Yakov Kaper

Thorny Road


That evening Boyarsky and Matkobog ran to our barracks. Whenever Matkobog came to us, something he did often since he was the master of the Jewish work team, he would cried out, Yids, I'm your God!. He also did it this time.

Boyarsky caught Podkaminer and Matkobog started beating him on the back with an iron so hard that we thought they killed him. When they went away Podkaminer lay without any signs of life. In the morning they arrived to take him. I felt very sorry for him when he had to go sit in a car but couldn't get up. So Budnik and I helped him.

After that when we were at work I saw something that is impossible to forget. At first we saw something that looked like a carriage moving along the road but we couldn't guess what was harnessed to it. Then I saw that there were people harnessed to the carriage but with strange long and painted heads.

When they approached I saw that they were Jewish women and that they were carrying sod. Behind them many women were walking in a column singing, Lemons, you are growing on Sarah's balcony. On one side of this column a Russian woman was walking with the whip in her hand. Later I got to know her name, Logvina. She was a master. All women from this team had their hair cropped close. They were half naked and the thighs were covered with rags, their backs and faces were colored with whip slashes in rainbow colors. The breasts were hanging like empty sacks. Their faces and arms were covered with mud. I was told that they cleaned yard toilets and did other dirty work.

Their master, a young and healthy woman, was Anton's mistress. He gave her a whip with which she beat the prisoners. She called them chaikas, chaika being a Jewish name, and humiliated them as she liked. Many of them could not stand the tortures, and the hunger and died. Whenever they brought new Jewish women to the camp they replenished Logvina's team.

It was very difficult to live on the camp rations. We tried to get information whenever they allowed Russian wives to come and visit their husbands in the camp. The policemen told the masters to bring out those prisoners. They were brought under the surveillance of the masters and policemen outside the camp. All this was done when Radomsky was not in the camp. One had to thank the policemen first with samogon, a home made vodka, then they would give something to the prisoners. The wives mainly brought millet and potatoes but this was of great help.

Despite all the difficulties, people still managed to adapt. Some of them were tailors and after the work they mended the clothes for masters and fitted the uniform for policemen. Shoemakers repaired footwear, others washed linen for masters. For all this they were rewarded with some bread, tobacco and gruel.

One could put up with all this somehow if it were not for tortures during the working day. And there wasn't a day without it. Every day something happened in the camp.

I remember one day when a prisoner disappeared from the team which worked on planning. The camp had already been lined after the working day for rest when they found that he was missing. Once again every group of a hundred was recounted, all those who were killed that day were counted, but one man was still missing.

Sturmbahnfuhrer gave the command for all the masters and sotnyks to search the camp, if he wasn't found the entire team would be shot.

Some time passed and he was eventually found. He had hid himself in the pit of the toilet hoping to dig under the high tension wire at night and escape. He was pulled out and Radomsky ordered the prisoners to kill him. Within several minutes he was torn in two at his legs.

Prisoners often ran away from the teams that worked outside the camp despite how thoroughly the policemen watched over them. The punishment depended on the mood of Radomsky.

One time he ordered the camp to line up and they shot every tenth man in the line. Some of the prisoners pleaded and requested but they pulled them out and continued on. Then all the chosen were brought to the center of the ground and ordered to kneel. The policemen shot each one of them in the back of the head.

Another time Radomsky ordered to shoot the entire team that worked outside together with the policemen-guards. This also was done quickly without any delay and mercy. The order was the same. The group knelt down, the policemen shot them in the back of the head. Every day something happened.

Once a truck was brought in for repairs. The fitters did something to fix it. In the morning the truck was ready. Having chosen the moment when the trucks with the workers for outside work were going out into the city, the repaired truck was filled with workers-prisoners and it rolled up to the gates. The policeman on duty, which whom the plan had been pre-arranged, opened the gates and they rolled out quietly. When the escape was discovered, some big bosses arrived at the camp.

We all stood in the line and watched when Sturmbahnfuhrer Radomsky stood at attention and explained something to them. On that day they brought a full gas-van of prisoners who looked like partisans. The group was led by some of the patients from the medical ward. All of them were brought to the center and shot down.

At the shop I learned to make cigarette-cases. There were enough customers. The policemen came. They already knew the price and bought a case for a half loaf of bread and a pack of tobacco. Once Rotenfuhrer Rider came into the shop and turned to me. He was told that I made the cigarette-cases and he asked me to make one for him. I told him that it would be ready in a few days. He drew his initials and asked to put them on the lid of the cigarette-case. I did that also.

I mainly did all the preparatory work in the shop but always took the cases to the barracks to finish. In the barracks, sitting on my bunk bed, I polished and processed the case. On the announced day, Rider came and I gave him the cigarette-case. He liked it very much and he thanked me and as he left, he placed a package on the bench and said that it was meant for me. In it was bread, two pieces of lard and two packs of tobacco: a fortune.

In general, everything eventually evened out with regards to food. Budnik and other electricians were ordered to make a round with the policemen and check if the electric fencing was in order between the barbed wire fences. Very often dogs, cats and birds got stuck in there. They got to keep these trophies and divided them between themselves. Budnik brought his part to the dug-out and we cooked together. It was always very tasty and many people envied us.

Once after breakfast Radomsky arrived at the camp late. He usually arrived at about 10 or 11 o'clock. That he talked to Anton and the latter told us through the interpreter that it was warm, since it was already March and on the next day everybody must to go to work without headgear and in shirts. Everything else was to be left in the barracks.

On the next day we left all our clothes in the barracks. When in the evening we came back from work, there was nothing but bare bunk beds left. They had dragged everything out into the yard and burned it in order to disinfect the barracks. All this was done on the eve of a day off.

On Sunday morning they again started beating in the rail. Everybody lined up and went to the grounds. There stood the bosses, Radomsky, Rieder and the interpreter Rein. Radomsky was speaking and the interpreter was translating, ordering that everybody undress completely, take a stick or something and shake their clothes off. Everybody undressed and was shaking their clothes for an hour absolutely naked in the frost. All the parasites that tortured us were falling on the snow. During disinfecting they hid in all the cavities in the bunk beds. As soon as we lay down to sleep they appeared again and rushed at us if they had never seen us.

All our dreams were about, how to get out. But how could we? Once the assistant of Anton, Rostislav ran into our shop and told our master that big bosses from gestapo had arrived and would make a round about the camp so it was necessary to keep everything in order. After some time they came into our shop and when they stood not far from me Radomsky came up to me and addressed in German for Rein to translate even though I understood quite well. He ordered me to make a cigarette-case like the one I made for Rider. He didn't even look at me, then he turned and went away. I was afraid to ask what material to use and about the side. When they went away I told Arkady Ivanov that since Lenya Khorosh could make the boxes better than me it would be better if he did it. But Lenya got scared and refused to. Ivanov only shrugged his shoulders.

Some time passed. Then suddenly one day, Radomsky entered the shop and asked if I had made the box. I said that did not know the size and the material. He struck me into the face so hard that blood ran all over my face. He said that in three days everything should be ready, and they went away. Ivanov went to Anton and settled with him that I was to be escorted to the kitchen to choose bones I required. I chose good bones, boiled them well, cut them into thin plates and made a beautiful table-box for cigars. I wrapped it in paper and handed it over to Rein for Radomsky. Later Radomsky came into the shop. He didn't look at me but threw a pack of cigarettes on my bench.

I kept in touch with Vilkes, Ostrovsky and Budnik all the time. We were in different sotnyas, groups of a hundred, but in the evening we got together and told each other how we had spent the day.

Once a car from gestapo came to the camp and the driver, a German officer, said that it was necessary to wash the car. The master assigned Budnik to do it. The driver didn't like how Budnik did it and struck him into the face and knocked four teeth out.

On the next day it was raining again. About a hundred partisans were brought in the gasenvagen. They always took them straight to Babi Yar but this time they brought them to the camp for us to see. They were ordered to kneel with their hands back and the policemen stood behind them. Suddenly one of the policemen cried that he would not shoot. He saw his brother among the partisans. Then Radomsky pulled out his pistol and almost shot that policeman. The policeman got scared and shot his brother with automatic gun. Then he felt sick on the spot and he was carried away. Those scenes became a usual thing as each day we witnessed either a shooting or beating.

When new prisoners were brought in the gasenvagen they never expected to stay alive. When they were brought to the camp and suddenly were let out, they didn't believe their eyes that they were still alive and were ready for everything. The sotnyks and masters always took advantage of this. They made them undress, took their good clothes and gave them different rags instead. The clothes taken from the prisoners were sent over to the city and exchanged for samogon, a home-made alcohol. In the evening they used to get drunk, especially on their days off.

Sometimes we made some amateur art concerts. The concerts were held in the area where the market ground was. Those who participated in the concert got two scoops of gruel.

One day the number of prisoners performing was quite high since there were professional actors among us. For instance, Veselov Vladimir was always announced as the opera house actor. Our barracks was represented by Vanya Talalayevsky and Borys Tabakov who sang and danced. Others recited obscene verses and bawdy anecdotes which we roared with laughter over and forgot where we were.

Once during a concert I tried to enter the barracks but it was locked from the inside. I knew that there should not be anybody there since everybody was ordered out. Arkady Ivanov opened the door and asked what was I needed and didn't let me in. I noticed that there were people in other barracks. I started watching from the distance and noticed them going out one by one. First Zhora, the barber, then Igor Voronitsky, Sergey Bestyzhev and others whom I did not know. What they talked about was a mystery to me. I didn't tell anybody but guessed when Vanya Talalayevsky disappeared after his performance that he also was in the dug-out.

I learned that among the prisoners were traitors. We had been told about it when we were brought to the camp. One had to know with whom to talk. I was shown one informer who worked in our shop, his name was Miroshnichenko. I knew him and was on good terms with him. He worked with Volodya Kotlyar from our barracks not far from me.

Volodya told me that Mirochnichenko changed barracks very often. He would live in one, then in another and then would be transferred to yet another. He used to very quietly and unobtrusively listen to who was talking about something. Suddenly we found out that a car from the gestapo came and took Zhora the barber away. A fight started in the barracks. People from other barracks began coming into ours and talking secretly to Arkady and Talalayevsky. I came up to Arkady and asked what it was all about but he did not answer.

Some days later Zhora was brought to the camp again. He chose the moment when there was nobody in the barracks and cut Mirochnichenko's throat with a razor.

On the same evening bosses from the gestapo arrived and announced that not far from our territory a cottage for a general was being built and some specialists were required. The prisoners whose names would be called would go there. They read the list of about twelve names. All those who used to come to our barracks were called. From our barracks about 8 people were called and Ivanov was appointed the master. All of them were ordered to board the truck that had been already waiting. They wanted to take some things but were told that it was not necessary as they would be given everything there. We had not seen them since. Half an hour later we heard some shooting in Babi Yar and guessed what it was. Our camp was just opposite Babi Yar and we always heard when they were shooting there.

It became known that Zhora couldn't stand the tortures and told them that there was a group in the camp that was connected with the partisans through Talalayevsky's brother, nick-named Ded, the old man. Germans did not want to announce this since they wanted to catch Ded and to get information about the partisan detachment. But Ded learned about the arrest of Zhora and did not come any more. He understood that all the group connected with him was in danger.

We continued to work as before, some people were killed, others were brought instead. There were rumors were all around the camp that our troops came very close to the left bank of the Dnieper.

One of those days the gestapo arrived and started calling people names. All those who were called were sent to Germany. Those who were not called were the prisoners of our Jewish barracks and a few others who were considered especially dangerous, mainly partisans and communists. Out of those who remained, 100 people were chosen, lined up and ordered to march while singing.

For the first time the gates were open for them and they went to Babi Yar. The rest of us were ordered to dismantle the machines and pack them into boxes. Some days later we also were lined up and sent to Babi Yar as well.

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