On September 28, 1941, a German edict was issued ordering the Jews of Kiev and of the surrounding area to gather some clothes and belongings, and report at an intersection not far from a local freight train station. Instead of being deported, however, they were marched to Babi Yar and shot over the course of two days. According to a contemporary report, the German forces on hand murdered 33,771 Jews. Dina Pronicheva is one of the very few to survive this horrific event. This is her story.
Featured guest: Karel Berkhoff, Senior Researcher at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
What Happened at Babi Yar-Transcription
Have you ever stopped to think about the remarkable things that’ve happened in places where you’ve done ordinary things?
A lot of history has happened in places that we’ve now repurposed for other uses. In Egypt, Syria and China, ordinary life goes on upon the same ground where legendary ancient pharaohs and dynasties ruled. In London, drunk teenagers between pubs walk some of the same streets as Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde once did, and in the South, drunk teenagers throw house parties on land once culled by slaves.
There are a few statues standing today at Babi Yar, in northwest Kiev. It’s a place where people can go to remember the horrible things that happened there. But these statues are simply part of a larger, otherwise normal park. Overwhelmingly, the people who walk through Babi Yar on a daily basis are locals--running errands, pushing strollers, or just enjoying a day outside. Kids play sports out on the lawns. Of course they don’t think about--probably can’t imagine--what once happened in those very spots.
But if you know what happened at Babi Yar, it’s hard not to think about it. The edges of what was once a deep ravine are no longer quite as steep, but they’re still clearly there. So, if you walk by, you’ll be able to see where once tens of thousands of bodies were piled up.
Welcome to On the Holocaust, a podcast from Yad Vashem: the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. I’m your host, Nate Nelson.
Karel Berkhoff: Hello. I’m Karel Berkhoff. I’m a senior researcher in Amsterdam at an institute devoted to the study of war, Holocaust and genocide and I’m a historian of the Holocaust and Ukraine in particular.
Dr. Berkhoff has researched extensively the story of Babi Yar, which begins with a major turn of events in the course of World War II.
In the summer of ‘39, the Germans and Soviets signed a nonaggression pact. The two powers used their agreement as grounds to start carving up Poland for themselves, in the beginning stage of World War II.
Two years later, in the summer of ‘41, Germany invaded Soviet territory, in violation of the pact, intent on expanding its empire east. Among the territories conquered was the major, historic city of Kiev, with its population of approximately 850,000. From “Babi Yar” by Dr. Berkhoff, quote:
On the morning of September 18, 1941, with the German armed forces close to capturing the city, people in Kiev began to loot stores and warehouses. During the morning of Friday, September 19, German troops occupied the city. Curious residents came out to watch but did little else. On some streets the mood was openly upbeat.
End quote. Even the couple-hundred-thousand Jews of the city didn’t quite understand what the German invasion meant for them.
Karel Berkhoff: the Jews of the Soviet Union were not a unified whole. You had Jews living in what used to be Eastern Poland. They were generally pretty well-informed of what was in store because of the events of 1939. They had heard or experienced German antisemitic violence.
Further east, it was more complicated. There were lots of rumors, refugees arriving from the west and there was a little bit of information in the Soviet media. But as to the latter, there was a lot of skepticism. Is that really true? Are these Germans really that bad? This had to do also with a shared memory of the earlier occupation by the Germans in 1918. That was another German occupation that for Jews by and large had been a positive experience.
This was to be a very different occupation from 1918, though, because this was a very different Germany. Because this time, trailing behind the army was the Einsatzgruppen.
After the Wehrmacht eliminated enemy combatants in an area, the Einsatzgruppen came in to eliminate “ideological” enemies of Nazi Germany, like Communists or partisans and, far more systematically, Jews. This was, in fact, the beginning of Nazi systematic murder of the Jews. To achieve this they worked alongside army units and, in particular, local collaborationist forces wherever they happened to be. The men were killed first but, usually, women and children were not spared for long. Forced labor was saved for the lucky few.
So, by the time the Germans reached Kiev, they were already well-practiced in systematic mass murder. They didn’t necessarily arrive with a point-by-point plan for the metropolitan city, but that would hardly save the Jews for long.
Karel Berkhoff: So what happened is the Germans arrived in September 19, 1941. This had been preceded by a large encirclement battle. So finally they arrived without any street fights. The city was basically intact. But five days later, in the city center, bombs began to explode and these were bombs that had been secretly placed in basements and rooms with the purpose of making conditions for the Germans unbearable. This was a Stalinist directive that had been executed by the Red Army and NKVD, the Soviet political police. There had been rumors about these bombs being placed. But often they had been very difficult to find. So suddenly and to the great dismay of course of the invaders, bombs began to explode and they caused a huge fire in the city center that ultimately destroyed a large part of the main street and some adjacent streets and it killed Germans.
Though it was Soviet soldiers who’d placed the bombs, it was the Jews who were blamed. Blamed because, in the Nazi worldview, the Jews and the Bolshevists were always scheming together. Blamed because they were simply such an easy scapegoat.
Karel Berkhoff: They had had an intention to kill Jews. But this really accelerated this resolve and arrests began to be made not only of Jews but of communists. And very soon, although we don’t have conclusive documents to prove it, very soon the decision indeed was made with regards to kill all the Jews of this large metropolitan city in a single stroke.
The Nazis decided not just to kill Jews, but kill all the Jews at once.
Dina Pronicheva was born in January, 1911, in Chernigov, then part of the Russian Empire (today CherNIhiv, Ukraine). At age five she moved to Kiev, and remained there when, at 21 she married a Russian non-Jew. Dina received a secondary education and acquired a good knowledge of Ukrainian. worked in the city as an actress at a puppet theater. The puppeting ended when the war started, and so she took up employment with the Red Army. It didn’t last long since, while her husband was out fighting, she also bore the responsibility of looking after a three-year-old daughter and one-year-old son.
She described what it was like, that week of the invasion. Quote:
The mood naturally was one of panic. There was neither food, nor water, nor light. Nothing.
Fires broke out in Kiev on 24 and 25 September. [. . .] Streets were burning. Hunting for Jews began. Germans were going from flat to flat at night, searching for Jews.
End quote. For Dina, this was not a distant problem--quickly it arrived at her doorstep. Quote:
I was living with my mother-in-law. She was a pious woman, and icons were hanging on the walls, and when Germans came she pointed to the icons to indicate that we were Russians, and they did not bother me.
End quote. Dina escaped the immediate threat, but a few days later a notice was circulated citywide. It instructed all the Jews of Kiev and the surrounding area to appear at a specified location, by 8:00 a.m. the next day, and to bring along, quote, “documents, money, valuables, warm clothing, and underwear.”
Karel Berkhoff: Simply ordering the Jews to show up and warning them that if they did not, they would be killed. So that made a very – made for a very strong, if I can put it in this way, message. You have two choices: Either stay home and likely face death or show up and enter into an uncertain future because the poster didn’t say at all what was in store.
With less than 24 hours, there was no time to even try to figure out what was actually going on. The logical thing to do, presumably, was to just follow the order. Whatever was in store was, probably, preferable to being killed for disobeying.
Karel Berkhoff: Besides the poster, there was a planted rumor and that rumor said there’s going to be some kind of resettlement and the destination wherein some rumors said it would be the Soviet side of the front and other rumors said it would be Palestine and there were others.
Dina Pronicheva’s brothers were already fighting with the Red Army, but her parents and her younger sister were still in the city. Her parents, quote:
… asked me to accompany them because they thought that Jews would be deported somewhere because it was necessary to take warm things, and I went with them. The children stayed at home with my husband.
I was at my mother’s place at seven o’clock in the morning, and soon after seven we set off for the place indicated in the order. It was impossible to get through the streets: carts, cars and two-wheeled carts were transporting belongings. There was a terrible rumble. Very many people were walking: old men, mothers with infants in arms, old women.
Karel Berkhoff: she and her mother and father moved to the designated location just like her neighbors and most of the other Jews did.
With the crowd, they approached a military roadblock--with barbed-wire fencing, anti-tank obstructions.
Karel Berkhoff: They saw a road block near the gate of the Jewish cemetery and in there was a gap and you could get in. But you couldn’t get out.
She became concerned pretty quickly because she walked a little bit further and then came back.
Like many Jews, Dina had wondered whether, because they were asked to bring their things, and because the designated gathering place was by a railroad station, they were destined for some kind of resettlement.
But when Dina went ahead of her parents, and got a glimpse of what was going on in the distance, she was dispelled of such hope. She saw, instead, lines of people being stripped of their belongings, their food and the clothes on their backs.
Karel Berkhoff: But she decided not to tell her parents. She didn’t want to concern them too much.
She tried to get away, but was stopped. They were past the point of no return. Soon Dina became separated from the rest of her family.
Karel Berkhoff: It was a huge crowd really that had overflowed the street. Instead she was beside an old man, blind, who asked her to help him walk and she asked him, “Do you know where we are being taken?” and in her recollections he said something like, “Don’t you know my child? We’re going to pay our last debt to God.”
Babi Yar was part of a huge system of ravines in Kiev.
Nowadays it’s part of the city. But in those times, it was on the edge and it had nine spurs running east and west for about a kilometer and its slopes are really, really deep, about 10 meters. Nearby there was hardly any human activity. You had a few houses, a small street and some cemeteries and in the 19th century, the Russian Imperial Army had created camps there. So it was distant but not too distant and also not very known in Kiev at the time.
Babi Yar was an ideal location for what the Nazis had planned. It was close enough for Jews to travel to, but far enough from the population center that it wouldn’t cause too much noise or bring too much attention. And those deep ravines were particularly useful for mass murder.
Karel Berkhoff: a gauntlet of Germans with rubber gloves, with sticks and dogs. Every Jew had to run this gauntlet and was beaten very severely and was attacked by these dogs.
Somewhere in the crowd, Dina heard the sound of her mother.
Karel Berkhoff: She didn’t see where her mother was located. But she heard her scream. “Daughter, you don’t look like one. Save yourself!” and of course she meant you don’t look Jewish and that really prompted her. She walked to an auxiliary policeman and asked him in Ukrainian, “Where’s your commander?” and he asked, “Why do you need him? Why do you need him?” Then she said, “Well, I’m not Jewish. I’m Ukrainian. I was simply accompanying some colleagues and I’m here simply by accident.” Then she showed some documentation that indeed did not mention her Jewishness and there was her last name which sounds Russian, Pronicheva.
So he said, “OK, you sit there. Wait. We will let you out once we have shot all the Jews.”
The officer pointed to a mound of grass where a small group of other presumed non-Jews were waiting under police custody. Quote:
I walked up to the mound and sat down. At first I looked at all the horrors: people were being undressed and beaten before my eyes. They were laughing hysterically, apparently losing their minds and turning grey in a matter of minutes. Infants were being torn from their mothers’ arms and thrown over a sand wall.
End quote. Dina didn’t know where her family was. They were, in all likelihood, already over that sand wall.
Later in the day, a high-ranking S.S. officer approached the mound and spoke with the man who’d allowed Dina and a few others to wait there. The lower officer explained that these were not Jews--that they were merely caught up in the crowd, and so they were to be released. The superior…
Karel Berkhoff: became very angry and said, “No! They have seen everything. If they are released, they will talk and that will be really bad because we need more Jews to show up.” So they were not released and taken away to be murdered.
Dina no longer had an escape. She was pushed forward to the ravine.
Karel Berkhoff: that’s when she saw for the first time what it was like over there. It was absolutely horrific. She saw down there a huge sea of bloody corpses.
There were some ten or fifteen people lined up in front of her. One by one they were shot, their bodies piled up; with the thousands already there. One by one, until it was Dina’s turn.
She stepped up to the edge of the ravine, closed her eyes and squeezed her fists tight.
It was dark now. A few soldiers and policemen who remained carried torches, making a final sweep of the area.
Germans came down into that ravine and walked across the victims and tried to establish is everybody really dead. lso some non-German auxiliaries were there and one of them actually was very suspicious of Pronicheva.
Dina’s body was covered in blood--it was pouring down her face. But she was face down, and as he waved his torch around her, the policeman didn’t see the blood, nor any tears in her clothing from any bullet piercings. He mentioned it to one of the Germans nearby. They agreed to double-check.
They lifted up Dina’s body, and began to beat on it. Then they threw her down again. She was not responsive at all. The officer put a boot on her chest, and one on her hand, and pressed down, crushing the bones. Again, nothing. Clearly she was dead. They moved on.
Karel Berkhoff: So that check had taken place and then apparently it was time to cover all of the victims of that day with a thin layer of sand and that’s indeed what was done.
The mass grave was submerged in sand. In the dead of night, shoveling, the officers on duty didn’t spot something jut out from underneath. Quote:
I pushed the sand away from my face. I swallowed sand along with air and started coughing. I was scared that they would find me and finish me off. I was still hoping to get out and escape. I tried to cough more quietly. I felt a little better. I began flailing about and crawled out.
Karel Berkhoff: So she was obviously supposed to be murdered. But she jumped just in time before any bullet hit her and she fell down, deep down into that sea of bodies, partly still living people of course, and she decided to pretend to be dead.
Dina had literally dodged a bullet. Then when a Ukranian policeman picked her up, beat her, threw her and trampled her, she remained unresponsive not because she was dead, or even unconscious--she was fully conscious, in fact. She just took it.
Karel Berkhoff: she kept quiet and thereby evaded getting a final bullet. That’s how she remained alive at that moment.
Dina dug out of the sand and climbed out of the ravine. Just then a boy called to her, from below. His name was Motia. She helped him up and together they crawled along the ground, hiding in bushes and behind trees.
Karel Berkhoff: It was dark and then quite some time passed. She saw other things. She saw Germans murder two Jewish women whom they first raped. She saw them shoot a young boy
[T]owards evening, I started hallucinating: I constantly saw my father, mother and sister in front of me. They were wearing long white robes. They were all laughing and turning somersaults, and I laughed with them, then lost consciousness and fell over the precipice.
When I came to, Motia was sitting beside me and crying. He thought that I had died. I quickly understood where I was, and we continued crawling.
It was now quite dark.
[. . .]
In order to escape we had to crawl through a large meadow
[. . .]
We agreed that since he was almost completely undressed and I was wearing dark clothing he would go first and if everything was all right he would shake a branch and I would follow. But when he crawled through, he was caught by guards and immediately shot. I almost lost consciousness. I was alone again.
Karel Berkhoff: so it was already the second day of October when she really was able to get out further and she approached a nearby cottage.
It’d been three days of hiding--without food or shelter--when she ducked into the shed behind the cottage. Quote:
The woman of the house came out and found me in the shed, and I had to come out. When she asked me, “How did you get here?” I sensed a threat in her tone and [. . .] [she] sent her son somewhere. About five minutes later her son brought a German officer and, pointing at me, said, “Here’s a Jew, sir.”
End quote. After all that--after dodging a bullet, playing dead while being brutally beaten, nearly suffocating to death, and three days of hiding and escaping and starving and hallucination, Dina was back to where she started. Literally: the German took her to the very spot at Babi Yar where she’d been four days prior. A nightmare on repeat.
She was held there alongside other Jews who’d been captured from their homes during the roundups, as well as those who were too old to do the walk. Together, they were surrounded by piles of clothing and shoes. The last remnants of those who’d already met with their fates. Quote:
There was also a woman with two children, one of them an infant. She was screaming very loudly. A very calm nurse was sitting beside her. Her name, I learned later, was Liuba. She felt sorry for me. I was trembling and was obviously cold. She spread out her overcoat, invited me to sit down beside her and covered my legs with half of the coat. Of all the people who were sitting there only we two were completely calm—at least outwardly. We sat like that for an hour or two, I don’t know how long.
End quote. The group was hauled into large vehicles, headed to a different holding place. Along the way, everyone in the pickup was facing forward to where they were going, when Dina and the nurse Liuba jumped out the back.
According to an official German report, 33,771 Jews were murdered at Babi Yar on the 29th and 30th of September, 1941. By the war’s end, some 100,000 or so more Jews, POWs, Romanis and Ukranian nationalists joined them.
Karel Berkhoff: After these mass killings at Babi Yar, what did the Germans do with these many piles of bodies?
At first the Germans simply covered these huge mass graves. Not only in Kiev but elsewhere. But it proved to be difficult to fully cover these bodies, that you have this phenomenon of swelling of corpses. Often those graves so to speak broke open but they then covered it once more, enlisting or forcing former Soviet prisoners or actual Soviet prisoners to make the cover more neat so to speak. Later when they began fearing losing the war and in particular in 1943, a huge campaign began to secretly excavate and burn the corpses. So that campaign also took place in Kiev. So what it meant is that prisoners were forced to dig up the victims and bring them on to pyres and then burn them and then spread the ashes. This was an attempt to literally obliterate the most telling evidence.
The site of the ravine wasn’t immediately dealt with following the war, in the way one would expect. Rather, for years thereafter it attracted scavengers seeking valuables leftover from the remains. Nearby townspeople sometimes used the site for illegal dumping.
Karel Berkhoff: the Soviet authorities decided we’re going to actually sort of remove the ravine by filling it in. So that was indeed done in the ‘50s and ‘60s. They filled it in with mud and as an ultimate result, what came into being was a park which still exists and for a long time, there was not even a single monument or indicator of what had happened there
In 1976, the first significant, official monument to the murders at Babi Yar was erected at the site. It was dedicated to the Soviet citizens who died there, and made no reference to Jews.
Karel Berkhoff: Even today, the situation is very confusing to the visitor. If you arrive, you see a multitude of memorials, each with its own specific topic. For instance victims from the Ukrainian Nationalist Organization who were killed later during the occupation.
It may seem odd that, these days, Babi Yar is a place where people take leisurely walks and play sports together. But it’s not surprising: you can walk through and, unless you’re paying attention, not have any clue to just how horrible a thing once happened there. You can take a sled ride down the slope of what was once a ravine, with no concept that decades earlier it was dying bodies rolling down that same slope in that same spot.
Karel Berkhoff: The difficulty with these stories is they are difficult to take in.
These shootings near people’s homes, that’s something that even I who have studied this for some time, it’s hard to take in emotionally but also to grasp and make sense of. It seems that in the general public, this topic sinks in for a little while and then it sort of disappears again.
Nearly a third of all the Jews murdered during the Holocaust were living on territories included within the borders of the Soviet Union as of June, 1941. Most of them were not sent to extermination camps. They were killed in or near the locations where they were captured by the advancing German army - mostly by shooting - in nearby forests or ravines, in parks, Jewish cemeteries, farms, or abandoned buildings; sometimes in their own homes. One reason you don’t hear about these stories quite as much is that for years they remained behind the Iron Curtain. Another is there were so very few survivors. Without Dina Pronicheva’s superhuman feats of survival, for example, we would know so much less than we do today about Babi Yar.
Assuming various non-Jewish identities and surmounting incredible obstacles, Dina survived the Holocaust. In 1944 she reunited with her two young children. Her husband had been killed during the war. She eventually resumed her work at the Puppet Theater. Over the years she had shared her harrowing account of her survival at Babi Yar on different occasions, including a Kiev-based war-crimes tribunal held on January 24, 1946. Every year, she visited Babi Yar, and she seems to have addressed a crowd there on the twenty anniversary of the massacre.. She passed away in 1977, the year after that monument was erected at Babi Yar. The one that made no mention of the Jews.
With that we come to a close. If you’d like to learn more about the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, Babi Yar or Dina Pronicheva, visit yadvashem.org.
This has been On the Holocaust, from Yad Vashem: the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. Our program is produced by Itamar Swissa, Dani Timor and Ran Levi. Research and content management by Jonathan Clapsaddle, Irit Dagan and Dafna Dolinko. The story you heard was written by me, Nate Nelson. Thanks for listening; hit ‘Subscribe’ for more stories like this.
*Photo credit: Archives of the Hamburg Institute for Social Research