Yakov Kaper

Thorny Road

Yar Part 2

All this work was done under strict supervision of Germans. As we were, so to say, naked and barefoot we managed to pull something over ourselves, it was either a coat or a pair of boots. They could be dried a bit and then put on. We didn't pay any attention to the fact that it all smelled awfully. All this time we did not wash our hands but still ate with them. The work lasted from morning till dark with a short break for dinner. Any violation of the order was punished here on the spot with shooting and burning on the stake. It was necessary to work without saying a word to anyone. If they noticed anybody talking they shot them at once.

The Germans were themselves afraid of us as we could dash at them with picks and spades. There were many more of us than them.

All of us worked in the ravine. Together with us were Germans who supervised us with a whip and an open holster for a pistol. They changed every two hours. The main guards were on the slopes of the ravine with their machine-guns ready.

Among our captives there were also traitors. As we had learned, such a traitor was among us in our dug-out (he also was in chains), his name was Nikon. He was brought from Belaya Tserkva region where he had served as a policeman and we did not know how he got to our dug-out. There could be some more, that's why everyone kept to themselves and spoke only in whispers. Still some people agreed and started digging a tunnel in the barracks. They could not manage to do it within one night since they had neither spades nor any other tools and they were digging with their hands. They camouflaged the hole and put the dirt under the different bunk beds. Germans did not enter the barracks usually. But Nikon informed them that there was an escape attempt with 16 participants. They were all shot and we were ordered to put them onto the furnace.

Our team in charge of burning corpses counted 330 persons. Each day three times a day our chains were checked and they reported to Topaide with humor that in the heavenly team there were so many figures. In German the word figure means corpse. They reported it and laughed since they considered us live corpses.

Still, once there was a miracle about which we couldn't expect. We worked in groups. In one of the group our friend Fedor Savertanny asked permission to satisfy his personal needs a few steps away from the rest since there were no toilets. The German who guarded this group permitted him to go. At this moment some bosses arrived and the guard must have forgotten that he had let the prisoner go. Savertanny used the opportunity of not being observed to remove his chains and dashed for the cemetery and from there he ran away. When fascists started searching it was already late. He had reached the city and managed to hide away. Thus Savertanny remained alive. But when it became known that one of the prisoners had run away the work was stopped and they shot 15 other prisoners and we didn't know where they had put the guard who had made that mistake.

I believe that there isn't and cannot be more back-breaking and harder work than that of burning corpses. Our life wasn't worth a nickel. They would shoot anyone for any reason. The only thing that saved us was that they needed us for work. Everything that was done in Babi Yar was top secret, even for most Germans. When they brought food or something required for burning, like logs or oil, it was brought up to a certain point and nobody was permitted to go beyond it. They must have ordered everything over the phone since the guards brought everything for us on the trucks, so other Germans didn't know what was going on there.

I think that the dwellers of Kurenevka and other adjoining districts must have guessed what was going on in Babi Yar. From morning till night the sky over Babi Yar was covered with thick black smoke with the smell of burned flesh.

Besides burning the corpses of those shot in 1941, almost every day a gasenvagen came to the ravine with murdered people inside it. It was an awful sight. There were people of different ages and nationalities. Germans opened the door of the gasenvagen and ordered us to unload the corpses and put them into the fire. Sometimes the gasenvagen arrived and the people inside were murdered only after the arrival.

We heard how they cried and knocked on the walls and then gradually everything calmed down. When we put them into fire the bodies squirmed like live ones and it was impossible to look at them.

Sometimes it happened so that when the gasenvagen arrived at the ravine full of people to be annihilated, the Germans opened it, let them out, put them into chains and made them work together with us. The work force was scarce. Every day we worked like robots. We were urged on, beaten, covered with sweat and blood. High bosses came and cried at Topaide that the work was going very slowly, that the prisoners should be woken earlier and punished more to make us finish quicker. They hurried to hide their traces. Topaide, in his turn, yelled at the Germans who supervised over us, made them beat us to make the work go quicker. He accused them of treating us too cordially. At line up Topaide said that those who would work well would be taken to the team which would go with them to Zhytomir, Berdychev or Lvov, the rest would stay here and he pointed to the furnace. Though all of us knew that we all would be there where Topaide pointed, we still hoped for some miracle that would keep us alive. There wasn't a day that passed when 5 or 6 people were not shot because of poor work or some other offense. The simplest punishment was to shoot, since nobody was responsible for this.

Once the gas-van came. There were dead absolutely naked young girls. There were so many of them that one couldn't guess how they managed to get inside. Many of them had handkerchieves on their heads. Some of them hid rings, ear-rings and watches under the kerchiefs. I remember that when I carried one of the girls to the furnace a watch fell from under the kerchief where she had hidden it. All the corpses were wet and presented an awful sight. The Germans laughed and said some unseemly expressions.

Once, when we were pulling the corpses out something had happened but we couldn't come up and see. As it turned out, one of our prisoners recognized his wife and two children who were killed in 1941. He was not sure until the children were separated from the mother and when she was turned over he recognized the scar on her neck that remained after an operation before the war. When in the evening he came to the barracks, he cried and told us that his wife and two daughters of 10 and 12 hadn't managed to be evacuated and stayed in Kiev. He went to the front from the very first days of the war, got captured and found himself in the camp. He knew nothing about the fate of his family. And here this hair-raising meeting took place. After this nightmare it was impossible to fall asleep. I was lying and thinking that if we could open the padlock on the barracks door and attack the guards and at least some people would escape alive. It would be better than all of us being shot down without any chance to tell the world about awful things that took place here.

In the morning I had a conversation with Volodya Kuklya and Leonyd Kadomsky who slept nearby. They liked my idea that we should find the key that would match the padlock of our barracks. They promised to do it as they were good at locks. Kadomsky was a good fitter and Kuklya was a good mechanic-fitter. I also knew what key would match our lock. The lock was a big and heavy padlock. So we agreed to do it and not to tell anybody so as not to be exposed to the Germans.

In Babi Yar in the pockets of corpses, one could find many things. The bottom corpses were absolutely naked, the middle layers were half naked and the top layer corpses were dressed. Once in one of the pockets we found a bottle of wine and we drank it on the spot, the Germans saw it and laughed. Others found a bottle of eau de Cologne and wanted to drink it but one of them said that it would be better to pour it out in the barracks. So they did it. Sometimes one could find small tools like files, scissors, screw-drivers and others. Nearly every corpse had keys on him. People locked their flats and apartments and took the keys with them. The keys were different, one could choose what he liked. The work was coming to its end. The Germans were in a hurry and urged us on. Many of those in our team that burned corpses had already perished. Some were shot down, others couldn't stand it and committed suicide. To replace them, others were brought there every day. The newcomers secretly told us that the front had been very near and we also could hear far distant sounds of explosions. We kept on trying to survive for another day. Every day more and more people did not come back to the barracks alive!

To bring the key to the dug-out was very dangerous since it would be clear what it was meant for. Besides, every day while checking our cuffs they always searched our clothes. That's why I told Kuklya and Kadomsky what key to look for and warned them not to have more than one key in their pockets so it would not make any noise. I also thought that it was very dangerous. By the end of the day I found one key that looked like the one we needed. I brought it. The other fellows brought nothing back. Either they were afraid or didn't find anything and said that there was none that looked like the one we needed. On the next day I again brought the key, they again brought nothing and the following days again. Almost every day I brought a key and stopped reminding them since I thought that they were afraid and didn't want to risk it.

When I had several keys that could match, I agreed with Trubakov and Doliner that at the time of giving out meals they would shield me near the door in order that neither the Germans nor the prisoners would notice how I would try the keys in the lock.

During the two days I tried all the keys. One of which matched. I opened the padlock and then locked it back again. So I had the key. All the rest of the keys I tossed down under the bunk beds and this one, I also hid but in another place near where I slept. We didn't tell anybody about it at the time and kept it secret.

But an extraordinary incident took place. At checking the cuffs one of the Germans felt some hard object in the pocket of one of our fellows. He ordered him to turn the pocket out and scissors fell out of it. Topaide started beating him. When asked what he had taken the scissors for he said he wanted to cut his hair but it was not believed. They thought it was to cut the rivets on the chains. He was beaten till he lost consciousness, then he was thrown into the fire. He was still alive and he cried awfully. So he burned in the fire.

After this I thought how much I had risked to find and have tried the key. The work was coming to an end and some of us were sent along the ravine to the Kirillovskaya hospital. There was also another ravine where many people were shot and the same work was to be performed there. But the work there was also coming to an end.

The burning of corpses was finished and we were ordered to remove the camouflaging fences. One part of prisoners was sent to gather the ashes near the furnaces. We put the ashes on the stretchers, mixed it with sand and put it on the road so as not to leave any traces.

Others were sent to erect another furnace. Here it became obvious, since there were no corpses, who it was meant for. We did not know what to do.

When we were gathering the ashes with a spade near the furnace, I suddenly noticed golden coins in the form of an ingot. They must have been wrapped into something and got melted together. I put this ingot into my shirt.

So the works in the ravine and connected with building a new furnace came to an end. The team that worked near the Kirillovskaya hospital also came back. We were lined up and the Germans were whispering something and looking at the road, they must have been waiting for big bosses. But there was no car in sight. We stood a bit more, then we were ordered to sit down. There were many guards about. Then not to cause any suspicions they ordered two prisoners to boil potatoes. Our fellows lit the fire, took two big pots and started boiling potatoes.

The Germans got tired of standing near us and they decided to put us in the barracks. And then we got to know everything. There was a fellow among us, Steyuk Yakov, who was an interpreter. When they were coming from the Kirillovskaya hospital one of the guards said to Steyuk quietly that the following day would be our last. Steyuk told us secretly in the barracks about this talk with the guard. Someone else said that the Germans wanted to wait until the higher-ups were present and so decided to wait till the next day. When we found out that it was already our last hour I decided to tell Budnik about the key. Budnik and Steyuk came up to me and asked if I had tried the key and if it worked. I gave the key to them and we agreed that later on that night we would remove our chains, open the door and run away. In order to escape, we had to make sure that the Germans did not hear anything when we were removing our chains.

As we were helping each other get the chains off, I saw Germans approaching our barracks and heard one of them open the door. We felt cold and I thought that this was it. The lock was opened and four of them brought in two big pots of potatoes. They decided to feed us before the death. We thanked them and started taking potatoes but we were ready for escape.

It was necessary to tell the other prisoners of our plan. Some of them took potatoes and went to their places and laid down to rest. I thought that nobody would be able to sleep and tried to figure out for myself what I could do to make it to midnight. In Babi Yar time was moving slowly that night. I remember how usually we were so tired that we could hardly lay down before it was time to get up. At last we started to move and talk. I also got up, but saw that people were afraid to take their cuffs off. I noticed a pair of big pincers. I took them and broke the rivets so that the clamps fell off together with chains. Others also started removing their chains.

I helped Ostrovsky to remove his chains since he was only able to work with one hand. He had wanted to help one of the fellow prisoners one time put the hook into a corpse. He put his hand down and the other prisoner accidentally punched his hand. The inflammation had started probably due to his poor condition. The hand was swollen and looked gangrenous. I unchained him and then helped Vilkes. When I came up to Budnik and offered him my help he said, Yasha, I want to live another half hour. I removed his chains and told him he could live as long as he wishes. I also unchained Vanya Kusnetsov and helped many others. Thus, almost everybody was unchained except those who were sleeping and those who we could not trust.

At this time others were occupied with the padlock. Volodya Kuklya tried opening the lock. Very carefully he inserted the key into the lock and tried to open it but it would not go. It was a big padlock and it was necessary to press harder. Volodya was standing inside the barracks having put out his outstretched hand through the barred door all the while his hands and legs trembling. He had hardly managed to turn the key once and pull it out. The guards heard the lock clank. Kuklya ran off quickly. The German came up to the door, pointed his flashlight on the padlock, it was in its place. He tried the door it was still closed. When Kuklya was running away from the door he tripped over the pots and fell down. The German cried out, What's the matter in the barracks? Steyuk said that we were fighting over potatoes. The German laughed out loud and told another guard going along the upper level of the barracks, They are fighting over potatoes not knowing that tomorrow they will need nothing.

We decided to try to open the lock again after the changing of the guard. After the switch, they stood calmly talking, not suspecting what was going on.

When everything calmed down Kuklya approached the lock, inserted the key and silently turned it for the second time. The lock opened. Kuklya removed the key and the opened lock remained hanging on the door.

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