Yakov Kaper

Thorny Road


I was born in a small town named Lubar in the Zhytomir region in 1914. From 1935 to 1937 I served in the Red Army in Belaya Tzerkva in the 185th Turkestan Infantry. I completed the regiment school for junior commanders and received the rank of sergeant-major. After I was demobilized from the army, I moved to Kiev and started to work as a carpenter in the co-operative Kievkhudozhnik.

When the war began I was called for military service again. We guarded military projects. At the beginning of August we were transferred to the village Novy Petrovtsky where we dug in and set up to defend the area.

One night we were alerted and directed toward the town. We reached the edge of the forest and halted. Then the political instructor summoned me and another junior commander and sent us on reconnaissance. He pointed to some houses and ordered us to find out what was there.

From the distance we noticed a column of motorcyclists but we thought that they were our soldiers. When we entered one of the houses we heard some shooting. We hurried outside and saw our soldiers shooting at the German motorcyclists. We ran toward our location but when we reached it we saw that some of the soldiers had been killed and the rest had run away.

I was lightly wounded into the leg, but continued to run towards the Dnieper river. When we reached the river bank, we saw that the bridge had been destroyed. We found a boat and managed to cross the river together with some other soldiers. We found out that the Germans had been there already. We moved on but our soldiers kept on disappearing because of rumors that the Germans had announced that anyone who surrendered on his own will would not be punished. I understood that we had to reach our detachment in Darnytsa as soon as possible.

It became dark. There was nobody in the streets. I needed to figure out where to go.

In a courtyard I saw two women and asked them for some water to drink. They brought me some and asked where I was going in my uniform since I would easily be noticed by the Germans. They invited me to sleep at their house and said that I could go in the morning. I was very tired and went inside. There were some men sitting around a table in the dark drinking vodka. They invited me to join them at the table but I refused and asked for a place to sleep. I was completely exhausted. The hostess made a bed for me in the adjoining room and said that they would sleep in the yard where they had dug trenches.

I hadn't yet fallen asleep when I heard a toast. Someone said that Germans were good and the Bolsheviks were a bunch of Yids. My hair stood on end. I thought that I was trapped! I was so tired that I fell asleep at once. I heard some bombing through my sleep but I couldn't wake up. At dawn the hostess woke me up and told me to leave because the German soldiers were already there. If they found a soldier they would burn the house down. She brought a pair of old trousers and a jacket for me. She told me to change into those clothes.

There was a school nearby where many people were hiding from the bombings. When I arrived at the school there were many people, mainly women, teenagers and children already in the building. There also were some young people in both civil and military clothes with them.

Very soon we heard some shooting. A column of German motorcyclists was driving by and one man in a militia uniform was throwing hand grenades at them. Afterwards the Fascists made everybody go into the street and started dividing us into different groups. I was placed into a group of young people, some who were still in uniform.

The order was given to shoot us.

We were lined up and marched along the road. In the opposite direction another group of German soldiers led a column of military prisoners together with some civilians. Hearing that we were to be shot, the officer of that column added six people to our group. Among them there was one Jew in civilian clothes carrying a violin. When he found out that we were going to be shot he started begging for mercy because he was a violinist.

He took off his hat, threw it down and began to play his violin. Until that moment I had been absolutely indifferent to the fact that we were going to the shot. But when that Jew began to play his violin, I felt something inside of me and tears began to stream down my cheeks. The Germans started to taunt him. One German cried out Yid. Then they ripped off his pants to make sure he had been circumcised. Another German suggested that they snip him again. They all roared with laughter. Somebody pulled out a knife and cut the violinist. Even now I remember the wild screams of that man. They shot him and drove us further down the road.

Some German soldiers brought out a wounded officer from the forest and ordered us to carry him. The German supervisor pulled out two rows from our group. It made eight people, including myself. We carried him in groups of four, to the Darnytsa hospital. I never learned the fate of the rest our column.

In the courtyard of the hospital there were many people, both military prisoners and civilians. They left us there for a while. Later, we were taken towards the Dnieper river. On the way I saw the monument Lenin and Stalin sitting on a bench lying on the ground. I thought it was the end of the world!

We were taken to the right bank one by one along a pontoon bridge. It slowly became dark and we were led to the former race track. We slept wherever we could find a place to lie down, either inside or outside.

In the morning our group was taken to Kerosynnaya. As we were marching there people were throwing bread, tobacco, biscuits, sweets and whatever else they could to us though the Germans did not allow anybody to come near the group.

In Kerosynnaya, the Germans had set up an immense camp for prisoners. Here too, people threw whatever they could over the fence. We forced to work every day at the camp. The usual work was to stand in a line and pass shells up the hill from the Vydubetsky monastery. They served us gruel in the camp, but there was nothing to pour it in so people used their hats, caps or different tins for it.

One day we were forced to line up and speaking through an interpreter, they ordered all the commanders and political instructors to step to the front. There were a lot of them and they were taken off somewhere. Then came an order for the Jews to come forward. I decided not to leave the line.

In the camp, I had met many soldiers from our company including one soldier who I had helped before the war. At the time when his wife was about to give birth to their baby, they were living in a basement. I took him to the district executive committee and helped him get the rights to an apartment which the previous residents had moved out of. Everything was done for him. Here in the camp he came to me told me that all the Jews had been shot and demanded my boots.

I told the junior commander Volkov what had happened. He confronted that man and I saw them arguing. Then that soldier spoke with a German soldier and they approached me.

Du bist jude (Are you a Jew?) the German asked me.

Since I was afraid of being tortured I admitted that I was. I was taken to the camp for Jews only. When I arrived I saw that all of the prisoners were lined up and a Germans ordered me to lie down. They started to beat me and the interpreter asked where the mines were located. At that time Kreshchatyk and other streets constantly were being blown up by mines that the Red Army had placed.

I told them that I didn't know where the mines were. I was put into the line with the other prisoners. The Germans announced that any person who would point out where the mines were would be released and would get a reward.

After the announcement we were all led into a warehouse. While I was being beaten I was recognized by my cousin's husband. He ran up to me and kept me near him. He said that we all would, probably, be shot down. He had already been there for several days and nobody had given them food. I gave him a piece of dry bread that I had with me. He took it and wolfed it down. Then I took out a pack of tobacco and we began to smoke. His friends came up and asked us to exhale our smoke into their mouths. I gave them some tobacco and hid the rest away.

We were all very thirsty and he suggested to try and trade some tobacco for water. As it turned out, there were Russian prisoners in the yard who could get us some water. My cousin's husband opened the window and yelled to the Russians to get us water in exchange for the tobacco. I gave him the Russian part of my tobacco and he gave us some water to drink.

Later we were lined again and driven into a big garage. But there was no room for all of us. They started to shove and press everybody inside. We were packed in like sardines. The gates were closed. We could not move an inch. We stayed like that for six days and nights. They did not give us food or water. Many people died but there was no room for the corpses to fall so they remained wedged between those left alive. The only thing we could hear were screams for water. The odor was unbearable. Next to me was my cousin's husband Shindelman and some other fellows who I had met there.

I noticed a tank with pipes attached under the roof. I thought that there might be water in the tank since it was a garage where they washed cars. I told my friends my idea and we tried to figure out how to get up there.

I suggested that they try and lift me up. They managed to do it with great difficulty and I walked across, stepping on people's heads. People were crying out but I kept on going and managed to get to the wall where the tank was. I grabbed at the pipe and reached the tank. There was still a lot of water in the tank. I opened it up and drank as much as I could. I took off the lamp shade off the light, filled it up with water and came down. I tried to reach my friends. Everybody was begging for water. I pointed to the tank and others tried to climb up. One of them finally reached the tank. He was given caps and hats to fill with water and in an hour all the water was gone.

Everyone had a different opinion about our fate. Some said that we would be let out, while others thought that the garage would be blown up together with us.

At last the Germans opened the gates and they ordered everybody over 35 to come out.

Many people tried to get out, even those not yet 35. The Germans did not want to wait. Before an hour had passed they began to take everybody who stood near the gates. It happened several times. We heard only the cars roar and didn't know that the people were taken away. After those people had left there was enough space in the garage for those who remained. Through the holes in the siding we watched when the trucks came back and some clothes were unloaded from them. We realized then that all those who had been taken away were shot. Again the gates opened and they ordered everybody to come out.

I was very anxious and I told my brother-in-law Shindelman that I would go. He said he would wait. I went out. We were ordered to take the corpses out of the garage. All the trucks were full and I got into a truck with corpses. Our truck started, then made a turn and braked. I jumped out of the truck. I don't know how much time I was lying on the ground. They were shooting. When I regained consciousness I noticed that there were corpses not far from me. They had been shot on the side of the road.

I got up and thought it would be good to get to the forest in Pushcha-Voditsa. I was somewhere in Loukyanovka, a district of Kiev, when I was noticed by a policeman. He brought me to 33 Korolenko street and reported that I was a Yid. Nobody asked me anything but they made me clean the room with five other men until evening. That night we were locked in a cell in the basement. In the morning we were brought to the building of the Supreme Soviet. There we also did some cleaning and found some remains of food.

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