.” An angry outcry by the Ukrainian community followed, and Time magazine had to issue a retraction and an apology. The fact was that the photo was one of the pictures with a murkier history to come out of the Second World War.
The photo was not taken in 1945 but in 1941 in Lvov (its Russian name), or Lviv (its name today), Ukraine, shortly after the Germans captured the city from the Soviets on June 30. The photo is one of a series showing women being stripped, harassed and chased by civilians as chaos led to rapes, pogroms and killings. Some scholars claimed that the women in the photo were Jewish victims of the pogroms in Lvov. The Germans spread rumors that Jews were responsible for the murders of several thousand political prisoners found in the cellars of Soviet NKVD buildings, thus fueling the hatred and the acts of revenge against local Jews that followed.
Other historians insist that the majority of the women pictured in the series of photographs were mistresses the Soviets abandoned when they fled Lvov to escape the German troops. The defenseless collaborators were then attacked by resentful residents for consorting with the Soviet enemy. Some suggests the Nazis orchestrated the entire scene to shoot a propaganda film. Some said the women were not raped, but merely public denounced. Over the years, the perpetrators of the atrocities depicted on the photo included the Soviets, the Ukrainians, the SS and local anti-Semites. Yet, even the Jewishness of the women depicted was called into question, and alas, we will never know.
However, the photo remains prominently in many history textbooks, their respective writers’ narratives and assumptions often belying the true mystery behind it. Time-Life: History of the Second World War (1989) captioned it, “A rape victim in the city of Lvov cries out in rage and anguish as an older woman comforts her. Anti-Semitic citizens rounded up 1,000 Jews andover to the Germans. Life: World War II (1990) also used it, in the chapter titled “1941 Rape of Russia.”