Never-before heard Ukrainian eyewitness accounts of Holocaust emerge
In commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, in partnership with French organization Yahad – In Unum, has published unique eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust, as seen by Ukrainians.
People from across Ukraine spoke of the horrific events they witnessed when Ukraine was occupied by the Nazis: Jewish children, teachers, doctors, and neighbors killed – their corpses buried in the woods and tossed into ravines.
These accounts are being published for the first time in 80 years, since the Nazis set out to implement their “final solution to the Jewish question.” Thousands of people who witnessed these crimes across Ukraine and Eastern Europe were interviewed for the making of this Babyn Yar/Yahad – In Unum report.
NV English is publishing two eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust, as recorded by the Babyn Yar Memorial Center.
Raiisa was still a small child when she saw hundreds of Jews walking towards the “death fields” near her school. There, Jews were shot and fell into huge pits – dead and wounded, both. While roaming around, children could see snow reddened by blood.
Raiisa was born in 1935 in the village of Natyahailivka, next to the city of Voznesensk in Mykolaiv Oblast. While some Jews lived in Natyahailivka, most of them lived in the nearby Voznesensk. The population of the area was a multi-ethnic one: Ukrainians, Russians and Jews lived there, intermingled.
The Nazis occupied the village in 1941, when Raiisa was only six years old. She recalls her early childhood as one lived in fear: her father, who was a political officer in the Red Army, was murdered by the Nazis.
She recalls a Jewish man named Hryshovich who lived close by and who had married a Ukrainian woman. Hryshovich was the conductor of a local orchestra, well-liked and respected by the locals. Once the Nazis arrived, they forced Hryshovich and his orchestra to perform for their entertainment. Raiisa said that he stayed in Natyahailivka for the duration of Nazi occupation. Cases like his were rare. As the Red Army was closing in on the village, the Nazis decided to exterminate the remaining Jews.
A German soldier alerted Raiisa’s grandfather to the plans to execute Hryshovich, so he went to see what’s going on. “My grandfather saw (the Jews) being shot. I’m not even going to talk about the children – the way (the Nazis) tortured them was too gruesome. I’m not going to tell you anything about it, since I never saw it with my own eyes. I heard my grandfather tell his sons and my mother of how Jewish children were killed.” Raiisa recalls Hryshovich taught local children throughout German occupation, until the day he was murdered by the Nazis.
Hryshovich was killed around October-November of 1943; Voznesensk was liberated on March 24, 1944. But the executions of Jews began in 1942. Raiisa said that initially, Jews were being brought to Natyahailivka covertly, and some locals didn’t know about ongoing executions. “But eventually they started to bring entire trains full of Jews, and herded them like animals. At that point, everyone knew the Jews were being killed. Ours was a small village, so absolutely everyone knew.”
She recalls the Jews being gathered and marched throughout the morning, when upon arrival “they were told to take off their clothes, their valuables were confiscated, and then they were immediately killed.”
The Nazis were bringing in Jews for extermination to Voznesensk from surrounding areas. An empty field on the city’s outskirts had huge pits dug all around it. Germans stripped the Jews down, took their valuables, shot them and then dumped their bodies in these pits. Instead of shooting small children, Nazis threw them into the pits to be buried alive. Soviet prisoners of war were used to dig these mass graves.
“We heard them being marched around. They spoke Yiddish, cried and screamed. It was mortifying! Thousands of people were killed there! And us children were around, but we were not allowed to give them anything. Not that we had anything to give. At any rate, we couldn’t give them anything, or we would have been shot (by the Nazis) as well. I don’t understand why they were so cruel. Old women, children, teenagers – all were marched there (to be executed). Some were carrying infants. I sometimes lie down trying to recall… but I don’t really want to remember this! It’s all so monstrous!”
Jews were carrying their belongings, because they didn’t know they were heading for execution, Raiisa said: “They were told they were simply being relocated somewhere else.” All this was happening right beside her school: “Everyone could hear it! Our village was small. They were being killed right behind our school.”
Even though she never heard shots being fired, Raiisa saw “the horror of them being marched, I saw the ground, covered in blood.”
The Nazis told local schoolchildren to gather thyme, and when performing this task, children saw blood-soaked snow.
“Trust me, the blood that was spilled here (around the death pits) would be enough to drown Ukraine entirely,” said Raiisa.
Luybina was born in 1925 in Stara Prylyka village, in Vinnytsia Oblast. She was 16 when the Nazis occupied Ukraine. Luybina saw a three-year-old girl and her mother being marched to their deaths. She recounts that even three days after the mass execution, the ground above mass graves was still moving – “Jews were buried alive.”
“At one point in the summer I saw 15 policemen escorting a convoy of Jews, gathered from nearby villages. Local Jews joined them. The police were armed only with batons. The Jews were marching in two lines, surrounded by policemen. They were mostly teenagers and seniors. I saw a mother with her young daughter, around three years old. The girl was asking over and over again: ‘Mommy, where are we going? I’ve been a good girl, why are you taking me there?’ Her mother never replied. The procession arrived to the site of their execution, with the bodies of Jews from another village already in the giant pit.”
Luybina recalls: “Three Germans in green uniform were waiting by that pit. They were armed with automatic rifles. The Jews took off their clothes, lined up in front of the pit, and then those three German soldiers shot them. After the execution, even three days later, the pit was still moving.”
These eyewitnesses were interviewed during the research project lead by Patrick Desbois, the head of Academic Council of the Babyn Yar Memorial Center, and founder of the Yahad – In Unum, a French organization founded to locate the sites of mass graves of Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
Researchers interviewed thousands of people who witnessed the Holocaust in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. Yahad – In Unum has been researching the Holocaust in Eastern Europe for almost 20 years, and works to expose genocides across the world.
Editor’s note: Never again.
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