Yakov Kaper

Thorny Road

Yar Part 1

Before we were sent to Babi Yar we noticed that opposite the exit from the Syrets camp a high fence had appeared. We did not understand what it was covering. As soon as we approached the camp gates we were ordered to take our footwear off. We thought it was our last stop.

Here policemen and the Germans were not like those in the camp. They were even worse monsters with awful bandit eyes. But it was all the same for us, we didn't bother them.

At last the command was given and we went out. We were escorted by two soldiers with automatic guns on both sides even though we did not have far to go. Along the road we found ourselves near a ground rampart and in a distance I noticed a house or a hut. At the entrance there was scull with crossbones but it was not a drawing like on electrical boxes but a real human scull and bones. It became clear that there was no way back from here. We were led further and we found ourselves in a ravine and inside there was smooth ground. I didn't understand how they came there in cars but it was evident that this was a road and that some gasenvagens had been there. We were ordered to sit down on the ground. We heard a lot noise and cries over precipice.

We did not know what was going on. At last a young officer who I think was one of the bigger bosses, appeared. He was yelling louder than anybody else and ordered groups of people in fives to come forward. So one of those German bandits went, took five of us and we were led behind the fence that was made of twigs and sticks. We didn't know what was going on behind that fence. The one thing that calmed us down a little was that no shootings were heard there which meant that they would not shoot us immediately. If they killed us in a gasenvgen they would have killed us all at the same time.

Soon the same fascist came again and took five more people. I was sitting and did not know what to think. I must say, I didn't think about much at all since there were seemingly no options other than death so whatever would be would be. At last my turn came. I was led away. As soon as I found myself behind the camouflaging rampart I saw the panorama that I would remember till the last day of my life. The corpses were accurately laid out (later I learned that the furnaces had been prepared to burn the corpses). I cried out, That's enough, I don't want to live any longer, shoot me now.

At that moment the biggest boss, a German ran up to me. Later I learned that his name was Topaide. He struck me so hard in the face that he rattled my lower jaw. I could neither cry nor talk. One of the Germans pulled me towards another one who was sitting on a small stool. There were chains and a rail lying there. He put the clamps on my ankles then the chain. He inserted the rivets and hammered them on the rail. I started guessing where we had ended up and what we would be doing. He ordered me to sit there where other chained prisoners were already sitting. My mouth bled and I couldn't feel my teeth nor move my tongue. I tried to fix my jaw with my hands. I thought that down in the ravine worked our friends who were taken away a few days earlier: Ostrovsky, Vilkes, Trubakov and others.

We all were sitting and waiting until all of us were chained and then dinner was announced. All those working stopped their work and came to the place where we were sitting. When all of them were lined up, Topaide ordered the guards to check the chains on the prisoners' ankles. This was checked three times a day. Everybody in the line was checked and then we were ordered to get food. There stood thermoses with soup. Each prisoner came up and got a slice of bread and a scoop of soup.

I couldn't eat anything, Philip Vilkes came up to me and I gave him my portion. He exclaimed that this is the end and that there was no hope any more.

When dinner was over each went to his work. The newcomers were also assigned to work. I together with ten other prisoners joined the team that was called the outgoing team though there was no going out there. There where we had seen the camouflaging fence was also a ravine but it was almost on the road. When the war began people dug an anti-tank trench and in it were the corpses of military men and commanders mainly. The majority of corpses were in full monition, some of them had no clothes on up to the waist. The corpses were stacked one on the other.

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.

I saw this enormous barracks for the first time. There were all our mates from the Syrets camp that had been taken earlier. Each had his place. I didn't pay attention to finding a place on the bunk beds. All the beds were already occupied and many of the prisoners were lying under the beds. I also went to sleep underneath a bunk bed on bare ground. Near me was Lenya Kadomsky and Volodya Kuklya. Our place was not far from the door and at least the air was a bit better there. In the dug-out there was ventilation for fresh air but the door was made of welded iron rods. That's why I chose the place there. I gave my supper to the other prisoners since after the blow of that bandit Topaide I couldn't eat. I lay thinking how unlucky we all were and thus I fell asleep.

Suddenly I heard some noise and didn't understand that it was time to get up and though it was still dark but everybody was preparing to leave. Going out of the barracks I noticed what I had not noticed before: it was necessary to go down or up 5 or 6 steps to come in or out of the barracks.

Opposite the exit from the barracks, a watch-tower was erected and there were always Germans with machine-guns aimed at the door of our barracks.

During line-up the chains were checked again. I had already managed to tie them up with the rope, as everyone did. One end of the rope was tied to the middle of the chain, the other to the upper button of the trousers. It made it easier to walk since the chain was not hanging loose. After inspection, we were given our breakfast a scoop of soup and a piece of bread. The food here was better than in the Syrets camp. After breakfast they counted off 70 or 80 people and sent them to the anti-tank trench and the rest were sent down to the ravine. I also was sent there.

The work was the same as in the first trench but here the corpses were pulled out with small hooks and it was not far to pull them. The rest was still done by the others. Here, in Babi Yar it was much harder to pull out the corpse. True, the upper corpses, obviously, recently shot were easily drawn out. But those on the bottom, shot in 1941 were lying intertwined. Some of them were shot and others were not touched with bullets. They were lying all together and it was next to impossible to pull out the corpse. Many times the corpses were drawn into two and that's why they were pulled out with big hooks. Workers tried to pull a hook under a rib and then several men having caught at the hook-handle managed to pull the corpse out. Then the corpse was pulled with small hooks towards the furnace where it was inspected by the team of Goldsucher, Gold hunters. Gold teeth, rings, ear-rings and other jewels were taken out and the corpses were put onto the furnace.

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