Excerpts according to the keywords
Chernobyl | Holodomor – famine | Perún | Master Plan East | Babi Yar | tank divisions | Herodotus Borysthenes | Battle of encirclement and annihilation | Isaac Babel – Budyonny’s Cavalry | Ukraine – Master Race – salted bread – Waffen-SS – SS task forces | Senitsa Vershovsky – Karl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel – Genozid | Soviet POWs – Soviet prisoner – subhuman beings | Cossakia | Russianise | Sabaranski-Barracks – SS-Sonderkommando 11b – Einsatzgruppe D | ex-servicemen’s children | War Profiteers – Transnistria | Battleship Potemkin – Dendro Park – Tolbuchin Square | The Catacombs | Moldovanka – Benjamin Krik | Black Sea Fleet – Sevastopol – Tauride Journey | Bay of Balaclava – Chersones – Taurians – Lestrigonians | Russian campaign | Bachcisaraj – Tatars – Pushkin | Master Plan East – Gotengau – Gotenburg – Theoderichshafen | Yalta – Gongadze case | Severnaya Fjord | Sonderkommando | Einsatzgruppe D | Inkerman | Sapún Heights – Gontscharnoje – Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge | Golden Pheasants – Forced labour – Kingdom of Darkness – Recruitment commandos – partisans | Russian Campaign – Resistance – Mark of Cain | Ostarbeiter – War crimes | Helmuth Groscurth – Sonderkommando 4a – Ensatzgruppe C – Belaya Tserkov – Paul Blobel – Reichenau, commander of the 6th Army | Taras Shevchenko | East Wall – Scorched Earth | Werewolf – XIII. SS Army Corps | Babi Yar | Action 1005 | Willy Brandt – Auschwitz – Grandpa wasn’t a Nazi – perpetrators victims – Count Segúr’s memoires
As she turned back to the ship a question did occur to her. She wondered whether it was advisable to swim in the Dnieper? “I wouldn’t,” he replied. “Chernobyl is only 100km upriver from Kiev.” She vividly remembered that Sunday morning in May 1986 when the Bavarian beer gardens had suffered a drenching of the contaminated rain clouds from the east, and nobody took it seriously. “A catastrophe which woke people up.” Melanie assumed that he was talking about how the dangers of nuclear power had become public knowledge but he meant something else. “Chernobyl marked the start of Ukrainian independence. The contempt with which we were lied to gave us the strength to free ourselves from the control of the Soviet Union. Have you heard of the Human Chain of January 1990? 750,000 people all held hands to make a chain from Kiev to Lviv.”
Melanie repeated that she really did not understand how it was possible that the breadbasket of Europe could have got to the point where it was ravaged by a famine. “The predicted production figures were set so high that the farmers’ own needs could no longer be met. The debt collectors went about their business in a particularly brutal manner. People were sentenced to death for even the pettiest theft of food. The towns were supplied with grain whilst millions in the countryside starved to death. The Ukrainians have never forgiven Stalin for the Holodomor”.
The Slav prince Vladimir I (962 – 1015) had extended and fortified the 500 year old settlement and found a new God for the people, as he considered the idols they had previously worshipped to no longer be relevant. In order to find this new religion he had sent delegates out into all the large cities of the world on a fact-finding mission to investigate what religions were currently being practised. They compared the liturgies and decided on the Byzantine one. The beauty of this religious service led them to believe that this God was also worthy of their veneration. According to Nestor’s Chronicle in 988 Vladimir I had all pagan idols destroyed by smashing them up or burning them. But he had the statue of Perún tied to a horse’s tale and dragged down the hill through the Boricev to the Rucaj and had engaged twelve men to whip the effigy – not so much to cause the wooden figure suffering but more to make a visible point that the devil was being punished by human beings. You are great, oh God, and wonderful are your works! Only yesterday he had been worshipped and now he was being humiliated and persecuted…. The figure was dragged to the Dnieper and thrown into the water.
For Hitler too the Ukraine was also the breadbasket of Europe, “the land flowing with milk and honey.” In order to take Kiev he had postponed the march onto Moscow. In the First World War the Germans had starved during the blockade. Hitler reasoned that the more land they occupied, the more grain would be available and consequently there would be no more starvation – that was the thinking behind which the marching orders to the east were based. Under the framework of the “Master Plan East” the inhabitants of the conquered territories were to be driven out and replaced by the colonisation of “pure” and “ethnic” Germans (Danes, Norwegians, Dutch) who were to transform the barren land into a flourishing landscape. Beautifully ploughed straight furrows were seen as a sign of cultural superiority… Blue-prints of the National Socialist vision exist, which show planned fields with exact parallel furrows, villages built along a road with exactly the same precise distance between each individual farm, and farmyard kitchens with corner seats round a big table, stoves and curtains all out of the same checked fabric. They even considered which garden plants to recommend in order to create an impression of German orderliness and organisation and which plants to ban because they represented Slavonic slovenliness.
If there were ever an event in history best forgotten then it is Babi Yar. If a crime should be hushed up then it should be the murder of 33,771 Jewish Kiev citizens. After 1957 the two and a half kilometre long and, in places, up to 50 metres deep gorge was systematically filled in. A dam was built at its northern end, water and mud were pumped into the dammed up area with the dam wall itself being increased in height where necessary. After heavy rainfall in March 1961 the dam burst its walls. A nine metre high mudslide engulfed the lower residential areas and took an unconfirmed number of inhabitants to their death. The following year what remained of the gorge was filled with rubble and a “Culture Park” created on the land there… This spot is no longer called Babi Yar but Dorohozhychi. A firm building foundation had been found for the TV tower and it stands on a solid base of rocks, the very rocks over whose edge people were hurled into the depths after being massacred.
The charm held by the Dnieper River became the Red Army’s downfall. Unassailable as the river might appear to both attackers and defenders alike, and despite most of the bridges having been blown up prior to the arrival of the Germans, this was in reality not the case. A bridge near Dnipropetrovsk, which had only been partly blown up, provided a starting point on August 25,1941 for the first bridgehead of the Wehrmacht on the eastern banks. The railway bridge at Zaporizhia was easily taken by another company before the Red Army soldiers had time to activate their detonators. South of the town of Kremenchug, where no-one was expecting an attack, a mountain regiment formed the third bridgehead by crossing a 1500 m deep system of locks with assault boats, and managed to hold out until the arrival of Kleist’s tank divisions. The plan was for the two invading armies to meet behind the Red Army. From the north Guderian’s tanks, marked with a big white letter G, were forcing their way south and had crossed the Desna, while Kleist’s tanks, marked with a white letter K, were coming up from the south. On September 15, 1941 the two armoured regiments joined forces near Lochwiza and thereby closed the trap.
“Five hundred years BC Herodotus, the first European Chronicler, visited Scythia on the lower reaches of the Borysthenes, which was what the Dnieper had been called in ancient times. Rivers were feminine and were worshipped as goddesses because they brought forth life. As the Greek settlements were established on the Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts he had only had to sail from port to port. In a literal sense his accounts are not realistic. He believed everything he was told – even myths and legends!”
Budyonny realised the hopelessness of the situation and had asked for permission to fight his way out of the encircled area with his troops. Stalin refused him the retreat and replaced him with Timoschenko, who could no longer prevent the inevitable tragedy. The Germans forced the Russian armies into the triangle between Kiev, Cherkassy and Priluki and then attacked them mercilessly from the air. Every Russian division, every regiment, every battalion, every company, every group was trying to somehow find a way through to the east. Hundreds of Soviet soldiers fell victim to the German fighter bombers: hundreds were torn apart by grenades, machine gun shots and hand grenades; hundreds perished miserably in the swamps and jungles; hundreds were just stuck like animals in the thickets and on the moorland until they died of hunger; thousands upon thousands just gave themselves up to their fate . (Melanie took this quote from a brochure entitled “Kiev – the largest Battle of Encirclement in History” by Werner Haupt).
“Are you also familiar with ‘Budyonny’s Cavalry’?” She nodded her assent. When she had been having her Russian phase she had read Isaak Babel at some point before or after Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Lermontov, Pushkin, Jessenin, Mayakovsky, Pasternak. She sombrely remembered all the bloody pictures of a terrible war. “Stories about horsemen and horses,” he said, „of war and betrayal, madness and exhaustion, plundering and rape, death and survival. As if these were the only things humans were capable of. As if war were one of the laws of nature.”
How we bring freedom…. First the Germans were welcomed with salted bread by the farmers as they marched into the Ukraine. It had been seven years since the great famine. The victors came from the west, they were bringing Christianity back; the mayors asked whether they could re-open the churches for worship again? What they were expecting was the return of freedom and justice. At first it wasn’t possible to tell from the soldiers’ grey uniforms that this was the so-called Master Race, who initially, still graciously accepted gifts from the trusting civilians. At first he did not understand. Well, everyone is on this ship because of family affairs… for family reasons. She even had to explain that to him. He leaned back. “That’s also true for me,” he said, “But I don’t wish to speak about it.” He asked her why she was enquiring. Instead of giving him an answer she described to him in great detail how she had compared the advance of the Germans and the progress of the General Staff with the activities of the SS task forces, who were wearing grey in order to look like part of the Wehrmacht. Just behind the front line the first mass murders of civilians took place. Bernd forgot that he had asked her a question. “My father,” he said before falling silent, before he fell silent, but then continued, “My father was in the Waffen-SS. I have often asked myself whether he…?” He could not could not bring himself to utter the suspicion. “He was killed in spring 1944. I never met him.”
With her lower arms resting on the railing Melanie told Herbert the story about the Mayor of Kremenchuk, Senitsa Vershovsky, who had tried to protect the Jews in his town from being murdered and was consequently murdered himself by the Germans along with at least 7 000 Jews. “The ‘Cleansing’ was the result of an order by the then Commander-in-Chief of the 17th Army, Karl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel,” she added. “Impossible. He opposed Hitler. He was sentenced in 1944,” added Herbert. “So what rules it out?” asked Melanie. “The generals were anti-Semites. The Russian campaign smacks of genocide and everyone knows it.”
The Nightmare In autumn 1941 the eastern bank of the Dnieper, now just a green strip of bushes and ĺow woodland for the passengers on board, became the scene of a war crime, which has been hushed up longer than any of the others, as the Wehrmacht alone was responsible for it. A few days before Kiev was surrounded and 665,000 Soviet soldiers fell into German hands, the High Command of the Wehrmacht issued the “Guidelines for the treatment of Soviet POWs in all Prisoner of War camps” by saying that every Soviet prisoner was an enemy trained in Bolshevism and had thereby lost the right to treatment according to the Geneva Convention. The Soviet POWs – and only them and not the French, English or Americans – were thereby not only arbitrarily subjected to random acts of cruelty but were purposely subjected toconditions it was impossible to survive.Afterwards the defenders of the Wehrmacht claimed that the army leaders had not had the organisational powers to be up to the task. But the encircling of large numbers of troops through swiftly moving units had always been planned right from the start of the attack on the Soviet Union. In the French campaign, in which the Germans had operated the same tactic, they had provided for huge numbers of prisoners by creating camps for them. In the Russian campaign everything was different. The death of millions of ‘subhuman’ beings was carefully calculated.
“They came to us,” said Sophie suddenly. “I know that from my grandmother. She came from near Tolmezzo in the Italian Alps. The area was suddenly overrun with Cossacks, who let their animals graze on the farmers’ pasture land, stole everything that wasn’t nailed or fastened down and shot anyone who stood up to them for being partisans. In 1945 an ancient doddery old man with a walking stick, wearing an imaginary uniform, a certain General Krasnov, appeared and insisted that he was head of the free Republic of Cossakia officially recognised by the Germans. This resulted in the alpine farmers being bombed by the Allied air forces. As the English got closer in March the Cossacks just moved on. That was how they ended up with us in Lienz. My grandfather reckoned there were 40,000 of them. The English lured their generals and officers into a trap and informed them that they would be handed over to the Soviet Union. As most of the men were armed, a bloodbath ensued as a result of this.
“How are you meant to know we come from the Ukraine when we speak Russian and not Ukrainian?” Julia was presenting the class “Introduction to Ukrainian” in the lecture hall. As the entrance was at the back of the room it was possible to make a quick exit without disturbing anyone. There were more places occupied at the back than at the front, as if many of the audience, along with Melanie, were keeping this option open. “We need the revival of our language in order to develop an identity we have never had. From 1861 until the October Revolution Russian was the official language of the Ukraine. Even the publication of plays and song-texts in Ukrainian was forbidden. It was Lenin who, in the twenties, supported making the Ukraine more Ukrainian and it was Stalin, in the thirties, who again banned the move and declared its supporters enemies of the state. That was a death-knell. I would rather not tell you how many of my relatives lost their lives in the so-called cleansing operation that followed straight after the famine. I don’t know of a single family who escaped unscathed. Stalin didn’t want to just get rid of the intellectual elite of the country. He wanted to Russianise the Ukraine. And Stalin’s death in no way brought about the end of Stalinism. When I was a student in the seventies hundreds of Ukrainian dissidents were brought before the courts. With that it was no longer our fathers and uncles who were killed in the Gulag Archipelago but our own generation – our brothers and cousins.”
In order to save their energy for the defence of the Crimea the Russians commenced their retreat from a besieged Odessa under the dead of night in mid-September 1941. They evacuated their troops and equipment by sea without the German or Rumanian Intelligence Services getting wind of it. Prior to this move they had dismantled a few important industrial plants and transported them to the other side of the Ural Mountains, they had even taken the university with them. Anything that remained would be destroyed according to the principle that nothing of any value was allowed to fall into enemy hands. Dams were blown up, so that whole areas of towns were submerged – though the desirable areas remained unaffected by this and only the residential areas of the workers disappeared. Horses unable to be transported with them were shot at the quayside. On October 15 the regional newspaper was still published with the headlines: ‘Odessa was, is and will be Soviet.’ Then the artillery fire suddenly fell silent and the last troops departed from the harbour. It took a whole day before the Rumanian attackers realised that their entry to the city lay unopposed. SS-Sonderkommando 11b of Einsatzgruppe D was immediately on hand in the city after the invasion. In the Sabaranski Barracks the Germans along with a section of the Rumanian Intelligence Staff shot the mainly Jewish intellectual elite, totalling around 8,000 people.
Melanie reassured him that there wasn’t any one specific thing she’d like to hear. She was just trying to check out her theory that everyone on this ship was somehow united by that war which had destroyed this country two generations ago. Even during the Socialist era the Dnieper River cruises had almost exclusively been booked up by Germans. In the eighties a journalist had identified that many people who had been involved in the war would return to these places as if they were seeking closure. Since then though, most of these people had probably passed away. “Do you mean that former SS officers or members of firing squads pretended to be tourists in order to revisit the scenes of their crimes?” Melanie was sure that that could not be ruled out. But if that were the case then there wouldn’t be very many of them. She thought that the few old men on board were more likely to be war veterans, who wished to revisit the scenes of the hell they had been fortunate enough to survive. “But what about us? You and me, the generation of ex-servicemen’s children? Why are we here?” Melanie said that there was something the two of them had in common. “The truth about our fathers?” he suggested. “But where could we find that on this trip? It’s hidden in documents or facts and figures.”
The opera house was almost blown up after the fall of Odessa but the secret police discovered the bombs in time. Had the plot succeeded it would have caused another bloodbath because the opera was the meeting place for the VIPs of the Occupation and other war profeteers, many German officers also frequented the place. Odessa was now the capital of the province of Transnistria, the strip of land between the rivers Dniester and Prut which, with Hitler’s agreement, had been claimed by Romania…
The rest of Transnistria however, the newly founded Rumanian province between the two rivers Dniester and Prut, where the region’s Jews either fled to or were driven out of by the Romanians of the old empire, underwent a transformation through camp upon camp, at Bogdanovka, Domanevka, Achmetschoka, into an archipelago of concentration camps whose inmates died of thirst, hunger, cold and infections – in total around 150,000 victims. Many of them were murdered by the most unimaginably hideous methods. Many of the German settlers, whose villages the Jews were driven through, happily offered their services as voluntary henchmen
Melanie asked if any of them had heard the name Odessa prior to this trip. Their expressions were unfathomable. Herbert was quick to point out that as Odessa had been occupied by the Romanians it wasn’t included in the German history teacher’s curriculum. There were still images which she could not prevent from surfacing, replied Melanie. He suggested “Battleship Potemkin.” – “That among others,” was her reply. Eisenstein’s film portrayed the victims as individuals. That made it something essentially human to identify with as it triggered off associations and sadness. What had happened down there at the harbour on the site of the multi-storey car park and in other places was a devaluation of an individual’s death because of the overall huge scale of the massacre. She waited until the party round the table had prepared themselves for the worst. In this town on 23th October 1941, hidden behind a wooden fence, 19,000 Jews had been shot. She could not possibly go to Tolbuchin Square because she would then have to imagine how 24,000 people were forced into eight wooden storage sheds, which were then set alight and peppered with machine gun fire. Dendro Park was another of these ghastly places. There they had driven old people, women and children over the edge into a 300 metre deep gorge whilst they were still alive.
Of all the stories to have originated from Odessa during the time of the occupation this is the most fantastical and it is also true. The Turks had settled here in 1540 and built a fort on top of a labyrinth of about 200 kilometres of underground passageways, with over 160 exits, leading into the cellars of the old Patrician houses in the town centre, into water well shafts, and into fields and cemeteries out of town. In 1941 the catacombs were the obvious place to build an underground headquarters kitted out with food supplies, weapons and radios into which not even the SS would dare enter. In part these were old, long since defunct, tunnels of underground quarries, as well as partly new areas set up solely for the members of the Communist district committee and all their belongings
“Isaac Babel grew up in Moldavanka, where crooks like Benjamin Krik extorted protection money from his father. His parents sent him to good schools because they hoped this would enable him to enjoy a better life. In his autobiography Isaac complains about the pressure at home where he had to apply himself from dawn until dusk to his academic studies and learning.” Melanie thought about what would have happened to him if the Germans had got hold of him in 1941. Shortly before that he was murdered – tortured in Ljubljanka prison, sentenced to death for confessions they forced out of him and shot in January 1940. Melanie asked if his family had still been in Odessa in 1941. “As far as I know they were in Nikolajev.” A cold shiver went down her back. Nikolajev was one of the place names which she had heard frequently mentioned round the family dining table and stored away in her childhood memories.
“Some good news and some bad news,” he said. “First the good news: Sevastopol is no longer closed to outsiders. Their fear of strangers is beginning to ease off a little. The bad news: Sevastopol is and will remain a Russian colony.” Melanie told him what she had read in her guidebook: in 1954, at the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyaslav, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR had given the Crimea “as a sign of brotherly love of the Russian people” to the Ukrainians. “That was one of Chruschtschow’s first acts in office after he had established himself as Stalin’s successor in the Politburo,” explained the little man… For Teresa “Black Sea Fleet” had a particularly special aura and appeal all of its own. In 1783 Catherine the Great had ordered the building of the Armada and in the shipyards of Cherson Prince Potemkin made such good progress with its construction that at the close of her Tauride Journey in summer 1787, the Empress was able to watch 25 fully-equipped warships parading out in Sevastopol. “Catherine’s vision,” explained Teresa, “was to drive Islam out of the whole Mediterranean area. Her ideas were based on the Greek model, but she wanted to replace this with a Christian-Orthodox version. You can see that from the old names which she chose for the newly-founded towns or those captured from the Tatars: Odessa, Cherson, Feodosiya, Simferopol.”
The bus turned off the high street and a few hundred metres further up they found themselves in the old Greece. Melanie would never have guessed that the Greek influence on southern Europe had extended so far eastwards. In front of the backdrop of a huge blue sky they beheld a massive archaeological excavation site: there they could see the remains of white ribbed columns of varying heights, the road’s course marked out by the traces of a wall, the outlines of former buildings standing side by side, wells, ancient temple buildings with broken slabs of marble and a substantial city wall. In this prosperous Greek harbour town four centuries before Christ’s birth Herodotus had gathered information about the Taureans, who operated as sea pirates out of the Bay of Balaclava. Their reputation was so terrible that Homer had compared them to the Lestrigonians, the man-eating giants, who came and smashed up all Odysseus’ ships with huge boulders and then devoured the crew.
Melanie remembered about her research and asked him why he was making this trip on the “Borysthenes.” His friend’s wife had left him shortly before the trip and so he had offered him the spare ticket. He started to try to tell her about the marriage problems but Melanie steered the conversation back to her original theme: so there were no reasons linked to his own family? “Most of our fathers fought in Russia.” The way she was asking seemed to signal to him to tread warily. Melanie talked about herself, described the clues she was looking to piece together, told him the ranking and position of the young officer whose photograph from Nikolayev in 1941 her mother had carried around with her in a hidden compartment in her handbag until her death. This information sparked off an interested reaction on his part. His father had been a professional officer, an infantry colonel. He had taken part in the entire Russian campaign. (Imagine how anyone could do that.) So did he survive the war? A shake of the head. Had he been killed? A nod of the head. When? Where? But by then the shutters had come down.
Bachcisaraj achieved renown even with the Germans. Manstein, the Commander of the 11th Army, succeeded in protecting “the jewel in the Tatar architecture”. After the occupation a Tatar delegation appeared before him and presented him with fruit and handwoven cloths for “Adolf Effendi”. Hitler thought the Cossacks and Tatars were descended from the Goths who had settled here at times, which, for him, made both races somehow of Aryan origin. Tatars, who were captured in the Crimea, were not annihilated but brought together as military units to help out and fight for the Germans. That cost them dearly. Immediately after the German retreat in May 1944 Stalin had 180,000 of them deported, with the majority of them going to Uzbekhistan. Apart from the Garden Palace all their houses and mosques were razed to the ground. If Pushkin had not Russianised the Fountain of Tears there wouldn’t have been a stone standing there either.”
“This was Hitler’s dream,” he said, “to capture this rock massif and give Germany a Riviera… He was convinced that the Crimea was a former German colony because Gothic tribes had settled there from time to time. A “Gotengau” was envisaged in the “Master Plan East” which would have included the peninsular and southern Russia as far as Cherson. Somebody even made the suggestion, and I think it was Hitler himself, to change the name of the capital from Simferopol to Gotenburg, and Sevastopol to Theoderichshafen! As a spa resort Yalta was to be directly connected to the German motorway network, so that you could (according to Hitler) comfortably do the journey in two days! He wanted to rid the Crimea of its native inhabitants and populate the area exclusively with Germans. As there was a problem at that time with national identity in the South Tyrol, there was serious debate about repatriating all the South Tyroleans to the Black Sea.”
It only took them about hundred paces to get back to the car park but that was just long enough for Melanie to glean a few key snippets of information about the opposition that was forming against Kucma’s corrupt government and that from time to time public protests were organised, which then resulted in arrests and ill-treatment of the prisoners. Journalists were particularly at risk. Had she heard about ‘Kucmagate’? The Gongadze case, of course. She knew that George Gongadze, who had spoken out about corruption and tyranny in his Internet Journal, had been kidnapped and murdered in September 2000. What she had not known was that there was a recording in circulation on which the president himself – or more precisely: “a male voice that could be mistaken for Kucma” – is demanding that all journalists be got rid of. “Of course he denies all this. At the moment you are playing with death if you dare to criticise the government.”
Sometimes there are magical places, sacred since time immemorial, where there is no religion because the nature of that place is so transient and not of this world: a barbaric spot, whose bloodshed has been in vain because it hasn’t placated the Gods. One such unearthly place was the entrance to the Severnaya Fjord, whose seabed is heaped with the wrecks of sunken ships and where, at the close of day, the ancestors of the Taurians and Cimmerians, of the Scythians and Goths, the Greeks and the Byzantines, the Tatars, Turks, Cossacks and Russians gather together to watch the sun go down. Melanie watched as, in the twilight, old men and women stepped out of their clothes and slipped, amphibean-like, over the concrete edge into the water. Was this one of the privileges of old age and they were bathing in the Fountain of Youth or it’s exact opposite, after a moment of evolutionary regression, a daily ordeal to test their ability to take up a terrestrial existance again?
As far as family ties were concerned my parents suddenly started making a huge effort. They said that blood was thicker than water and that the family had to stick together. Even my aunts Anna, Rosa and Betty were invited and threw themselves emotionally round Uncle Ernst’s neck; and strangely enough, he was now called Franz! They seemed to understand why he had gone into hiding. If the Russians had got hold of him at the time they would have hanged him. As things stood now the worst that could happen to him would be a few years in gaol…My father’s trial took place a few months later and he was exonerated. His “old friends” celebrated his acquittal at our house. I only found out many years later that they were really his accomplices who had managed to cover for him with their false statements. Because no one had ever told me what he was accused of I decided one day when I was home alone to look through all the drawers in the house – even the ones that were locked. All children know exactly where their parents keep their keys hidden. I found the documents of the trial and managed to glean from them that my father had belonged to a Sonderkommando. But I had no idea what that might possibly mean. I can remember the word “murder” appearing regularly in the prosecution papers. According to the witnesses he had only carried out clerical duties. His acquittal came about due to a lack of evidence against him. I remembered this phrase because I didn’t understand it.
On February 18, 1942 Einsatzgruppe D reported from Simferopol that around 10.000 Jews had been shot dead, which was 300 more than had been registered and resulted in another check of the whole Crimean region for any victims who might have been overlooked in the first killing operation. After having completed the killing of all the Crimean Jews, Einsatzgruppe D added a very wordy report about the influence the Jews had had on the Crimean peninsular before the war as an appendage to their final report for the Intelligence Officer of the 11th Army. According to their own calculations Einsatzgruppe D had personally been responsible for exterminating exactly 91.678 people between the start of the war and April 16, 1942.
“Inkerman!” That was now Nina speaking. It sounded as if she wanted to outdo their list of people and places. She said it like you would say ‘Stalingrad’ or ‘Verdun’. The tour bus stopped in the bottom of a gorge. The passengers on board looked up at the steep limestone walls full of holes. Inkerman was – and still is – famous for its wine production. “The soft cliff face made up of natural holes, which have grown bigger over the centuries, served as the wine cellar. The supplies of ammunition were also stored there during the Siege of Sevastopol. As well as that thousands of cilvilians, mainly made up of families with children, managed to go into hiding in the tunnels and caves. When the Germans decided to take Sevastopol from overland a huge explosion ripped the cliff face apart and that was followed by a massive landslide which nobody survived.” There was total silence until someone shouted: “That’s all lies! The Russians blew up the bunker themselves!” Nina quietly replied that she had not been saying that that was not the case. She had been talking about how ordinary people were at the mercy of others. “My grandmother and all her children, except for my father, were among the dead. He was killed twenty years ago in Afghanistan.”
From there they drove to the Sapún Heights. The traces of war had been covered over by a sparse woodland. It was strange to think that all sorts of World War weapons lay among the birch and fir trees: tanks, guns and a small submarine with its torpedo. The bunker area is now an open air museum with a memorial. Fathers were lifting their small sons onto the tanks, whilst older ones were balancing on the torpedo. Two adolescent boys were trying to take aim with an anti-aircraft gun. To see weapons on a playground almost seemed civilised until you thought about all the war reports where they are used for bringing about so many deaths! The veterans were crowding round a T34. “This was the best tank in the whole war.” – “Our Tiger was better.” – “It only had better armour plating. Its motor was far too sensitive. It broke down too often.” – “Just look at it. It has fantastic lines.” – “It was made on the cheap. They could mass-produce it.” – “What about the tracks? They were much wider than ours. You could get through the thickest mud with them.” – “Well, we had the T70.” – “That was only any use as a tow truck.” – “PAK 3.7. We got them with that!” – “PAK 8.8 was even better.” …
They continued their journey through gently rolling, green hills to the German war cemetery at Gontscharnoje, where 7.000 of the 150.000 German soldiers who fell in the Crimea and southern Russia are laid to rest in a 5 hectare site of oak woodland. After the war all the temporary graves for the defeated Wehrmacht had been bulldozed by the Soviets. However with the end of the Soviet Union the Russians initiated a new project in 1989 and used the help of locals and records to trace and register the location of all these enemy cemeteries and graves. Together with the German War Graves Commission “Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge” the bodies were exhumed and identified through their ID tags. A large grey granite cross and three smaller crosses create a solemn atmosphere out in the open air. Melanie’s fellow passengers queued up at the building by the entrance to the cemetery, where there is a list of names of the dead. It was now clear to her why they had signed up for this trip: so they could look for certain names.
The Ukraine had fallen into the hands of parasites: NS- functionaries (colloquially known as ‘Golden Pheasants’ because of their yellow uniforms), SS-officers, adventurers, speculators. Under the command of the Reich Commissioner Erich Koch a period of German colonial rule started, which only served to make the shamefulness of this war even greater. He turned out to be an absolute ruler of a kingdom of darkness. On his orders, Ukrainian conscripts were beaten if they showed a lack of ‘work ethic’. When the assaults were reported to Berlin it led to protests from even the most hardened Nazi Party officials. Incidentally both men and women were conscripted to forced labour in the occupied territories. Looting and terror were responsible for an exodus from the cities. The people fled to the countryside, where it was easier to escape the attentions of recruitment commandos. To get out of this desperate situation they even preferred to throw their lot in with the partisans, who consequently became quite a force to be reckoned with in this war.
“My father was involved in the entire Russian campaign. He got as far as the Caucasus and back. He survived all the battles, but not the war. He belonged to the resistance and after the war was considered for a political posting.” He named an office and a province in Southern Germany. “The Gestapo got their hands on the documents. Just a few weeks before the surrender they were retreating and had made it back on German soil but he took his own life in order to escape the torture.” For Melanie this revelation immediately elevated Burghart L. to that esteemed circle of people who made it to the top of her moral code. The mark of Cain could not be pinned to him. He had not had to distance himself from his father and mother. He had not had to free himself from his roots and then search for somewhere to lay down new ones. He had been lucky enough to come out of this whole mess between the generations as a whole person. At any rate that was her impression.
On their way back an old woman wearing a black headscarf spoke to them. Burghart L. immediately got out his wallet. As Melanie also raked together a few Hryvnia the beggar told them in broken German that she had been conscripted to work in the “Reich” during the war. Melanie asked her what her name was. She replied that she was called ‘Lena’ and also tagged a few other syllables onto the end. Where exactly had she been and when? Where had she worked – in domestic service or in a factory? “Can’t remember,” came the reply and: “Me so young, so young.” The ‘Ostarbeiter’ have come to represent yet another chapter in the long list of German war crimes. Recruitment commenced at the point when it became clear that the dream of the ‘Blitzkrieg’ was not going to become reality and the German economy would consequently have to sustain a much longer war with an insufficient workforce. As the Ukrainians were deemed to be trustworthy and reliable they were among the first to be sought out for recruitment purposes. At first their trust in the Germans was such that they willingly offered their services to play their part in the ‘Reich’s’ workplace. They were transported to Germany in wagon trains with neither food nor sanitation and on arrival were treated almost as badly as the Russian prisoners of war. They were identified by a cloth badge on their sleeves bearing the letter ‘O’ on it for ‘Ostarbeiter’ and were housed in camps behind barbed wire fences where the standard of the food and lodgings they endured was well below acceptable.
“Refusing to carry out orders was punishable with the death penalty,” observed Herbert. “Those who rebelled because of their conscience were dealt with differently,” replied Melanie. “Have you heard of Helmuth Groscurth? Are you familiar with the events of August 20, 1941 in Belaya Tserkov, 80 km south of Kiev? Under the command of Paul Blobel the Sonderkommando 4a of Einsatzgruppe C only carried out half a job there. At the time it wasn’t routine practice to also kill small children. About 90 infants, toddlers and school children were separated from their parents, who were to be executed, and left unattended in a house. The children’s cries and whimpering coming from this house were to be heard everywhere. Wing Commander Helmuth Groscurth, General Staff Officer of the 295. Infantry Division, who happened to be passing through, was told about the children by the military chaplain. Whereupon Groscurth contacted the leaders of the army in writing and very clearly let his views be known: Such actions against women and children make them as guilty as their enemy, about whose atrocities the troops were informed continuously. General Field Marshall von Reichenau, the commander of the 6th Army, to whom the complaint was addressed, reprimanded Groscurth on account of his language and let him understand that once the action had been started it was to be taken to its logical conclusion.
According to Julija, Taras Shevchenko, the child of a family of serfs from the Dnieper Steppes south of Kiev epitomised what the whole of the Ukraine was suffering. In a trembling voice she told them the story of the young shepherd boy sitting on his own on a Scythian grave mound, dreamily letting his gaze wander over the Steppes. “Serfs’ children were also more or less the property of their landlords as well as their parents. Taras Shevchenko’s owner, who liked to develop the talents in his household, noticed that the boy was very gifted at painting and drawing. He took him with him to St. Petersburg, and contracted him to a master fresco artist. At the same time Taras began writing. He made friends with writers and artists in St. Petersburg, who bought him out of serfdom. Apparently it was the Tsar’s environment who put up the money for this.” Shevchenko didn’t appear to think he owed them anything in return and made no effort to take his place among the greats of Russian culture, like Gogol, Bulgakow and Babel, who came after him, but instead began to write his works in Ukrainian.
The retreat was perfectly planned but came about too late to incorporate the western bank of the Dnieper into the impregnable defensive line of the ‘East Wall’ because the Russians remained hot on the Germans’ heels. Kremenchuk, Zaporizhia, Dnipropetrovsk were now the names of the bridges they had to cross in order to make a successful escape. To cross these vulnerable positions required a master stroke from a disciplined army: hundreds of thousands of men, of whom 200 000 were wounded, had to be successfully lead to safety, along with herds of cattle and sheep as well as the trains of Cossacks and Turkish tribes from the Caucasus who, along with all their worldly goods, were accompanying the Germans in order to escape the Red Army’s revenge. Yet even this retreat stood out for its barbarity. The motto “Scorched Earth” came to mean the greatest possible degree of persecution to ordinary civilians. The Germans did not just rob the farmers of their smallholdings, their last cow and seeds setting their homes on fire, but they also dragged off the men, who might have managed to replant the soil and re-establish the crops, westwards with them. The post-war famine, which took place in the Ukraine and other pillaged areas of land, claiming many more millions of lives, was a direct consequence of German occupation.
Burghart told her that at ten years of age he had been the youngest member of a Werewolf Group of about six boys led by a thirteen year old youth, Peter. They had believed in Hitler’s rallying speeches and were determined to do their bit to ambush the Americans in order to help the legendary XIII. SS Army Corps, that was everywhere and nowhere, in its battle to defend their country. They had discovered abandoned little places in the woods round their village and found a few hand grenades there. All this had somehow come to the teacher’s attention and he had threatened to tell their mothers if they did not hand over the weapons. In those days the most effective form of punishment was to withhold foodstuffs and that was a risk none of them wanted to take. Burghart added that apart from that they only had a vague idea of the theory of how a hand grenade actually worked and, to be honest, none of them were too keen on putting this to the test. At any rate shortly afterwards the SS retreated without a fight and as the Americans drew closer to the village his mother had locked him in the cellar. Later on he and his friends carried out their own bit of sabotage and cut several telephone cables belonging to the Occupying Forces.
At the cemetery the Germans took their luggage and valuables from them and led them along a three metre wide so-called ‘corridor’ created by lines of Germans holding sticks, rubber truncheons and dogs. My father, mother and sister had already been directed away and were much further ahead so that I could no longer see them. All those passing along the corridor were cruelly beaten by the Germans before they came out into an open area, where the policemen took their clothes off them, and forced them to undress down to their underwear. Whilst this was happening the people were still being beaten. Many people were even killed as they passed along the ‘corridor’. Those who had survived the ‘corridor’ were taken in groups to the gorge at Babi Yar and brought to an open area where they were shot
After that whole areas containing mass graves of the victims of genocide had to be abandoned since these crimes were now known to the world at large. The Reich Security Head Office (RSHA) decreed that any evidence of these crimes should be removed. Himmler had charged Paul Blobel, the former detachment commander of Sonderkommando 4a and butcher of Babi Yar, with getting rid of the hundreds of thousands of decaying corpses, which were, in the main, to be found in mass graves. Blobel began with “Action 1005”, named after its reference number in the RSHA. He started with the concentration camps in Poland but he also made it to Babi Yar.
“And now I’d like you to tell me what you have concluded from all this,” he said. “What has changed since I was young and rebelled against the Nazi-Generation,” replied Melanie, “is the relationship the Germans now have with their victims. The children of the perpetrators have broken away from their fathers in order to show their victims respect. Nowhere was that more clearly symbolised than when Willy Brandt went down on his knees in Ausschwitz. The generation of grandchildren has evidently internalised the way their grandfathers’ generation justified their actions. Family discussions always end up making the point that ‘Grandpa wasn’t a Nazi.’ Moreover there probably was not a single family that had not in some way contributed to the bloodshed. Hitler had not only exterminated the Jews but had also, either insidiously or brutally, destroyed Europe’s young people on the battle field. There comes a point where victims and offenders merge into one and can no longer be distinguished from one another.” – “Is that a good or a bad thing?” She thought of the phrase Sophie had quoted from Count Segúr’s memoires: The cheerful colours of the fable embellish the tales about barbaric times. That is how myths are created… “I don’t want the fact that we now are seeing the Third Reich turning into some kind of myth to erase its victims from the story. Not yet. Do you know there were more children than adults killed in the Holocaust? They would now be the same age as us or younger.”