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
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
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
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
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
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
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.