(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On November 1, 1943, a fourteen-year-old boy named Anatoly Kuznetsov came within seconds of execution in his hometown of Kiev in Nazi-Occupied Ukraine. As he admitted decades later, his crimes were numerous and all were worthy of the death penalty, according to the laws of the Germans. They included such grave sins as stealing beets, breaking curfew and sticking up an anti-Nazi leaflet.
By the time I reached the age of fourteen, I had committed so many crimes on this earth that I should have been shot many times over. […] Moreover, I was not a member of the Party or the Komsomol, nor a member of the underground; I was not a Jew or a gypsy; I did not keep pigeons or have a radio set; I did not commit any crimes openly; and I did not get taken as a hostage. I was in fact a most ORDINARY, unexceptional, insignificant little chap in a peaked cap.
But if the regulations drawn up by the authorities had been observed scrupulously, according to the principle of ‘If you did it you pay the penalty,’ then I had LOST THE RIGHT TO BE ALIVE twenty times over.
I persist stubbornly in remaining alive, while the number of my crimes increases in a catastrophic manner, so that I have stopped counting them. All I know is that I am a terrible criminal who has still not been caught.
The closest young Kuznetsov actually came to being killed was on November 1, 1943.
His very existence in Kiev had become a capital offense by then: all the civilians were supposed to have followed the German Army as it retreated from the city ahead of the advancing Russians, on pain of instant death.
Yet Kutznetsov stayed, hiding in abandoned buildings and bombed-out ruins, drinking rainwater, eating whatever he could find. By November 1 he had been dodging the evacuation order for over a month. And so he was called to account:
At that moment I heard a noise. I started, raised my head and saw a German soldier carrying a rifle; then I caught sight of another one on the street outside … When I thought they were not looking in my direction I dodged round the corner of the house, again cowering down rather stupidly, not looking round and averting my eyes from them in a sort of superstitious belief that they would not see me. I heard someone shout, “Hey! … Hey!” and I straightened up and stopped.
The soldier eyed me very sternly. He was a dark-haired, stocky fellow of about thirty, rather awkward in his movements, wearing old, muddy boots. His was a very ordinary, everyday type of face … In German he said:
I took a few steps along the wall.
“You’ll be shot,” he said sternly, and started to raise his rifle.
It was, apparently, loaded, since he did not shoot the bolt. Another German came up, took him by the arm and said something in a very calm and indifferent tone, which sounded roughly like: “Don’t do it, there’s no point.” (That’s what I thought he said.)
The second soldier was rather older, quite an elderly man, with sunken cheeks. The dark-haired one answered him back and turned his head away for a moment. In that brief moment—I realized—I ought to have jumped up and dashed away… The dark one simply raised his rifle, turned his head for a moment, said something to the elder one, and that was the last moment of my life. […]
Right in front of my face — not in the cinema, or in a picture or in a dream — I saw the black hole at the end of the barrel, and had in my nose the unpleasant smell of gunpowder (meanwhile the elder German apparently went on saying something, but the dark one — alas! — wouldn’t listen); ages seemed to pass and there was no shot.
Then the end of the barrel dropped from my face to my chest and I realized at once in amazement that that, apparently, was how I was to be killed — shot in the chest!
Then he lowered the gun altogether. […]
He had only to squeeze his finger. I suppose on November 1st every year I ought to remember and thank that finger, the forefinger on his right hand, which let me live.
Five days later, the Red Army arrived and Kiev was liberated.
Kuznetsov would grow up to write a memoir and documentary history of his experiences during the occupation, including his aforementioned brush with death. The book, Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel, is considered a classic in the literature of World War II and the Holocaust. Parts of it have already been quoted on Executed Today.
Kutznetsov died in London in 1979. He was forty-nine years old.