BOOK OF THE WEEK
BABI YAR: THE STORY OF UKRAINE’S HOLOCAUST
by Anatoli Kuznetsov (Vintage £20, 528pp)
On my bookshelves I have hundreds of accounts of World War II and its horrors. A few I have even written myself, so this is a subject I know well.
Yet nothing I have read about that barbaric time has been as affecting as this gripping, disturbing book — rightly hailed a masterpiece — as it plunges the reader into the worst of (in)human behaviour and, in its imagery and immediacy, leaves you gasping and despairing that such terrible things were actually done.
Pictured: A Jewish man from Ukraine being executed. Anatoli Kuznetsov’s book looks at horrific tragedies of the Holocaust in Ukraine
What is even more poignant and powerful is that it concerns a country and a people whose suffering continues in our own time.
Ukraine felt the tyrant’s boot on its neck long before Vladimir Putin was even born. Stalin and Hitler both did their worst there, subjugating, starving, slaughtering. Its historic failure to resist then is the folk memory that drives its people’s passionate resistance today.
This is not a new book. It was first published in the Soviet Union in 1961 but only after the Kremlin’s censors had removed anything critical of Comrade Stalin.
A quarter of the original was red-pencilled — including (no surprise) whole chapters on the deliberate famine of 1933 when Stalin seized the country’s grain and five million people starved to death or resorted to eating cats, frogs, grass and even each other.
Author Anatoli Kuznetsov had no choice but to submit to censorship if he was to be published at all and in this truncated form his book sold millions, making him a celebrity writer in Russia.
But he secretly kept the original, written from his journals documenting the horrors he witnessed from the age of 12, and buried it in the ground for fear of the KGB searching his home and seizing it.
First, though, he photographed it, page by page, and when he defected to the West in 1969, he brought the film with him to London, hidden in the lining of his jacket. It was published in full here in 1970, with the censored material restored and highlighted to make a political point.
And it is that text that, more than half a century later, has now been reprinted. All I can say is: read it and weep.
The writer’s unbearable first hand accounts include the Babi Yar massacre. Anatoli pictured in 1969
A woman laying flowers down during a 2014 commemoration ceremony at the Monument For the Victims of the Nazi Massacre in Babi Yar
Pictured: The horrific scenes as Nazi SS Special Commanders line up Jewish people to execute them with guns and push them in to a ditch
Within its 500 un-put-downable pages is the story of Ukraine’s holocaust, told through the boyhood of Anatoli himself.
He dubs it ‘a document in the form of a novel’ — and would that it were a piece of fiction. But, as he writes emphatically at the start, ‘this book contains nothing but the truth’.
He invites us to ‘enter my fate. Imagine that you are 12, that the world is at war and nobody knows what is going to happen next…’ We are drawn into the day-by-day uncertainty and incomprehension as the bewildering nightmare of Nazi bestiality unfolds around him with its total contempt for human life, and civilisation is suspended.
In Kyiv, where he lives, life under communist rule is bad enough, full of shortages and crackdowns. Then, in September 1941, the armies of the Third Reich arrive, having routed the Red Army and sent them packing.
There is cheering in the streets — until the round-ups begin. A notice is stuck on a fence summoning ‘all Yids’ to an assembly point. They are to take with them money, valuables, warm clothes etc.
Anatoli in 1969. In Kyiv, where he lived, life under communist rule was filled with shortages and crackdowns
The assumption the Jews make — as do onlooking Ukrainians like Anatoli — is that they are to be escorted to the railway station and deported to a new life somewhere, possibly even Palestine, the optimists suggest. But their destination is closer than they can imagine. At the edge of Kyiv is a deep ravine-cum-quarry that cuts its way out into the countryside — Babi Yar.
A ‘sea of heads’, Anatoli observes, is marched in that direction, and then, back home, he hears the sound of bursts of machine-gun fire that go on into the night and the next day. Realisation dawns.
A neighbour has caught glimpses of victims made to strip naked, being lined up one behind another so as to kill as many as possible at one time, of bodies piled up, of some not yet dead who crawled out only to be battered on the head and thrown back into the pile.
A Jewish boy has escaped and arrives in Anatoli’s street, begging to be hidden. Anatoli wants to help but a neighbour sends for the Germans who take him back to die.
A woman named Dina Pronicheva actually did escape and years later she wrote to the adult Anatoli to give the only eyewitness account by a Babi Yar survivor.
Pictured: A Menorah shaped monument for the approximately 100,000 Jewish people massacred at Babi Yar
The detail is excruciating, personal, shocking in its reality. Frightened children. Mothers trying to protect them. Girls raped, then butchered. The smell of flesh. The casualness of the executioners as they halt for coffee.
Thirty-three thousand Jews died in that first massacre, but the killing didn’t stop there. Next from all over Ukraine came Russian prisoners-of-war in their thousands, then the gypsies, a large group of sailors, partisans, anyone who stepped out of line. The whole of the Dynamo Kyiv football team died there for their audacity in beating German sides in exhibition matches.
The commandant of the local slave labour camp took pleasure in lining up his prisoners and, on a whim, deciding whether to have every fifth man or every tenth man shot in the head. Sometimes he used explosive bullets so their brains spattered over the faces of the rest. He had an Alsatian dog trained to rip off men’s testicles.
Meanwhile, the young Anatoli, forced early into maturity beyond his years, did whatever he could to survive in a city run like a concentration camp, where any defiance meant a one-way trip to Babi Yar, now a permanent killing ground.
He had his family — schoolteacher mother, grandpa, a cat named Titus — and friends. One was outed as a Jew by another friend, leaving Anatoli uncomprehending about human behaviour.
All the while he was making notes, which later formed the basis of his book and its overwhelming, sorrowful message: ‘I cannot for the life of me understand why, on this beautiful, blessed earth, it is possible for people to indulge in such absolute madness as war, dictatorship, police terror, to kill each other and to humiliate each other sadistically.’
He was 14 when the Nazis finally retreated in December 1943 from a city that had been reduced to rubble. He remembered naked bodies of German soldiers lying in the snow, ‘stiff, blue-grey corpses’, and children using them as toboggans to whoop their way down a hill. Was this really what victory looked like?
Moreover, the Russians were back and so, too, was the dead hand of communism, intent on re-writing history. Pretty soon, fired by their own anti-Semitism, the authorities were downplaying the whole Jewish aspect of the massacres.
No wonder, Anatoli concluded: ‘The world is just one big Babi Yar.’ And with a sigh of despair that we can all share: ‘Can it really be true that the only thing people have learnt to do to perfection in the whole of history is to murder each other?’