German Mass Shootings

In Ukraine there were some two thousand murder actions —shootings of large and small groups of Jews. The transition toward shooting en masse took place at a breathtaking speed.

An important watershed event which established that Germans would murder entire Jewish communities was the mass shooting in Kamianets-Podilsky (Rus. Kamenets-Podolskii), a Soviet-Ukrainian town near the prewar Polish border where Jews comprised a third of the population. Occupied in early July 1941, by the end of the month thousands of Jewish deportees arrived, as a result of Hungarian policy to expel from Subcarpathia those Jews who earlier had fled there from the Reich and Poland. (See Eisen and Stark, The 1941 Galician Deportation) Here, Higher SS and Police Leader  Friedrich Jeckeln oversaw the shooting of 23,600 Jews on 27 and 28 August. More than half of this figure, which Jeckeln reported to Berlin, were Jews from Subcarpathia. This was the largest Nazi massacre of Jews up to that time.

This section presents sources on two of the best documented mass shootings. The first deals with a German officer who objected to the murder of Jewish infants; the second deals with Babi Yar, the massacre in Kiev that has become a symbol of what is increasingly being called the “Holocaust by Bullets.”

In August 1941, the German Secret Field Police in Bila Tserkva (Rus. Belaia Tserkov), a town southwest of Kiev, handed over Jewish men and women to SS Sonderkommando 4a, a subunit of Einsatzgruppe C. The killing squad, consisting of Sonderkommando men, a Waffen-SS company, and auxiliary policemen, shot hundreds over the course of some days, including a large group of children. However, ninety infants and babies were kept imprisoned under horrifying conditions, guarded by Ukrainian militiamen. The General Staff Officer of the 295th Infantry Division, Lieutenant Colonel Helmuth Groscurth (1898–1943), came to investigate and heard about the German intent to murder them. Field Commander Josef Riedl told him he shared this wish—this was as it should be. A disturbed Groscurth informed the command of the Sixth Army, which ordered a postponement. The next day, 21 August, Riedl, Sonderkommando leader Paul Blobel (1894–1951), and his subordinate August Häfner (1912–1999) vehemently objected to Groscurth, and simply planned the murder, which was committed the next day. German soldiers brought the wailing victims to the killing site and the militia shot them. Groscurth wrote an official report about the gruesome event [Document B01]. (See also [Document C10])

Some days later, General Field Marshall Walter von Reichenau (1884–1942), commander of the Sixth Army, offered a written reply of his own. He had decided the matter in consultation with Blobel, he wrote, and he was furious that Groscurth dared to compare the event to Soviet crimes. [Document B02] Some months later, on 10 October 1941, Reichenau was to issue instructions on “The Conduct of the Troops in East,” which among other things aimed at suppressing concerns among the German military about the mass murder of the Jews. “The main goal of the campaign against the Jewish-Bolshevik system is the total smashing of state power and the extermination of the Asiatic influence on European culture,” he explained. This was a “mission to liberate the German people once and for all from the Asiatic-Jewish danger.” German soldiers by necessity had to avenge “bestialities” committed against Germans and related peoples and thus ought to have “full understanding of the necessity for the harsh but justified revenge on Jewish subhumanity.” Such killings were also needed to suppress uprisings in the army’s rear, he added, “which as experience shows always were incited by Jews.” (VEJ7/116; A scan is available online at http://www.ns-archiv.de/krieg/untermenschen/faksimile/)

Kiev became the first large city anywhere in Europe where virtually all its Jewish inhabitants were murdered in one stroke. On 26 September, the German army and the SS agreed to gather the Jews of Kiev, a city they had occupied on 19 September, for immediate annihilation, at a large ravine called Babi Yar. To themselves and their superiors, they characterized the upcoming massacre as an act of “reprisal” for Bolshevik crimes, such as the explosion of time-delayed mines in Kiev’s city center. On Sunday, 28 September, the newly installed Ukrainian police posted a Russian-, Ukrainian-, and German-language order to the Jews of Kiev and the surrounding area. It instructed them to appear the next day before 8:00 a.m. at a specified intersection and to bring along “documents, money, valuables, warm clothing, and underwear.” It added that those Jews who disobeyed would be shot.

We probably will never know which sentiment prevailed among most of the Jews, but mortal fear is a good candidate. As for the non-Jews, few considered the possibility of the terrible truth: mass murder. Many believed that the Jews would “merely” be deported. The Jews, and non-Jewish relations who accompanied them, arrived at the designated corner of Melnikov and Degtiarev Streets and then continued to walk west, down Melnikov Street. There they saw auxiliary policemen and reached, on their right, the gate to the Jewish cemetery, where German Field Gendarmes counted off a specific number of victims and edged them on, while restraining those behind them for some ten minutes. Each group reached Laherna Street (today’s Dorohozhytska Street). Near the edges of Babi Yar, the men, women, and children were forced to undress, under severe beatings from Germans and auxiliaries, and then shot. Those not shot that day were forced into garages and were murdered the day after. According to the SD, the German forces on hand shot 33,771 Jews on 29 and 30 September; massive shooting continued thereafter, however. The killers belonged to Sonderkommando 4a, which received assistance not only from the Wehrmacht but also from Police Battalion 45, Police Battalion 303, interpreters, and auxiliary policemen.

The news shocked and scared many of Kiev’s non-Jews. It was difficult to grasp at first. A good example is the diary of Iryna Khoroshunova (1913–1993), a Ukrainian woman who wrote on 30 September, that “there is something terrible, horrible going on, something inconceivable, which cannot be understood, grasped, or explained.” Several days later, the news was definite—the Jews had indeed all been murdered. She felt she was going insane. [Document B03]

Photographs and Other Contemporary Sources

Early in October 1941, a German propaganda photographer at the Sixth Army called Johannes Hähle (1906–1944) came to Babi Yar and took some color pictures, which he kept for himself. (The first two frames—perhaps showing corpses—were cut from the reel at some stage and disappeared.) In the early 1950s, Hähle’s widow sold the reel to the widow of a Berlin journalist. In 1961 a lawyer obtained prints in connection with a criminal investigation of veterans of Sonderkommando 4a. The Hamburg Institute for Social Research purchased the original reel in 2000. These are the only extant wartime photographs known with certainty to show aspects of the massacre otherwise known only from verbal evidence—heaps of clothing, SS men rummaging through them, and Soviet prisoners of war, who were forced to level the covered mass grave. Later, probably the same day, Hähle went into Kiev and took pictures of non-Jewish pedestrians (not of Jews; see: Malakov, Kiev i Babii iar na nemetskoi fotoplenke oseni 1941 goda) and of women waiting outside the Kerosynna Street camp. [Document B04]

The massacre was far from secret. In a sign of their supreme confidence even so soon after the massacre, the Germans took thirty foreign correspondents from ten countries from Berlin to Kiev. A representative of the new city administration told them that there used to be 350,000 Jews in the city (the real figure had been much lower); but today, there were no more Jews. An Italian newspaper from Turin reported this statement, and wondered where the Jews had gone. [Document B05]

The Soviet media quickly reported on the massacre as well. Referring to the news agency TASS in New York, Pravda and Izvestiia wrote on 19 November that “the Germans executed in Kiev 52,000 Jews—men, women, and children.” Ten days later Pravda referred to the “pogrom” in Kiev which had killed 52,000 (while adding that Ukrainians and Russians had also died in it). The news also arrived from Soviet intelligence officers [Document B06], escaped partisans, and at least one Jewish survivor, whose ghostwritten tale appeared in the Soviet Yiddish-language press. [Document B07]

The best known survivor was Dina Pronicheva (1911–1977), who often testified about the massacre. Of the various versions, her long conversation with Soviet historians in April 1946 is particularly useful. Unlike other records of her story, mostly famously a chapter in the book Babi Yar by Anatolii Kuznetsov (1966; uncensored version 1970), this stenographic report also provides details about her time after her double escape from Babi Yar [Document B09; For a discussion, see Berkhoff, Dina Pronicheva’s Story]. She eventually was to see August Häfner, one of the many killers, in the courtroom of the West German city of Darmstadt. There, Häfner was one of the accused in a proceeding known as the Callsen Trial, during which he often talked about Babi Yar; for instance, on 7 November 1967 [Document B10].

The Years 1942 and 1943

In the second half of 1942, during a second and final wave of mass shootings, which moved from eastern to western Ukraine, the remaining Jews were murdered. Eastern Galicia stood out in the sense that mass shootings still occurred late in the war. Even after the deportations to Bełżec of 1942, early in 1943 the district’s SS and Police Leader Friedrich Katzmann ordered mass shootings to resume. For instance, they took place in the Lysynychy forest near Lviv, which today is a park within the city limits.

Growing international awareness of the shootings and the diminishing prospects for a German victory in the war produced an effort to destroy the evidence—the corpses themselves. A “Special Commando 1005” was set up. Among other places, Kiev became the focus of its attention. For six weeks from the middle of August 1943, hundreds of Jewish prisoners had to dig up and burn corpses from the Babi Yar area, as part of a Nazi attempt to erase the traces. Ultimately a group of them escaped the evening before their scheduled execution. Nine survivors are known to have estimated how many corpses they burned.

The earliest of their estimates, given in the 1940s, were highly diverse, and two of these survivors later raised their personal estimates. One survivor stated that there had been twenty-five to thirty pyres, each burning 2,500 to 3,000 corpses. Still other survivors only offered their estimates some decades later. Questioned by the Soviet political police on 15 November 1943, the survivor Iakov Steiuk (born Stein, 1915–1985) estimated that up to 45,000 corpses had been dug up and burned, an estimate which he raised in a questioning in 1980 to over 100,000—which better fit the official Soviet figure. His very first questioning (on 12 November 1943, within a week after the expulsion of the Germans from Kiev) is presented here. [Document B08]

Karel Berkhoff