INTERPRETING NEWLY OPENED RUSSIAN ARCHIVES
(Courtesy: John Garrard)
The great gap in our knowledge of the Holocaust on Soviet soil was created by Stalin and his successors, who refused to permit access to the vast array of captured German documents in their possession and the materials generated by various Soviet agencies and individuals during the war. The reasons for this behaviour will be discussed below, but the net result was that the Soviet Union, conqueror of Nazi Germany, became an accomplice in concealing evidence of a genocide committed against its own people and on its own soil.
Release of Extraordinary Commission archive:
Now, fifty years after the Holocaust, due to the collapse of the Soviet regime and to the enterprising energy of researchers at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Institute in Jerusalem, we at last have access to contemporaneous, eyewitness accounts of those terrible events across the vast areas of Nazi-occupied territory—the Extraordinary State Commission to Examine and Investigate German-Fascist Crimes Committed by the Invaders and Their Accomplices on Soviet Territory (Vneocherednaya gosudarst~ennaya komissiya po rassmotreniyu i rassle- dovaniyu nemetsko-fashistskikh zlodeyaniy na sovetskoy territorii zakhvatchikov i ikh soobshchikov).’ Yad Vashem negotiated an agreement with Moscow’s Central State Archive of the October Revolution, now renamed the State Archive of the Russian Federation, to make a microfilm copy of selections from the Commission’s reports and documents (as well as German materials captured by Soviet troops). One complete set of those Soviet and captured German documents selected for copying was deposited in Yad Vashem itself. A second set was deposited in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, which opened in 1993.
Yad Vashem researchers focussed their attention on Holocaust documentation, not on atrocities against Soviet POWs or damage to property property, and they did not have the time or financial support to copy the many Commission documents located in regional and district CPSU and KGB archives. Nevertheless, the copies they made over several months constitute a unique and precious resource. With the release of the Commission archive, we can study the Holocaust from a new angle, one that is far closer to the events as they transpired. We can begin the immense task of arriving at a figure for the Soviet victims that does not have to be rounded off to the nearest million or few hundreds of thou- sands. Equally important, we can begin another painful but necessary undertaking—recovering the names of the victims, so that they will not die a second death and thus endure the oblivion to which the Nazis sought to consign them.
Because it is a Soviet document, the Commission archive must be approached with caution. It was designed to serve specific (sometimes changing) policy objectives—and these did not include documenting the Holocaust. The major priorities of the Commission, which began its work in 1943 as Soviet armies recovered huge tracts of land that had been under Nazi rule for two years or more, were first and foremost to document the truly enormous economic and human losses the country had sustained so as to justify their demand for extensive German reparations. Stalin wanted to underscore to the Western Allies that the Soviet people had borne the brunt of the war in Europe. In this way he demonstrated his argument in negotiations with Churchill and Roosevelt that the Soviet Union deserved increased aid under the American Lend-Lease pro- gramme. At the same time, he put his allies on the defensive by repeatedly reminding them that they had still not opened a true second front to alleviate the pressures on Soviet troops. The members of the Commission who laboured for these purposes had no idea that their efforts would one day be of consuming historical importance for the eyewitness and physical evidence revealed at the periphery of their mission. The atrocities against the general Soviet population that they investigated turned out to have been specifically targeted against Soviet Jewry. Thus, unwittingly and while the genocide was ongoing, the Commission documented the first stage of the Holocaust, the genocide which began in the occupied Soviet Union, before the Wannsee Conference and before the construction of gas chambers and crematoria.
The Soviet officials who wrote up the Commission reports were guided by two policy concerns, which percolated down from Moscow during the late winter and early spring of 1944. Frequently the new dispensation came into conflict with the initial, publicly announced objective of their investigation of Nazi atrocities. First, they were instructed to avoid stating that the victims of the massacres had been Jews. This presented a problem since the materials they had generated proved that very point. The Commission reports resolve this anomaly by never using the words Jew or Jews, substituting instead the innocuous code-phrase ‘peaceful Soviet citizens’ (mirnye sovetskiye grazhdane). Stalin’s antisemitism, of course, played a central role in this policy, but so did the widespread antisemitism he perceived among the Soviet population. Stalin was convinced that Russians (who made up the bulk of the Soviet army) would not fight as loyally if they felt the struggle was being conducted primarily to protect and avenge their Jewish compatriots. The Germans, in their turn, tried very hard (and initially with considerable success) to persuade Soviet officers and soldiers that they were being misled by their ‘Yid commissars’ and that the Soviet regime as a whole was in the hands of a Jewish oligarchy. Hitler himself viewed the war as a kind of secular crusade against the heathen ‘Jewish-Bolsheviks’. Second, early in 1944 Commission members were instructed to suppress the extent of Ukrainian collaboration with the Germans and particularly with the SS in the mass shootings of Jews. As a result, Commission reports do not mention Ukrainians as accomplices. They manipulate eyewitness testimony to conceal Ukrainian collaboration, or at least its full extent, by use of the Russian codeword politsiya (police) or the word politsai (borrowed from the German Polizei) as both a collective term or to refer to an individual member. The so-called police in this context were Ukrainian men, armed by the Germans and used as an auxiliary force in brutalizing and carrying out massacres against Jews, and also against Soviet (Russian) POWs.
German military archives demonstrate the source of the manpower for the Polizei, particularly in Ukraine. The Wehrmacht attempted to encourage further surrenders by releasing large numbers of Ukrainian and other non-Russian POWs, and to put them to good use in the war effort. A critically important Wehrmacht document shows that by the end of January 1942 a grand total of 280,108 Soviet POWs had been released—and of these fully 270,095 were Ukrainians. Not a single one was Russian. It goes without saying that any Jews serving in the Soviet army were immediately seized and shot or later sent to the camps. The great majority of the Ukrainians (235,466) had surrendered to, or been captured by, the German southern command, that is, in Ukraine itself. These were the young men who eagerly joined the Polizei. They were trained in the use of arms and extremely hostile towards the Soviet regime, which they associated specifically with Jews and Russians. The problem of collaboration with the Germans was by no means limited to Ukrainians, although Ukrainian collaboration under Nazi occupation far exceeded that of any other ethnic group. Overall Soviet, including Russian, military and civilian collaboration with the Germans reached levels unequalled in the history of warfare—not so surprising when we consider the extraordinarily brutal and murderous nature of the Soviet regime—but it could have been even greater had the Nazis’ racist policy towards Slavic so-called Untermenschen and their fatal hubris not led them to mistreat people willing to accept them as liberators. Stalin, having concluded a treaty with Hitler in August 1939 so that the Germans were free to let loose their panzers and Stukas against France and the Low Countries, and later Britain, now took draconian measures to prevent collaboration with his former ally, or to lessen its effects. Among the measures was the deportation to Siberia and Central Asia of entire national groups, Chechens (who have not forgotten the mass deaths that resulted), the Volga Germans, and the Crimean Tatars, It was difficult to do very much about collaboration by Ukrainians during the first two years of the war. Stalin would have been delighted to deport them too once Ukraine was recaptured. However, as he complained once to Khrushchev, ‘there were too many of them and there was no place [large enough] to deport them’.” A less cunning man than Stalin might have wanted to punish the Ukrainians for their treachery in some other fashion (he had starved several million Ukrainians to death in 1930-32 for their failure to embrace collectivization of agriculture). But Stalin—ever the master of Realpolitik—decided to suppress all mention of Ukrainian collaboration, since opening up the topic would be messy and could easily raise many . In any case, he needed some pro-Soviet Ukrainians to defeat surviving armed bands of Ukrainian who continued to operate in western parts of the republic for some years after the war.
Thus, as a result of Stalin’s policies, we are left with a macabre situation in which neither the victims nor the perpetrators of a genocide were properly identified by the country in which that genocide had taken place. Dutifully, the Extraordinary State Commission submerged the Jews among all victims of Nazi atrocities and suppressed mention of Ukrainians as collaborators and as participants in the very atrocities that the Commission was supposed to be investigating. Ukrainians were allowed to forget their recent past and to pretend that they had been loyal Soviet citizens throughout. Surviving Jews had to live with this lie.
If we keep these facts in mind, the Commission archives still provide us with an enormous amount of detailed information. Even in its incomplete form, the microfilm copy of the Commission archive consists of twenty-seven reels of 16mm film and covers the vast amount of Soviet territory occupied by Nazi Germany from the Baltic to the Black Sea and the Caucasus. To demonstrate the value of the archive, the nature of its contents, and the ways in which its evidence can be decoded, sometimes with the help of existing sources, I focus here on only one section, the records of the Berdichev Town Commission.
The Berdichcv Town Commission:
The town of Berdichev, which lies less than 100 miles WSW of Kiev, is ideal for this purpose. Although mass shootings were taking place at the same time (summer and early autumn 1941) in Lithuania, and notably at Ponary near Kaunas, Berdichev witnessed the first effort by the SS to shoot unarmed civilians in multiples of close to 10,000 in a single Aktion. The first of two massacres resulted in the deaths of approximately 10,000 men, women and children on September 1941. On 15-16 September 1941 the SS murdered nearly 20,000 more victims. Berdichev was clearly a test case; the same Sonderkommando 4a of Einsatzgruppe C that committed the mass murders there would go on to carry out the massacre of 33,000 Jews at Babi Yar on 29-30 September 1941. At this point in time the. SS believed that shooting was to be its primary method of carrying out the genocide against Jews; the use of Zyklon-B and huge extermination camps still lay in the future. In evaluating the Commission archive, we have the advantage of historical hindsight and the ability to juxtapose its records with the German and survivor accounts. In the case of Berdichev we have other primary sources of information about the massacres, which can be used to test the validity of the Commission’s evidence. Vasily Grossman wrote an article, based on eyewitness and survivors’ accounts, entitled ‘The Murder of the Jews of Berdichev’ for The Black Book.’ We also have the testimony of two living survivors of the Berdichev massacres, Naum Aleksandrovich Epelfeld and Bronislava (Beti) Borisovna Livshits. They were both in their early teens on the day Berdichev was invaded; their memories are clear and filled with vivid details which corroborate the eyewitness testimony of the Ukrainian bystanders to the massacres. They also fill in vital details which the Commission report suppressed due to Soviet policy considerations and Grossman was obliged to tone down because of Soviet censorship. He did so with great reluctance and anger because his own mother was one of the victims.’
A special feature of the Berdichev Aktion is that the pits in which the victims were buried still contain their remains. Soon after the defeat of the Wehrmacht at the great tank battle of Kursk (4-11 July 1943), the tempo of the Red Army’s advance accelerated to the point where the Wehrmacht eventually began retreating without attempting counterattacks. Nor did the SS have time to destroy all the evidence of their atrocities. After their withdrawal from Kiev, the Germans did not have time to exhume and burn the bodies at Berdichev, as they had done at Babi Yar and other sites in Ukraine. As a result, Soviet medical teams were able to conduct a forensic examination on the victims’ remains. The pits were opened in early 1944 and corpses were evaluated under the direction of Soviet doctors. While these were apparently not complete autopsies of each and every body, the medical reports are of crucial importance. The bodies were left where they were discovered in 1944; no further examinations have been done on the bones of the 30,000 human beings who still lie in mounded pits, pits which therefore contain unique physical evidence of the Holocaust.” Berdichev was important to both the Wehrmacht and the SS in what Lucy Dawidowicz correctly designated the ‘twofold war’ against the Soviet Union—meaning a traditional war of conquest and a second war of genocide against the Jews.’ As the nexus for important railroads and highways, Berdichev was the natural staging area for the Germans’ assault on Kiev, their main target. From invasion day the panzers of Colonel-General Ewald von Kleist had been aiming for Berdichev (and Zhitomir about twenty-five miles to the north—Zhitomir became HQ for both 6th Army and the SS). But the SS also had a special interest in Berdichev because of its historical connections with both Hasidism and Jewish secular culture (the Haskalah). It was often referred to by Russians and Ukrainians as the ‘Yids’ capital’ in tsarist and Soviet times. There is no doubt that Eichmann’s special unit focused on Berdichev as a prime target for a demonstration Aktion. In fact, the Einsatzgruppen reports state that ‘particularly in the region of Zhitomir and Berdichev there was an opportunity for actions on a larger scale’ than elsewhere.’
Units of the 11th Panzer Division entered Berdichev on 7 July 1941. Soviet forces mounted a fierce counter-attack, but the town passed firmly into German hands a week later. At that time Berdichev had a population of about 60,000. Almost exactly half of this population was Jewish; the other half was Ukrainian (in some cases Russian). When the Red Army retook the town on 7 January 1944, there was not a single Jew alive living openly as a Jew, though some twenty had survived by fleeing to join partisan bands, or (a very rare occurrence) had been sheltered by Ukrainians.’ Half of the town’s population had been obliterated.
Zhitomir preliminary report:
In January 1944, almost immediately after Soviet troops recaptured Berdichev, a local branch of the Extraordinary State Commission was established and began investigating Nazi atrocities. By 1 February a preliminary report had already been prepared. This document is of special interest for the obvious reason that it constitutes evidence committed to paper at a time closest to the events it describes. But it has an additional importance because someone in authority decided not to include it in the materials submitted to the national Commission in Moscow. Hence it is not part of the official archive; instead it remains in the Zhitomir Oblast archive, where it is now accessible. Thus it can help us to see what changes were felt necessary between 1 February and 13 May (when the official Berdichev Commission report was signed) in order to accommodate the rapidly evolving Soviet policy towards the Nazi occupation and, more particularly, the issues of genocide against the Jews and widespread Ukrainian collaboration with the Germans that have been outlined above.
The Zhitomir document not only mentions ‘Ukrainian Polizei’ (ukrainskaya politsiya) openly, but makes it clear that the evidence being presented is based on the direct testimony of Polizei members who witnessed and participated, together with captured German POWs, in the various murders described. The Berdichev Commission report of 13 May refers only to the interrogation of one German POW, Bruno Manci of the Luftwaffe (his direct testimony is not included), and never to interrogations of any Ukrainian collaborators, whether members of the armed Polizei or civilians.
The Zhitomir report also spells out the fact that Jews were the main targets of the Germans and their Ukrainian allies. In contrast to the Berdichev Commission summary report, where the word Jew never appears, the first section in the Zhitomir document is entitled ‘The Mass Extermination of Jews’. The Berdichev Commission report is entitled ‘The Mass Extermination of Peaceful Soviet Citizens’ (using the new code-phrase). The Zhitomir document states that atrocities against Jews began immediately after the capture of Berdichev in July, which means they were committed by regular army soldiers, not the SS, who were always careful to stay far back from the front lines. In fact, we know from other evidence that Wehrmacht troops entered the town shouting ‘Juden kaput’ (‘The Jews are done for!’). On the basis of an apparently ground- less rumor that a German officer had been shot, about 300 Jews, randomly seized on the street, were taken to the Museum (the old Catholic Carmelite Convent) and shot. This evidence confirms the testimony of a survivor, Naum Epelfeld, who recalls the gang-rape of a mother and her teenage daughter on the very evening of 7 July when German troops first entered the town. The girl, her mother and her father were then shot dead.’
On 7 August 1941 (that is, six days before Wehrmacht Marshal von Brauchitsch ordered the creation of ghettos throughout occupied Ukraine) members of Einsatzgruppe C began clearing selected streets in Berdichev of Jews. The Zhitomir document states that the SS allocated one day for the removal of all Jews living in two streets (Byelopolskaya and Makhnovskaya) to the ghetto, which was located in the Yakti Bazaar area, a very poor district without paved streets, full of ramshackle houses and piles of garbage. The Ukrainian Polizei are reported to have accomplished this task in just two-three hours. Jews were allowed to take only fifteen kilos of clothing and bedding with them, thus leaving all the other belongings of the dispossessed Jews to the Ukrainian Polizei and their families. Evidently, all Jews had been enclosed in the ghetto by 22 August. On 27 August a ‘punitive detachment’ rounded up about 2,500 Jews from the ghetto on the pretext that they were needed to help bring in the harvest; they were taken out of town (some near the village of Bystrik) and shot dead. Apparently, relatives of the victims only learned about this massacre as a result of boasting by the Ukrainian Polizei who took part in it. The Zhitomir document also states that in preparation for the massacre of 15-16 September 1941 the ghetto was cleared by both a special German unit and ‘all members of the Ukrainian Polizei’. The head of the Polizei is said to have been a Ukrainian named Zelinsky (other witnesses say that a Ukrainian named Korolyuk was head of the Polizei—probably both men served as leaders). In any case, a Ukrainian and the head of the German SS unit shared the task of checking the occupations of the Jewish males and deciding which ones should be kept alive for the time being to provide various needed services for the -Germans and the Polizei; those spared included physicians, pharmacists, and artisans, some with their families. Most of these people were killed within a couple of months. The last major massacre of Jews in Berdichev took place at the end of October (some say the beginning of November) and resulted in the deaths of 3,300 people. The Zhitomir document makes a point of saying that they were shot by both Germans and Ukrainians. The participation of Ukrainians in this massacre is also confirmed by Naum Epelfeld. The final group of Jews (chiefly professionals and skilled workers) were killed on 1 March 1942 at the old Russian army barracks located on Lysaya gora west of town, which the Germans used as a prison for Russian POWs (whom they also worked to death, brutalized and shot).
The Zhitomir document concludes:
The Jews sensed that the Nazis would not stop at killing Jews, but would kill people of other nationalities, and so they told the Ukrainians: ‘Don’t trust the Nazis; they are dealing with us now, but they will do you in next. . . .‘ In their last moments of life, the Jews also believed that their suffering and death would not go unpunished: ‘We are dying at the hands of the German Nazis’, they said, ‘but Russia will avenge us against the Germans .’
Involvement of NKVD:
Although the Berdichev Commission report ignores and distorts such vivid testimony, the archive offers much valuable information. What is more, the forensic reports and verbatim eyewitness accounts are presented without apparent alteration. The interviews with eyewitnesses and a handful of survivors were conducted by NKVD officers—a sure sign of the seriousness with which the Soviet government viewed the Commission’s work. The NKVD had already earned a well-deserved reputation for ruthless efficiency before the war; under martial law they had the ability.to sendpeople to forced labour camps for the slightest infraction. In fact, their powers were on a par with those of the SS. For researchers today the fact of NKVD involvement is both good news and bad news. On the positive side, we can be sure that witnesses tried to tell the truth. The NKVD officers warned each of the eyewitnesses interviewed that they must swear a legal oath that the testimony they were giving was true and alerted them to the fact that failure to do so was a criminal offence. The fact that the eyewitnesses’ testimony was sworn is cruciaL As a trial lawyer will verify, people may be free with the truth outside the courtroom but in the witness chair after a legal caution they are much more careful. The interviews were sometimes recorded on standard forms used for questioning of witnesses in criminal cases. But in a few cases the paper used constitutes an historical artifact. During the war paper was in very short supply, and so the interrogators occasionally used captured paper that had been printed during more than two years of German occupation. So we find a Russian interrogator’s copperplate handwritten recording of testimony on German and Ukrainian atrocities from a Ukrainian eyewitness on sttionery that has German words printed on it, with Ukrainian in smaller letters. Such shards from the administration of Nazi-occupied Ukraine are extremely rare.
On the negative side, NKVD involvement in the Commission’s work indicated the Soviet government’s determination to control information. And in fact, within the Berdichev archive we can see the process of that control. The most stark contrast occurs between eyewitness testimony and the official report and conclusions of the Commission. The NKVD had issued a stern warning to all those being questioned.
Unfortunately, the Soviet officials who wrote up the report took no oath swearing to tell the truth about the sworn testimony they had taken. Thus there is a vital difference between the quality of the evidence given under oath to the NKVD in February-April 1944 and the write-up of the evidence in the Commission report, which is dated 13 May 1944. The composition of the Berdichev Commission itself had much to do with the focus of the report. The report is signed by a group consisting, as far as we can tell, of non-Jews; the names are all Russian and Ukrainian. The one possible exception, A. Ye. Sitkin, was a major in Soviet state security. As such he would have been a ‘non-Jewish Jew’. His presence merely guaranteed that Soviet policy would be observed in all particulars. Apart from the chair and vice-chair, who were apparatchiks with official government positions, and four doctors who conducted the forensic examinations (Pioro, Fesyuk, Datskevich, Osinskoy), members included two factory workers, three school teachers, and a housewife. The latter group were unlikely to take a position opposed to that voiced by Communist Party functionaries and an NKVD major; none could have had much experience in dealing with evidence of this complexity. In any case, they might well have had relatives or friends who were at this same time (Spring 1944) still working in Germany or had cooperated in some fashion with the Germans. They would have wanted to put the best possible light on the events of the German occupation. The most surprising member of the Commission was a senior Orthodox priest (nastoyatel), Father Nikolay Zelinsky, who seems to have taken an active part in the various proceedings. In his account, ‘The murder of the Jews in Berdichev’, Vasily Grossman refers to him only as Father Nikolay, archpriest (protoiyerei) of the Berdichev Cathedral (meaning Nikolsky sobor) and says that he and an old priest named Gurin maintained contact with some ‘members of the educated Jewish community’ after the Jews were herded into the ghetto.25 Apparently, Father Zelinsky told Grossman that he had wanted to help the Jews but was warned by the German authorities in Zhitomir that the slightest effort to do so would be severely punished, perhaps by execution. It is hard to know where the truth lies. With very few exceptions, the Ukrainian Catholic (Uniate) and Orthodox churches welcomed the German army and the SS (see Appendix). In any case, the well-established antisemitic traditions of Christian denominations in Ukraine (and of the Russian Orthodox Church in particular) make it unlikely that Father Zelinsky would have wished to go out of his way to help Jews in Berdichev.
Soviet manipulation of report:
The sad irony is that, whatever the true situation, once the Soviet author- ities regained control, no Orthodox priest would have desired to place much emphasis on the suffering of Jews. Father Zelinsky was no doubt eager to please the government authorities in the hope of gaining some concessions for his church, which had been harshly abused in the pre-war period and only resurrected during wartime by Stalin as a temporary measure. The forensic reports are co-signed by Father Zelinsky. It is reasonable to infer that he was present at the exhumation of the bodies of Soviet POWs, and of the pits where the Jews were murdered, in order to give them a quasi-religious fueral once the bodies were covered over again and the pits closed. If Father Zelinsky did in fact preside over such funerals at the pits containing Jewish victims, then under Jewish religious law this service was itself a desecration and a gratuitous insult by the standards of any religious community. One of the very few Jewish services ever performed over any of the massacre sites (possibly the only one) was a prayer for the dead sung by a local rabbi at two pits near the military airport in May 1994. My wife Carol and I were privileged, as non-Jews, to be present with a small group of American Jews and Mrs Beti Livshits (whose family was among the victims).
The arrangement of the four sections of the Commission report that follows the list of German perpetrators certainly reflects official Soviet policy towards the vexed questions of Ukrainian collaboration and of the Jews as the primary Nazi victims. The report constitutes a version of the ‘executive summary’—designed to interpret for the busy Soviet bureaucrat the results that follow. The summary details four separate groups of victims:
I. The mass murder of ‘peaceful Soviet citizens’. The brutal nature of the Germans’ behaviour is stressed with vivid examples, but nowhere is there any indication of the fact that all these victims were Jews. The total number of victims, based on forensic examination of corpses, is said to have been 30, 196.
- The mass murder of Soviet POWs. Again the savage treatment to which these unfortunate men were subjected is stressed. They were brutalized, overworked, and starved to death in a prison camp, and on occasion buried alive. However, the fact that none of them was Ukrainian, and almost all were Russian, is ignored. The total number of POWs killed, based on forensic reports, is given as 8,340.
- The brutal treatment and shooting of some 200 people who were ill with typhus and lying in the Berdiçhev hospital. The ethnicity of these people is not given, but they must have been Ukrainian, or they would have been slaughtered immediately.
- The transportation to Germany as slave labour of some 12,186 people—again, it is clear deportees were Ukrainian. The report states that at first Berdichev inhabitants, chiefly young people, were invited to relocate to Germany. When they refused, the Germans are said to have forcibly transported them to Germany by train.
Suffering of Jews and Ukrainians equated:
One notices at once that the summary report is attempting to guide the reader’s response, even before he or she has had an opportunity to read the actual transcripts of forensic reports and eyewitness or survivor interviews. The main thrust of this attempt is directed towards suppressing or evidence that the Jews were the primary targets of Nazi brutality. Secondly, the killing of Soviet POWs is mentioned prominently, although without any mention of their ethnic origin, so as to lessen the impact of the deaths of ‘peaceful Soviet citizens’. In short, the executive summary lays out the main thrust of the entire Commission’s objective— to construct a false myth of an equality of suffering among the ‘united Soviet peoples’ who underwent Nazi occupation. To this end, the Berdichev Commission stresses the hardships Ukrainians had to endure because of their alleged refusal to go willingly to work in Germany: ‘The forcible deportation (nasilstvenny ugon) of the peaceful population for slave labour (katorga) in Germany became extremely widespread. This “campaign” was a nightmare that the inhabitants of Berdichev will never forget.’ The report goes on to give vivid of the extremes to which young, able-bodied Ukrainians went to avoid being sent to Germany. Some rubbed caustic soda on their skin; some injected themselves with turpentine and kerosene; some hid in cellars; some jumped off moving trains, risking severe injury and even death.
The use of harsh terms such as katorga—with its historical association of hard labour in Siberia during tsarist times—and the characterization of the deportation as an unforgettable ‘nightmare’ are obviously calculated to play on the sympathies of the reader. And the reference to Ukrainians as a ‘peaceful population’ (mirnoe naselenie), echoing the same term used in section one for the victims of mass executions, suggests that the Commission was trying deliberately to equate the sufferings of Ukrainians with those of their Jewish neighbours (who remained unidentified as Jews, even though everyone at the time knew who they were and why they had been singled out for immediate execution). Section four on the deportation of some 12,000 healthy, adult Ukrainians (not to death camps in Poland, but to work in factories or private homes in Germany) is actually given more space in the summary report than the massacre of more than 30,000 Jewish men, women and children, who had been their neighbours. What is more, section four concludes with a table listing the number of people transported for each of nine separate months beginning in November 1941 and ending in October 1943. They are said to have been transported on average fifty to a carriage, but that is not at all the same as being crushed in the dreadful cattle trucks in which Jews were transported from ghettos to the death camps. Judging from a Soviet documentary film about the Nazi occupation of Ukraine entitled Upyri (Vampires), many young men and women went willingly to Germany by train; some chalked on the sides of the train cars ‘SS’ and the trident, which was the symbol of the Ukrainian nationalists—it is still used today.
The effort to link Jewish victims and Ukrainian deportees is a false parallel, not to say an obscene one. This is clear from the text itself, even if we did not possess outside information as to the real circumstances (as did the writers of the Commission report).’ In the first place, even if we accept that not all young Ukrainians went to Germany as volunteers, those who were deported were not herded together, brutalized, and then shot to death. In fact, no figure is given for the number of these young people who were killed or died in the course of their hardships. Secondly, it is obvious that the Ukrainians could not have been very well guarded it was possible for them to escape and jump from the trains—something that would have been impossible for Jews inside the locked cattle trucks where many died horrible deaths even before they reached their final destination. Third, this attempt to gain sympathy for the Ukrainians loses much of its impact when the report proceeds to quote several letters from the Ukrainians now living in Nazi Germany to their relatives in Berdichev.
The deported Ukrainians were apparently living under normal conditions (normal, that is, for wartime), as far as we can judge from the brief quotations from letters (again, allowing for wartime censorship). The very fact that they were permitted to maintain regular correspondence with relatives suggests that they were not facing any threat to their lives. If any of these young people had been worked to death in Germany, certainly the Commission would have reported it. Here the absence of evidence speaks volumes: this is the dog that did not bark. In fact, the quotations from the letters contain little more than mundane complaints about being homesick, about their hopes and plans to return soon, about discomforts and the dearth of certain goods, or the high prices one has to pay for this or that item. None of this is very surprising in a country at war, which was being pounded day and night by US and British bombers. By far the most significant complaint comes from a young woman who was working as a maid or housekeeper. When she became too weak from anemia to work, she was beaten by her German mistress and then sent to a camp containing 1,400 people suffering from TB or other physical disabilities. Clearly the woman was harshly treated. However, she was able to escape from the camp and made her way back home to Berdichev—an extraordinary achievement in wartime conditions (and particularly on the Eastern Front) that is left unexplained, as indeed is much else in the final report written by members of the Commission.
Evidence of forensic reports and eyewitnesses:
In spite of Soviet policy and the obvious efforts of the local NKVD officials to accommodate that policy in the Berdichev Commission’s report, the Commission presents the raw testimony in what appears to be unadulterated form. This is vitally important for the historical record. In addition to the interviews or interrogations (doprosy) of the eyewitnesses to (and rare survivors of) the massacres and their aftermath, there are six forensic reports (akty sudebno-meditsinskoy ekspertizy). Medical personnel opened graves at locations within the town, as well as a dozen pits outside town.
The medical reports, made by or under the supervision of doctors, are brief and to the point. They estimate the time of death, give measurements of the pits and mass graves (length, depth and width), and state the number of corpses discovered in each pit. They state whether the victims are men or women, children or babies, and whether they are dressed in military or civilian clothes, or are unclothed. The forensic reports mention whether or not bullet wounds were found and, if so, in what part of the body or head, and in how many victims. The report also notes that in none of the pits were bullet wounds found on babies and young children, and that evidently they had all been tossed into the pits and buried alive. In other cases people had been shot in the extremities (arms or legs), meaning that these unfortunates had been shoved into the pits while alive and suffering from wounds. In several cases Russian POWs had also been buried alive (whether wounded or not).
Following the six forensic reports is a series of direct testimonies from various eyewitnesses, who confirm the fact noted by the medical personnel, namely that babies and small children, and in some cases invalid adults or protesters of any age, were not shot dead or not shot at all, but shoved alive into the pits to suffocate. A female witness, Anna Alekseyevna Vitrenyuk, born in 1900, confirms that babies and children were buried alive and that the victims were marched to the edge of the pit in groups of ten-fifteen and machine-gunned so they fell directly into the pit. Vitrenyuk states that the shooting she observed began at seven o’clock in the morning of 15 September and continued until nine o’clock that evening. Other witnesses suggest that the shooting ceased earlier, but they may be referring to a break taken by the killers, who apparently needed to drink schnapps and rest before resuming. An elderly Ukrainian peasant named Ivan Nikiforovich Nikolaychuk, born in 1879, says the German killers on 15 September were drunk and that they threw small children alive into the pits and shot mothers with babies in their arms when they refused to part with them. He concludes by stating that the pits, covered with dirt, continued to move (shevelllis) for three whole days, as some of the victims slowly died struggling to escape. Nikolaychuk avoids (or was asked to avoid) actually saying the word Ukrainian.
He is quoted as using the codeword Polizei, but he makes it clear that Ukrainians took part in the massacre. Nikolaychuk refers to them as the ‘comrades’ (zradnyky in Ukrainian) of the Germans. The testimony of Mikhail Pekelis is better informed and more complete than most. Although he did not witness all the events he describes, he was obviously an intelligent and resourceful man who sought out reliable information and recalled it. Born in 1906, he was one of five brothers and came from a family of stonemasons and builders of large Russian stoves with a long-established reputation in Berdichev and the surrounding area. They had also participated in the construction of the Moscow subway in the 1930s as volunteers. Vasily Grossman mentions him in his account; he bad obviously interviewed him too. Pekelis lost most of his family, including his wife and , in the Berdichev massacres. He and an elder brother named Vulf managed to survive by digging a tunnel under a building occupied by the Nazis; they hid there for 145 days, being fed secretly by a Russian engineer. They finally escaped to join the partisans in 1943.
Pekelis not only makes a point of listing the names of Ukrainian collaborators involved in the largest of the Berdichev massacres in mid-September: he gives a figure of 15,000 as the number of victims. He also states that the Polizei actually took part in shooting 4,300 Jews on 5 September (this was south of town near Khazhin) and 3,500 more victims in October 1941. Pekelis mentions that there was some discussion among the Germans of christening seventy orphan children, but this idea was countermanded and all the children were seized by the SD and then murdered at the military camp and prison on Lysaya gora. From Grossman’s account we learn that these seventy children had Jewish mothers, who had already been killed (the fathers are not mentioned). Hence, according to the Nuremberg Laws adopted in the 1930s, the unfortunate children were considered tainted as Mischlinge (halfbreeds). Some unkown person seems to have tried to save their lives by suggesting that they be christened. Such a strategy might have worked in former centuries, when anti-semitism was based on religious intolerance, but Nazi racism allowed for no such escape route, even for small children.
The testimony of Nikita Moyseyevich Doychik, born in 1892, a carpenter living outside Berdichev, corroborates much of what Pekelis and other eyewitnesses stated. He personally saw the series of shootings that took place on 15-16 September near the village of Shlemarka west of Berdichev. He reports that invalids and elderly people were dragged along the ground on blankets and sheets by younger relatives to the massacre site.
Doychik is referred to by name in the Commission report, but his testimony is embellished and in some instances totally distorted. For example, he is reported as saying that ‘columns of Soviet young people’ were marched to pits and shot, as though they were Young Pioneers or members of the Komsomol. But Doychik speaks in a much more human way of ‘young people, boys and girls’. The report does relay correctly Doychik’s evidence that the children were crying and pleading for mercy. Those who protested too loudly for the Germans’ taste were immediately shoved alive into the pits. Once again there is no indication in the official report that these young victims had been selected for death because they were Jewish. It is quite clear from Doychik’s written statement that alt these young people were Jews. And indeed one of the Commission’s own forensic reports (dated 11-12 April 1944) notes that in a pit west town near the village of Shlemarka medical personnel discovered the bodies of children aged between ten and sixteen, and adds that they were all wearing ‘white armbands with six-pointed stars on them’. Clearly, these were Jewish children whom the Nazi authorities had forced to wear the Star of David for the purpose of quick identification. Doychik states that the shooting was actually done by Germans, as far as he could tell. The Commission sidesteps his additional comment that it was Ukrainian Polizei who shovelled the dirt over the bodies (some of the victims were still alive) and guarded the pits to make sure that nobody escaped. In what is the most egregious distortion of testimony in the whole Berdichev archive, the report cites Doychik as saying that a little girl started to climb out of the pit and begged for mercy—as if this were occurring during the actual shootings by Germans. The Commission then simply lies as to the ethnic identity of her killer, stating that ‘One of the German [emphasis added] butchers seized her by the hair and threw her back into the pit alive on the dead bodies.’
Doychik’s testimony is quite different. He reports seeing a little girl lying at the edge of one pit the morning after the shootings. She was one of the children thrown in alive and, because fresh air penetrated the loose soil of the upper layer, she had survived and finally clawed her way out. She begged for mercy, but a Ukrainian [emphasis added] used his shovel to split her skull, and then threw her body back into the pit. The archive contains two separate statements by Doychik. The first is a brief response to an NKVD officer; the second is a much more complete account given to a man from the Berdichev Procurator’s office named Sovdagarov. The first statement ends rather abruptly, perhaps because Doychik was not happy with the manner in which the NKVD officer was taking down his testimony. Even the first brief statement mentions- only that the little girl was struck by ‘a butcher’—there is no mention of the man being German.
List of Berdichev citizens murdered:
Perhaps the most startling contradiction between the official report and the actual evidence in the Berdichev archive itself is provided by a preliminary list of civilians shot—such lists are included in most sections of the overall Commission archive. An English version of the list is given at the conclusion of this article. In the case of Berdichev, as elsewhere, the names listed are almost all immediately recognizable as Jewish, as are the names of four of the eight members of the committee assigned the task of compiling the list (Krimfeld, Gershenzon, Gershengorina, Enelbaum)—in two cases it seems that some of their relatives are among the victims mentioned. None of the eight members is given an official title or position, so we can assume that these four Jews, as residents of Berdichev who escaped the massacres, were hired to help identify as many of the victims as possible.
The list is far from complete. The scope of the Berdichev tragedy was so great (half the population) and the time constraints so severe that the list of victims peters out after naming only a fraction of the total number killed. The information provided is: name, male or female, children, elderly, and address. Usually only last or family name is given; sometimes victims are identified by their occupation or the number of people in their family. The total number of victims listed is 711 (198 men, 181 women, 270 children, and 62 elderly people—presumably grandparents). However, there are a number of errors or puzzling entries, where an obviously female name is then counted in the male column or vice versa. There is also a mistake in the numbering of the names; a name (or number) is missing.
The most remarkable feature of the list is that the names were not arranged alphabetically, but spatially, that is, according to the locations where the victims had lived. Apparently, no population records were kept in Berdichev. Thus the committee members or their representatives must have simply walked down a street, knocking on doors or ringing doorbells, asking the 1944 occupants of a given apartment or house who used to live there-as though trying to deliver mail to people who had moved to another town and not left a forwarding address. This procedure explains why the list of victims is broken down according to street, apartment building, and individual apartment units. That is exactly the way the Ukrainians rounded them up, by streets, beginning with Byelopolskaya and Makhnovskaya, as we saw earlier.
In answer to the question ‘Who used to live here?’, the Ukrainians who moved into the Jews’ vacant homes and apartments sometimes can only remember a single detail about the victims: ‘The woman pianist at the Frunze cinema’; ‘The man who sold seltzer water at shop no. 27’; or simply ‘Father, mother, another man, three children’. And who were these people who now lived in the Jews’ homes? Their former Ukrainian neighbours, who had watched them being led off to the temporary ghetto and then to their deaths, and in some cases had helped the Germans identify them as Jews. These again are unpleasant, distasteful facts that the Commission prefers to pass over in silence. However, we know from other evidence that Ukrainians rushed in to steal the Jews’ possessions and to occupy their homes almost as soon as they were forced to abandon them. Vasily Grossman confirms these facts in The Black Book:
“Greedy for profit, these people were eager to enrich themselves at the expense of their innocent victims. Policemen [i.e., Ukrainian Polizei] , members of their families, and the [Ukrainian] mistresses of German soldiers rushed to loot the vacated apartments. Before the eyes of the living dead, the looters carried off scarves, pillows, feather mattresses. Some walked past the guards and took scarves and knitted woollen sweaters from women and girls who were awaiting their death.”
Grossman’s statement, and indeed the entire Black Book, was suppressed immediately after the war. It was not until 1977 that the authorities permitted any kind of monument to be raised to victims of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union. A typical example of Soviet kitsch, the monument was ostensibly erected to honour victims of Babi Yar, but it did not mention Jews at all and it was not even located at the actual massacre site. In 1987, as glasnost and perestroyka gained momentum, surviving Jews at Berdichev managed to have a simple monument raised to the victims of the mass shootings west of town. However, once again the word Jew was not allowed to appear by the cautious authorities; and the code-phase ‘peaceful Soviet citizens’ was again employed.
Only in September 1991, one month after a coup failed to restore Soviet power, was it possible to hold ceremonies to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the two large massacres to the west and south of Berdichev, and to honour the victims. Two of the featured speakers were Ster Yelisavetsky, a researcher in Kiev who has done much to recover the history of events during the Nazi occupation of his home town, and Naum Epelfeld, who became an oncologist. But the ceremonies were shared by Jew and non-Jew alike. The non-Jewish mayor of Berdichev spoke at one ceremony which turned out to be an ecumenical occasion.
Perhaps this bodes well for the future of Jewish citizens in Ukraine, as does the erecting of a large menorah-monument at the actual massacre site of Babi Yar in Kiev. As for the future of Holocaust studies, the recovery of the eyewitness testimony offers similar reasons for optimism. The quotation from Grossman given above, like the evidence adduced from the memoirs of Beti Livshits and Naum Epelfeld, demonstrates once again that if we juxtapose the newly available archival material with existing sources, if we look closely at the actual statements of the eyewitnesses and treat the official reports and summaries with some caution, then we can begin to understand two things. First, the murder of ‘innocent Soviet citizens’ was really the beginning of the Holocaust. And second, the handful of SD and SS in Einsatzgruppe C could never have carried out the murder of such large numbers of people, even if unarmed, so quickly and efficiently, without vital Ukrainian assistance, particularly from the Polizei. This fact in itself helps us to understand why collaboration remained such a sensitive issue in the postwar period, and remained so until the very end of the Soviet regime.
It was the Ukrainian Polizei who rounded up Jews and herded them into the ghetto; it was the Polizei who policed the ghetto and saw to it that Jews obeyed a whole series of draconian laws, designed to isolate them still further from their Ukrainian neighbours, and to weaken them physically and psychologically by preventing them.from buying all kinds of food, except basically potatoes. It is hard to see how the mass shooting of many thousands of Jews could have been accomplished in mid-September had the Polizei not rounded them up and driven them to the massacre sites, then guarded the pits overnight and (as we have seen) made sure none of the victims managed to escape. Soon thereafter, if not before, the Polizei began to take part in actual shootings. They were also put in charge of Russian POWs and brutalized them unmercifully before shooting or killing them in a particularly callous manner.
The evidence of the Commission archive also helps us to understand why this first phase of the Holocaust was terminated by the SS leaders, who determined that shooting. was not only too slow and too public but also too hard on the killers themselves. There would have to be another way to complete the genocide, one that kept a greater distance between the killers and their victims. Even for the sadists in the SS, being splattered with the blood and brains of victims sometimes became hard on their nerves. We know that the killers occasionally went crazy and began firing at random in their own barracks, or drank themselves into oblivion. Himmler had it right in his gruesome statement:
“For executions by shooting you need people who can do the shooting and it has a bad effect on them. So it would be better to liquidate human beings by using gas vans’ which have been prepared to my specifications in Germany. By their use the unpleasantnesses connected with execution by shooting can be removed.
Naturally, there is no need for us to be concerned about the welfare of such men. But the response of perpetrators to large public shootings is of interest to the historian because it helps to explain how the beginnings of the genocide in the.Soviet Union helped spur the exploration of gas vans and then the construction of extermination camps and the use of gas chambers as a method of mass murder.
The overall Commission archive cannot answer all our questions by itself. As the Berdichev documents demonstrate, we still have to reconcile different figures given by various witnesses as to the number of victims in this or that Aktion. But the figures do move us further towards the truth than the sketchy evidence at our disposal previously. The total figure of about 30,000 victims for Berdichev still seems to hold true, if we incorporate all the separate shootings discussed by the various eyewitnesses and survivors.