As the German military occupied much of eastern and western Europe, many German soldiers carried cameras with them. These soldiers often took photographs to document their experiences on the front. Despite Nazi regulations that aimed to limit photographs of mass killings, some troops also kept photos of atrocities as mementos of their activities in eastern Europe.1
This photograph was one of roughly 500 taken by Fritz Heinze, an amateur photographer and a member of the German Landesschützen, the rear security unit of the Germany army in eastern Europe.2 These photos were taken with his personal camera between 1941 and 1944, making a kind of a visual war diary. Dated August 1941, the featured photo shows prisoners held overnight in a greenhouse as they await execution in Zwiahel, Ukraine. The caption written on the back of the photograph explains, "They are waiting for their death, Jewish, Polish, Ukrainian women and children (from infants to old women) are confined in a greenhouse because the pits were inadequate for the many shootings. That came on another day." Other images taken by Heinze focus on more mundane pieces of daily life—interactions with fellow soldiers and local scenery.
The framing of this unsettling image was unusual for both amateur and personal photographs, reflecting Heinze's skill as a photographer. Visually striking, it raises questions about the victims, their treatment, and the photographer's perspective. Attempting to penetrate the thick windows, Heinze's camera depicts the individuals locked in the greenhouse. The darkened windows appear to keep the reality of the coming execution and its victims partially concealed. The image reveals only traces of the faces and bodies of those inside.
Heinze's arm just barely appears in a window pane, perhaps reflecting his position as a witness to—and in some respects a participant in—the violence in Zwiahel. Although Heinze's motives for taking this photo are unknown, the image captures the eyewitness perspective of an individual German soldier whose unit was involved in the mass murder of civilians.