Yakov Kaper

Thorny Road

The Escape Part 1

When everything with the lock and the chains was ready we came up to the door very quietly. Philip Vilkes quietly removed the lock and cried out, Run for your lives, comrades! Hurrah! The guards got frightened at first but after several minutes the guard standing on the watch tower started shooting with the machine-gun. The Germans who stood near our barracks were silent and I thought they had been mowed down by the gunfire. But our comrades, who ran out first told us later that they had attacked the Germans. There was a fight and the machine-gun was aimed at the open doors. But people ran outside, oblivious to this fact. They were shot down dead while others ran after them crying out, Hurrah! At last the Germans understood what was happening and all the guards got to their feet. They started pursuing us on cars, motorcycles and with dogs. The ravine was lit with flares. The shooting remained in front of us. The pursuers did not know where to aim their shooting since all the prisoners scattered in different directions. Some of them ran off with a chain still clamped to one leg, since they had no time to unchain it.

The majority of the prisoners were running along the ravine. Some of them went up the slope along the highway towards the Syrets camp and further on to the Bolshevikplant.

Those who ran along the ravine had only one option towards Kurenevka. At dawn, as the shooting continued, one could hear cries, cursing and the barking of dogs in the distance. The Germans who were pursuing us went down to the bottom of the ravine. Those who were on motorcycles and cars dashed to seal all the ways out of the ravine. With luck, since we had been running without stopping, by the time they closed off the ravine everybody had already managed to escape. We tried to scatter. Tragically only a few people managed to escape. In fact, out of all the prisoners only 18 survived.

When I ran out of the dug-out I didn't know where to run since the shooting was coming from all sides. I didn't see where I was running since I was running not along the road but directly forward and into the deep ravine. I jumped down and rolled several times before landing. Like a sportsman, I thought. I didn't feel any bruises or pain, everything was all right. I got up and continued running without turning back.

I noticed several of our boys far ahead on the road, I don't know where my energy came from. I ran as quickly as I could and at last I caught up with Budnik, Ostrovsky, Vilkes, Berlyand, Kotlyar and others.

When I caught up with them we agreed to split up since our group was very big. We split into two teams. The one I was in went to the right. Very soon we came up to the brick factory. The factory functioned before the war but when our troops were evacuating Kiev the factory was blown up. Part of the equipment remained intact and the Germans had placed local citizens as guards to protect the remains.

We noticed a truck with Germans not far from factory and hid down on the ground. The Germans went by. At this moment a man carrying a long board on his shoulders came out of the factory. He didn't notice us either.

Budnik rose a bit and cried out: Comrade! The man saw us, heard the word Comrade, got frightened, threw the board down and ran away. We began yelling at Budnik for his carelessness. In about five minutes a woman came up to us and asked us: Who are you? We said that we were partisans and it was necessary to hide us and the woman said, We'll do everything now. She made several steps and we saw how she went through the gap in the fence into the territory of the brick factory. At once we saw a man in the police uniform run forwards us.

Vilkes took a knife out of his pocket (I don't know where he had gotten it from.) and said: I'll cut his throat now. But the policeman said, Comrades, do not mind my uniform, I am a colonel of the Soviet Union. He started kissing us. He told that he had been captured and then was appointed a guard at this factory. He had been given this uniform. When we entered the factory he opened an iron lid to a manhole and told us to go down. We stopped and went down. He said he would come in an hour and closed the lid. We found ourselves in darkness and tried to continue moving forwards.

The farther we moved, the deeper the water became. We were in the drainage pipes of the factory. We went very far, but everywhere was water and darkness. We didn't know where we were going and it was impossible to stand straight. We thought that he had trapped us. We tried to go back but lost our way in the tunnels. We found a place which was a bit drier and stopped. We started discussing our situation. We spent about two hours there. We figured if he had wanted to betray us the Germans would have been here long ago.

He had promised to come in an hour. We could not figure out why he was wasting precious time. We were all tired. We hadn't slept the previous night and the escape had taken so much energy that we could hardly stand. We sat down to rest a bit and as if on command fell asleep. I don't know how long we had slept but it must have been long. Nobody woke us up. We didn't hear any commands. For the first time in a long while, we had a deep sleep.

Ostrovsky woke earlier than anybody and started waking us up. It seemed to him that somebody was coming. We didn't believe him at once and said that he had dreamed it. Them Budnik heard something. Vilkes said that there could be noise from rats or something else. We started listening attentively and then we noticed the torch light far off in the distance. We heard them say Comrades and saw a bright light. We answered them only when we recognized our policeman. He came up to us and told that Germans had been shooting all day long. They were searching for us on the grounds of the factory. They had already shot many people and took the corpses with them. He could not understand what the corpses were for, but we got it at once. They took them instead of us. He apologized that he had arrived so late. He brought boiled potatoes, pickles and a pack of tobacco.

We ate everything and smoked the cigarettes. We had long ago forgotten such luxuries. He began to tell us about himself in detail. His name was Misha, he lived with his wife and two children right there on the factory grounds.

The front was near, just over the Dnieper. Our troops would be there very soon. Then he suggested that we go with him since he knew a dry place where we would be able to wait and hide as long as it was necessary. So, we rose and went with him. He brought us to the place and promised that he would come in the morning and bring us a sack of hay and something to eat. He complained that they had nothing to eat but potatoes and no money to buy anything else.

When mentioned this I recalled that on the previous night I had found golden coins in the ravine and put them into my pocket. I put my hand into my pocket and felt that they had been there. I pulled out two coins and gave them to him. He lit the torch, looked at them and thanked me for them. We asked him to support us how ever he could and not to tell anybody about us. He looked at his watch and since it was late, 11 o'clock in the evening, said good-bye and went away.

Since we had run away at night and been hiding since dawn and it was already night again, it meant that we had slept almost the whole day. That day was September, 29.

I recalled that two years ago on September, 29 in 1941, the Germans took us to Babi Yar to shoot us and I jumped off the truck and survived. What tortures had I suffered since that time. If I were a writer I could write a book about them.

When Misha was gone the fellows began asking me how I could dare take the coins and give them to Misha. He would be able to figure out what we were from them. I said that surely he has already guessed what we are as he smelled us and asked what kind of smell it was. When we had reached the new location, he again mentioned that it smelled of something terrible. If even he had guessed, with the money he would be able to support us with everything possible and would not betray us until our troops came.

He came at dawn, put down a bag and asked for somebody to help him carry the hay.

Vilkes and I went with him. He threw a large quantity of hay into the hatch. He took a rope and we tied it up since it was impossible to carry it along the narrow passages. We pulled the hay behind us for a while and then rested. Now we had something to lie on and he also brought old blankets. It became even better than on a feather-bed. He also sat down beside us, took out a candle, lit it, and installed it into a bottle in which he had brought water the day before. It became as bright as if an electric bulb was burning.

He brought a big pot of boiled potatoes, pickles, a loaf of bread, two bottles of home made vodka, a big bottle with water and two glasses. He said we should have a snack before he had to go since he did not want to be seen. He told us not to wait for him later that day but he would come the following day at the same time. He was the first to take some of the home-made vodka, ate one potato and said good-bye to us and began to leave. Budnik gave me a sign that we needed to thank him for the help. I again took two coins out of my pocket and gave them to him. He took them, thanked us and again repeated that he would come at the same time on the following day and left.

After he had gone we drank and ate until it seemed that there was nothing for us in the whole world. Afterwards we smoked the tobacco. Budnik scolded us for making so much smoke and Ostrovsky burst out coughing. Vilkes and I felt so fine that we didn't think about anything and feel asleep.

It turned out better than we had expected because we would sleep in the daytime and stay awake at night. Ostrovsky coughed loudly and strong in the daytime and it could be heard far away. Misha had already several times mentioned that he had heard our coughing and if a stranger would hear we could be found out. So it was better that he stayed awake and coughed at night when there was nobody on the territory.

As soon as Vilkes and I went to sleep Ostrovsky came and asked for tobacco. He pleaded so much that I had felt sorry for him but Vilkes threatened that if Ostrovsky burst out coughing he would strangle him. He was the type of man that would do it. I tried to calm them. Budnik didn't smoke at all and berated us for it, saying that we would all die because of smoking.

Once Misha came to us, brought some food and said that he decided to move us into another place where nobody would find us. It would be well lit and dry but it depended upon us not coughing. We promised him that we would try to stop the coughing and settled for the evening.

That day Misha came and told us to follow him. When we came out into the fresh air and breathed it in, we thought we were in heaven.

It was light on the street. There were no strangers walking around. Near the exit to the factory we were met by Misha's wife. Looking at us she started crying. We were completely filthy and we couldn't even recognize each other. When we entered the house where Misha lived, his wife gave us hot water and soap but hard as we had tried it was next to impossible to wash off the soot.

We were invited to table. Misha's wife had made borstshch, it had been long since we tasted home-made borstshch, and potato pancakes which were also very tasty.

It was dark in the street, they gave us some old blankets and jackets to wear and told to follow them. We went to the new hiding place. It was in an attic. There was already a lot of hay ready. When we were going upstairs we heard some noise but didn't notice anybody or anything. Misha told us not to smoke there and to take the ladder in so nobody could climb up there. We could put it down if necessary at night if we needed to. More importantly, he told us to try not to cough.

He said that his place was rarely noticed but on September 29, 1943 the Germans had spent all day and night there searching. He said he had seen two people being shot down without any interrogation and their corpses were taken away in the car. One of them was very well dressed and another was still very young. They also told that one more man was shot and his body was taken away. His wife cried and pleaded not to take the body but nobody listened to her.

We guessed that the Germans wanted to replace the missing prisoners of Babi Yar with those corpses.

Misha explained the noise in the attic was from a cat since he knew that there hadn't been anybody there.

After washing and eating dinner we lay down and fell asleep even though we had a good sleep on the previous day. It was nice to be able to sleep in the fresh air and to have good dreams.

So I woke up and saw Volodya Kotlyar and Senya Berland, our mates from Babi Yar. What is it, I thought, Is it a continuation of my dream?. I wanted to close my eyes but I heard my name called since I was the first to awake. I jumped up, we embraced and kissed and the others awoke too. It turned out that they had seen Misha bring the straw and hay to the attic and thought that there might be somebody there from Babi Yar. Then they noticed us go up to the attic but were afraid of Misha that's why they didn't call us then. They told us that they had also slept underground like us but at night went up and hunted for food. They began to sleep in the attic together with us.

We also told them that the man who had brought us there was Misha who claimed he was a Soviet officer. Even so, we were afraid to confide in him completely.

Every day he told us that it was expensive and costly and tried to get money from us. Once he came and informed us that the Germans had announced that the entire Kurenevka was a restricted area. All citizens were to evacuate the restricted area and that any disobedience was to be punished. As a result he had to send his family to the country and he probably would have to look for a place to hide for himself so he would not be able to help us any longer. We told Berlyand and Kotlar about our talk with Misha. They advised us to do as they did since nobody brought them anything but they still managed to survive and we could do the same till our troops came.

So we all agreed to do the same. Everything that Misha had told us was true. The Germans announced that all residents were to leave the restricted area within three days. After that dozens gendarmes arrived there and even some SD detachments. The population was taken to the railway station to be sent to Germany. The people had not had a chance to take anything with them nor even close and lock up their houses. Still some of them managed to hide under ground where we had been. We were all equal there but it became a bit packed. At night when we went out to get some food and the local population did so as well. All the houses were open, so one could take whatever one chose.

The Germans found out that people were hiding under ground and placed a guard not far from our place.

At night Ostrovsky and I went out hunting. We went into the open air and started smoking. Ostrovsky burst out coughing and though he tried to suppress his coughing and closed his mouth only a deaf man would not be able to hear him. The German guards must have been sleeping but his coughing woke them. They noticed the light from the cigarette and they ordered us to stop while letting a big dog loose. Ostrovsky noticed it at once and ran towards the hatch. I also ran but he managed to go down and I was caught by the dog. I bent over but at this moment the German ran up and struck me on the head so hard that I lost consciousness.

Then I was told that he came up to the hatch, looked down it and shots several times.

I don't know how I was brought to Kurenevka to the gendarmerie's office (there was no police any more). I regained consciousness on the floor in a cell. I thought that everything was over since they would realize that I had escaped from Babi Yar and then demand that I show them where the rest of the prisoners were hiding.

I made a decision to commit suicide so they would not know who I was. I got up, stood on the plank-bed and looked at the window. The iron mesh would not let me get out. On the window sill there was a small piece of glass, I took it and decided to cut my veins. I tried to but it was so painful that I couldn't cut the vein. I dropped the piece of glass and started thinking. I couldn't hang myself since there was no rope or anything like that. Then I remembered that I had boots with laces that I had taken off a corpse that had been lying in the ravine for two years. I unlaced the boots and took the laces. My arm ached, I put my hand into my pocket and was astounded that there were 15 gold pieces 5 rubles each wrapped in a dirty rag.

If the Germans found it they would have easily guessed where I was from. But they must have been squeamish to touch me and thought that I was a stoker from Kurenevka or something like that so they had thrown me into the cell without searching me.

I pulled out the rag, took the coins and started thinking where to put them. At first I wanted to throw them under the floor boards but thought that they would be easily found. Then I put them behind the skirting-board and felt lighter. Then I got onto the plank-bed pulled the laces over my neck and the railings. It was just dawn. It was a tragedy to part with life but there was no other way since they would torture me. No! I couldn't wait. I jumped off the plank-bed. I remember that death must come instantaneously. As soon as I jumped I felt the feeling of strangling and then I felt nothing. I assumed my life must have come to an end. But it lasted only for a moment. The laces that I had taken, had been lying in the ground for two years and rotted. When I jumped, they broke and I fell first onto the edge of the plank-bed and then on the floor. My cell was near the guards room and it was at night. I made a tremendous amount of noise. The guard opened the cell when I was lying on the floor and called to another who spoke a bit of Russian. He saw that I was removing the laces from the neck and asked why I was doing such silly things. He said they would let me go. In German he said that I will show them where the others are hiding. I understood him. Then it dawned upon me: why cut the veins myself, when they take me to show where the escapees were hiding I would run. I'd get my bullet in the back and that would be all. I felt more relaxed with this thought. My arms and legs were free, not fettered, so I could try. It would not be the first time.

Half an hour had not passed when the door opened and a man with a boy was pushed into my cell. I couldn't make out whether it was his son or grandson.

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