IWM's Head of Public History, James Bulgin, presented and acted as a historical advisor on How the Holocaust Began, which first aired on BBC Two in January 2023. The television documentary explores what happened after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and at least 1 million Jewish men, women and children and an unknown number of Roma were killed, largely in mass shootings.
For many, the image that comes to mind when we hear the word 'Holocaust' is that of death camps like Auschwitz. However, this documentary exposes how the death camps were in fact just part of a wider process; before they were established over a million Jewish people were victims of mass shootings and buried in trenches and ditches in fields and forests across eastern Europe.
James - who was Content Lead for The Holocaust Galleries at IWM London during their development - takes on the role of investigator. He meets image analyst Chris Going, whose knowledge of wartime aerial photography allows him to find the traces of mass shootings by mining a long-overlooked resource - 1.5 million Luftwaffe air photos of the Eastern front. James also meets a team of investigators led by two landscape archaeologists from the US, who are applying their decades of experience and forensic expertise to finding the lost victims of the Holocaust. Each summer they bring teams of students to try and locate hundreds of lost mass graves, one site at a time.
As James follows the trail of the Einsatzgruppen, he also explores how much local help the SS received in the lands they occupied. He meets the leader of Lithuania's remaining Jewish community, Faina Kukliansky, whose own grandmother was murdered along with more than 2,000 others in a forest outside the town of Alytus. In a neighbouring village, he meets local eyewitness, 97-year-old Ona, who as a child watched her own neighbours murder the entire local Jewish population in one day. And he talks to Lithuanian writer and historian, Ruta Vanagaite, who has spent years trying to write about the extent of her nation's complicity in the Holocaust.
In the final chapter of the story, James explores the role of death camps and how the gas chamber came to replace the mass shootings.
More from James Bulgin
How did the Holocaust Happen?
See James and IWM curator Lauren Willmott explain how persecution led to genocide, highlighting some of the powerful stories presented in the Holocaust Galleries at IWM London.
Teacher Guide: Preparing to Teach the Holocaust
James also featured in a series of learning resources aimed at helping teachers support teachers in their teaching of the Holocaust to secondary school students.