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Mass murder at Babi Yar
29th September 1941: One of the largest SS 'Actions' during the 'Holocaust by Bullets'
The Ukrainian capital Kiev had been occupied by the Nazis on the 19th September. The large Jewish population immediately knew that trouble was in store - as they became victims of robberies and random murders. This brief reign of terror ended with an announcement on the 28th September:
Kikes of the city of Kiev and surroundings!
On Monday; September 29, you are to appear by 7:00 a.m. with your possessions, money, documents, valuables, and warm clothing at Dorogozhitshaya Street next to the Jewish cemetery.
Failure to appear is punishable by death.
The suggestion that needed ‘warm clothing’ was part of the deliberate deceit that the SS were now so well practised at. However disturbing the threats and rumours that they had heard, few amongst the Jewish community could guess at the enormity of the crime that the Nazis were planning. The SS had mostly compliant victims on 29th September. They were marched in the general direction of the railway station.
So with a mixture of deception and threats the Einsatzgruppen were able to marshal over 30,000 men, women and children to the killing grounds in the ravine of Babi Yar just outside the city. The death squads were now experienced in the business of mass murder and had perfected a process that dealt with large numbers of people remarkably quickly.
Paul Blobel commanded 4a at the time and after the war admitted participation in the mass murders, including this description of the procedure used at the time1:
I had divided my unit into a number of execution squads of 30 men each. First the subordinated police of the Ukrainian militia, the population and the members of the Sonderkommando seized the people, and mass graves were prepared.
Out of the total number of persons designated for the execution, 15 men were led in each case to the brink of the mass grave, where they had to kneel down, their faces turned toward the grave. At that time clothes and valuables were not yet collected. Later on this was changed.
The execution squads were composed of men of the Sonderkommando 4A, the militia and the police. Then the men were ready for the execution. One of my leaders who was in charge of this execution squad gave the order to shoot, since they were kneeling on the brink of the mass grave, the victims fell, as a rule, at once into the mass grave.
I have always used rather large execution squads, since I declined to use men who were specialists for shots in the neck. Each squad shot for about one hour, and was then replaced.
No matter how organised the process was, it was by no means a quick death for many of the victims, as the evidence from some of the very few survivors makes clear.
Dina Pronicheva was one of those who survived to give evidence2 in one of the post war tribunals:
It was dark already...They lined us up on a ledge which was so small that we couldn't get much of a footing on it. They began shooting us. I shut my eyes, clenched my fists, tensed all my muscles and took a plunge down before the bullets hit me. It seemed I was flying forever. But I landed safely on the bodies.
After a while, when the shooting stopped, I heard the Germans climbing into the ravine. They started finishing off all those who were not dead yet, those who were moaning, hiccuping, tossing, writhing in agony. They ran their flashlights over the bodies and finished off all who moved.
I was lying so still without stirring, terrified of giving myself away. I felt I was done for. I decided to keep quiet. They started covering the corpses over with earth. They must have put quite a lot over me because I felt I was beginning to suffocate. But I was afraid to move. I was gasping for breath. I knew I would suffocate. Then I decided it was better to be shot than buried alive.
I stirred but I didn't know that it was quite dark already. Using my left arm I managed to move a little way up. Then I took a deep breath, summoned up my waning strength and crawled out from under the cover of earth. It was dark. But all the same it was dangerous to crawl because of the searching beams of flashlight and they continued shooting at those who moaned. They might hit me. So I had to be careful.
I was lucky enough to crawl up one of the high walls of the ravine, and straining every nerve and muscle, got out of it.