Massacre of the children of Byelaya Tserkov

Field Marshal von Reichenau with Hitler in Russia during Barbarossa.

The work of the Einsatzgruppen was continuing apace as they followed the German army through Russia. Their method of operating was gradually evolving – at first the murder of Jews had been concentrated on men of influence, then all men, then women began to be included as a matter of course. In the town of Byelaya Tserkov in the Ukraine they had murdered the men and women, shooting them on the rifle ranges of a local barracks. This left behind the children. Around ninety young children were kept locked up in an old building without food or water whilst the Germans tried to decide what to do with them.

This was just one incident amongst the multitude of other horrific crimes being perpetrated in the East. Probably no record would have been kept of the incident until the distress of the children became known to a local Wehrmacht unit, the 295th Infantry Division. A member of this unit complained to his Roman Catholic army chaplain who visited the house and submitted a report on what had been found.

The report went all the way up the line to Field Marshal von Reichenau, commander of the 6th Army. He was dismissive of the incident:

The conclusion of the report in question contains the following sentence, “In the case in question, measures against women and children were undertaken which in no way differ from atrocities carried out by the enemy about which the troops are continually being informed”.

I have to describe this assessment as incorrect, inappropriate and impertinent in the extreme. Moreover this comment was written in an open communication which passes through many hands.

It would have been far better if the report had not been written at all.

The documents provide valuable evidence of not only the work of the Einsatzgruppen but also the extent to which general units of the Wehrmacht were aware of what was happening.

Later that day the decision was made to shoot all the children and SS-Obersturmfuhrer August Hafner was a witness to what happened:

I went to the woods alone. The Wehrmacht had already dug a grave. The children were brought along in a tractor. I had nothing to do with this technical procedure. The Ukrainians were standing around trembling. The children were taken down from the tractor. They were lined up along the top of the grave and shot so that they fell into it.

The full account does not make easy reading but can be found at the Nizkor Project.

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