David Budnik

Under a Lucky Star


Once a Gestapo chief arrived at the camp and it was necessary to wash his car. Some people, including myself, were taken from our shop to do it. A tall driver stood aside watching us work and from time to time urging us on with a stick while screaming Quicker, quicker. At a certain moment he thought I had not been working quickly enough. He sprang up and struck me so hard that it knocked out four of my teeth. Had I dallied any further after this I would have lost not only my teeth but my head as well.

It was impossible to put up with this but everyone wanted to believe that this nightmare would eventually come to an end.

In our barracks, on the bed below me, slept the former chief engineer of a sugar factory. He used to tell people's fortunes to anybody who wanted to hear it. I did not believe in palm reading and I did not want to give away my bread ration for the fortune. But my mates tried to convince me to do it and I eventually gave in. He took my hand and suddenly said that he would not tell my fortune. Then everybody began talking him into doing it. I also became very interested about he saw on my palm. He hesitated as if he was not sure whether to utter it or not and then said You will see that in three months that he will be free. This forecast sounded so impossible and absurd that he himself could not believe his own words. I recollected it three months later in October 1943. Then everything went on as usual. The fascists were brutal, new prisoners continued to arrive. On August 17, 1943 there arrived a large group from Poltava. They were partisans and communists. All the barracks were packed then, there were no places and many spent the night in the open air under the stars, though it was still very cold.

In the morning our aircraft were bombing the camp. Their fire was aimed at the perimeter of the camp to destroy the fence and enable us to escape. It all failed when the bombs fell about 15 to 20 meters from the fence. All the same it managed to encourage us. We understood that hard times had come for the nazis and gave us hope that we would actually get out of here.

The fascists began their retreat and the camp authorities started to prepare the camp for evacuation. They wanted to hide the traces of their crimes, both in the Syrets camp and at Babi Yar. It was not difficult to guess what awaited us after they no longer had any need for live witnesses. But first they wanted to destroy all the evidence of their bloody crimes with our hands.

On August 18, 1943 a group of SS officers arrived at the camp. They chose a group of about one hundred men capable of physical work. We were lined up and ordered to remove our clothes that were still usable. We already knew what it meant and tried to damage our clothes and shoes with a knife instead of being left naked.

We were led to Babi Yar. Every fifth man was brought to a stocky man who, we later learned, had been an iron smith. Our feet were cuffed into primitive clamps, like those on a chain in a well, which allowed us to work but not run away. Then we were led into a barracks were there were more prisoners. It was about 100 or 150 meters from the camp. The rest of the prisoners were loaded into vans and taken to Germany and transferred to other concentration camps. Along the periphery of Babi Yar they installed screens to camouflage the area and the whole region was declared restricted. They were also planting trees to hide the area from planes flying overhead.

At night we were led into a barracks with steep steps. There were no windows and only one door. It was not even a door but just a mesh of thick iron rods locked with a big pad lock. Just across from our barracks was a tower with a machine gun. We were guarded by 18 SS officers, none of them less than a junior lieutenant. That was in addition to the regular guards around the entire territory.

In the morning we went to work. I can not make myself utter the word Work without recalling with horror what we were made to do. It was awful. We had to dig out the pits with the corpses, search them for jewelry, remove any gold fillings and then burn them in the furnaces that we had built. We were divided into brigades each specializing in specific types of work. I worked with the hooks. I had to dig up the ground, pull out the corpses of those who had been shot in front of our own eyes. The shooting went on until the last day. Even when we were taken to Babi Yar, we saw the vans filled with prisoners passing by and heard the shots.

It was not only an awful job but it was also impractical. The compressed soil and corpses had stiffened after two years and made the work nearly impossible. The Germans soon realized that there was no way to dig out and burn such a large number of corpses. The front was rapidly approaching and they were in a hurry. Then, in addition to the spades we were using, there appeared a bulldozer and other machines.

This operation was done under Topaide, a true monster. On any pretext, he shot people through the head. Without any warning. He would simple come up and shoot them if he did not like something. Or else he would make the victim kneel down in front him and then shoot them. We could recognize him from a distance because he constantly jerked his head. It must have been because he had been wounded. Once he found out that there was a partisan who had a brother who worked as a policeman in the camp. He ordered the policeman to shoot his own brother or else be shot himself. I do not know what the policeman felt, but he was convinced that it was impossible to help his brother and at least he himself would escape death.

The fascist regime annihilated everybody who was its enemy and ruined the souls of those who served it.

Besides digging, we also helped the team that built the furnaces. For this, tombstones and iron fences brought over from the neighboring Jewish cemetery were used. These tombstones were laid on the site 10 meters across by 10 meters in width, like a chessboard. Rails and fences were laid on top of them. Then two rows of logs were put down and then a layer of corpses, then more logs and then more corpses. After this everything was doused with oil and burnt.

These furnaces were of differing sizes, but not less than three meters high. The corpses were laid with their heads on the outside. Any remaining bones were crushed with iron hammers and then sifted with special sieves to remove gold and jewels. The ashes were then mixed into the ground.

The guards and instructors who watched over us always kept a bottle of vodka near them buried in the sand and some snacks. They sat there and calmly ate and drank.
Once I remember that some girls were brought in from the brothel. There had been one in Kiev throughout the occupation. They were absolutely naked with nothing but handkerchiefs on their head. They must not have thought that they would be killed and wanted to hide their jewels. The gastruck, which had room for 110 people was used this time, not as a means of transportation but as a murder weapon. I asked myself why they were killed. They at least wanted to serve the Germans.

The number of victims of fascism grew as they increased in cruelty. They tried to keep all of these deeds secret. Once I watched one man walking near us. As far as I could guess, he was a worker. He must not have known that it was prohibited to walk there or he must have forgotten about it since he was drunk. He could do no harm to anybody, but the fascists were afraid of even him.

We worked 12 to 15 hours every day. The Germans made us hurry. The black smoke was rising above Babi Yar from the 60 furnaces that were built and in each one over two thousand people were burnt.

We did not suspect that there even existed a special German firm for designing crematoria. A real industry of annihilation.

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Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 28/10/01 17:06:17
S D Stein