BOOK OF THE WEEK
BABI YAR: THE STORY OF THE UKRAINE HOLOCAUST
by Anatoly Kuznetsov (Crop £20,528pp)
On my shelves I have hundreds of accounts of World War II and its horrors. Some I have even written myself, so this is a subject I know well.
Yet nothing I have read about that barbaric age has been as moving as this gripping and disturbing book, rightly hailed as a masterpiece as it plunges the reader into the worst of (in)human behavior and, in its imagery and immediacy, it takes your breath away. and desperate that such terrible things have really been done.
Pictured: a Jewish man from Ukraine being executed. Anatoli Kuznetsov’s book looks at the horrible tragedies of the Holocaust in Ukraine
What is even more poignant and powerful is that it is about 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 born. Stalin and Hitler did their worst there, subjugating, starving, massacring. His historic failure to resist then is the popular memory that drives his 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 censors removed anything critical of Comrade Stalin.
A quarter of the original was written in red pencil, including (not surprisingly) entire 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 between them.
Author Anatoli Kuznetsov had no choice but to submit to censorship if it was to be published and in this truncated form his book sold millions, making him a famous 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 the KGB would search and seize his home.
First, however, he photographed it, page by page, and when he defected to the West in 1969, he took the film with him to London, hidden in the lining of his jacket. It was published in its entirety 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 cry.
The writer’s excruciating firsthand accounts include the Babi Yar massacre. Anatoli photographed in 1969
A woman laying flowers during a 2014 commemoration ceremony at the Memorial to the Victims of the Nazi Massacre at Babi Yar
Pictured: The gruesome scenes as Nazi SS special commanders line up Jews to be executed with guns and pushed into a ditch.
Within its 500 indescribable pages is the story of the Ukrainian Holocaust, told during Anatoli’s own childhood.
He calls it ‘a document in the form of a novel’, and wishes it were a piece of fiction. But, as he emphatically writes at the beginning, ‘this book contains nothing but the truth’.
He invites us to ‘enter my destiny’. Imagine you are 12 years old, the world is at war and no one knows what will happen next…’ We are drawn into the uncertainty and misunderstanding of day-to-day life as the bewildering nightmare of Nazi bestiality unfolds around you. around with his utter contempt. for human life, and civilization is suspended.
In kyiv, where he lives, life under the communist regime is bad enough, full of scarcity and repression. Then, in September 1941, the armies of the Third Reich arrive, defeating the Red Army and sending it packing.
There are cheers in the streets, until the raids begin. A notice is taped to a billboard calling ‘all Yids’ to a meeting point. They must take with them money, valuables, warm clothes, etc.
Anatoli in 1969. In kyiv, where he lived, life under the communist regime was filled with scarcity and repression.
The assumption that Jews make, like Ukrainians like Anatoli, is that they will be escorted to the train station and deported to a new life somewhere, possibly even in Palestine, optimists suggest. But their destination is closer than they can imagine. On the edge of kyiv is a deep ravine turned quarry that cuts its way into the countryside: Babi Yar.
A ‘sea of heads’, Anatoli observes, marches in that direction, and then, on his way home, he hears the sound of machine gun fire that continues through the night and into the next day. Realization dawns.
A neighbor has glimpsed victims forced to strip, lined up one after the other to kill as many as possible at once, of bodies piled up, of some not yet dead crawling away only to be struck over the head. and thrown back into the pile.
A Jewish boy has run away and comes to Anatoli’s street, begging to be hidden. Anatoli wants to help but a neighbor sends for the Germans who take him away to die.
A woman named Dina Pronicheva actually escaped and years later wrote to the adult Anatoli to give the only surviving eyewitness testimony from Babi Yar.
Pictured: A menorah-shaped monument to the approximately 100,000 Jews massacred at Babi Yar
The detail is unbearable, personal, shocking in its reality. scared children. Mothers trying to protect them. Girls raped and then massacred. The smell of meat. The insouciance of the executioners when they stop for a coffee.
Thirty-three thousand Jews died in that first massacre, but the slaughter did not stop there. Then, from all over the Ukraine, Russian prisoners of war arrived by the thousands, then the gypsies, a large group of sailors, guerrillas, anyone who crossed the line. The entire Dynamo Kyiv football team died there for their audacity in beating the German teams in exhibition matches.
The commander of the local labor camp took pleasure in lining up his prisoners and, on a whim, deciding whether to shoot every fifth or tenth man in the head. He would sometimes use explosive bullets so that his brains would splatter on the faces of others. He had an Alsatian dog trained to rip out men’s testicles.
Meanwhile, young Anatoli, forced into early maturity beyond his years, did everything he could to survive in a city run like a concentration camp, where any challenge meant a one-way trip to Babi Yar, now a camp. permanent extermination.
He had his family—his mother was a schoolteacher, his grandfather a cat named Titus—and friends. One was denounced as a Jew by another friend, leaving Anatoli with no understanding of human behavior.
All the while he was taking notes, which later formed the basis of his book and its overwhelming and painful message: “For the life of me, I cannot understand why, in this beautiful and blessed land, it is possible for people to indulge in such things”. absolute madness like war, dictatorship, police terror, killing each other and sadistically humiliating each other.’
He was 14 years old when the Nazis finally withdrew in December 1943 from a city that had been reduced to rubble. She remembered the naked bodies of German soldiers lying in the snow, “stiff blue-gray corpses,” and the children using them as slides to push their way down the hill. Was this really what victory looked like?
Furthermore, the Russians had returned, and so had the dead hand of communism, intent on rewriting history. Soon, prompted by their own anti-Semitism, the authorities downplayed the entire 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: ‘Is it really true that the only thing people have learned to do perfectly in all of history is murder each other?’