The war waged by Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union was one of annihilation. If in the occupied Western countries the aggressors preserved a modicum of civility towards the local populace, there was no such decorum shown to the “untermenschen” of the East.
Seven and a half million citizens were systematically murdered in the occupied territories of the USSR, including Jews, Gypsies, communists and civilians suspected of helping the partisans. For every German soldier killed by the latter, an entire village along with all its inhabitants might be burned down in retribution.
War crimes were committed not only by the Einsatzgruppen – paramilitary death squads specially created for the extermination of Jews and Bolsheviks, but also by soldiers of the Waffen SS and the Wehrmacht. They were actively assisted by Baltic, Belarusian, Ukrainian and Russian collaborators.
On Sept. 19, 1941, German troops took Kiev, the capital of Soviet Ukraine, and eight days later mass executions began there. The first victims were 752 patients of a local psychiatric hospital.
They were followed by Kiev’s Jewish population, who were ordered to report to the Babi Yar ravine in the north-western part of the city at 8am on Sept. 29, ostensibly for a headcount and resettlement. Refusal to obey was punishable by death.
Thousands packed their possessions and went to their deaths without realizing it. Those who guessed their fate and tried to flee were dragged into the ravine by force. “Mom tried to shield us as best she could, so that the shots hit her not us,” recalled Genya Batasheva, who miraculously survived: “People were tearing at their hair, screaming hysterically, going crazy. I saw a baby crying on the ground. A fascist went up and smashed its head with a rifle butt. I probably lost consciousness, I don’t remember what happened next.”
At the place of execution, the condemned were lined up on the edge of the precipice in groups of 30-40 and executed with machine guns. The shots were drowned out by music and the noise of a plane flying over the ravine. Small children were pushed in while still alive.
On Sept. 29-30, 33,771 people were shot in this way. Thus, in two days, the fascist invaders exterminated almost the entire Jewish population of Kiev. By the time the city was liberated by the Red Army in 1943, around 70-200,000 people had been murdered at Babi Yar.
On the morning of March 22, 1943, a unit of the 118th Schutzmannschaft Battalion in the Minsk region of Soviet Belarus was ambushed by the “Uncle Vasya” partisan brigade of Vasily Voronyansky. During the firefight, several soldiers, including a favorite of Adolf Hitler himself, 1936 Berlin Olympics shot-put champion Hans Welke, were killed.
The partisans were tracked back to the village of Khatyn by members of the battalion, mainly Ukrainian collaborators, as well as the infamous SS Dirlewanger Battalion. After a brief skirmish, the village had to be abandoned, and it was immediately encircled by the death squads.
Residents were driven out of their houses and into a barn, where they were locked inside. When the Ukrainians set fire to the thatched roof, panic ensued. People screamed, cried, begged for mercy and tried to break down the locked doors.
When they finally managed to force the doors off their hinges and run from the burning shed, they were met with machine-gun fire. “My 15-year-old son Adam and I were near the wall, slaughtered people fell on me, those still living rushed past like a wave, blood was pouring from the bodies of the wounded and the dead,” recalled Joseph Kaminsky. “The blazing roof collapsed, the wild, terrible howl of the people intensified. Those underneath were burning alive, screaming and convulsing, the roof was literally spinning round.”
Grigory Vasyura.Central Archive of the KGB (State Security Agency) of the Republic of Belarus
Having suffered severe burns, Kaminsky miraculously survived, but lost his son in that hellhole.
One hundred and forty-nine people were burned alive in that locked barn in the village of Khatyn, 75 of them children, the youngest of whom, Tolik Yaskevich, was only seven weeks old. Following the murder of Khatyn’s population, the Germans and Ukrainians looted then burned down the village itself.
Grigory Vasyura, head of the 188th Battalion, who led the execution, managed to hide his wartime past and live peacefully in the Soviet Union for years afterwards, posing as a veteran frontline soldier. Only in 1986 was the 71-year-old war criminal unmasked and sentenced to death.
Khatyn was by no means the first or last Soviet village to be destroyed by the Germans along with its inhabitants during the Second World War. But it became one of the most potent symbols of Nazi cruelty in the occupied territories.
The annihilation of Khatyn formed the storyline of the one of the most horrific WW2 films ever made, 1985’s Come and See by director Elem Klimov. “I thought to myself: the world doesn't know about Khatyn! It knows about Katyn and the execution of Polish officers. But nothing about Belarus, although more than 600 villages there were burned down! So I decided to make a film about this tragedy," explained the director.
On the night of Feb. 27, 1943, a group led by legendary Soviet partisan Alexei Fedorov attacked the Hungarian garrison stationed in the settlement of Koryukovka in the Chernihiv region of Soviet Ukraine. The raid was successful: 78 enemy soldiers were killed and eight taken prisoner, and a timber mill, the commandant's office, the train station, a bridge and a fuel warehouse were blown up. In addition, over a hundred prisoners were released from jail.
In retaliation, the occupiers targeted not the partisans, but the inhabitants of Koryukovka. On March 1, SS detachments and units of the 105th Hungarian Division and Ukrainian Auxiliary Police encircled the settlement in a pincer movement.
Under the guise of checking documents, the death squads entered houses and shot the inhabitants. Others were locked inside their dwellings and burned alive, while those who managed to escape were gunned down. The local theater, school, restaurant and clinic all became sites of mass executions. Hoping to escape, some 500 people fled to the church, but they too were murdered, along with the priest.
"My little daughter was lying on my chest when they started shooting at us in the restaurant. People were driven in like cattle into a slaughterhouse... A fascist shot me in the eye... I don't remember anything else. Three of my children were killed. I couldn't even bury them... The wretched murderers burned them," recalled survivor Yevgeny Rymar.
For a period of two days, the death squads ravaged the settlement, burning down 1,390 houses and killing around 6,700 people (5,612 bodies could not be identified), making the Koryukovka massacre one of the worst war crimes of the Nazis in World War II.
Two weeks later the Red Army entered the settlement. But there was almost no one left to greet the liberators.
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