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    Babi Yar: Reliability of Witnesses

    How do we know that the witnesses to the Babi Yar massacre are credible and reliable?

    Holocaust deniers claim:

    The eyewitness testimony about the massacre of 33,771 Jews in the Babi Yar ravine in Kiev, Ukraine “contradicts each other and claim the silliest impossibilities.” Therefore, the whole episode is cast into doubt that it ever happened.

    The facts are:

    Responsible historians cross check eyewitness testimonies, primary documentation and physical evidence against each other to arrive at a credible representation of what happened in the past. In the case of the massacre of 33,771 Jews in the Babi Yar ravine in Kiev, Ukraine primary documents, including the Einsatzgruppen Reports, and the accounts of German perpetrators, bystanders and Jewish survivors corroborate each other in all major points.  

    Herbert Tiedemann, a Holocaust denier and the author of “Babi Yar: Critical Questions and Comments,” states: “In the case of Babi Yar, witnesses and allegations . . . are blindly given full credence even though they contradict each other and claim the silliest impossibilities.”[1] He asserts that he will apply “scientific methodology” to the matter.

    What Tiedemann offers as evidence of “confusion” and “silliness.”

    Tiedemann collected every tidbit he could scrape up that referred to Babi Yar, no matter how distant, non-authoritative or dubious (such as an entry from the “Soviet encyclopedia” with no other identification). He listed:

    • Fourteen items from newspaper articles and underground organizations who smuggled the information to the West, and from Soviet officials. These fall into the category of third-hand reports based on sketchy information. They may be ignored as primary evidence.
    • Nineteen items from non-primary sources: encyclopedias, novels, films, TV shows, statements made at memorial ceremonies, and the writings of novelists and poets. With the exception of A. Anatoli Kuznetsov’s book, Babi Yar, which is a memoir in a fiction format designed to get it past Soviet censors, they are worthless as primary evidence (or any other type of evidence for that matter).
    • Six secondary eyewitness accounts such as “my sister told me that her husband’s third cousin told him that . . .” As primary evidence they add little, but as supporting evidence they are of some interest if approached cautiously and carefully cross-checked to primary eyewitness accounts.
    • Eight primary eyewitness accounts: Jewish survivors, perpetrators and bystanders. These people were there and saw the massacre first-hand.

    Let us look at some of Tiedemann’s sources as there are some very sound ones buried deep in the nonsense and trivia that surrounds them.

    Survivor eyewitness testimony about the Babi Yar massacre.

    Tiedemann assembled the evidence of four female survivors of the massacre: Dina Pronicheva, Riva Kogut (Riassa Genrichovna Dashkevih), Nesya Elgort and Yelena Yefimovna Knysh. He then minutely picks apart each woman’s story and when he finds what he perceives to be an inconsistency, he claims it makes the entire testimony worthless as evidence and ultimately casts doubt on the whole matter.

    For instance, Tiedemann challenges the testimony of “the Jewess” Nesya Elgort, who asserts that she crawled out of the ravine together with her small son after the shooting had stopped.[2] Tiedemann asks, “Why were only women able to escape, but not a single one of the men, who in this case would have been physically better qualified?”[3] This question is representative of the quality of most of his complaints about the credibility of the witnesses and merits no response.

    Let’s take a look at two other testimonies:

    Yelena Yefimovna Knysh reported that she arrived at Babi Yar carrying her 4-year-old daughter in her arms. It was already near dark: “They took our clothing, confiscating all our possessions, and led us about fifty meters away, where they took our documents, money, rings, earrings.” Her daughter was silent on her command, but was “trembling all over.” “Everyone was stripped naked . . . At about midnight the command was given in German for us to line up. I didn’t wait for the next command, but threw my girl into the ditch and fell on top of her. A second later bodies started falling on me. Then everything fell silent. There were more shots, and again bloody dying and dead people began falling into the pit. I sensed that my daughter wasn’t moving. I leaned up against her, covering her with my body . . . The execution had been going on since 9:00 a.m. and there was blood all over the place. We were sandwiched between bodies. I felt someone walk across the bodies and swear in German. A German soldier was checking with a bayonet to make sure no one was still alive. By chance he was standing on me, so the bayonet blow passed me.”[4]

    Knysh waited until the Germans had left the area then freed herself and her child from the piles of bodies and crept out of the ravine. Her only desire was to put distance between her and her daughter and the Germans. Her daughter was unconscious and Yelena feared for her life. Eventually, the child revived a little and they made their way into a long journey of hiding until the end of the war.

    About Knysh’s “story” one of Tiedemann’s criticisms, among others equally as frivolous, was: How was it possible the Germans could have climbed on the bodies bayoneting anyone that showed a sign of life? According to Tiedemann it would have been too hard and taken too much time.[5] Again, this merits no response.

    Dina Pronicheva was Jewish but was married to a Russian, Viktor Aleksandrovich Pronichev. They had two children: a daughter and son. On September 29, 1941, she went to Babi Yar with her parents and younger sister, all three of whom were murdered there. While she waited, Dina watched as groups of terrified Jews were ordered to take off their clothes and were led through a gap in a steep wall of sand.

    It was twilight when her group was pushed through the gap in the sand. They came out into a sand quarry. In single file they were directed along a narrow ledge that ran along the side and below the lip of the quarry. Beneath her was a sea of bodies. On the other side of the ravine was a line of machine-guns pointing at them. As the people began to fall into the pit, Dina jumped. Then she lay still with her eyes closed. Around her were strange and terrible sounds and the whole mass of bodies moved slightly as they settled and with the movements of those who were still alive.

    Then she heard Germans with flashlights walking over the bodies, bending down and taking things from the dead and shooting those who showed a sign of life. One man trod directly on her, cracking the bones in her right hand and bruising her chest. Somehow she managed to lie utterly still and he did not notice she was still alive. From the top of the quarry, men began throwing sand and earth on the layers of bodies. When the sand began to cover Dina’s mouth she panicked and began to free herself, willing to be shot rather than buried alive. With her left hand she slowly cleared the sand from around her. Now it was fully dark and Dina began to crawl to the nearest side of the pit, climbed the edge of it with great difficulty and finally pulled herself over the top. There she found a small boy who had also crawled out of the pit. (He was later killed while trying to get away from the area.) They crawled away from the grave and when the dawn came, after a series of perilous events, Dina managed to find help and hid during the rest of the war.[6]

    Dina testified to her experience at least 12 times, in written or oral form or under oath in various courts from the 1940’s on. Four testimonies were given during Soviet and German judicial investigations and trial proceedings in 1946 and 1967–1968 respectively. Four others were given to Soviet journalists, historians, novelists and a Jewish writer who later emigrated. Two are second hand accounts.[7] In the various accounts, Pronicheva recalls more details, in others less, but all are in accord in all major assertions.

    About Pronicheva’s “story” Tiedemann wonders: Why didn’t the Germans shoot each other across the ravine?[8] Pronicheva made clear that they were standing on a ledge with a wall of sand behind them which absorbed the bullets, removing the possibility that one set of German executioners could wound or kill their fellow executioners.

    Pronicheva’s testimony is the most well-known and is devastating to the Holocaust deniers’ cause, therefore Tiedemann resorts to denigrating Pronicheva’s character, accusing her of having a “facility at confabulation” because before the war she had been an actress in a puppet theater.[9]

    Tiedemann’s inclusion of these women’s testimonies, buried in a welter of chaotic and contradictory accounts from highly dubious and non-authoritative sources, does the opposite of what he intended. The three women all recounted the same traumatic experience and many of the same events: the undressing, the gap in the sandbank, the ledge, and the finishing off of those still alive. Both women were shot at twilight, after which the Germans apparently quit for the day, leaving Pronicheva and Brodoyanski-Knysh lying on top of the piles of bodies and making it possible for them to crawl out of the pit. Their voices are authentic and corroborate with the testimony of the German perpetrators.

    Other eyewitnesses to the Babi Yar massacre.

    There were also bystanders and perpetrators who also saw or participated in the executions and testified about it after the war.

    Höfer, a German truck driver, was ordered to go to the ravine to pick up the clothing of the murdered Jews. He saw the Jews being divested of their documents, luggage, valuables and clothing and driven through the entrances into the ravine. Höfer described the ravine as being about 150 meters long, 30 meters wide and 15 meters deep.

    While the truck was being loaded, Höfer took the opportunity to watch the executions in the ravine. Two or three narrow entrances led to this ravine through which the Jews were channeled. When they reached the bottom of the ravine they were seized by members of the Schutzpolizei and made to lie down on top of Jews who had already been shot. This all happened very quickly. The corpses were literally in layers. A police marksman came along and shot each Jew in the neck with a sub-machine gun at the spot where he was lying . . . I saw these marksmen standing on the layers of corpses and shoot one after the other. The moment one Jew had been killed, the marksman would walk across the bodies of the executed Jews to the next Jew, who had meanwhile laid down, and shoot him. It went on in this way uninterruptedly, with no distinction being made between men, women and children . . . there was a ‘packer’ at either entrance to the ravine. These ‘packers’ were Schutzpolizisten, whose job it was to lay the victim on top of the other corpses so that all the marksman had to do as he passed was fire a shot.”[10]

    Kurt Werner, a member of Sonderkommando 4a, also testified about his participation in the execution: It was all hands on deck. . . . There were countless Jews gathered there and a place had been set up where the Jews had to hand in their clothes and their luggage. A kilometer further on I saw a large natural ravine. . . . As soon as I arrived at the execution area I was sent down to the bottom of the ravine with some of the other men. It was not long before the first Jews were brought to us over the side of the ravine. The Jews had to lie face down on the earth by the ravine walls. There were three groups of marksmen down at the bottom of the ravine, each made up of about twelve men. Groups of Jews were sent down to each of these execution squads simultaneously. Each successive group of Jews had to lie down on top of the remains of those that had already been shot. The marksmen stood behind the Jews and killed them with a shot in the neck . . . I had to spend the whole morning down in the ravine. For some of the time I had to shoot continuously.”[11]

    Conclusion

    The testimony of primary eyewitnesses to the Babi Yar massacre is not contradictory and silly. Responsible historians cross check eyewitness testimonies, primary documentation, and physical evidence against each other to arrive at a credible representation of what happened.

    Tiedemann’s methodology, on the other hand, was to gather every tidbit of information he could find that even mentioned Babi Yar, no matter how non-authoritative, distant, or ideologically dubious it is, thus creating confusion and contradictions where there is none. Tiedemann’s insistence that he applied “scientific methodology” to all the conflicting and silly testimony is a mockery of proper historical methodology.

    Of the documentation that counts as primary are the Einsatzgruppen’s own reports, one of which reported that “33,771 Jews” were shot in Kiev on September 29 and 20, 1941, and the accounts of German perpetrators, bystanders and Jewish survivors.[12] These accounts corroborate each other in all major points. All other “evidence” provided by Tiedemann is secondary at best and completely unreliable at worst and whether it is contradictory or is not relevant.

    The evidence shows that 33,771 Jews were murdered in two days at Babi Yar by dedicated killers who had raised brutal and primitive murder to a fine art.

    NOTES

    [1] Herbert Tiedemann, “Babi Yar: Critical Questions and Comments” (“6.6. Securing Evidence”) at www.vho.org/GB/Books/dth/fndbabiyar.html.

    [2] A fuller version of Elgort’s testimony can be found in Ilya Ehrenburg’s and Vasily Grossman’s (editors), The Black Book (Holocaust Library, 1980), pp. 8, 9.

    [3] Herbert Tiedemann, “Babi Yar: Critical Questions and Comments” (“4. Eyewitness Accounts”).

    [4] Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman (editors), The Black Book (Holocaust Library, 1980), pp. 9, 10. An alternate spelling of Knysh’s name is Elena Efimovna Knish. Knish also told the same story to the NKVDS (Soviet secret police) on March 2, 1944. The transcript can be read in Ziama Trubakov’s The Riddle of Babi Yar: A True Story Written by a Survivor of Mass Massacres in Kiev in 1941-43 (translated, edited and expanded by Reyzl Yitkin) at location 3758. The book has been translated into English and can be found on Kindle.

    [5] Herbert Tiedemann, “Babi Yar: Critical Questions and Comments” (“4. Eyewitness Accounts”).

    [6] A. Anatoli Kuznetsov, Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel, translated by David Floyd (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970), pp. 98-119.

    [7] For a full analysis of the various testimonies of Dina Pronicheva see Karel C. Berkhoff, “Dina Pronicheva’s Story of Surviving the Babi Yar Massacre: German, Jewish, Soviet, Russian, and Ukrainian Records” in Ray Brandon and Wendy Lower (editors), The Shoah in the Ukraine: History, Testimony and Memorialization (Indiana University Press, 2008), pp. 291-317.

    [8] Herbert Tiedemann, “Babi Yar: Critical Questions and Comments” (“4. Eyewitness Accounts”).

    [9] Herbert Tiedemann, “Babi Yar: Critical Questions and Comments” (“4. Eyewitness Accounts”).

    [10] Ernst Klee, Willi Dressen and Volker Riess (editors), “The Good Old Days”: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders (Free Press, 1988), pp. 63-66.

    [11] Ernst Klee, Willi Dressen and Volker Riess (editors), “The Good Old Days”: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders (Free Press, 1988), pp. 66, 67. Werner’s testimony indicates that more than one method of execution was used, probably in different parts of the ravine and by different execution squads. Some victims were driven down to the bottom of the ravine, made to lie down on top of the bodies already there and then shot. Friedrich Jeckeln, the Higher SS Police Leader for the Kiev area, called this ‘Sardinenpackung’ (‘sardine packing’) and boasted about it to his bosses and colleagues. (Richard L. Rubenstein and John K. Roth, Approaches to the Holocaust: Legacy of the Holocaust (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), p. 179. Other groups were shot on the lip of the ravine and their bodies fell down into it. In both cases, the Germans and their helpers walked over the bodies searching for those who were still alive and dispatching them with a close-up shot.

    [12] Operational Situation Report USSR No.101, October 2, 1941 and Occupational Situation Report USSR No. 106, October 7, 1941 in Yitzhak Arad, Shmuel Krakowski and Shmuel Spector (editors), The Einsatzgruppen Reports: Selections from the Dispatches of the Nazi Death Squads’ Campaign Against the Jews in Occupied Territories of the Soviet Union July 1941-January 1943 (Holocaust Library, 1989), pp. 168, 173. (These reports are discussed in detail in the Einsatzgruppen section.)