Once the Jews were lined up, the Nazis used a machine-gun to shoot them. When shot, they fell into the ravine. Then the next were brought along the edge and shot.
According to the Einsatzgruppe Operational Situation Report No. 101, 33,771 Jews were killed at Babi Yar on September 29 and 30.10 But this was not the end of the killing at Babi Yar.
The Nazis next rounded up Gypsies and killed them at Babi Yar. Patients of the Pavlov Psychiatric Hospital were gassed and then dumped into the ravine. Soviet prisoners of war were brought to the ravine and shot. Thousands of other civilians were killed at Babi Yar for trivial reasons, such as a mass shooting in retaliation for just one or two people breaking a Nazi order.
The killing continued for months at Babi Yar. It is estimated that 100,000 people were murdered there.
Babi Yar: Destroying the Evidence
By mid-1943, the Germans were on the retreat; the Red Army was advancing west. Soon, the Red Army would liberate Kiev and its surroundings. The Nazis, in an effort to hide their guilt, tried to destroy evidence of their killings - the mass graves at Babi Yar. This was to be a gruesome job, so they had prisoners do it.
Not knowing why they had been chosen, 100 prisoners from the Syretsk concentration camp (near Babi Yar) walked toward Babi Yar thinking they were to be shot. They were surprised when Nazis attached shackles onto them. Then surprised again when the Nazis gave them dinner.
At night, the prisoners were housed in a cave-like hole cut into the side of the ravine. Blocking the entrance/exit was an enormous gate, locked with a large padlock. A wooden tower faced the entrance, with a machine-gun aimed at the entrance to keep watch over the prisoners.
327 prisoners, 100 of whom were Jews, were chosen for this horrific work.
The Ghastly Work
On August 18, 1943, the work began. The prisoners were divided into brigades, each with its own part of the cremation process. Prisoners didn't necessarily work for one brigade the whole time, they could be switched to do other duties.
Some prisoners had to dig into the mass graves. Since there were numerous mass graves at Babi Yar, most had been covered with dirt. These prisoners removed the top layer of dirt in order to expose the corpses.
Having fallen into the pit after having been shot and having been underground for up to two years, many of the bodies had twisted together and were difficult to remove from the mass. The Nazis had constructed a special tool to disentangle and pull/drag the corpses. This tool was metal with one end shaped into a handle and the other shaped into a hook.
The prisoners who had to pull the corpses out of the grave would place the hook under the corpse's chin and pull - the body would follow the head.
Sometimes the bodies were so firmly stuck together that two or three of them came out with one hook. It was often necessary to hack them apart with axes, and the lower layers had to be dynamited several times.11
The Nazis drank vodka to drown out the smell and the scenes; the prisoners weren't even allowed to wash their hands.12
- Removing Valuables:
After the bodies were pulled out of the mass grave, a few prisoners with pliers would search the victim's mouths for gold. Other prisoners would remove clothing, boots, etc. from the bodies. (Though the Jews had been forced to undress before they were killed, later groups were often shot fully clothed.)
- Cremating the Bodies:
After the bodies had been checked for valuables, they were to be cremated. The pyres were carefully constructed for efficiency.
Granite tombstones were brought from the nearby Jewish cemetery and laid flat on the ground. Wood was then stacked on top of it. Then the first layer of bodies was carefully laid on top of the wood so that their heads were on the outside. The second layer of bodies was then carefully placed on the first, but with the heads on the other side. Then, the prisoners placed more wood. And again, another layer of bodies was placed on top - adding layer after layer. Approximately 2,000 bodies would be burned at the same time.13
To start the fire, gasoline was doused over the pile of bodies.
The [stokers] got the fire going underneath and also carried burning torches along the rows of projecting heads. The hair, soaked in oil [gasoline], immediately burst into bright flame - that was why they had arranged the heads that way.14
- Crushing the Bones: The ashes from the pyre were scooped up and brought to another group of prisoners. Since there were usually large pieces of bone that had not burned in the fire, they needed to be crushed to fully destroy the evidence of Nazi atrocities. Jewish tombstones were taken from the nearby cemetery to crush the bones. Prisoners then passed the ashes through a sieve, looking for large bone pieces that needed to be further crushed as well as searching for gold and other valuables.