Last week marked the 80th anniversary of the largest of several mass-shootings carried out by the Germans at Babi Yar, a ravine outside of the Ukrainian city of Kiev. There an estimated 33,771 Jews were murdered over the course of two days—likely the largest so-called Judenaktion (literally, “Jews operation”) carried out by the SS. Nazi Germany—with the help of local collaborators—carried out hundreds of such mass-shootings throughout what was then the Soviet Union during 1941 and 1942, leaving some 2.7 million dead without the aid of concentration camps or gas chambers. Izabella Tabarovsky has compiled a series of recent interviews with survivors from the USSR:
With the exception of one, all of the people we interviewed experienced the Holocaust in Transnistria, an administrative entity established by the Romanians, [who invaded alongside the Germans], 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 shootings such as Babi Yar in the German-occupied Soviet territories.
One interviewee, Mikhail Grimberg—from the Transnistrian shtetl of Krasne, now living in Jerusalem—recounts:
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 beaten us, but we were allowed to stay alive.”
Grimberg . . . 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.”