The Nazis committed worse horrors, but the activities of the extermination camps were kept secret. They made no bones about Babi Yar.
Seventy-five years ago this September, one of the most cold-blooded atrocities of the second world war was committed by the Nazis at the ravines of Babi Yar in Kiev.
Below is an extract from my novel MAGNETITE (appearing in serial form on-line). This is fiction, but the historical facts are exact.
There had been some acts of sabotage in the city, which everybody understood to be the work of the communist partisans, which must have included Jews. As far as Rudi could see, they were like everybody, most were hard-working and honest and all loved telling funny stories. So, he was bemused, to say the least when one late autumn evening, he read one of the many leaflets the Germans put out in public places, to the effect that all Jews of the city of Kyiv and its environs had to come, on Monday the 29th of September 1941 by 8.00 a.m., to the corner of Melnykov and Dokterivsky streets near the Jewish cemetery, with documents, money, valuables, warm clothes, linen etc ... for relocation. Whoever of the Jews, the notice went on, does not obey this order, and is found in another place, for whatever reason, shall be summarily shot. Any citizen who enters an apartment that has been vacated, and takes ownership of items will likewise be shot.
Suddenly he remembered that he had been asked by his team leader to be early for work on that Monday, and he wondered whether he would be working for the relocation movement mentioned on the poster. Once he was in the depot to which he had been assigned, some trucks came and they were ordered to climb aboard, and were taken to the corner of Melnykov and Dokterivsky streets, where already some apprehensive Jews were beginning to collect, loaded with suitcases, bags or bundles. They exchanged glances with each other but scarcely said a word. He had somehow gathered that something even more sinister than deportation was afoot.
There were enough people, men, women and children, to fill the Lobanovsky Dynamo Stadium twice over, gathered in the area, and they were ordered to line up and proceed along Melnykov Street in the direction of Kurenivka. They were accompanied by a large number of armed Einsatzkommando. Every now and then, a soldier shot someone for no apparent reason, and the sight of the corpses on the road must have struck terror in the breast of everybody. They walked in silence, full of foreboding, and Rudi was ordered to follow in the truck. They overshot Kurenivka and in the distance ahead, they could catch a glimpse of the ravines of Babi Yar. Babi Yar! Where he and Anton and other friends used to play cowboys and Injuns. They had spent days there during the school holidays, he knew every ridge, every dip, every rock. It had been a place of fun. What were they going to turn it into? By now everybody had realised that the Nazis had a whole new meaning for the word relocation. Rudi realised that he was powerless to do anything. He was no hero. He might even be a coward. He kept marching, hoping that it was not going to be as bad as he feared. First the Jews had to deposit their belongings in a large cordoned area, after which they had to take off their shoes and all their clothes including underwear, after which they were taken to the ledge. He saw someone he had seen at Naberezhne Shose and knew as Standardtenführer Paul Blobel who seemed to be in charge of the operations, give the nod to a team of subalterns, and they in turn gave the order to their team of trigger-happy shooters with machine guns to start the execution. As the victims fell on the ground lifeless or dying, other members of the Einsatzcommando pushed them down the ravine with their feet. They did this with an incomprehensible viciousness, as if it were the dead who were the guilty men. The sound of gunfire would not cease for a single second until it was dark on that dark day in September. Rudi would always be shocked when he remembered how, in view of its enormity, the massacre generated such little wailing and screaming. They were stunned into silence, he thought.
He watched this scene in a state of shock. Someone pushed a bottle of vodka towards his mouth and he took a swill. At first he thought he was going to be sick, but a second gulp put him right. Some people in his group seemed just as shocked as he was, but there were others who seemed to be enjoying the spectacle, like something they would like to tell their grandchildren some day. Yes kids, your granddad was there at Babi Yar, on that great day when we shot thirty thousand “Zhids” and buried them in the ravine. The order came that Rudi and his team, provided with pistols, were to go down among the dead and dying and finish off those who had not yet died. In later years, every time Rudi remembered that day, the people he had finished off, although he knew that he was putting them out of their misery, he would feel sick in the stomach, and six decades later, he still had nightmares.
He had no choice. Had he refused to obey orders, he would have joined the thirty thousand; maybe he would have been better off. As he descended down the ravine he was assailed by images of him scrambling down there in his carefree childhood days, and he felt guilty of committing a crime against childhood. With trembling footsteps he approached his first victim and shot him as he raised his head with a look of entreaty in his eyes. He shot about twenty more telling himself that he was carrying out an act of kindness, avoiding them a prolonged agony or stopping them being buried alive. He will swear to his dying days that he experienced no thrill of any sort. He had wished that a man had many lives, so he could have allowed one of his to be used in an act of defiance against those Nazi murderers, but you have only one life, and he did not have the wherewithals to be a hero of the Soviet Union.
At first Rudi had not been able to believe the evidence of his own eyes when he caught sight of Anton There he was, his big hero of a brother, laughing his head off, armed with a Luger, shooting Jews in the head and kicking them down the ravine with the same gusto as he used to kick a ball into the goalmouth of the opposing team. He was enjoying himself and relishing every moment. How could he?
* * * * * *
That night, Rudi slept not a wink. He had a temperature of 41, and was delirious. He kept seeing the images of the day. His German officer had warned them against taking a day off on the next day; you haven’t seen nothing yet, he added with a laugh, there is more vermin to exterminate. Father was so worried that he sent for Anton, but the moment the older brother came into the room, Rudi became more disturbed, shouting, I don’t want to die, tell him not to shoot me, Father. Anton laughed, and said, silly boy, I ain’t shooting nobody, I am Anton, your loving brother. Rudi was sure he saw a gun in his hand and that he was going to put a bullet in his head. He was terrified, and buried his head in Mama’s breast. Mama, help me, tell this man to go away. Father explained that the boy had been worried about going to work. Tell him not to worry his silly little head, he told Father, what’s the point of having a powerful brother if he will let small things like that worry him? he asked. Later when Dima came to visit, he was almost lucid. When the two were left alone, Dima said that he had made plans for them.
‘We are going down the Dniepr to Odessa.’
‘There will be Germans all over the place,’ Rudi said, but hope was already…
The novel appears in serialised form @: http://magnetitebook.com/
The illustration is not of Babi Yar, but of a similar feature in Scotland