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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 testimonies regarding the massacre of 33,771 Jews at the Babi Yar ravine in Kiev, Ukraine contradict each other and make outlandish claims. Therefore, it is doubtful that it ever happened.

    For example, 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] Instead, Tiedemann claims that he will apply “scientific methodology” to the matter.

    The facts are:

    Responsible historians cross-check eyewitness testimonies, primary documents, and physical evidence to arrive at a credible representation of what took place in the past. At the Babi Yar ravine in Kiev, the Nazis and their collaborators massacred 33,771 Jews. Primary sources—the Einsatzgruppen Reports and the testimony of perpetrators, bystanders, and Jewish survivors—corroborate each other on all major points.

    What is the “confusion” and the “silliness” claimed by Tiedemann:

    Holocaust denier Herbert Tiedemann collected numerous tidbits of evidence referring to Babi Yar, no matter how non-authoritative or dubious the sources. He listed as his sources:

    • 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. (Apart from.Anatoli Kuznetsov’s book, Babi Yar, which is a memoir in a novel format, designed to get it past Soviet censors, most of these sources are also not primary evidence.)
    • Six secondary eyewitness accounts: such as “my sister told me that her husband’s third cousin told him that . . .” Again, though interesting, these are not primary sources. As supporting evidence, they can be used as long as they are approached cautiously and cross-checked with primary eyewitness accounts.
    • Eight primary eyewitness accounts: Jewish survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders. These people were there and saw the massacre first-hand.

    What is the problem with his use of these sources? Tiedemann and other Holocaust deniers elevate the importance of many of the secondary sources or non-eyewitness accounts. Tiedemann and other Holocaust deniers then pick apart eyewitness testimonies looking for “inconsistencies,” mainly in order to use perspectival differences as a means of discounting entire testimonies. Those like Tiedemann claim such differences in perspective to be signs that the witness accounts are false or fictitious.

    Survivor eyewitness testimony about the Babi Yar massacre:

    For example, after 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 picked apart each woman’s story looking for “inconsistencies” that are actually differences in perspective or experience. Several instances testimonies show how Tiedemann scrutinizes eyewitness accounts with little concern for historical methodology.

    For instance, Yelena Yefimovna Knysh reported that she arrived at Babi Yar carrying her 4-year-old daughter in her arms. It was already near dark when she arrived, as she states: “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.

    Another female survivor was Dina Pronicheva. She was Jewish but was married to a Russian, Viktor Aleksandrovich Pronichev and had two children. 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 still and he did not notice that 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 completely 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. She provided four testimonies 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.

    Calling Pronicheva’s testimony simply a “story,” Tiedemann reads this account doubts the method of Nazi murder by gunfire. He wonders…Why didn’t the Germans shoot each other across the ravine?[8] Ignoring the actual testimony given by Pronicheva, she made clear that victims(?) were standing on a ledge with a wall of sand behind them which absorbed the bullets. This removed the possibility that one set of German executioners could wound or kill their fellow executioners. This is an example of Tiedemann’s false reading of testimonies.

    Rather, since Pronicheva’s testimony is one of the most well known eyewitness accounts and is generally devastating to the Holocaust deniers’ cause, Tiedemann resorts to ad hominem attacks. He denigrates Pronicheva’s character by accusing her of having a “facility at confabulation,” just because before WWII she was an actress in a puppet theater.[9]

    In actuality, the eyewitness accounts provided by survivors of Babi Yar suggest high amounts of similarity in key ways. All recounted the same traumatic experience: the undressing, the gap in the sandbank, the ledge, and the finishing off of those who were still alive. Further, both Pronicheva and Brodoyanski-Knysh were shot at twilight, after which the Germans apparently quit for the day, making it possible for them to crawl out of the pit. Other eyewitness accounts from survivors, such as Nesya Elgort, provide similar testimonies.

    Other eyewitnesses to the Babi Yar massacre:

    There were also bystanders and perpetrators who saw or participated in the executions and testified about Babi Yar 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 stripped of their documents, luggage, valuables, and clothing and then witnessed them being driven through the ravine’s entrances. Höfer described this part of the ravine as being about 150 meters long, 30 meters wide and 15 meters deep.

    While the truck was being loaded with the pilfered items, 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] These testimonies show that it was not only eyewitness survivors who claimed that the mass shootings took place. Rather, eyewitness perpetrators and collaborators exist who have similar testimonies.

    Conclusion:

    The testimony of primary eyewitnesses to the Babi Yar massacre is not contradictory, as deniers claim. Holocaust denier Herbert 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 small, non-authoritative, distant, or ideologically biased. Many of his sources are secondary, unreliable, or irrelevant. Like other deniers, Tiedemann uses these scraps of information to create confusions and contradictions where there were none. His insistence that he applied “scientific methodology” to these supposedly-conflicting testimonies is not representative of accurate historical analysis.

    Instead, when considering the primary sources—such as the Einsatzgruppen’s own reports and the accounts of German perpetrators, local bystanders, and Jewish survivors the accounts of Babi Yar actually corroborate each other in all major points. [12] The evidence shows that 33,771 Jews were murdered in two days at Babi Yar by dedicated killers who had raised brutal 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.)