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Rena's Memories

Part 9 (The Nazis Occupy Kiev)

I still remember walking out of the building and seeing the red sky from the fires in the city.

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Saved from a Time Bomb

In September 1941 the Soviet army was retreating. The cannonade became more intense and we had to hide in a shelter. It was in a huge basement in one of the buildings of our complex and the whole neighborhood was there.


My parents and I went there with some belongings and food and got situated on cots. Above my cot was an old fashioned clock with a chain and a weight on one end. The weight was a metal cylinder.

Soviet soldiers had been staying in this basement before us.  They were leaving and saying goodbye and the air was filled with fear and apprehension. Even the children were extra quiet. 


After they left, one of the officers returned. He went to the clock and removed the weight and said to my mother, “I do not want to have the death of children on my conscience.”  The clock was a mine. It was a time bomb that he had been ordered to put there. The Russian army had mined the entire town and he told us about the bombs.

After the Soviet army left, the cannonade stopped so we went outside. The night was like no night at all. It was all aglow. The downtown buildings were destroyed by the retreating Russians. That was the order from Moscow. 


This particular soldier (I think he was a minor officer) felt there was no hope for them. They were surrounded and he just didn’t want to kill innocent people. He even mentioned this to us so we knew what was going on. 


Of course, eventually the Soviets claimed that it was the Germans who destroyed the city. The Germans did not. The Soviets were not going to give up the city without destroying it.


A lot of Kiev was destroyed but not all. A lot was preserved because there was not enough time to place the mines everywhere. If there had been no one would have been left alive. However, central Kiev, Khreschatyk and the surrounding streets, were totally destroyed by the Russians.


Kiev September 1941

By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B12190 

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Downtown Kiev in ruins


Kreschatyk Street in 1941(before the war) and in 1943

Soviet Troops are Captured

Soviet Troops are Captured

So the Soviet Army left, but the Germans didn’t enter the city until the next day. Before they came, government stores were looted. The Russian troops that had just evacuated were encircled and captured.

While the Soviets did manage to evacuate some important industries that would contribute to the war effort, they were less fortunate with their troops. The greatest encirclement of troops in the history of warfare took place east of Kiev in September 1941. 600,000 Soviet soldiers were taken prisoners and marched westward. Most did not survive the war. 


Soviet POWs near Kiev

Nazis Enter Kiev

The Nazis Enter Kiev

We were, of course, afraid of the Germans. But some people who were braver went out to investigate what it was like. They reported that the Germans were encamped all over and cooking on outdoor fires in big kettles. I went out to see. These big, blond, farmer boys were were trying to be friendly and were offering soup to all who wanted it. They were a disciplined army and they treated us quite nicely. Of course they didn’t stay very long. After three days they moved on, possibly never to return to their farms.


The frontline soldiers were replaced by the Nazis that were designated to govern Ukraine. They were not so nice, but they provided some kind of order. German civil servants came and they began to administer the city. Of course food was scarce and we were never fed well until people themselves began to grow food.

I still remember one soldier sitting at a Lavra gate checking people’s documents and yelling insults. He wore an SS uniform but he spoke flawless Ukrainian. He was particularly mean looking and was delighted to describe some hangings that occurred a few days before. Later, when I lived in Galicia (part of Poland between the two world wars but now part of Ukraine), I learned that many Galician Ukrainian joined the SS.  They had a reputation for meanness to Russians (and Russified Ukrainians).

We continued to live in Lavra for 2-3 more months. Food was scarce but we had stashed away sukhari (dried bread), salo (salt pork), and oil. The Nazi government got organized and we received new documents, new money, and stamps for food.


Nazi mine experts kept on uncovering mines, so we were forced to live without electricity. The rumor was that the mines were connected to the the electric circuits in the buildings.


German sentinel in the citadel of Kiev on September 19, 1943

By Bundesarchiv 

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Kiev 1943

Photo by Herbert List

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