Three Eyewitness Accounts of Nazi Mass Executions
When I wrote Under Total Eclipse We Will Tremble With Birds Without Song, which I wrote in the late 1980s, I did a great deal of research in order to achieve the level of documentary accuracy I desired. The novel covers the European civilian experience of occupation by the Nazi Army, from Resistance to deportation, from concentration camps to mass executions.
It was always my intention that the book be a credible document for future generations.
As a result I have many rare documents in my archives, three of which are reproduced here so that they will be more easily available to all.
They are, all three, eyewitness accounts:
1. An account of SS Special Command (Einstazgruppen) actions during the liquidation of the Dubno ghetto (Ukraine), as given by Hermann Graebe, a German civilian engineer, who witnessed the event:
2. A court testimony account of escaping from a mass Nazi grave given by a witness, Rivka Yosselevscka, in a war crimes tribunal court regarding the execution of the Jews of Zagrodski, Belarus in summer 1942. Her testimony was given at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961.
3. The only eyewitness account of the events which took place at Babi Yar ravine, Kiev, Ukraine on September 29–30, 1941. Dina Mironovna Vasserman was the only known survivor of the slaughter of 30,000 people by the SS Einsatzgruppen.
An Eyewitness Account of Escaping From A Mass Grave.
This first testimony is by Rivka Yosselevscka in a war crimes tribunal court. For ease of presenting her testimony, I am eliminating questions and comments of the court itself. She lived in Zagrodski, Belarus and the Einsatzgruppen commandos arrived in the summer of 1942. All Jews were rounded up, a roster was drawn up and the families were loaded onto trucks. Since there were around 500 families, many could not get on so they were told to run behind the trucks....
...I had my daughter in my arms and ran after the truck. There were mothers who had 2 or 3 children and held them in their arms - running after the truck. We ran all the way. There were those who fell - we were not allowed to help them rise. They were shot right there, wherever they fell. When we reached the destination, the people from the truck were already down and undressed - all lined up. All of my family was there. This was some 3 km from our village. There was a kind of hillock. At the foot of this little hill, there was a dugout. We were ordered to stand at the top of the hillock and the 4 devils shot us - each one separately. They were SS men - the 4 of them.... When I came to the place, we saw people naked lined up. But we were still hoping that this was only torture. Maybe there is hope - hope of living. One could not leave the line, but I wished to see. Is there anyone down below? I turned my head and saw that some 3 or 4 rows were already killed - on the ground. There were some 12 people amongst the dead. I also want to mention that my child said while we were lined up in the ghetto, she said, "Mother, why did you make me wear the Shabbat dress? We are being taken to be shot!". And when we stood near the dugout, near the grave, she said, "Mother, why are we waiting? Let's run!" Some of the young people tried to run, but they were caught immediately, and they were shot right there. It was difficult to hold on to the children. We took all children not ours, and we carried - we were anxious to get it all over - the suffering of the children was difficult. We all trudged along to come nearer to the place and to come nearer to the end of the torture of the children. The children were taking leave of their parents, and parents of their elder people. We were driven...we were already undressed, the clothes were removed; and taken away. Our father did not want to undress. He remained in his underwear. We were driven up to the grave...when it came our turn, our father was beaten. We prayed, we begged with my father to undress, but he would not undress, he wanted to keep his underclothes. He did not want to stand naked. Then they tore the clothing off the old man and he was shot. I saw it with my own eyes. Then they took my mother and shot her, too...and then there was my grandmother, my father's mother, standing there, she was eighty years old and she had two children in her arms; and then there was my father's sister. She also had children in her arms and she was shot on the spot with the babies in her arms.. Finally my turn came. There was my younger sister - and she wanted to leave. She prayed with the Germans, she asked to run - naked, she went up to the Germans with one of her friends, they were embracing each other. He looked into her eyes and shot the 2 of them. They fell together in their embrace, the two young girls - my sister and her young friend. Then my 2nd sister was shot and then my turn did come. We turned towards the grave and then he turned around and asked, "Whom shall I shoot 1st?" We were already facing the grave. The Germans asked, "Who do you want me to shot 1st?" I did not answer. I felt him take the child from my arms. The child cried out and was shot immediately. And then he aimed at me. First, he held onto my hair and turned my head around. I stayed standing. I heard a shot, but I continued to stand and then he turned my head again and he aimed the revolver at me and ordered me to watch and then turned my head around and shot at me. Then I fell to the ground into the pit amongst the bodies- but I felt nothing. The moment I did feel, I felt a sort of heaviness...and then I thought "maybe I'm not alive anymore - but I feel something after I've died". I thought I was dead, that this was the feeling that comes after death. Then I felt that I was choking; people falling over me. I tried to move, and felt that I was alive and that I could rise. I was strangling. I heard the shots and I was praying for another bullet to put an end to my suffering, but I continued to move about. I felt that I was choking, strangling, but I tried to save myself - to find some air to breathe, and then I felt that I was climbing towards the top of the grave above the bodies. I rose and I felt bodies pulling at me with their hands, biting at my legs, pulling me down, down. And yet, with my last strength, I came up on top of the grave, and when I did, I did not know the place, so many dead bodies were lying all over, dead people; I wanted to see the end of this stretch of dead bodies, but I could not. It was impossible. They were lying, all dying; suffering; not all of them dead, but in their last sufferings; naked; shot, but not dead. Children crying "Mother" & "Father"; I could not stand on my feet....the Germans were gone. There was nobody there. No one standing up. I was naked, covered with blood, dirty from the other bodies - with the excrement from other bodies which was poured on me....I was wounded in the head...I have a scar to this day from the shot by the Germans...and yet somehow, I did come out of the grave. This was something I thought I would never live to recount. I was searching among the dead for my little girl and I cried for her - Merkele was her name - "Merkele!" There were children crying "Mother!", "Father!" - but they were smeared with blood and one could not recognize the children. I cried for my daughter. From afar, I saw 2 women standing - I went up to them. They did not know me. I didn't know them, and then I said who I was, then they said, "So you survived!"...and there was another woman crying, "Pull me out from amongst the corpses! I am alive! Help!" We were thinking how we could escape from the place. The cries of the woman, "Help! Pull me out of the corpses!" We pulled her out. her name was Mikla Rosenberg. We removed the corpses and the dying people who held onto her and continued to bite. She asked us to take her out, to free her, but we didn't have the strength - and thus we were there all night, fighting for our lives, listening to the cries and screams - then all of a sudden, we saw Germans, mounted Germans - we did not notice them coming in because of the screams and the shouting from the bodies around us. The Germans ordered that all the corpses be heaped together into one big heap and with shovels they were heaped together, all of the corpses, amongst them many still alive.- children running about the place. I saw them. I saw the children. They were running after me, hanging onto me. Then I sat down in the field and remained sitting with the children around me - the children who got up from the heap of corpses. Then Germans came and were going around the place. We were ordered to collect all the children, but they did not approach me and I sat there watching how they collected the children. They gave a few shots and the children were dead - they did not need many shots - the children were almost dead, and this Rosenberg woman pleaded with the Germans to be spared, but they shot her. They all left - the Germans and the non-Jews from around the place. They removed the machine guns and they took the trucks. I saw that they all left, and the four of us - we went onto the grave - praying to fall into the grave -even alive, envying those who were dead already and thinking "What to do now?". I was praying for death to come, I was praying for the grave to open up and to swallow me alive. Blood was spurting from the grave in many places - like a well of water. When I pass a spring now - I remember the blood which spurted from the ground - from the grave. I was digging with my fingernails, trying to join the dead in that grave. I dug with my fingernails, but the grave would not open - I did not have enough strength. I cried out to my mother, to my father "Why did they not kill me? What was my sin? I have no one to go to!". I saw them all being killed. Why was I spared? Why was I not killed?...I remained there, stretched out on the grave, 3 days and 3 nights...
An Eyewitness Account of a Mass Execution
The following account of Einstazgruppen aktions during the liquidation of the Dubno ghetto (Ukraine) was given by Hermann Graebe, a German civilian engineer, who witnessed the event:
On Oct. 5, 1942, when I visited a building office at Dubno, my foreman, H. Moennikes, told me that in the vicinity of the site, Jews from Dubno had been shot in 3 large pits, each about 30 meters long and 3 meters deep. About 1500 persons had been killed daily. All of the 5000 Jews who had been living in Dubno before the pogrom were to be liquidated. As the shootings had taken place in his presence, he was still much upset... Moenikkes and I went directly to the pits. Nobody bothered us. Now I heard rifle shots in quick succession, from behind one of the earth mounds. The people who had got off of the trucks - men, women and children of all ages - had to undress upon the order of an SS man who carried a riding whip. They had to put down their clothes in fixed places, sorted according to shoes, top-clothing and underclothes, I saw a heap of shoes - about 800 to 1000 pairs, great piles of underlinen and clothing. Without screaming or weeping, these people undressed, stood around in family groups, kissed each other, said farewells and waited for a sign from another SS man, who stood near the pit, also with a whip in his hand. During the 15 minutes that I stood near the pit, I heard no complaint or plea for mercy. I watched a family of about 8 persons, a man and woman, both about 50, with their children of about 1, 8 & 10 and 2 grown-up daughters of about 20 & 24. An old woman with snow-white hair was holding the 1 yr old child in her arms and singing to it and tickling it. The child was cooing with delight. The couple was looking on with tears in their eyes. The father was holding the hand of a boy about 10 yrs old and speaking to him softly; the boy was fighting his tears. The father pointed towards the sky, stroked his head and seemed to explain something to him. At that moment, the SS man at the pits shouted something to his comrade. The latter counted off about 20 persons and instructed them to go behind the earth mound. Among them was the family which I mentioned. "Twenty-three!". I walked around the mound and found myself confronted by a tremendous grave. People were closely wedged together and lying on top of each other so that only their heads were visible. Nearly all had blood running over their shoulders from their heads. Some of the people shot were still moving. Some were lifting their arms and turning their heads to show that they were still alive. The pit was already 2/3 full. I estimated that it already contained about 1000 people. I looked for the man who did the shooting. He was an SS man who sat at the edge of the narrow end of the pit, his feet dangling into the pit. he had a tommy-gun on his knees and he was smoking a cigarette. The people, completely naked, went down some steps which were cut in the clay wall of the pit and clambered over the heads of the people lying there, to the place where the SS man directed. They laid down in front to the dead or injured people, some caressed those who were still alive and spoke to them in a low voice. Then I heard a series of shots. I looked into the pit and saw that the bodies were twitching or the heads, lying already motionless on top of the bodies that lay before them. Blood was running from their necks. I was surprised that I was not ordered away, but I saw that there were 2 or 3 postmen in uniform nearby. The next batch was approaching already. They went down in the pit, lined themselves up against the previous victims and were shot. When I walked back around the mound, I noticed another truckload of people which had just arrived. This time it included sick and infirm people. An old, very thin woman with terribly thin legs was undressed by others who were already naked while 2 people held her up. The woman appeared to be paralyzed, the naked people carried the woman around the mound. I left with Moennikes and drove in my car to Dubno. On the morning of the next day, when I again visited the site, I saw about 30 naked people lying near the pit - about 30 to 50m away from it. Some of them were still alive; they looked straight in front of them with a fixed stare and seemed to notice neither the chilliness of the morning nor the workers of my firm who stood around. A girl of about 20 spoke to me and asked me to give her clothes and help her escape. At that moment we heard a fast car approach and I noticed that it was an SS detail. I moved away to my site. 10 minutes later we heard shots from the pit. The Jews still alive had been ordered to throw the corpses into the pit - then they themselves had to lie in this to be shot in the neck.
An Eyewitness Account from the only known survivor of the Babi Yar Massacre
Dina Mironovna Vasserman
A Live Message of Greetings from Hell
My name is Dina. Dina Mironovna Vasserman. I grew up in a poor Jewish family. I was brought up under the Soviet regime in the spirit of internationalism. Thus, it is not surprising that I fell in love with a Russian guy, Nikolai Pronichev, married him and lived with him in love and happiness. That is how I became Dina Mikhailovna Pronicheva. My passport said I was Russian.
We had two children: a boy and a girl. Before the war I worked as an actress at the Kiev Children's Theater. On the second day of the way my husband joined the Soviet Army, and I was left with two children and my old sick mother.
Hitler's troops seized Kiev on September 19, 1941, and from the very first day they started plundering and killing Jews. Terrible stories about the treatment of Jews were circulating in the city. We lived in terror. When I saw announcements posted in the streets, ordering "all the Jews of the city of Kiev to gather at Babi Yar" (a place we had no idea about), I felt trouble was coming. I started shivering. I say that nothing good was awaiting us there. That is why I dressed my children, three and five years old, packed their stuff in a small bag and took them to my Russian mother-in-law. Then, following the order, my sick mother and I went along the road to Babi Yar.
Jews were walking in hundreds and thousands. Besides me there was an old Jew with a long white beard. He had on a tallis (prayer shawl) and tfilin (phylacteries). He was mumbling. He prayed exactly as my father did when I was a child. A woman was walking ahead of me. She was carrying two children and a third one was walking alongside, holding her skirt. Sick women and elderly were riding in carts among piled up bags and suitcases. Small children were crying. Old people, having trouble walking, sighed and trudged on in their mournful journey.
Russian husbands were walking with their Jewish wives. Russian wives were walking with their Jewish husbands. When we approached Babi Yar I heard shooting and inhuman shouting. I started to grasp what was going on but did not say anything to my mother.
When we entered through the gates we were ordered to turn in our papers and valuables and undress. A German came over to my mother and tore a gold ring off her finger. Only then mother said "Dinochka, you are Pronicheva, you are Russian. You should survive. Rush to your children. You should live for them."
But I could not flee. We were surrounded by fascists with submachine guns, Ukrainian policemen, and ferocious dogs who were ready to tear a human being to pieces. And then, I could not leave my mother alone. I embraced her, burst into tears but was unable to leave her. Mother pushed me away and yelled "Hurry!"
I went to a table at which a fat officer was seated, showed him my passport and said quietly, "I am Russian." He was contemplating my passport when a policeman came over and barked, "Don't believe her, she's a Kike. We know her..." The German told me to step aside and wait.
I saw groups of men, women, children and elderly undress. They they were taken to an open pit and shot by soldiers. Then another group would come. I saw this horror with my own eyes. Even though I was not standing close to the pit, I could hear awful shrieks of terrified people, weak voices of children, crying, "Mother, mother..." I saw all that and was unable to understand how people could kill others because they are Jewish. And I concluded that the fascists were not humans, they were - beasts.
I saw a young completely naked woman feed her naked baby with the breast when a policeman came to her, took the baby, and thrust it into the pit. The mother rushed after the child. A fascist shot her dead, and she fell into the pit. Had someone told me this, I would not believe it. It is impossible to believe.
The German who had ordered me to wait took me to his superior, gave him my passport and said, "This woman says she is Russian, but a policeman says she is Jewish." The officer studied my passport for a while and then said, "Dina is not a Russian name. You are Jewish. Take her!"
A policeman told me to undress and pushed me to the edge of the pit where another group was waiting for its fate. But before the shooting started, I driven by terror, fell into the pit. I fell on dead bodies. At first, I could not understand anything: where was I? How did I get there?
I thought I had gone mad. But when people started falling on my, I came to my senses and understood everything. I started checking my arms, legs, abdomen, head. It turned out I was not even wounded. I pretended to be dead. Under me and above me there lay the killed and wounded. Some of them breathed, others moaned. Suddenly, I heard a child cry, "Mommy!" It seemed like it was my little daughter. I burst into tears.
The execution went on, and people kept falling. I was pushing corpses away in fear of being buried alive. But I did this in a way so that the policemen would not notice.
All of a sudden everything was quiet. It was getting dark. Germans with submachine guns were killing those who had been wounded. I felt someone was standing above me, pretended to be dead, no matter how hard it was. Then I felt we were being covered with earth. I closed my eyes to protect them. When it became completely dark and quite - deadly quiet in literal sense - I opened my eyes and, having made sure no one was around and watching me, I dug myself out of sand that was covering me. I saw the ditch filling with thousands of killed. I got scared. Here and there earth was moving - half alive people were breathing.
I looked at myself and got scared. The undershirt that was covering my body was all bloody. I tried to get up and could not. Then I said to myself: "Dina, get up, leave, run from here, our children are waiting for you." I got up and ran. Suddenly, I head a shot and understood that they noticed me. I fell on the ground and waited. All was quite. Without getting up, I started moving toward the high hill that surrounded the pit. Suddenly, I felt something was stirring behind me. First I got scared and decided to wait for a while. I turned quietly and asked, "Who are you?"
A delicate, scared child's voice answered, "Don't be afraid. It's me. My first name is Fina. My last name is Shneiderman. I am eleven years old. Take me with you. I am very afraid of the dark." I moved closer to the boy, embraced him and started crying. The boy said, "Don't cry."
We both started to move quietly. We reached the edge of the pit, got some rest and continued climbing, helping each other. We had already reached the top of the pit, stood up to run away when a shot was fired. We fell on the ground instinctively. For some time we were quiet, being afraid to speak. Having calmed down, I moved closer to Fimochka, touched him and asked in a whisper, "How are you doing, Fimochka?"
There was no answer. In the dark I could feel his legs and arms. He did not stir. No signs of life. I got up a bit and looked in his face. He was lying with his eyes closed. I tried to open them but understood that the boy was dead. Probably, the shot we heard had taken his life.
I caressed his cold face, said good bye to him, got on my feet and ran. Having made sure that I was far from the terrible place called Babi Yar, I decided to approach a house that could just about be seen in the dark. Shivering, I came to a window and knocked. In a few minutes a sleepy woman lifted up a curtain and asked, "Who is it? What do you want?" I answered her, "I escaped from Babi Yar" And then I heard her angry voice" "Go away. I don't have anything to do with you."
I left. I ran, because the day was breaking and I knew that they should not see me there. But there was no place to go, so I approached a second house and knocked. The door opened, and an elderly woman appeared on the porch. When she saw me in the undershirt she crossed herself and recoiled.
"Who are you? Where have you come from?" she asked. I replied, "Don't be afraid, dear. I am not a devil. I'm human." And then I lied for the first time in my life. "I'm Ukrainian. I saw my friend to Babi Yar and barely escaped."
The old lady took my hand and let me in. Then she told me to wash myself, gave me a clean shirt, a blouse, a skirt, and old shoes. I looked at myself and got a shock: a real Ukrainian! My hostess gave me a glass of hot milk with homemade bread and told me to get some rest. I ate with gust, went over the the old lady, embraced her, kissed her, and burst into tears. My savior also cried. But having wiped her tears with an apron, she said, "Daughter, I know who you really are. But we are all alike for God. We have one God. Because I have helped you, my two sons will come back from the war alive. But my place is not safe for you. Police hounds search here every day. They are looking for Jews. These beasts pay money for Jews. Now, go get some sleep. I'll give you some provisions and try to get to our people. May God help you."
I felt relieved because there were good people on earth who were ready to help others. The old lady made my bed and left. I slept for a while but could not sleep long. The images of the previous day were passing in from of my eyes. I believed I heard shots, shouting, and children crying somewhere...
Who knows where my children are? Did my mother-in-law manage to save them? I did not have time to think. I was aware that the old lady could suffer because of me. And I decided to go. I looked in a mirror and was terrified to see my hair gray. "This is from last night," I thought. I put some soot on the face to seem older, wrapped my head in a kerchief, as was done by old Ukrainian women, and said good-bye to my dear hostess and set out for the Daritsa. My friend Natalia, with whom I had played in the theater, lived there.
At first glance Natasha did not recognize me. When she did , she got scared. She told me take off my clothes and get some rest. But I felt something unnatural in her attitude toward me. There was some alienation.
Once we had eaten, she said to me, "Dina, I should tell you the truth. You can't stay here for a long time. My husband Andrei deserted from the Red Army. He hates the Soviet power and the Jews who invented it. I'm afraid he'll inform on you. You'd better leave."
And I left.
Source: I. Vinokurov, Sh. Kipnis, N. Levin, Kniga pamiati (New York, 1983), reprinted in Yitzak Arad, ed., Unichtozhenie Evreev SSR v gody nemetskoi (1941 - 1944) (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1991), pp. 107 - 112
Gitelman, Zvi, Bitter Legacy: Confronting the Holocaust in the USSR. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1997. pp. 275 - 278
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