1941: Not Shaike Iwensky, “standing in line to be killed”

Add comment July 9th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1941, seventeen-year-old Shaya “Shaike” Iwensky came within seconds of being shot by the Einsatzgruppen outside the city of Daugavpils, Latvian SSR. Sheer dumb luck — and a slight miscalculation by the Germans — saved his life.

Shaike was born and raised in Jonava, Lithuania and fled to Daugavpils with his brother when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. On June 29, he was arrested along with the other Jewish male adults in town. His brother, who was fifteen years old, was arrested alongside him, but released the same day because of his age.

For the next week and a half, Shaike was held in a crowded prison cell, fed almost nothing, and forced to work during the day.

On July 8, he noted “a change for the worse in our guards, an extraordinary meanness … In my worst fears, I could not have conjured up the kind of hell in which I now found myself.”

That day he and his comrades were stuck in a truly Sisyphean ordeal: forced to roll rocks up a hill, three men to a rock. They kept losing their grip and the rocks would slide back.

That night some other prisoners told him they had been forced to dig huge ditches, which were covered in chlorine.

The next day, the eighteenth day of Operation Barbarossa, Shaike found out what the ditches were for:

A series of shots … a short interruption and again shots … and again … It wasn’t long before we got the confirmation of what we’d been suspecting all along. One of the men in a neighboring cell stuck his head in the doorway, and said, “They are killing Jews. From the washroom window someone saw people lined up in the yard. They are from the first floor.”


Though this testimony specifically concerns a different massacre, in November of 1941, it gives a sense of the environment.

A couple of hours later, Shaike and the others from his part of the prison were ordered to leave and take all their belongings. They were marched down to the basement and made to empty their pockets into the “knee-deep rows of wallets, documents, pictures, watches, trinkets worthless to anyone else.” Then they were marched into the yard and formed into groups of twenty. Hoping to at least die with people he knew, Shaike stuck together with his old friends from Jonava.

The blue sky was almost clear, with only here and there a wisp of cloud. I looked up, and the thought hit me hard: I will never see the sky again.

It is said that, when a person faces death, his whole life flashes before him. But my thoughts were disjointed, disorderly; they tumbled through my mind rather like the flimsy clouds above, forming, changing shape, disappearing and reappearing … Catching myself picking at a hangnail, I thought, How silly. In a few minutes it will make no difference at all …

It occurred to me that reality was often quite unlike what we expect it to be. People standing in line to be killed didn’t look very different from those waiting to buy bread. Their faces, their eyes betray nothing of what is going on in their minds. People stand in line under the hot sun, they move ahead, then their times comes to die, and it is over.

Shaike and his friends waited in line for over two hours in the heat. He had not thrown out his handkerchief and was glad to have it to wipe the sweat from his face. Finally he and his group of twenty arrived at the gate … but when the soldiers came out, they didn’t escort them to the ditches. Instead they ordered everyone to turn around and march back to the prison.

That evening, the prisoners were ordered out again and taken to the killing ground, and then they realized what had happened: the Nazis had spared them because they had run out of ditches. The Jews had to cover the mass graves with earth, stamping down on the bodies and packing them together, and also to dig new trenches, presumably for themselves, until evening when they were sent back to the prison again.

That night, Shaike and some of his friends hid in an empty cell under blankets. The Nazis didn’t find them the next morning when they ordered the survivors out to get shot. They hid in the cell for two days before they were caught. Fortunately the Latvian guards who found them didn’t realize who they were, and merely beat them and tossed them in with some prisoners who’d arrived that same day.

Eventually, Shaike was released from the prison and taken to the Daugavpils Ghetto. He would eventually escape from there and spent some time living in the woods with a Soviet partisan detachment, going back and forth between there and the ghetto. Finally he was captured and taken first to the Stutthof Concentration Camp, then to Dachau. There he was liberated by Americans on April 29, 1945. At twenty years old, he was the sole survivor of his family.

Shaike moved to the United States in 1948 and changed his name to Sidney Iwens. He wrote a book about his experiences, titled How Dark the Heavens: 1400 Days in the Grip of Nazi Terror. Sidney Iwens died in Florida in 2010, at the age of eighty-four.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Children,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Jews,Known But To God,Latvia,Lucky to be Alive,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Shot,Summary Executions,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1941: Babi Yar massacre begins

12 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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