Little Grey Rabbit's Historical Skepticism Blog

Blowing up the ravine walls of Babi Yar and Rumbula

Posted in Einsatzgruppen, Police etc, Resistance and Psychological Warfare by littlegreyrabbit on March 10, 2011

I have posted previously how visiting American journalists were sceptical about what the Soviets alleged and happened at Babi Yar; what I wish to do now is examine the claims that in order to conceal the 34 000 bodies, the walls of the ravine were dynamited.  The claim is repeated in many places and may have been a finding of the trial of Sonderkommando 4a by the West German courts.  One reference will suffice here, War of Extermination: The German Military in WWII, edited by Hanse Heer et al, page 254; “Immediately following the massacre on 30 September, engineers blew up the edges of the ravine in order to cover the mass grave with stones and earth.” My view is the story about the about blowing up the walls of Babi Yar developed very early among resistance groups inside Nazi Germany, and when this claim is repeated it points not to an actual event but rather contaimination by pre-determined narrative which was never grounded in any sort of reality.

We have photographs allegedly immediately after the massacre and immediately after liberation and to my mind there is no trace of the use of explosives:

Soviet Special Commission 1943: Place of the shootings

We also have a photo of the same area taken on a sunny day in October 1941 by an official German photographer Johannes Hähle.  This photo, which is identifiable as being located next to the Jewish cemetary in Babi Yar can, if it has any meaning at all, have been only taken after the burial of the 34 000 executions.  As a failure of imagination on my part, I can see no trace of an execution or the use of explosives on the walls.

Babi Yar - after blasting the ravine walls?

However, if it does not represent a burial party at Babi Yar, what can it possibly represent?  The album, while containing no images of weapons or bodies, does contain a number of photos of clothes either in wide angle or in close up, as below:

Gratuitous clothes close-up

This is, of course, seems just the message anti fascists would love to see, but is it really a priority of a photographer working in a Propagand Kompanie for the German Wehrmacht in 1941?  The number and pointlessness of these photos of clothes is notable.  The set of photographs only appeared in the late 1950s, via an unknown route and long after the death of the photographer Johannes Hähle.  All his other photos available through the Bundesarchives seem to be black and white.  Many of the photos of the Kiev set are identifiably from Kiev and from 1941.  The only explanation I can come up with is a genuine set of photographs was discovered and then spliced with various shots of people wandering around Babi Yar carrying spades and arrays of clothes and belongings and then passed over to the West Germans.  However, this is a matter for the individual reader to decide – but for myself, if they weren’t burying people in the ravine I can’t think of what they were doing, or why an official photographer would be recording it in the first place.

From the Kiev archives there are a few photos said to be of Babi Yar and substantially less dramatic or convincing regarding the clothes of 34 000 Jews (see below).  Again, it is a matter for the individual reader to decide as to why these two sets of photographic records would be so radically different.

Searching belongings: From the National Archives for Photos & Films, Kiev

1.  The Soviet Narrative

To trace first the early accounts of Babi Yar from the Soviet side.  The earliest report given the most publicity was a Communique released by VM Molotov on 7 January 1942:

A horrible massacre and pogrom were perpetrated by the German invaders in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. Within a few days the German bandits killed and tortured to death 52,000 men, women, old folk and children, dealing mercilessly with all Ukrainians, Russians and Jews who in any way displayed their fidelity to the Soviet Government. Soviet citizens who escaped from Kiev gave an agonizing account of one of these mass executions:

A large number of Jews, including women and children of all ages, was gathered in the Jewish cemetery of Kiev. Before they were shot, all were stripped naked and beaten. The first persons selected for shooting were forced to lie face down at the bottom of a ditch and were shot with automatic rifles. Then the Germans threw a little earth over them. The next group of people awaiting execution was forced to lie on top of them, and shot, and so on.[1]

However, it is likely there were earlier reports.  On March 19, 1941, the Tel Aviv based paper Davar published excerpts from the a report in the army Red Star newspaper that probably pre-dated the Molotov report:

All the Jews residing in Kiev were ordered to report with their luggage to 79 Melnik Street, corner of 9th of January Street, the former location of the “Party Education House.” The order specified times for registration according to place of residence, and it was stressed that since the registrees would be taken out of the city, they were to bring with a suitcase containing clothing and food. The bastards tricked them. The intention of the hoodlums was not the evacuation of the city, but murder. As was subsequently learned, the Fascists demanded of those who showed up to inform on Soviet activists. They were beaten and tortured, and then taken to the Lukyanovka cemetery and shot. The beasts abused the victims. The children were buried alive, while the adults were forced to dig their own graves. The murders continued for some days.  [….]
Every German soldier, every Petlura vermin may stop any passerby on the street, say he is a Jew and take him to the Lukyanovka cemetery. Fifty-two thousand killed, peaceful residents of Kiev: that is the bloody toll of the butchery.[2]

Along side this in the same issue, Davar also carried a report orginating from London quoting the Soviet legation with a far lower death toll:

“One Thousand Jews Murdered At Kiev. Palcor reports fromLondon:
According to a war bulletin issued today by the Soviet legation, in the terrible massacre perpetrated by the Nazis among the residents of Kiev, one thousand Jews were murdered (and not 52,000, as reported a short time ago). The murder was perpetrated by the Nazis in an extremely brutal manner.

There are some differences in the Red Star version from what began later understood as Babi Yar, for example the meeting point is specified as “Party Education House” and it is not entirely clear if all Jews were targeted or only those who were party activists or refused to inform.  At this stage there is no mention of blowing up the walls of the ravine.

Dina Mironovna Pronichev (nee Vasserman) is the only supposed eyewitness survivor of the massacre also seems to not have noticed the walls of the ravine being blown up (although presumably in an excellent position to observe this):

A policeman told me to undress and pushed me to the edge of the pit where another group was waiting for its fate. But before the shooting started, I driven by terror, fell into the pit. I fell on dead bodies. At first, I could not understand anything: where was I? How did I get there?

I thought I had gone mad. But when people started falling on my, I came to my senses and understood everything. I started checking my arms, legs, abdomen, head. It turned out I was not even I pretended to be dead. Under me and above me there lay the killed and wounded. Some of them breathed, others moaned. Suddenly, I heard a child cry, “Mommy!” It seemed like it was my little daughter. I burst into tears.  The execution went on, and people kept falling. I was pushing corpses away in fear of being buried alive. But I did this in a way so that the policemen would not notice.

All of a sudden everything was quiet. It was getting dark. Germans with submachine guns were killing those who had been wounded. I felt someone was standing above me, pretended to be dead, no matter how hard it was. Then I felt we were being covered with earth. I closed my eyes to protect them. When it became completely dark and quite – deadly quiet in literal sense – I opened my eyes and, having made sure no one was around and watching me, I dug myself out of sand that was covering me. I saw the ditch filling with thousands of killed. I got scared. Here and there earth was moving – half alive people were breathing.[3]

Nor do I recall the use of explosives appearing in Anatoly Kuznetsov’s documentary novel, Babi Yar, so it would appear this incident is not a feature of Soviet narratives.

2.  The German narrative

German and western narratives are different, however.  The earliest account of Babi Yar outside an official communique that I have come across is from a deserter from the Germany army who gave a statement to the Swiss authorities in December 1941:

Thousands of Jews of all ages and gender were shot in the hinterland of Kiev. They were buried in mass graves, which prior to their shooting they mostly had to dig out partly themselves or with shovels, of the kind children use as toys. The shootings were carried out by units of the SS, by soldiers of the regular army and by conscripted labour of the ages of 16 to 18 years.   With the soldiers an outspoken feeling of contempt is appeared, if they had to carry out this type of execution.  The conscripted labour is supposed to have mentally completely broken down, when they had to complete these shootings.[4]

Another deserter from the Luftwaffe, a former Stuka pilot who in March 1942 gave what I believe is the first description of the use of explosives to create the mass graves as an aside to the Swiss interrogating officer, although it this point the exeuctions are taking place in sand pits rather than a ravine:

a) Jews – Murder by the SS.  Concerning the bestialities of the SS E. gave the following data.  Sonderkommandos for shootings (3-4 months in duration were formed in the Waffen SS.
Kiev.  Beginning of October 1941 40 000 Jews shot (men, women and children).  The Jews were required to report with 50 kg luggage.  Marched down into sand pits: shot.  Walls of the sand pits blown up, so that mass graves resulted.[5]

The next account of blowing up the walls came as hear-say from bugged conversations of Wehrmacht officers held in British POW camps.  This one is dated November 1944

ELFELDT: When we were in the KIEV district, my CO of signals(?) came back quite horrified….spoken….it was an engineer ‘Bataillons-kommandeur’ and this engineer ‘Bataillon’ had the task of blowing up that… which were these 32,000 Jews including women and children.

HEIM:  Even if the figures are not correct, I mean, there are things which can absolutely be characterised as criminal, or even completely crazy and mad.

ELFELDT:  In just the same way as I have obligations towards my family and my nation, so have we of course, as a nation, certain rules which we must observe towards the rest of humanity, there’s no doubt at all about that.  I can’t behave like a wild beast.[6]

Surprising all most the exact same story was repeated by another Wehrmacht officer, Walter Bruns – famous for his claims of witnessing Rumbula – in April 1945.  It would appear this CO of the engineers was a rather talkative character:

BRUNS:….Before this, however, they were stipped of everything at one of the stations – here at the edge of the wood were the three pits they used that Sunday and here they stood in a queue 1.5 km long which approached step by step – a queueing up for death…..and then, a little further on they had to undress and, 500 m in front of the wood, strip completely, they were only permitted to keep on a chemise or knickers.  They were all women and small two-year-old children.  Then all those cynical remarks!  If only I had seen those tommy-gunners, who were relieved every hour because of over-exertion, carry out their task with distaste, but no, nasty remarks like: ‘Here comes a Jewish beauty!’ I can still see it all in my memory: a pretty woman in a flame-coloured chemise.  Talk about keeping the race pure: at RIGA they first slept with them and then shot them to prevent them from talking.  Then I sent two officers out there, one of whom is still alive, because I wanted eye-witnesses.  I didn’t tell them what was going on, but said ‘Go out to the forest of SKIOTAWA, see what’s up there and send me a report.’  I added a memorandum to their report and took it to JAKOBS myself.  He said: ‘I have already two complaints sent me by Engineer “Bataillone” from the UKRAINE.’  There they shot them on the brink of large crevices and let them fall down into them; they nearly had an epidemic of plague, at any rate a pestilential smell.  They thought they could break off the edges with picks, thus burying them.  That loess there was so hard that two Engineer ‘Bataillone’ were required to dynamite the edges; those ‘Bataillone’ complained. JAKOBS had received that complaint.  He said:  ‘We didin’t quite know how to tell the FUEHRER.  We’d better do it through CANARIS.’[7]

A few days later Walter Bruns was called to give a statement to War Crimes Investigators and ended up testifying at Nuremberg at the ‘OKH’ trial.  Needless to say neither the memorandum nor the report nor any official complaint regarding this event or Babi Yar were ever found.  What I suggest these three wartime accounts of blowing up the ravine walls represent are individuals who were hostile to the Nazi regime and either already in contact with anti-Nazi resistance groups or contacted by such groups in captivity and conforming to a pre-determined narrative.

It appears to me highly unlikely from liberation photographs that the walls of Babi Yar were blown up and the surviving records  seem to suggest that all available resources were flat out putting out fires and demining the city (from the records of the 113rd Infantry Division):

Grossbrand geloescht.  Entminung durch Pi.- und Techn.Btl. mot. 6 im Gange.  Ausreichende Gebaeude fuer Truppen und militaerische Dienststellen sichergestellt [….]

Pi Batl 113 trifft ein und uebernimmt Entminung von Tech.Batl. mot 6.  Grossfeuer in einem Verpfelgungslater hinter Polytechnikum.  Nur Gebaeudeschaden.  Sabotage nicht anzunehmen. […]

Bis 5.10 von Pi.Batl 113 durchgefuehrt:
60 Minenuntersuchungen.  Insgesamt bis 5.10 154 Objekte auf Minen untersucht [8]

This suggest that  Pioneer Battalion 113,  held by historian Dieter Pohl to have carried out the mining of Babi Yar, didn’t even arrive until the 3rd of October.   Other units of engineers were available but they were busy with bona fide work of de-mining and fire-fighting.  This particular document is often quoted from historians as it states a “Judenaktion” was commenced on the 27th of September (one day before the Babi Yar massacre), what no historian will quote is the very same document states that this Judenaktion (a word which in no way has to imply murder) continued until the 3rd of October – the omission of this record appears to be an example of universal self-censorship.

Civilians for reasons unknown waiting outside Zenit Football Stadium in Sept-Oct 1941

As a curious side, a former member of Einsatzgruppen C, Albert Hartl, a religion specialist for the RSHA told the following bizarre tale at Nuremberg and subsequently to Gita Sereny and recorded in a number of her books.  This is one of her versions of his account:

Albert Hartl, the former chief of the Church Information Service at the Reich Security Office, who had been sent to Russia in January 1942 with a commission from Heydrich to “report on the cultural and spiritual condition of the populatiion”, told me of the day he was invited to dine at the dacha – the weekend villa outside Kiev – of Brigadefuehrer (Major-General) Max Thomas, the higher SS and police leader who was his nominal superior. “I was going with Standartenfuehrer (Colonel) Blobel,” he said. “I hardly knew him but he was invited to dinner too, so we went together. It was evening and just getting dark. At one moment – we were driving past a long ravine. I noticed strange movements of the earth: clumps of earth rose into the air as if by their own propulsion – and there was smoke: it was like a low-toned volcano; as if there was burning lava just beneath the earth. Blobel laughed, made a gesture with his arm, pointing back along the raod and ahead of us, all along the ravine – the ravine of Babi Yar – and said, “Here lie my 30,000 Jews.” [The movement of the earth was caused by the thaw releasing the gases from the corpses.] (Hartl, a few months after that, had or faked, a nervous breakdown, was first hospitalized in Kiev and then sent for six months to a convalescent home in the country. After this he was returned to Germany and, by request, invalided out of active, including administrative, service with the SS). [9]

Paul Blobel left Kiev in January 1941 for health reasons.  His personal file has a complete black hole between January 1941 and September 1944. From June 1942 he  is supposed to have returned to active servce and established a squad to burn bodies from mass graves, although documentation outside his own confessions is sparse.  In early September 1942 and before, he was supposedly in Lodz, Poland conducting experiments in destroying bodies, including (yes of course) the use of explosives. Prior to that he was supposedly establish mass cremations at Auschwitz – both locations a long way from Kiev.  Even given this account of exploding soil is extremely improbable, it seems also improbable Blobel was even in Kiev in the summer of 1942 when this strange tour of Babi Yar is supposed to have taken place.  Albert Hartl avoid doing any serious jail time, either in Nuremberg or under the West German judicial authorities, proving yet again that an active imagination, a quick tongue and honesty flexible enough to provide the authorities with the confirmation they wished to hear was the best way to avoid legal difficulties for former SS men after World War II.

3. Blowing up the Ravine walls at Rumbula also?!

Interestingly there is early testimony about explosives being used to bury corpses at Rumbula, November 1941 near Riga.  To return to Walter Bruns’ account again

“I told that fellow ALTENMEYER whose name I shall always remember and who will be added to the list of war criminals: ‘Listen to me, they represent valuable man-power!’  ‘Do you call Jews valuable human beings, Sir?’  I said: ‘Listen to me properly, I said “valuable man-power”. I didn’t mention their value as human beings.’  He said:  ‘Well, they’re to be shot in accordance with the FUHRER’S orders!’  I said ‘FUEHRER’s orders?’ ‘Yes’, whereupon he showed me his orders.  This happened at SKIOTAWA, 8 km from RIGA, between SIALUAI and JELGAVA, where 5,000 Berlin Jews were suddenly taken off the train and shot.  I didn’t see that myself. [7]

Map of Riga and surroundings

Walter Bruns’ geographic memory leaves somewhat to be desired as while Skirotava is indeed around 8 kilometers from Riga, it is not between Jelgava (around 40 kms south) and Sialuai (which is even further south in Lithuania), also it is now claimed that only one transport of 1000 and not 5000 were executed there.  Skirotava train station is located midway between the known camps of Salaspils and Riga Ghetto.

Part of the documentary record for this alleged event includes the telephone notepad of Heinrich Himmler which for 30 November 1941:

Verhaftung Dr Jekelius
Angebl. Sohn Molotow.
Judentransport aus Berlin.
Keine Liquidierung.

Himmler's telephone notes.

At their most insane historians have read these jottings of Himmler as one stream of consciousness: so Lucy Dawidowicz claimed this meant that a doctor call Jekelius, supposedly the son of Molotov, was on the Jewish transport out of Berlin and was not to be liquidated.  Wikipedia tells us that a doctor Erwin Jekelius was either arrested or under a cloud around the turn of 1941/1942, at least in part because he was in a relationship with Paula Hitler, it is entirely improbably that anyone believed he was the son of Molotov (unless the Soviet foreign minister was sowing his oats in Vienna at the age of fourteen).  Since he was not Jewish, Dr Jekelius was not on the transport to Riga and indeed was allowed to resume service in late 1942 (he ended up dying in Soviet custody after confessing to numerous euthanasia killings).  Hence there is no need to create any narrative links between each of these lines, which were written presumably only to help jog Himmler’s own memory – clearly his mind was on other things as he forgot to capitalise the first letter of “Liquiderung”, doubtless due to the cramped space for writing. Without mindreading we can not know what “no liquidation” was supposed to mean here.

Hans Baermann of Cologne in 1945 gave testimony in newly liberated Buchenwald about his deportation to Riga in December 1941.  He describes also leaving the train at Skirotava, suggesting this was the common procedure and not indicative of a destination for mass murder.  He also describes around 2000 German Jews arriving at Riga Ghetto in early December and another 4000 alreading being accommodated at Salaspils, admittedly he does not specify the fate of the 30 November transport from Berlin.  The exit at Skirotava may have been a procedure to facilitate looting of luggage by the Germans.

On December 8, at four o’clock in the morning, only a single trunk having been left to us, we were taken to the Deutz railroad station.  The trip lasted eighty hours and ended at Riga.  There was no food on the way, and water on but one occasion.  At the Skirotava freight yards we were driven from the cars by Latvian SS men armed with whips and iron rods.  There was no question any longer of taking anything along.  At 11 degrees F. below zero we startd out on the painful march to the Riga ghetto.  Two days before we arrived there had been 34,5000 peoople there.  We saw only corpses and pools of blood and frightful devastation in all the homes.


That night some 4,500 Latvian Jews came looking for their families but found no one.  This was the surviving remnant of the ghetto.  The other 30,000 had been escorted to a valley where they were mowed down by machine guns.  After the massacre the hills on either side had been blasted, burying the bodies under mountains of rock.
We lived for two days on the food we found in the room.  Another shipment of 1,000 Jews from Cassel had meanwhile arrived.  Two days after our arrival 200 Jews, aged eighteen to forty, were taken to Salaspils camp, twelve miles from Riga.  I was among them.  Frozen and starved, we reached a snow-covered clearing that held but a single, large, roofless barracks of wood.  Some 4,000 Jews from southern Germany already lived in it, and they attacked us like wolves for food and drink. [10]

It is curious to note again the use of explosives to conceal a large mass grave.  Given the area around Riga is flat, the geography is hardly conduicive to such a procedure.  Since Baermann was at or around Riga until 1944, it seems curious he never made any effort to consider what was and was not a possible scenario for this alleged massacre.  And dynamiting hills around a city situated on a flood plain on the coast is not a credible scenario.

Just as an aside, apart from Salaspils and Riga Ghetto there was another transit camp for German Jews in 1941-42 and that was the farm Jungfernhof right next to Skirotava railway station.  The first train load to be accommodated there is supposed to have been on 4 December 1941 from Stuttgart, in anycase there are plenty of scenarios of alighting from Skirotava railway station that don’t involve massacres.  In Gerald Fleming’s book Hitler and the Final Solution, a work published in the 1980s and choke full of alleged letters and diaries that appeared in mysteriously convenient fashion to illuminate whatever issue Prof Fleming was investigating, there is a letter from to the author from one Erika Schulz-Du Bois, widow to a Captain Dr Schulz-Du Bois.  She enclosed one of her late husband’s letters, conveniently with January 1942 written at the top.  Personally, I don’t believe the letter is genuine, but it states it part:

I also saw concentration camps filled with German Jews.  Four thousand from Wuerttemberg were kept on a single farm [i.e. Camp Jungfernhof, Riga], poorly fed and penned up in barns; naturally they dropped like flies.  It was strange suddenly to be surrounded by Swabian accents.  Many of the children were wearing warm ski outfits, and everyone bore up quite admirably under the circumstances.  In what used to be the local ghetto, on the other hand, one could hear Berlin accents…..How long will it be unitl these Jews are “resettled” to the pine forest, where I recently saw mounds of earth heaped up over five large pits, sharply sagging, in the middle, and despite the cold a sickly sweet odor lingered in the air. [11]

How long indeed, in anycase there seem to have been some Berlin Jews in Riga Ghetto by this stage, although one could argue they were the transport arrived towards the end of January 1942.


[1]  V.M. Molotov, Kuibyshev January 7, 1942.

[2] Post Ugandan Zionism on Trial, by Beit Zvi, pages 40-1.

[3] I. Vinokurov, Sh. Kipnis, N. Levin, Kniga pamiati (New York, 1983), reprinted in Yitzak Arad, ed., Unichtozhenie Evreev SSR v gody nemetskoi (1941 – 1944) (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1991), pp. 107 – 112.  Gitelman, Zvi, Bitter Legacy: Confronting the Holocaust in the USSR. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1997. pp. 275 – 278

[4] “Wenn man gewusst hätte, was sich drüben im Reich abspielte…” by Gaston Hass.  Page 107

“Im Hinterland von Kiev sind tausende von Juden jedes Geschlechtes und Alters erschossen worden. Sie wurden in Massengräbern beigesetzt, die sie vorher zumeist vor ihrer Erschiessung teilweise selbst und zum Teil mit Schaufeln, welche Kinder als Spielzeuge verwenden, ausschaufeln mussten. Die Erschiessungen wurden durch Formationen der SS., durch Soldaten der regulaeren Armee und durch Arbeitsdienstler, die in einem Alter von 16-18 jahren stunden, durchgeführt. Bei den Soldaten sollen ausgesprochene Minderwertigkeitsgefuehle in Erscheinung treten, wenn sie derartige Exekutionen vornehmen muessen. die Arbeitsdienstler sollen seelisch vollkommen kaput gewesen sein, als sie diese Erschiessungen haetten vollziehen muessen”

[5] “Wenn man gewusst hätte, was sich drüben im Reich abspielte…” by Gaston Hass.  Page 140

Ende März 1942 gelang einem Unteroffizier der deutschen luftwaffe, einem ehemlagin Stuka-Piloten, die Flucht in die Schweiz. Der verhemende Offizier notierte in seinem Bericht unter “Verschiedenes”
a) Juden – Ermordung durch die SS. über die Bestialitaeten der SS machte der E. folgende Angaben.
Sonderkommandos fuer Ershiessungen (3-4 Monate Dauer) wurden innerhalb der Waffen SS aufgestellt.
Kiew: Anfangs Oktober 1941 40 000 Juden (Maenner, Frauen und Kinder erschossen). Die Juden wurden aufgefordert, mit 50 kg Gepaeck anzutreten. Abmarsch in die Sandgruben: Erschossen. Waende der Sandgruben gesprengt, sodass Massengraeber entstanden (….)

[6] Tapping Hitler’s Generals.  Edited Soenke Neitzel, page 197. Document 113 [WO 208/4364]. Obtained 10-12 Nov. 1944

[7] Tapping Hitler’s Generals.  Edited Soenke Neitzel, page 226-227.  Document 135 [WO 208/4170].  Obtained 25 April 1945

[8] RH 26 113 8 KTB Anlage.  Abteilung Ic 13 October 1941

[9] Gita Sereny.  Into That Darkness, page 97.  Also apparently in NO-5384, 9 October 1947.

[10] Eugen Kogon.  The Theory and Practice of Hell, page 172-173

[11] Gerald Fleming. Hitler and the Final Solution, page 85

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