(October 7, 2021 / JNS) Against the background of the official commemorations marking the 80th anniversary of the Babi Yar Massacre, with the participation of the presidents of Ukraine, Germany and Israel, the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (BYHMC) has released the first installment of its ongoing research into those who carried out the murder of Ukrainian Jews on Sept. 29-30, 1941.
Eighty years after Nazis murdered 33,771 Jews one by one at Babi Yar on the outskirts of Kiev (Kyiv), Ukraine, in the span of just two days, the true faces of some of the killers—most of them in their 20s and 30s at the time—have been revealed thus far and more are expected.
Father Patrick Desbois, head of the BYHMC Academic Council, told JNS, “when we began here, no one wanted to speak, no one wanted to see the truth.”
Desbois is a French Roman Catholic priest and founder of Yahad In Unum, an organization dedicated to locating the sites of mass graves of Jewish victims of the Nazi mobile-killing units in the former Soviet Union.
He said that soon after he began his work searching for the mass grave, the mayor of Kiev brought him 50 farmers who wanted to speak with him. That’s when he realized that Jews were killed in public, and people wanted to tell the world what they had witnessed. Over the course of his work so far, across a number of countries where mass graves are located, he interviewed some 8,000 non-Jews, he told JNS.
Desbois stressed that of the initial 159 names revealed, “some were shooters, others extracted the Jews from their homes, others took their belongings and their luggage. Others loaded the weapons while others were serving sandwiches, tea and vodka to the shooters. All of them are guilty. In a mass crime, anyone who was involved in any way, directly or indirectly, must be considered guilty.”
“The majority of killers in Babi Yar were German,” he told JNS. “Probably around 2,000. We have a few names of Ukrainians, but they played secondary roles for the simple reason that the Germans wanted to steal the Jews’ belongings. It was a big Jewish community. A genocide is a killing, but it is also stealing.”
According to a press release by BYHMC, “while the commanding officers of the Nazi units who carried out the massacre was a matter of historical record, the new information uncovered by the BYHMC details the biographies and testimonies of commanders and rank-and-file soldiers who murdered Jewish men, women and children, young and old, in the forest. Despite confessions, evidence and testimonies being submitted as late as the 1960s by some of the Nazi soldiers who carried out the murders, only a few of those involved ever faced justice for their heinous crimes.”
An academic task group of the BYHMC set up to identify the personnel that participated in the shooting of Jews at Babi Yar estimates that hundreds of German soldiers, policemen and SS personnel were complicit in the massacre. To mark its 80th anniversary, the center has released the findings of their research into the first 159 Nazis who participated in killings, from across Germany and other countries under Nazi control.
According to the report, “aged between 20 and 60 years old, they were educated and uneducated; they included engineers and teachers, drivers and sales people. Some were married, and some were not. The vast majority of the killers returned to live a normal life after the war. They testified at trial and other than a few commanders, they were found not guilty. The soldiers who actually carried out the horrific massacre were never convicted.”
The council conducts its research using a special methodology that determines who was directly involved and who knew of the killings. “We want to double-check. We cannot say all the Germans in Kiev were here at Babi Yar,” said Desbois.
He explained the German murder protocol: A shooting shift lasted from morning until 5 p.m., during which time thousands upon thousands were shot. From there, the soldiers were taken to parties where they were plied with alcohol and women. He noted that one of the killers described in a testimony revealed in the study how the unit was taken after the massacre to a spa town, to “recover” before returning to the front.
‘They were complicit because they knew what happened’
“Few of these men were bothered by justice after World War II,” said Andrej Umansky, deputy head of the council.
He told JNS that while the Germans were bringing Nazis to justice in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, they weren’t interested in “the small fish.”
“They were interested in the officers and in people who had killed with their bare hands,” he continued. “For the smaller tasks, there were good witnesses, but they would never be bothered again. But legally, of course, they were complicit because they knew what happened to the Jews.”
“I have the impression that in Germany, the history of the ‘Holocaust by Bullets’ is relatively unknown,” he said.
Umansky explained that “from the SS, only Paul Blobel, Kuno Callsen, August Häfner, Adolf Janssen and Christian Schulte were sentenced to jail for Babyn Yar. Engelbert Kreuzner was the only policeman sentenced for his participation. No other SS member, policeman or Wehrmacht soldier was ever sentenced for his role in Babyn Yar, although many admitted in post-war depositions their involvement. All these men lived a calm and normal life after the war.
“We have some families reaching out to historians and to us because they want to find out what their grandfather or great-grandfather did,” he said. “It’s a difficult topic, but some want to know.”
Only a lucky few survived the massacre, and only a few of their testimonies exist.
‘The whole shooting went off without incident’
Michael Sidko, the last survivor from Babi Yar, was only 6 years old when the massacre took place. He describes his experience: “We walked, my mother, my brother Grisha, my sister Clara, aged 3½, and my baby brother Volodia, aged just 4 months. My mother stood with the baby in her arms. Clara clutched her skirt. The policeman grabbed Clara and hit her over the head. He stepped on her chest and suffocated her to death. My mother fainted. The baby fell. The policeman crushed it with his boot and shot my mother. They grabbed everyone by the feet—and threw them into the valley.”
The testimonies given by Nazi soldiers after the war are equally horrifying.
Nazi soldier Viktor Trill, who was present at Babi Yar, testified about his involvement. “First, we were issued with alcohol. It was grog or rum. I then saw a gigantic ditch [ravine] that looked like a dried-out river bed. In it were several layers of corpses. The execution began first by a few members of our Kommando going down into the ravine. At the same time, about 20 Jews were brought along from a connecting path. Other Security Police members sat next to the ravine and were engaged in filling the machine pistol magazines with munitions. The Jews had to lay down on the corpses and were then shot in the back of the neck. More Jews were continually brought to be shot. The shooters came out of the ravine and then another group of Security Policemen, including myself, had to go down. I myself then had to work as a shooter for about 10 minutes, and in this time, I personally shot about 30 to 50 Jews. I recall that men and women of various ages were shot. Whether children were among them, I don’t recall now. It is possible that mothers were among them carrying their children in their arms. Most of the Jews were naked. I think that the shooting on this day went on until about 3 p.m., then we were driven back to our quarters and received lunch. During the shooting on this day, I had to act as a shooter five or six times, each time for 10 minutes. It is possible that on this day I shot between around 150 and 250 Jews. The whole shooting went off without incident. The Jews were resigned to their fate like lambs.”
Trill was among those tried at Darmstadt in 1967-68 for participation in the Babi Yar atrocity, but he was acquitted as in his case no “base motive” could be proven for his participation in the killings.
Trill’s memories of the Nazi distribution of alcohol to numb the killers’ senses are accurate. This practice was the subject of a study by Edward B. Westermann of Texas A&M University-San Antonio. In his research, titled, “Stone-Cold Killers or Drunk With Murder? Alcohol and Atrocity During the Holocaust,” he found that “in many testimonies on mass murders of Jews by SS and German police units in the East, witnesses and perpetrators mention that alcohol was present or that the killers were intoxicated. In fact, it is clear from available evidence that alcohol—normally in the form of vodka or schnapps—was often available at murder sites.”
Bernhard Grafhorst, with the rank of SS Obersturmführer, headed the 3rd company of the 1st battalion of the 14th SS Infantry Regiment. The first massacre carried out by his company was the execution of 402 Jews in Zhytomyr on Aug. 7, 1941. On Sept. 29-30, 1941, the company participated in the extermination of Kiev’s Jews at Babi Yar, forming one of the firing squads.
Former SS Obersturmführer August Hefner of the SD 4a Sonderkommando, on Blobel’s orders, controlled the executions for both days. At a court hearing in Darmstadt in 1967, he described the participation of SS troops in the executions.
“The SS troops had a section of approximately 30 meters in length. Grafhorst told me that the Jews should lie down close to each other. About four to six Jews lay down next to each other. So, they lay down until the entire bottom was filled. Then the same thing started again. Others had to lie on top of the already dead Jews. Within two days, six to seven layers could have formed. At first, the SS troops carried out the executions with two firing squads. The whole action was called ‘a shot in the back of the head’ action. In fact, it is not the case. The SS troops did not shoot in such a way, as one defines under the ‘shot in the back of the head.’ I watched all this for some time and staggered up the plateau. What else could I do if Grafhorst was there? …The next morning, it was the same again. I had to go again. Twelve to 15 people came from the SS troops. Only one firing squad fired from them. There was the same shift in the middle of the day. Grafhorst was gone in the middle of the day. I heard that he went to Berlin that day to try to recall his company.”
Heinrich Heyer, a former SS reservist in Sonderkommando 4a, recalled that at the end of September 1941, “a whole company of young SS soldiers” arrived.
“I believe that at this time there was a mass execution of the Jews in Kiev. Otherwise, these people would not be needed. That these SS soldiers were assigned to shoot the Jews, I know from the fact that at night they raved and shouted something like ‘Nakolino or Nagolino!’ [‘On your knees!’] What this expression meant, I cannot say. I have not witnessed the delirium of these people; comrades told me about it. This SS company was here for a maximum of eight days and then departed from Kiev. Where, I cannot say.”
Desbois told JNS that the research and its publication of names should serve as a warning to future generations. “If you are taking any part in genocide or mass crime today against humanity, you will be held accountable,” he said.
“And there will be more names,” he said. “It’s only a question of time.”
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