After the war there were many arguments that the Allies could have done more to bomb the Nazi death camps. It was argued that it should have been possible to breach the perimeter wires and enable inmates to escape, or to blow up the crematoria, putting a halt to the killings. Although the Allies had a lot of evidence of the Nazi programme to kill Jews, and others, by 1944, there was no strategic plan to save people, either by bombing or other means. It was argued that the best course of action to help the Jews was to seek to bring the war to a close as soon as possible.
There would have been many difficulties in accurately bombing the camps. Although many claims were made for the “precision bombing” at the time all the evidence shows that this was very difficult to achieve, and impossible to achieve consistently.
There is one example of what could have happened had the Allies chosen to to bomb the concentration camps. Semlin (Sajmište in Serbian) Judenlager was established by the Germans in Serbia in 1941 and first used for the killing women and children using gas vans in the spring of 1942. Thereafter it was used to detain political prisoners and anyone else caught up in the Nazi persecution in Serbia, where it was the largest camp.
The USAAF bombed Belgrade on 17th April 1944, Semlin was not part of the area targeted but it was hit. Bombs hit the camp and the perimeter fence, enabling some inmates to attempt to escape. The outcome was not what the inmates would have sought. This is the account of Dr Dragomir Stevanović:
On the second day of Easter, we found ourselves in what felt like the middle of Mount Etna, or a scorching geyser. Above and below us everything shuddered, flared, and burned, while we suffocated in clouds of dust and smoke. I lived through the [German] bombing of April 1941, but it was never like this. The square [in the middle of the camp] was covered with corpses and torn bodies, and the sand was saturated with fresh and coagulated blood: a real carnage! We lost around 190 people.
Besides the dead, there were several hundred wounded, so the surviving pavilions were turned into hospitals. There were no beds, and certainly no bandages or surgical equipment, although we did have several doctors and surgeons among the interns …
[…] During the bombing, the fence was damaged and a number of concrete poles that were holding it in place were dislodged. Several groups of interns tried to escape. However, because of the bareness of the terrain leading towards the River Sava and to Zemun, they were all mowed down by gunfire. Their bodies were brought back to the camp. We never found out how many died.
Nazi Germany had occupied its ally Hungary in March. Learning of the imminent arrival of Hungarian Jews for the gas chambers of Auschwitz, two of the more experienced prisoners now made a desperate attempt to warn the outside world. Rudolf “Rudi” Vrba (born Walter Rosenberg, Vrba was the name given to him by the Slovak resistance) and Alfred Wetzler (Fred in Vrba’s account) had planned their attempt for some time. They were to take with them evidence of the extermination facilities.
They knew they stood little chance of getting completely away from the camp in one move. They therefore chose to hide in a cavity within a pile of planks that lay in the work area of the camp. For this they needed the assistance of a few other prisoners. After a last minute encounter with an SS guard, who nearly searched him, Rudolf Vrba found the hiding place:
I could see the wood now and the Poles on top of it, apparently working. Fred was there, too, and the three of them gaped a little when they saw me, for they felt sure I was already in the punishment block. Nobody spoke, however. The Poles moved the planks and gave us an almost imperceptible nod.
This was it. For a moment we both hesitated, for we knew that, once we were covered up, there was no going back. Then together we skipped quickly up on top of the wood and slid into the hole. The planks moved into place over our heads, blotting out the light; and there was silence. Our eyes soon got used to the gloom and we could see each other in the light that ﬁltered through the cracks. We hardly dare to breath, let alone to talk.
I took out my powdery Russian tobacco and began pulling it into the narrow spaces which separated some of the planks, while Fred sat, watching me in the gloom.
It took me at least an hour to impregnate our temporary prison thoroughly with dog repellant. Then I sat down, leaned against the rough, wooden wall and concentrated on some positive thinking. I forced my mind away from all thoughts of discovery and told myself over and over again: “There’ll be no more rolls calls. No more work. No more kow-towing to S.S. men. Soon you’ll be free !”
Free – or dead. I felt the keen blade of my knife and swore to myself that, if they found me, they would never get me out of the cavity alive. Time stood still. I glanced at the watch which had nearly cost me my life and saw that it was only half past three. The alarm would not be raised until ﬁve thirty and suddenly I realised I was longing to hear it. I felt like a boxer, sitting in his corner, waiting for the bell, or like a soldier in the trenches, waiting to go over the top. I feared the wail of that siren. Yet I could not bear the waiting. I wanted the battle to begin.
We could not stand up and became cramped sitting. We did not dare to talk and that made time hang even more heavily. The movements of the camp, movements we both knew by heart, drifted faintly into our hole in the wood, but somehow it all seemed far away in time, as well as in distance, for already my mind was free in advance of my body.
For the next hour I kept glancing at my watch, holding it to my ear occasionally to see whether it had stopped. Then I disciplined myself to ignore it, grinning in the dark as I thought fatuously of my mother in her kitchen back home, shaking her ﬁnger at me and saying solemnly: “A watched pot never boils!”
In fact it was never necessary for me to look at my watch, for the noises in the camp outside told me roughly what time it was. At last, after what seemed a week, I heard the tramp of marching feet and at once every ﬁbre was alert. The prisoners were coming back from work. Soon they would be lining up in their neat rows of ten for roll call. Soon we would be missed; and then there would be the siren, the baying of the dogs, the clatter of S.S. jack boots.
We heard the distant orders, faint, disembodied, like lonely barking at night. We saw in our minds the entire scene which would never be part of our lives again. The rigid rows of the living. The silent piles of the dead. The kapos and block leaders, snapping at their charges, fussing, panicking. The S.S., aloof, superior, totting up their units.
Vrba and Wetzler were to lie in their hideout, concealed within the woodpile for three days. They knew from previous escape attempts that the SS would maintain their guards around the outer perimeter for this period, whilst repeated searches were made of the area inside and outside the perimeter. Their defences against dogs sniffing them out were put to the test on several occasions during the next there days. Finally on the 10th they emerged and managed to make their way across country back to their home in Slovakia. They arrived on the 25th April and had written their report by the 27th. Having passed on the report to the underground Slovak Jewish Council, further action was out of their hands.
The report did not arrive in time to prevent the first transports of Jews from Hungary, which began in mid May 1944. Nevertheless it was instrumental in the deportations later being halted by the Hungarian government on 7th July, saving the lives of over 120,000 – 200,000 Jews. The report was first published in the USA in November 1944.
The photograph was taken by Lt Charles Barry of the 60 (Photoreconnaissance Squadron), South African Air Force (SAAF), operating from San Severo, Italy. He and his navigator Lt Ian McIntyre made the long trip in an unarmed de Havilland Mosquito IX aircraft and were over the target at an altitude of 26 000 feet [7 925 m] for a period of four minutes in the early afternoon.
Ian and I began our first photographic run from west to east, if memory serves correctly. He immediately advised me that the port camera was not working (the two long focal length cameras were mounted in tandem to give overlapping lateral coverage). This gave us a total lateral coverage of about 5 miles [8 km] on the 20 inch [50 cm] cameras. It was unhealthy to hang around with a second run in an unarmed aircraft because of possible enemy interception. Nevertheless we decided to do two runs instead of one to ensure positive coverage. Ian left the cameras running longer than usual and I believe that the over-run on the east to west run pulled in something of the death camp later known as Auschwitz.
You may also be interested to know that we had no inkling of the camp being there, and it wasn’t until the Holocaust Revisited report was published in 1979 that I and my surviving colleagues from 60 Squadron realised that we had unknowingly been involved in identifying the death camp.
This was just the first of a number of photographic missions over Auschwitz. At the time the main interest of the Allies was the industrial complex itself, rather than the concentration camp and the extermination facilities. However after the war the photographs were the subject of some scrutiny. The CIA concluded it would not have been possible to identify the killing centre from the evidence of the photograph alone:
On the photography of 4 April 1944, a small vehicle was identified in a specially secured annex adjacent to the Main Camp gas chamber. Eyewitness accounts describe how prisoners arriving in Auschwitz-Birkenau, not knowing they were destined for extermination, were comforted by the presence of a “Red Cross ambulance.” In reality, the SS used that vehicle to transport the deadly Zyklon-B crystals. Could this be that notorious vehicle? While conclusive proof is lacking, the vehicle was not present on imagery of 25 August and 13 September 1944 after the extermination facility had been converted to an air raid shelter.
By coincidence during the first days of April one of the key survivors, and witnesses, to the horrors of Auschwitz, Filip Muller was to have dealings with this “Red Cross” van.
Some of the prisoners were aware that preparations were being made to receive many people in the gas chambers. There were rumours, from what the guards were saying, that they would soon be receiving people from Hungary, and this was the reason for the expansion of capacity, both for killing and cremation. The news gave added urgency for a planned escape by two inmates. It was hoped that they could take word of the true nature of Auschwitz to the outside world:
The most important piece of evidence which I gave them to take on their journey was one of those labels which were stuck on the tins containing Zyclon B poison gas. I tried for a long time to lay my hands on one of these tins. This was not an easy matter though.
After the ‘disinfecting operators’ had poured the lethal gas crystals into the gas chambers one of them took the empty tins back to their Red Cross ambulance while, as a rule, the other walked over to the changing rooms to see if there was any organizing to be done. Although on several occasions I was quite close to the ambulance, I never managed to grab hold of one of the tins. I was despairing as it looked as though I would never be able to. And then I had an idea.
One day after the ‘disinfecting operators’ had finished their handiwork, I informed Unterscharfuhrer Gorges that we needed two new tins in which to collect gold teeth because the old ones had become rather dented. Not suspecting my ulterior motive he sent me to the Red Cross ambulance in the yard where I proceeded to explain to the two SS men that Unterscharfuhrer Gorges had ordered me to collect two empty tins.
One of them took a couple of tins from the back of the ambulance and handed them to me with the words: ‘There you are, and now scram!’ The text printed on the labels read something like this: Zyclon B poison gas. Cyanogen compound. Danger! Poison .’ Tesch and Stabenov International GMBH. For pest control. To be opened by trained personnel only.
It was difficult to get the labels off without damaging them, and I only managed it partly with one of the tins. Where the paper had been torn and the name and address of the manufacturers become somewhat illegible I made the necessary additions in pencil.
As the Red Army approached from the East the Nazis began to close down the remaining Jewish ghettoes left in eastern Europe. There were tensions within the Nazi high command. Some argued that the remaining Jews were needed as a work force, others were ideologically committed to killing all Jews.
The survivors of the Kovno ghetto, the largest of the Jewish ghettoes established in Lithuania by the Nazis, knew that their only chance of survival lay in being able to provide a useful service to the Germans. The Germans had no space for anyone who could not work – the young, the old and the infirm.
Since 1942 pregnant women were threatened with being shot. Many babies and young children were smuggled out of the ghetto and sent to live with Lithuanian families. Every effort was made to find older children useful employment in the workshops within the ghetto.
Then on the 27th March 1944 the Germans came for the remaining children of the ghetto. The 130 Jewish police within the ghetto were ordered on parade on the pretext of receiving ‘air raid instruction’. Instead they were taken at gunpoint to the 9th Fort, a nearby SS base that had been previously used as an extermination centre. Here they were tortured in an attempt to discover the hiding places for children – about 40 men were eventually shot.
Meanwhile the SS and the Ukrainian militia hunted down the children within the ghetto. Most of the parents were absent, having been marched off for forced labour, part of the daily routine:
After the work brigades were taken out for forced labour the ghetto was surrounded by reinforced guards. Soon lorries full of gestapo guards moved into the ghetto. A car with a loudspeaker was cruising the ghetto; people were warned to stay indoors – he who dared to come out would be shot.
Jewish police ordered to gather for a fire drill were surrounded by SS tommy-gunners.
“Enough! You won’t have a chance to fool Germans any more!” Kitel declared and ordered Jewish police to get into armoured buses. Policeman Levner who refused to obey the order was shot on the spot. Three heavily guarded armoured buses with the Jewish policemen went towards the 9th Fort. Some policemen tried to jump off the vehicles on the move but were caught by machinegun fire.
Everyone who could, tried to hide somewhere – in lofts, in barns and basements. Gestapo bandits searched from house to house. With axes and crowbars they opened up floorboards, walls, searched every suspicious corner – they were looking for people hiding. Children, old and sick people, invalids were taken out of the ghetto in lorries. Bloodthirsty murderers searched house after house and gloated:
“Any kittens left here? “(Germans called children “kittens”…) Mothers who refused to let their children go were badgered with German shepherd [dogs]. To muffle the terrible screams Germans turned on very loud dance and march music and broadcasted it through the loudspeakers on the lorries.
Children were hidden in and under beds. Some had suffocated as a result of that. One woman from Lutaro Street had no place to hide her child. She did the following: wrapped up her child in a tablecloth, tied it up and hung it up on a nail. “When Germans come I shall be quiet” the four-year-old child promised his mother. The child kept quiet even after one of the Germans pushed the parcel and asked what was in it. The boy was saved.
In the camp in Shanchai, Germans managed to carry out their evil “act” with more ease. Here in one place about thirty children were kept. Two executioners came in and started a “game”. Pretending to be bears they tied up children’s hands and took the whole chain out into the bus…
The round-up lasted until evening. Around nine hundred children, old and sick people and invalids were put into lorries and driven under guard to the west. As it became known later the people were taken to Auschwitz where gas chambers and crematorium awaited the unfortunate.
But those figures did not add up. From the available to them data Germans knew that a large number of old people and children had not been found yet. The next day round-ups had resumed. Every suspicious place was carefully searched, hand grenades were thrown into basements and lofts. All newly discovered people were put into lorries and sent to the 9th Fort. In spite of all brutality Germans managed to find only a smaller number of victims the next day – just about two hundred people were caught.
With the German takeover of Italy in September of 1943 conditions rapidly worsened for the Jewish population. Although Mussolini had run anti-semitic policies which made life very difficult for Jews, the Italian state had not pursued and persecuted them with the same zeal as the Nazis. Now Jews were being deported to Germany and to the deaths camps in Poland.
Primo Levi managed to avoid detention for a few months but was caught by the Italian militia after a short spell with the Partisans in the hills. Conditions in his Italian run detention camp were basic but the rations were adequate and the regime was not lethal by design, as in the German camps. All that changed on the 21st February when the Germans took over and deported the Jewish inmates by rail car to Auschwitz.
Levi was sent to Monowitz, one of the Auschwitz sub camps. The average survival time for a Jewish inmate was about three months. To survive meant learning fast about the rules of life and death in this inhuman hell.
Levi was to be an exception because he had the inner strength, and the luck, not only to survive but to live to tell the tale afterwards. His capacity to tell that tale established him as one of the great individual chroniclers of Holocaust:
We had soon learned that the guests of the Lager are divided into three categories: the criminals, the politicals and the Jews. All are clothed in stripes, all are Haftlinge [detainees], but the criminals wear a green triangle next to the number sewn on the jacket; the politicals wear a red triangle; and the Jews, who form the large majority, wear the Jewish star, red and yellow.
SS men exist but are few and outside the camp, and are seen relatively infrequently. Our effective masters in practice are the green triangles, who have a free hand over us, as well as those of the other two categories who are ready to help them – and they are not few.
And we have learnt other things, more or less quickly, according to our intelligence: to reply “Jawohl,” never to ask questions, always to pretend to understand.
We have learnt the value of food; now we also diligently scrape the bottom of the bowl after the ration and we hold it under our chins when we eat bread so as not to lose the crumbs. We, too, know that it is not the same thing to be given a ladleful of soup from the top or from the bottom of the vat, and we are already able to judge, according to the capacity of the various vats, what is the most suitable place to try and reach in the queue when we line up.
We have learnt that everything is useful: the wire to tie up our shoes, the rags to wrap around our feet, waste paper to (illegally) pad out our jacket against the cold. We have learnt, on the other hand, that everything can be stolen, in fact is automatically stolen as soon as attention is relaxed; and to avoid this, we had to learn the art of sleeping with our head on a bundle made up of our jacket and containing all our belongings, from the bowl to the shoes.
We already know in good part the rules of the camp, which are incredibly complicated. The prohibitions are innumerable: to approach nearer to the barbed wire than two yards; to sleep with one’s jacket, or without one’s pants, or with one’s cap on one’s head; to use certain washrooms or latrines which are “nur fir Kapos” or “nur fir Reichsdeutsche”; not to go for the shower on the prescribed day, or to go there on a day not prescribed; to leave the hut with one’s jacket unbuttoned, or with the collar raised; to carry paper or straw under one’s clothes against the cold; to wash except stripped to the waist.
The rites to be carried out were infinite and senseless: every morning one had to make the “bed” perfectly flat and smooth; smear one’s muddy and repellent wooden shoes with the appropriate machine grease; scrape the mudstains off one’s clothes (paint, grease and rust-stains were, however, permitted); in the evening one had to undergo the control for lice and the control of washing one’s feet; on Saturday, have one’s beard and hair shaved, mend or have mended one’s rags; on Sunday, undergo the general control for skin diseases and the control of buttons on one’s jacket, which had to be five.
When US Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, the only Jewish member of Roosevelt’s cabinet, tried to establish mechanisms to assist Jews to leave Europe he ran into perceived obstruction from the State Department
Treasury officials John Pehle, Randolph Paul, and Josiah DuBois presented Morgenthau with an 18-page memorandum entitled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of Jews” on January 13, 1944. The report formed the basis for Morgenthau’s discussion with Roosevelt on 16th January:
One of the greatest crimes in history, the slaughter of the Jewish people in Europe, is continuing unabated.
This Government has for a long time maintained that its policy is to work out programs to serve those Jews of Europe who could be saved.
I am convinced on the basis of the information which is available to me that certain officials in our State Department, which is charged with carrying out this policy, have been guilty not only of gross procrastination and wilful failure to act, but even of wilful attempts to prevent action from being taken to rescue Jews from Hitler.
I fully recognize the graveness of this statement and I make it only after having most carefully weighed the shocking facts which have come to my attention during the last several months.
Unless remedial steps of a drastic nature are taken, and taken immediately, I am certain that no effective action will be taken by this government to prevent the complete extermination of the Jews in German controlled Europe, and that this Government will have to share for all time responsibility for this extermination.
Although only part of the facts relating to the activities of the State Department in this field are available to us, sufficient facts have come to my attention from various sources during the last several months to fully support the conclusions at which I have arrived.
(1) State Department officials have not only failed to use the Governmental machinery at their disposal to rescue the Jews from Hitler, but have even gone so far as to use this Governmental machinery to prevent the rescue of these Jews.
The public record, let alone the facts which have not as yet been made pubic, reveals the gross procrastination and wilful failure to act of those officials actively representing this Government in this field.
(a) A long time has passed since it became clear that Hitler was determined to carry out a policy of exterminating the Jews in Europe.
(b) Over a year has elapsed since this Government and other members of the United Nations publicly acknowledged and denounced this policy of extermination; and since the President gave assurances that the United States would make every effort together with the United Nations to save those who could be saved.
(c) Despite the fact that time is most precious in this matter, State Department officials have been kicking the matter around for over a year without producing results; giving all sorts of excuses for delays upon delays; advancing no specific proposals designed to rescue Jews, at the same time proposing that the whole refugee problem be “explored” by this Government and Intergovernmental Committees. While the State Department has been thus “exploring” the whole refugee problem, without distinguishing between those who are in imminent danger of death and those who are not, hundreds of thousands of Jews have been allowed to perish.
As a consequence of the meeting President Roosevelt issued an executive order establishing the War Refugee Board (WRB) on January 22, 1944.
It is the policy of this government to take all measures within its power to rescue the victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death and otherwise to afford such victims all possible relief and assistance consistent with the successful prosecution of the war.
The War Refugee Board is estimated to have save the lives of around 200,000 Jews from eastern Europe by funding emigration.
The Geneva Convention rules governing Prisoners of War differed between officers and ‘other ranks’. Their prison camps operated quite separately in Germany and it was expected that ‘other ranks’ would work. In general their living conditions were a great deal harsher. For an excellent study of how ‘other ranks’ fared in Germany see Sean Longden: Hitler’s British Slaves. What might ordinarily be considered ‘work’ and what the Nazis considered work were two different things.
For Denis Avey, captured in North Africa, conditions were particularly bad. After a series of escape attempts he was marked down as a trouble-maker and sent to labour camp E715 near Auschwitz III. It was a very different existence to the officers in Stalag Luft III. Here Avey was working for the same industrial plant as prisoners from the Auschwitz concentration camp, sometimes working alongside them:
We worked eleven hours a day. Forget everything you have seen in war movies where the men swan around in cricket sweaters, doing a bit of gardening or gym to cover their escape tunnels, smoking pipes and teasing the Germans. It may have been like that in the officers’ camps but for us, the ‘other ranks’, it was hard, physical work, though it was not nearly as hard for us as for the stripeys.
Each day I saw Jews being killed on the factory site. Some were kicked and beaten to death, others simply collapsed and died in the dirt of exhaustion and hunger. I knew the same was happening in every corner of the camp, in every work detail.
These Jews might be able to prolong their lives a little but the outcome was likely to be the same. They weren’t fed enough to survive. Around midday the dreadful cabbage soup arrived. We could barely stomach it, though ours offered some nutrition while the stuff the Jewish prisoners had was little more than stinking water.
From time to time we managed to exaggerate the numbers on our work Kommando to get more soup than we needed. We couldn’t give it directly to the Jews but we left it standing around where they could get to it. If the guards or the Kapos saw them eating our soup they kicked it over to stop them. There was usually a beating.
At the Buna-Werke they sucked the life and labour from each exhausted man and when he was spent, he was sent to be killed. I did not know the names then but they went west, either to the original brick-built camp, Auschwitz One, or the vast new wooden sprawl of Auschwitz-Birkenau. There they would be killed sooner rather than later, many immediately on arrival.
Behind it all stood the SS and the executives of IG Farben itself. The Kapos, the prisoners put in charge of their fellows, became the focus of my anger. They were evil men and many wore the green triangle of the career criminal. Their survival depended on keeping the rest of the prisoners in line. If they lost their privileged job they were friendless and then they didn’t live long.
People talk about man’s inhumanity to man, but that wasn’t human or inhuman — it was bestial. Love and hate meant nothing there. It was indifference. I felt degraded by each mindless murder I witnessed and could do nothing about. I was living in obscenity.
For the Jewish prisoners anything that could be traded or swallowed had value. It might offer them the chance to live a bit longer. They all had to find a niche, a way of securing a few extra calories a day, or they died. The risks for them were enormous.
In Dresden former University professor Victor Klemperer just managed to eke out an existence, surrounded by threats on all sides. He was well aware that many of his friends and neighbours had been sent off to concentration camps after being denounced or for some minor infringement of the numerous laws that governed their lives. Periodically came news that one or other of them had died. As a Jew married to a gentile he had a measure of protection but it was a slender one.
He was required to work but there were a very limited number of places that were permitted to employ Jews. His former employer, Schluter, had got into trouble so he was lucky to find a new job working as an unskilled labourer in a paper and stationary factory. At the same time as he was being spat at in the street for being a Jew, he was employed by a member of the SS. Klemperer describes the unlikely set up in his diary for 11th December 1943:
Bauer said: ”It was a lot of trouble getting you here, because we have enough men, are supposed to hire women. We hit upon the expedient of lending you to the Mobius company. You are on our payroll, you are officially employed by us, no other companies apart from those already authorized to do so are to employ non-Aryans.
My friend Mobius also belongs to the SS, but you need have no fears because of that, his thoughts on these matters are even more radical than mine. Only I beg you, you must not say that you are well off with us. On the contrary, you must complain about bad treatment; otherwise we will get into trouble, and it will be to your detriment above all. Schluter essentially failed because he got a reputation for being favorably disposed to Jews…”
We went to Jagdweg; after a while Bauer also arrived; we were led to our employees’ room; a little later Mobius and Dr. Lang appeared. Mobius also a man in his thirties. When he spoke, he was even friendlier than Bauer; he shook hands with each of us, asked each one as to his profession, when he came to me, he said with a slight bow, that he already knew…
We are now, in all secrecy, given our food gratis, and in all secrecy, potatoes, which Mobius himself has fetched from the country. We get an hourly rate of 68 pfennigs, although we could and should get the 50 pfennigs of the women’s rate.
In this respect I liked Bauer even better than Schluter. Schluter said: ”I do not want my workers to suffer; I have paid them well.”
Bauer said more straightforwardly: “We would gladly pay you even more; perhaps a production bonus can be arranged later on. We are prevented from doing so by the price freeze. Otherwise – the high wages don’t hurt us! On the contrary, businesses do better out of them, because they can deduct the costs from taxes.”
It was a dangerous business to show support for Jews anywhere. As usual Klemperer was meticulous in recording the rumours and stories that he heard. All was not what it seemed in other spheres of life in Germany:
1) In a railway compartment an officer and a lady, reading. Two ladies get on and begin to complain loudly about the government. As the complaints become increasingly unrestrained, the officer says he’s had enough now, can they just shut up. The women show their Gestapo badges: “It’s bad enough that you as an officer listened so long without saying anything. And the lady there didn’t protest at all. You will both be charged.”
2) A star- wearing Jew is abused on the street, a small crowd gathers, some people take the Jew’s side. After a while the Jew shows the Gestapo badge on the reverse of his jacket lapel, and the names of his supporters are noted.
But a deeper level of devastation was also apparent, a devastation that time could not heal. The truth about the murder of entire Jewish communities was now being discovered. It was a truth that sat uneasily with the Soviet outlook, where no single group could be said to have suffered more than another. Yet the Germans had singled out a single group.
Vassily Grossman, travelling with the advancing armies, did his best to put what this meant into words:
There’s no one left in Kazary to complain, no one to tell, no one to cry. Silence and calm hover over the dead bodies buried under the collapsed fireplaces now overgrown by weeds. This quiet is much more frightening than tears and curses.
Old men and women are dead, as well as craftsmen and professional people: tailors, shoemakers, tinsmiths, jewellers, house painters, ironmongers, bookbinders, workers, freight handlers, carpenters, stove-makers, jokers, cabinetmakers, water carriers, millers, bakers, and cooks; also dead are physicians, prothesists, surgeons, gynaecologists, scientists — bacteriologists, biochemists, directors of university clinics — teachers of history, algebra, trigonometry.
Dead are professors, lecturers and doctors of science, engineers and architects. Dead are agronomists, field workers, accountants, clerks, shop assistants, supply agents, secretaries, nightwatchmen, dead are teachers, dead are babushkas who could knit stockings and make tasty buns, cook bouillon and make strudel with apples and nuts, dead are women who had been faithful to their husbands and frivolous women are dead, too, beautiful girls, and learned students and cheerful schoolgirls, dead are ugly and silly girls, women with hunches, dead are singers, dead are blind and deaf mutes, dead are violinists and pianists, dead are two-year—olds and three-year-olds, dead are eighty-year-old men and women with cataracts on hazy eyes, with cold and transparent ngers and hair that rustled quietly like white paper, dead are newly-born babies who had sucked their mothers’ breast greedily until their last minute.
This was different from the death of people in war, with weapons in their hands, the deaths of people who had left behind their houses, families, fields, songs, traditions and stories. This was the murder of a great and ancient professional experience, passed from one generation to another in thousands of families of craftsmen and members of the intelligentsia.
This was the murder of everyday traditions that grandfathers had passed to their grandchildren, this was the murder of memories, of a mournful song, folk poetry, of life, happy and bitter, this was the destruction of hearths and cemetries, this was the death of the nation which had been living side by side with Ukrainians over hundreds of years …
Khristya Chunyak, a forty-year-old peasant woman from the village of Krasilovka, in the Brovarsky district of the Kiev oblast, told me how Germans in Brovary were escorting a Jewish doctor, Feldman, to be executed.
This doctor, an old bachelor, had adopted two peasant orphans. The locals were very fond of him. A crowd of peasant women ran to the German commandant crying and pleading for Feldman’s life to be saved. The commandant felt obliged to give in to the women’s pleas. This was in the autumn of 1941.
Feldman continued to live in Brovary and treat the local peasants. He was executed in the spring of this year. Khristya Chunyak sobbed and finally burst into tears as she described to me how the old man was forced to dig his own grave. He had to die alone. There were no other Jews alive in the spring of 1943.
In September 1941 soon after entering Kiev the Germans murdered almost the entire Jewish population of the city. Around 30,000 were marched out of the city to a site near to the ravine of Babi Yar, forced to undress and then marched into the ravine itself where they were shot.
It is estimated that a further 80,000 Jews were brought from the surrounding area over the course of the following year and met the same fate. Further victims including ‘Ukrainian citizens of both sexes, prisoners of war, sailors from the Dnieper fleet, and gypsies’ brought the likely total of people killed there to 150,000.
Then in the spring of 1942 the SS decided that they wanted to cover up their crimes. The bodies would be exhumed and burnt. Yakov Kaper was one of the Jews kept in the new Camp Syret for this purpose. They exhumed bodies from both the ravine and a nearby anti tank ditch that had been used for the same purpose. He describes the process:
On one side, a furnace was being erected. First they brought stones taken from the Jewish cemetery. The tomb-stones bore the dates of those buried in the cemetery. Long railway rails were put on those stones, then iron fences also removed from the cemetery and then some logs with a little room in between to let air through when they started burning.
Topaide headed the work of those making, the furnaces. He ran from one place to another without a minute’s rest. He gave quick orders and went on running. The main work was in Babi Yar but he also ran over to us in the antitank trench.
When everything was ready we were ordered to pull the corpses out and put them on the furnaces. For this special tools were prepared. There was a handle in the form of ring and a rod 50-60 centimeters long with the hooked sharpened end. We were shown how to insert this hook under the chin and pull the corpse out.
All this work was done very quickly since every five prisoners were supervised by a German with a whip. If he struck he could kill. And all the time we heard the cries Schnell! We pulled out the corpse and brought it up to the ground There other people picked it up. They opened the mouth first. If there were golden teeth, they were pulled out. Then they took off the footwear and then accurately laid it by the head. Several layers of corpses were put together and then all were doused with oil.
Logs were laid and then more corpses and so forth. So at the end it was 2,5 or 3 meters in height. In order to put corpses on the top, a special scaffolding was erected. Thus, during the day we prepared for each furnace about two and a half to three thousand corpses. When everything was ready once again oil was poured over everything and the furnace was lit with torches.
At first the bright flame lit the whole ravine but gradually the black smoke covered the flame. The air filled with smoke and the sweetish smell of burning. It became impossible to breathe. At first hair was burning then the bodies caught fire.
Germans who were with us there also couldn’t breathe and were very often replaced. They also carried flasks with water and they drank it constantly. At the same time another furnace was being prepared in another place, and while one furnace was burning down another was lit.
Bones remained almost untouched though they were in fire. They were gathered and put on a special ground lain with granite plates. A special team was crushing those bones into small pieces with special mortars. Then they were sieved and big bones were again crushed then mixed with sand and were scattered on the road.
When the working day was over we were lined up and went over to the others who worked in Babi Yar. They were standing in the line and were waiting for us. Again the chains were checked and afterwards we were given a scoop of soup and went to the barracks.
By September 1943 the work was almost complete. The inmates of Camp Syret knew it would be their turn soon. Although they were shackled day and night, they discovered they had access to a variety of keys. Although the bottom layers of bodies were usually naked, the upper bodies were more usually clothed. Many of these victims had carried keys in their pockets – the last thing they had done was lock up their houses before they were marched off.
At enormous risk, because they would have been shot out of hand had they been discovered in possession of keys, they stole a number of keys. So it was that the Camp Syret prisoners found the means to undo their shackles and to release themselves.
On the night of 28th/29th September the last remaining prisoners, some 327, began unlocking themselves from their chains. Their only hope was to make a simultaneous mass breakout, in the hope that some might survive:
When everything with the lock and the chains was ready we came up to the door very quietly. Philip Vilkes quietly removed the lock and cried out, Run for your lives, comrades! Hurrah! The guards got frightened at first but after several minutes the guard standing on the watch tower started shooting with the machine-gun.
The Germans who stood near our barracks were silent and I thought they had been mowed down by the gunfire. But our comrades, who ran out first told us later that they had attacked the Germans. There was a fight and the machine-gun was aimed at the open doors. But people ran outside, oblivious to this fact. They were shot down dead while others ran after them crying out, Hurrah!
At last the Germans understood what was happening and all the guards got to their feet. They started pursuing us on cars, motorcycles and with dogs. The ravine was lit with flares. The shooting remained in front of us. The pursuers did not know where to aim their shooting since all the prisoners scattered in different directions. Some of them ran off with a chain still clamped to one leg, since they had no time to unchain it.
The majority of the prisoners were running along the ravine. Some of them went up the slope along the highway towards the Syrets camp and further on to the Bolshevikplant.
Those who ran along the ravine had only one option towards Kurenevka. At dawn, as the shooting continued, one could hear cries, cursing and the barking of dogs in the distance. The Germans who were pursuing us went down to the bottom of the ravine.
Those who were on motorcycles and cars dashed to seal all the ways out of the ravine. With luck, since we had been running without stopping, by the time they closed off the ravine everybody had already managed to escape. We tried to scatter. Tragically only a few people managed to escape. In fact, out of all the prisoners only 18 survived.
The whole of Yakov Kaper’s story Thorny Road used to be available online. One other survivor, David Budnik, had a slightly different recollection of how many survived.
At this moment the machine gun started firing. Several people fell on the staircase which was the obvious target. The stairwell was very steep and everyone coming out of the barracks found themselves in a ditch, at which the machine gun was firing. Fortunately, the cartridge ran out.
Taking advantage of that short break in the firing, everybody burst forward while the guard reloaded, tripping over each other. Nothing could stop the rush of people. We swept past the guards who ran into the yard in their underwear yelling Mein Gott. The guard on the watch tower ran out of bullets. We split up into small groups to make it more difficult to shoot at us.
They managed to get the standing machine gun shooting after us escapees. I think that every one in the barracks managed to run away. The soldiers also used grenades and incendiary bombs to stop us. Many died in the escape attempt. Out of 327 in the barracks only 14 remained alive.
The original references are:
http://www.ess.uwe.ac.uk/genocide/kaper01.htm and http://www.ess.uwe.ac.uk/genocide/budnik01.htm.