A woman passes by the portrait of a Babi Yar survivor, 2016SERGII KHARCHENKO/NURPHOTO VIA GETTY IMAGES
On the 80th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre, hearing rare stories of survival from the Holocaust-era Soviet territories
Why is it so hard to communicate the experience of Jews in Soviet territories during the Holocaust? It’s because there are so few stories.
Countless films have been made to help us relate to the experience of Western European and Polish Jewry. The images of the Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz are burned into our minds. But I have yet to see a feature film treating the experience of a Jewish woman in the Janowska concentration camp in Lwów or a Jewish child trying to survive the extermination of Odessa’s Jewry at the hands of the Romanians.
In the run-up to the 80th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre, we asked several young Russian-speaking North American Jews to interview Holocaust survivors from the Soviet Union.
The stories they brought back are unlike most of what American Jews’ collective memory of the Holocaust contains. Most take place in the summer and fall of 1941—the chaotic first months of the German-Soviet war and occupation, and the early stage of the Jewish genocide. The Holocaust at this point is far from the well-oiled machine we remember it as. At this point, the most high-tech solution to the “Jewish problem” is still Einsatzgruppen commander Friedrich Jeckeln’s “sardine method” of packing people as tightly as possible in the shooting pits before murdering them.
The absence of streamlined mass murder solutions, however, did not prevent the Germans, their allies, and local collaborators from murdering 2.7 million Jews in these territories. Fewer than 120,000 Jews are estimated to have survived the genocide here
With the exception of one, all of the people we interviewed experienced the Holocaust in Transnistria, an administrative entity established by the Romanians in southeastern Ukraine between the rivers Dniester and Southern Bug, with Odessa as its capital, and studded with ghettos and concentration camps.
Some 250,000 Jews were murdered here by starvation, brutal forced marches, disease, forced labor, and mass executions. And yet, this horrific place offered an ever-so-slightly higher chance of survival if one was, perhaps, a bit stronger and healthier, a bit more resourceful, and much, much luckier than most. By contrast, virtually no one survived mass shooting events such as Babi Yar in the German-occupied Soviet territories.
Some of our interlocutors were very young children during the war. Their Holocaust stories are the stories that their parents and grandparents told them. Others were old enough to not only remember but to help save the adults in their lives. All but one live in Israel today.
“The Holocaust That Never Happened”
Hannah Baron (20, Los Angeles) interviews Efraim Donitz (83, Los Angeles)
“I hear you want to know about the Holocaust that never happened.”
This was Efraim Donitz calling me back to respond to my request for an interview. I arrived at his house in Los Angeles the next day and sat across from him in his living room.
He was only 3 when his family moved to a ghetto in Transnistria some 80 years ago. I doubted he would remember much. But I was wrong. “I remember everything,” he said. “That’s the problem.”
Despite his vivid memories, he spoke of the period like he was giving a history lecture, rather than relaying personal experience. But there were brief moments in which Efraim was overcome with emotion. They happened most frequently when he spoke about how the world remembers—or, rather, doesn’t remember—those events rather than the events themselves.
A few years ago, he and his wife embarked on a pilgrimage through the sites of the occupation. He wanted to show these places to his children and grandchildren because he had been there: “I lost my mother there, and I lost my sister. It’s a part of my life.”
When they were looking for Babi Yar in Kyiv, their tour guide took them to the wrong memorial. For a long time, they couldn’t find a driver who would be willing to take them to the actual site of the massacres. When they finally got there, they found it desecrated. Later, they were told that their tour guide and the drivers likely knew exactly where Babi Yar was, but refused to take them. It made them angry.
Back home in Los Angeles, Efraim tried to get others to hear about it. “I’ve tried everywhere, nobody wants to listen,” he said. He volunteered to teach at the Holocaust museum, and though the museum’s donors appeared very enthusiastic about the idea, he never got a call back.
“I’m just disappointed in the whole thing.” This time, the crack in his demeanor was almost a sob.
Most of the world didn’t have an obligation to remember Babi Yar, he said. But Jews do.
“That is why this is the Holocaust that never happened.”
On Foot Through Belarus in the Midst of the Shoah
Natalie Arbatman (17, Mountain View, Calif.) interviews Victor Gin (82, Jerusalem)
When the German bombs began to fall on the USSR on June 22, 1941, the 2-year-old Victor Gin (then Ginzbursky) was living in Bialystok, a Polish city that the Soviets had annexed and attached to Belarus in September of 1939. Within days, the Germans were there, murdering the Jews by the thousands. Victor’s mother Sophia, a German teacher, was lucky to get on an eastbound train with her 2- and 4-year old boys just in time to escape. Her destination was Gomel—a Belarussian town 600 kilometers east, where her family lived.
Her train was bombed some time after leaving Bialystok. She continued on foot. Hunger was a constant threat. She survived by begging for bread in villages and taking on menial jobs to keep the children alive. She walked through one Belarussian city after another, witnessing atrocities that the Jews were subjected to. In the city of Baranoviche, she destroyed her Soviet documents identifying her as a Jew. In an office that managed Polish-Jewish refugees who had flooded the city, she managed to get a new document with a Russified name. Then she continued walking.
Sofia and the toddlers reached Gomel in late August. They were once again lucky: They had just missed the rounding up of Gomel’s Jews into ghettos by the Germans. She chose to remain outside the ghetto walls. They wandered through Gomel like nomads, squatting in abandoned houses—strangers in their own hometown. When the Germans wiped out the ghetto and started combing the city for hidden Jews like herself, she got on the first eastbound train and ended up in the occupied Russian city of Oryol.
She had no family in the city. She cleaned floors, sawed wood, and washed the Germans’ clothes in exchange for bread. For weeks, they squatted in unheated basements and frantically changed addresses when the locals betrayed them to the authorities. “Every unexpected knock on the door, every rustle, every look instinctively spoke: today is the death,” Sophia wrote in 1945 in a letter to the famous Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg, who was collecting testimonies of the German atrocities. They lived this way until Aug. 4, 1943, when the Soviet troops entered Oryol.
Sophia never sent her letter to Ehrenburg. She wrote it, Victor said, in order “to free herself from the memories that overwhelmed her, from the nightmares that tormented her.” This letter is what informs much of his personal memory about the Holocaust. That, and a small aluminum cross that his mother had put around his neck to save him.
After the war, Victor became a poet and a lyricist, writing under the last name of Gin. His song, “Talk to Me, Mom,” performed by the popular Soviet singer Valentina Tolkunova, became a national hit. It remains popular to this day.
“God Saved Me and Took Me Out of the Ghetto”
Ruty Korotaev (23, Toronto) interviews Mikhail Grimberg (85, Jerusalem)
Mikhail Grimberg remembers standing with other Jews in the center of his village of Krasne, in Ukraine’s Vinnitsa province, in 1941 and watching a man by the name of Chashka (“cup” in Russian) being called to step out of the crowd. Chashka, an old, devout Jew, stepped forward to face a group of German and Romanian soldiers when suddenly his pants dropped to his knees. He had shoved a Shabbat tablecloth underneath his clothes and it must have weighed down his pants. Despite the fear reverberating through the crowd, Chashka’s predicament brought out a few grins. Realizing that this tablecloth was Mr. Chashka’s most expensive possession—and one that would be of no use to them—the Nazis let him go.
The Germans soon handed control over the small ghetto they established in the village to the Romanians. That was one of the happiest moments of Grimberg’s life: “This is how we stayed alive.” The moment they saw the Germans leaving, “we started kissing and hugging one another because we were so relieved. The Romanians may have robbed us and beat us, but we were allowed to stay alive.”
Just 6 years old at the start of the war, Grimberg describes his prewar life as something straight out of Fiddler on the Roof. Despite this being well into the Soviet years, the Grimbergs celebrated all the Jewish holidays and clung to their belief in God, state-imposed atheism be damned.
Grimberg said that every time he talks about his experiences during the war, he feels sick for days. I was holding back tears as he told me harrowing stories of sexual assault that he witnessed in the ghetto, hearing fathers wailing as their daughters were stolen away into the night. He described his days during the war as “cold and hungry,” and how, if he and his brother were lucky enough to find a rotten potato in the snow, he would savor it for as long as possible. “I would chew my food for a long time because I didn’t want to swallow it. I knew that as soon as I did, I’d be hungry again.”
When he moved to Israel in 1993, he found a job as a janitor in a Jerusalem yeshiva. He was thrilled that the Yiddish-speaking students—many of them from the United States—wanted to hear him sing in Yiddish. “The way I look at it is, God saved me and took me out of the ghetto. So many others were shot and killed, and for some reason I was spared.”
“When You Grow Up, You’ll Understand Everything”
Shayna Levin (15, New York) interviews Gita Koyfman (82, Kiryat Yam, Israel)
Before the war, Gita Koyfman’s family lived in Briceni, Bessarabia (today’s Moldova). They were a well-to-do family. When the Soviets annexed the area from Romania in 1940, they confiscated their property and prepared to exile them to Siberia along with other wealthy Jewish families. But in 1941, the Germans and their Romanian allies entered the town. They gathered the Jews in the town square and told them to pack a small number of belongings.
That evening, the pogroms began. The locals knew where everything was. Gita’s house was spared because—according to the villagers—Gita’s family were “good kikes.”
Soon the family was put on a death march to Transnistria. They were forced to walk from June to October, often through the same places. The goal was to exhaust and kill as many Jews as possible before they got to the destination.
The weather was especially harsh that year. “Autumn came early, there were rains and it was cold,” Gita said. Her parents were only able to take some jewelry, money, and a few loaves of bread. They brought no clothes with them. They were made to march in columns. Those who couldn’t keep up fell and were left in the road. Her grandmother got stomped into the mud. Her mother died from typhus. Her father’s family vanished altogether. “We lost 50 family members in the Holocaust,” said Gita.
Gita doesn’t remember the march to the ghetto, but she remembers the road back. Upon their release in the winter of 1944, her father walked home for six weeks, carrying the 4-year-old Gita in his arms. “I wonder to this day: Where did we sleep? What did we eat? How did we survive these six weeks?” said Gita. “Father never talked to me about this. He told me, when you grow up, you’ll understand everything.”
“People Were Simply Left to Die of Hunger”
Aviya Kleiman (17, Toronto) interviews Lev Muchnik (89, Jerusalem)
On Dec. 31, 1941, the Romanians, who were occupying the city of Bratslav in southeastern Ukraine, ordered all of the city’s Jewish inhabitants to gather in the town square. Nine-year-old Lev Muchnik and his family were among them. The following day, they were marched to the Romanian-run Pechora concentration camp in Transnistria.
Pechora was different from other, better-known death camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka, Lev said. In those camps, people were exterminated by mechanical means. In Pechora, they were put in an abandoned tuberculosis sanitarium and simply left to die of hunger.
Those who had things they could trade for food lived. Those who had nothing died. Twenty-five to 30 people died per night. New arrivals replaced them every day.
Lev’s younger brother died quickly. Then a passing German brigade took his father and older sister to work on a construction site outside the camp. They were shot after they finished. Lev was now responsible for feeding himself and his mother—his last remaining family member. In the summer, he would sneak out, dive into the Bug River, swim under the barriers, and go begging for food in nearby villages. In the winter, the Bug froze and he had to find other escape routes. He would bring the food to his mother.
“Hunger has a different effect on people,” Lev said. “Some turn into skeletons. Others swell and their faces look like soccer balls. Many go insane.” One memory keeps tormenting him to this day: a young man in his mid-20s, who was already losing his mind and walking around half-naked. Lev brought him warm water. One morning he saw him dead next to the entrance of the camp. “The most terrifying thing is, he was holding a woman’s breast next to his mouth. Where and how he cut it off, I don’t know.”
This picture sometimes pops into his mind unexpectedly. “The most terrifying thing is, these 25 to 30 people dying every day,” he said. “You wake up and you are surrounded by corpses. I helped to load them.”
A Childhood Trauma That Never Went Away
Noah Lyakhovetsky (15, Brooklyn, N.Y.) interviews Yakov Grinberg (82, Haifa)
Yakov was 2 years old and living in a small town near Odessa when the German forces occupied Ukraine. His father enlisted. His mother managed to evacuate with Yakov’s younger brother. They wedged themselves among wood barrels in the back of a truck. The Germans shot at the truck and killed one of the two Soviet soldiers who drove it and wounded the other. His mother got wounded too. Her suitcase fell overboard with all their documents, but they escaped and got to Central Asia, where they spent the war.
Yakov remained under the occupation with his grandparents. Soon Romanians, who were in charge of the area, began to transfer the Jews to the ghettos in Transnistria. Yakov and his grandparents ended up in the Balta ghetto. Romanians issued an order—to surrender all Jewish children. Some Russian took Yakov and hid him. “Then a new order came out—whoever is hiding Jewish children will be shot. The Russian brought me back and returned me to my grandmother,” said Yakov.
One day the Germans were force-marching a column of prisoners to a worksite and tried to pull his grandmother in. “I grabbed onto her skirt, cried, and screamed,” said Yakov, recalling his grandmother’s stories. “They let her go. And the column didn’t come back.” Another time, his grandfather was gathering broken window glass after a bombing. The Germans picked him up to join another column of prisoners. “They said they were taking them to work. But no one in that column came back,” Yakov said. They never learned what happened to his grandfather.
Yakov doesn’t have conscious memories of those events, but he continues to feel their impact to this day. The bombings that shook him awake at night shattered his nervous system. As a child, he had nightmares and would jump awake, crying and screaming in fright. He still sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night in a panic. Then he remembers where he is.
“Future Generations Should Never Have to Live Through War”
Eva Trakhtman (18, Houston) interviews Lyuba Geller (88 years old)
Lyuba Geller wore a matching sky-blue dress and a delicate pearl necklace for the interview. She had her hair secured neatly in a matching aqua polka-dot hairband. This delicate woman’s positivity painted even the most dreadful moments of her story with hopeful light.
She was born in 1932 in Vinnitsa, Ukraine, where her father worked as a judge. When the war broke out, Lyuba’s father left for the front, and she moved into her grandfather’s house in a small village of Chernevtsi. When the German troops came looking for them, their village’s Ukrainian foreman told them that the Jews were long gone. The Germans left and massacred all the Jews in the three nearby villages.
Then came the Romanians. They surrounded the village with barbed wire, went around the houses, and took everything. “Romanians, thank God, did not kill us. They said—go, earn a living however you want,” said Lyuba. She went to work with her mother, cleaning stables and working in the fields in exchange for food. Her grandfather made shoes, and she and her sister sold them in the market. They used dried horse manure for fuel and collected bran from a local mill to bake flat bread. In this way, they survived for four years.
In 1944, Soviet soldiers liberated the ghetto, but the painful events were not over yet. Lyuba recalls the village celebrating, with the villagers inviting soldiers into their homes. Her grandparents did as well, to treat the soldiers to a meager celebratory meal. Suddenly they heard planes fly overhead. When the soldiers stepped outside to check on what was going on, they were blown up by shells that began dropping from the sky. “I walked outside, and he is already dead … Everyone started to run,” she said. She recalls the screams and wails that filled the village. That was Lyuba’s last day in the ghetto.
Lyuba loves to sing, and in the end, she sang Tum Balalaika and A Yiddishe Mame for me. She had a message to share with the world. She wishes that future generations never have to live through war.
We are grateful to the Association of Concentration Camps and Ghetto Survivors in Israel and its founding chairman, Gita Koyfman, and Deputy Chairman Michael Steimberg for help with connecting us to the survivors.
Izabella Tabarovsky is a contributing writer at Tablet and a researcher with the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center focusing on the politics of historical memory in the former Soviet Union. Follow her at @IzaTabaro.