1943: Not Anatoly Kuznetsov, insignificant little chap

1 comment November 1st, 2011 Meaghan

(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:

“Come here.”

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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Lucky to be Alive,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Russia,Shot,Summary Executions,Ukraine,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1941: Babi Yar massacre begins

13 comments September 29th, 2010 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

Between September 29 and September 30 in 1941, the Nazis, specifically Einsatzgruppe C, shot some 34,000 Jewish people at Babi Yar, a ravine outside of the Ukrainian city of Kiev.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum gives a suspiciously specific death count of 33,771. This is considered the single largest mass murder of World War II, and for Kiev it was just the beginning.

In the days prior to the massacre the Nazis put up posters around the city reading:

Kikes of the city of Kiev and vicinity! On Monday, September 29, you are to appear by 08:00 a.m. with your possessions, money, documents, valuables, and warm clothing at Dorogozhitskaya Street, next to the Jewish cemetery. Failure to appear is punishable by death.

The Jews believed they were being resettled. They had no knowledge of Nazi atrocities, as the Soviet press had supressed such accounts. By the thousands they arrived at the cemetery with their belongings, expecting to be loaded onto trains.

Instead they were forced to strip naked and leave their clothes, shoes and possessions at designated places, all while being beaten by the Nazis and their Ukrainian accomplices.

A Ukrainian truck driver and innocent bystander described the scene:

The naked Jews were led into a ravine which measured approximately 150 m long, 30 m wide and 15 m deep. Two or three narrow entrances led to the ravine, through which the Jews were driven. When they arrived at the edge of the ravine they were taken by Schupo officers, and laid down on top of Jews who had already been shot. All this happened very quickly. The corpses were neatly stacked. As soon as a Jew lay there, a Schupo marksman came with an mp and shot him in the neck. The arriving Jews were so shocked when they saw this horrible scene that they were absolutely submissive. It even happened that some lay themselves down and awaited the shot.

There were only two marksmen who carried out the shootings. One marksman was at one end of the ravine, the second one at the other end. I saw the marksmen standing on the already piled-up corpses while shooting one person after another. As soon as a Jew was killed by a shot, the marksman climbed over the corpses of the killed to the next supine Jew, and shot them. This went on again and again, without any distinction being made between men, women, and children. The children were led to the ravine with their mothers, and killed with them.

Babi Yar survivor Dina Pronicheva

Much of what is known about the massacre comes from Dina Pronicheva, a survivor who later testified at the war crimes trials in 1946 and whose story is told in the most graphic terms in Anatoly Kuznetzov‘s memoir/documentary history Babi Yar: a Document in the Form of a Novel.

Contrary to popular belief, Pronicheva was not the only survivor — there were at least three or four others — but she is the most famous one and the only one to testify at the war crimes trials.

Pronicheva, an actress at the Kiev Puppet Theater, tore up her identity card when she realized what was happening. Her last name and her appearance were not typically Jewish, and she told one of the Nazis that she was a Ukrainian who had been seeing someone off and gotten caught up in the crowd.

She was told to stand aside with a group of other people in the same situation. The Nazis decided to shoot them anyway, however, as they could not allow witnesses to come back to the city and tell what they knew.

When it was her turn, Pronicheva jumped into the ravine without waiting to be shot, and played dead among the mass of bodies. As Kuznetzov put it:

It seemed to her she fell for ages — it probably was a very deep drop. When she struck the bottom she felt neither the blow nor any pain, but she was immediately spattered with warm blood, and blood was streaming down her face, just as if she had fallen into a bath of blood. She lay still, her arms stretched out, her eyes closed.

All around and beneath her she could hear strange submerged sounds, groaning, choking and sobbing: many of the people were not dead yet. The whole mass of bodies kept moving slightly as they settled down and were pressed tighter by the movements of the living.

The Germans went around the ravine firing their revolvers into anyone who appeared to be still alive. One SS man got suspicious of Pronicheva’s appearance. He kicked her hard in the chest and then stomped on her hand until the bones cracked, but she managed to remain limp and silent and he went away without shooting her. Eventually she was able to crawl out of the ravine and make good her escape.

Babi Yar continued to absorb bodies throughout the Nazi occupation of Kiev: Jews, Gypsies, Ukrainians, political activists and basically anyone who pissed the Nazis off. The total number of victims will never be known because before they were driven from the area by the Russians, the Nazis dug up the ravine and burned the corpses.


Mass execution of Soviet civilians at Babi Yar. (Source)

A guesstimate would be between 70,000 and 120,000, but some accounts run as high as 300,000. Some traces were left, as Kuznetzov remembers:

The river bed was of good, coarse sand, but now for some reason or other the sand was mixed with little white stones. I bent down and picked one of them up to look at it more closely. It was a small piece of bone … in one place we saw that the sand had turned to gray. Suddenly we realized we were walking on human ashes …

Nearby there had been a fall of sand, following the rains, which had exposed an angular projection of granite and a seam of coal about a foot thick. There were goats grazing on the hillside with three little boys, each about eight years old, looking after them. They were hacking away diligently at the coal with little picks and breaking it up on a granite block.

The coal was brown and crumbly, as though it was a mixture of ashes from a railway engine and carpenter’s glue.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“See here!” And one of them pulled from his pocket a handful of something that glittered where it was not covered in dirt, and spread it out in his hand.

It was a collection of half-melted gold rings, earrings and teeth. They were digging for gold.

Babi Yar was filled in after the war and the site is now part of a residential neighborhood in Kiev. There were many international protests in 2009 after the city’s mayor announced plans for a hotel on the site, but he changed his mind.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Children,Disfavored Minorities,Executions Survived,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Innocent Bystanders,Jews,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Russia,Shot,Summary Executions,Ukraine,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women

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1942: Mykhailo and Olena Teliha, Ukrainian artists

Add comment February 21st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1942, poet Olena Teliha and her husband Mykhailo were shot by the Nazis at Babi Yar for their Ukrainian nationalist activism.


Olena Teliha (top) and her husband, Mykhailo Teliha.

Having lived in Czechoslovakia (where they met and married) and then Poland during the interwar period, the Telihas weren’t present for the worst of Soviet depredations in Ukraine. Mykhailo, a bandurist, might have been in an especially bad way, since his musical genre of choice harkened to subversive themes of Cossack insurrection, and was therefore heavily persecuted.

Instead, they moved to Kiev as the German invasion opened the prospect of returning to their ancestral homeland. There they found their affiliation with the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists quite unwelcome to the new occupiers.

Olena kept writing for a prohibited nationalist paper, and Mykhailo gamely stuck by her.

Without a Name

Neither love, nor caprice nor adventure–
Not everything must be named.
As not always in abysmal waters
Can one find a motionless floor.

And when Your reawakened soul
Again rushes to a luminous path,
Do not question whose inspired oars
Were able to cast aside the dark shore.

Neither love, nor tenderness, nor passion,
Only heart — tumultuous eagle!
Drink then splashes, fresh, effervescent,
Of nameless, joyful sources.

(Executed Today friend Sonechka’s original translation from the Ukrainian text, found among this collection of Olena Teliha’s work)

Their execution this date is not to be confused with the mass execution of thirty thousand-plus Jews in September 1941, the atrocity with which Babi Yar is most frequently associated. This ravine continued to be used for Nazi executioners throughout the occupation of Kiev, including for more than 600 Ukrainian nationalists — who are today honored at the site with this monument:

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Ukraine,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women

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