Latest update: November 14th, 2011
“Do you know what they are doing?” he said, shaken.
“They are shooting them.”
I heard it distinctly now: the even ra-ta-ta of a machine gun from Babi Yar. This was calm, unhurried firing, as on a shooting range.
Grandfather looked puzzled and frightened…. Grandmother paused to listen too. It seemed to me she was crying. I turned to look at her more closely. She was crossing herself, facing Babi Yar and muttering, “Our Father Who art in Heaven…”
The firing stopped after dark, but resumed in the morning. It was said that 35,000 had been shot on the first day and that the rest were waiting their turn.
* * * * *
Few survived Babi Yar. One of them was Dina Pronicheva, an actress of the Kiev Puppet Theatre, a mother of two children, with old and feeble parents. Dina’s husband was a Russian. Her surname was Russian and she did not look Jewish.
Dina’s family decided she would see her parents to the train but would return to her children and husband. Starting at six in the morning, the crowds were already vast. They moved in slow droning procession and reached the cemetery only in the afternoon. German soldiers and Ukrainian police in black uniforms were directing traffic.
As they approached the cemetery, crowding and cursing intensified. Everything became completely incomprehensible. Dina left her parents at the cemetery gates and went on ahead to see what was happening. Like many others, she still thought there was a train up ahead. She heard firing nearby. The thought that crossed her mind was that individuals who did not follow orders were being frightened into obedience.
But Dina became increasingly alarmed. She pushed through the crowd and finally saw that those ahead of her were being ordered to lay down their bundles. Clothing, knapsacks and suitcases were heaped on the left, food on the right.
The Germans then let the people through in groups of ten – batch by batch. Dina’s flesh crawled. There was nothing like a station or a railroad in sight. Though she did not know what was happening, her heart told her this was no evacuation. The burst of machine-gun fire nearby seemed the strangest of all. She was still unable to imagine that they could be shooting people.
At that moment Dina felt only brute fear and dizziness, a state beyond compare. She noticed people being stripped of their warm clothes. On impulse she turned back, found her parents and told them what she had seen. “Daughter, we don’t need you any longer,” said her father. “Go now.”
But she was trapped. Despite all her pleas, the guard in charge would not let her through. At that point she realized this was an execution. Fresh commands were shouted. A chaotic queue was formed.
Finally it was her group’s turn. Talking subsided. They trudged on in silence, flanked by guards. Behind her Dina heard someone moan: “Help me, children, I am blind.” She put her arm around the old man and walked at his side. “Where could they be taking us, father?” she asked. “My child,” he answered, “we are going to pay our final debt to God.”
“Are we forsaken? Completely forsaken?” she asked.
“We have forsaken Him, He did not forsake us. Child, say with me Shema Yisrael.”
At that instant the group entered a long, narrow corridor, about five feet wide, with soldiers on both sides standing shoulder to shoulder, sleeved rolled up, armed with rubber truncheons or big sticks, dogs on leashes.
The soldiers rained blows upon the people running the gauntlet. It was impossible to hide. Everyone cried out. Mothers tried to protect their babies. People fell. The dogs were set on them at once. The screaming crowd was pressed forward, treading on the bodies, stamping them into the earth.
About the Author: Dr. Ervin Birnbaum is founder and director of Shearim Netanya, the first outreach program to Russian immigrants in Israel. He has taught at City University of New York, Haifa University, and the University of Moscow; served as national superintendent of education of Youth Aliyah and as the first national superintendent of education for the Institute of Jewish Studies; and, at the request of David Ben-Gurion, founded and directed the English Language College Preparatory School at Midreshet Sde Boker. Dr. Birnbaum’s memoir, “Turning Obstacles Into Stepping-Stones,” is now in its second printing and can be acquired by contacting email@example.com
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