Extract: Babi Yar by A. Anatoli

An extract from a rediscovered Ukrainian classic - the gripping story of Kyiv during the Second World War, told by a young boy who saw it all.

A. Anatoli

You see, what I am offering you is after all not an ordinary novel. It is a document, an exact picture of what happened. Just imagine that had you been born just one historical moment sooner, this might have been your life and not just something to pick up and read. Fate plays with us as it wishes— we are just little microbes crawling about the globe. You could have been me; you could have been born in Kiev, in Kurenyovka, and I could now have been you, reading this page.

So here is my invitation: enter into my fate, imagine that you are living in my shell, that you have no other, and that you are twelve, that the world is at war and that nobody knows what is going to happen next. You were just holding a newspaper in your hands with an announcement about people who refused to work. Just now. Right now.

Let us go out on the street. The German military flag is flying over the citadel. The Soviet system is finished. It is a warm autumn day and the weather is good.

The Question of Heaven on Earth

We had a long way to go, right across the city, to Zverinets, which was why Grandma had packed bread, some apples and two bottles of drinking water in her bag. There were straw and pieces of paper and horse- droppings scattered all over Kirillovskaya Street, because nobody had cleared anything up. All the windows were broken and glass crunched underfoot. Here and there women were standing at open windows, cleaning off little crosses made of paper. A crowd of people were drawing water from the little stream which flowed out of Babi Yar. They were scooping it up in jugs and glasses and pouring it into buckets. The water wasn’t running in the mains, so the whole population had made their way with all sorts of vessels down to the streams and to the Dnieper and were putting bowls and casks beneath the drainpipes to catch the rainwater.

A tramcar was standing on its rails, just where it had been when the current had been turned off. I hopped up inside, ran down between the seats, sat in the driver’s place, and started turning the handles and ringing the bell. It was marvellous— to have a whole tramcar to myself and do what I liked with it. Somebody had already screwed out the lamp- bulbs and started to remove the windows.

Fate plays with us as it wishes— we are just little microbes crawling about the globe.

Tramcars were standing abandoned right along the line, some of them not only without windows but with their seats missing as well.

On the hoardings there were still some Soviet posters with caricatures of Hitler, but in one place German ones had been pasted over them. These included pictures, painted in yellow on black paper, of the happy life now to come— in one, well fed Ukrainian peasants in Cossack dress were shown grazing their cattle; in another, they were sowing seed from a basket in great swinging gestures. They were also shown happily harvesting corn with their reaping- hooks and threshing it by hand, with flails, while in the last picture the whole family were eating at table, beneath a portrait of Hitler decorated with fancy cloths.

Then my eye fell on something next to the poster which made me wonder if I was seeing straight:


It was in front of that poster that I began to wonder for the first time: What exactly was I? My mother was Ukrainian, my father Russian. So I was half Ukrainian and half Russian, which meant I was my own enemy.