Dina Mironovna Vasserman

A Live Message of Greetings from Hell

My name is Dina. Dina Mironovna Vasserman. I grew up in a poor Jewish family. I was brought up under the Soviet regime in the spirit of internationalism. Thus, it is not surprising that I fell in love with a Russian guy, Nikolai Pronichev, married him and lived with him in love and happiness. That is how I became Dina Mikhailovna Pronicheva. My passport said I was Russian.

We had two children: a boy and a girl. Before the war I worked as an actress at the Kiev Children's Theater. On the second day of the way my husband joined the Soviet Army, and I was left with two children and my old sick mother.

Hitler's troops seized Kiev on September 19, 1941, and from the very first day they started plundering and killing Jews. Terrible stories about the treatment of Jews were circulating in the city. We lived in terror. When I saw announcements posted in the streets, ordering "all the Jews of the city of Kiev to gather at Babi Yar" (a place we had no idea about), I felt trouble was coming. I started shivering. I say that nothing good was awaiting us there. That is why I dressed my children, three and five years old, packed their stuff in a small bag and took them to my Russian mother-in-law. Then, following the order, my sick mother and I went along the road to Babi Yar.

Jews were walking in hundreds and thousands. Besides me there was an old Jew with a long white beard. He had on a tallis (prayer shawl) and tfilin (phylacteries). He was mumbling. He prayed exactly as my father did when I was a child. A woman was walking ahead of me. She was carrying two children and a third one was walking alongside, holding her skirt. Sick women and elderly were riding in carts among piled up bags and suitcases. Small children were crying. Old people, having trouble walking, sighed and trudged on in their mournful journey.

Russian husbands were walking with their Jewish wives. Russian wives were walking with their Jewish husbands. When we approached Babi Yar I heard shooting and inhuman shouting. I started to grasp what was going on but did not say anything to my mother.

When we entered through the gates we were ordered to turn in our papers and valuables and undress. A German came over to my mother and tore a gold ring off her finger. Only then mother said "Dinochka, you are Pronicheva, you are Russian. You should survive. Rush to your children. You should live for them."

But I could not flee. We were surrounded by fascists with submachine guns, Ukrainian policemen, and ferocious dogs who were ready to tear a human being to pieces. And then, I could not leave my mother alone. I embraced her, burst into tears but was unable to leave her. Mother pushed me away and yelled "Hurry!"

I went to a table at which a fat officer was seated, showed him my passport and said quietly, "I am Russian." He was contemplating my passport when a policeman came over and barked, "Don't believe her, she's a Kike. We know her..." The German told me to step aside and wait.

I saw groups of men, women, children and elderly undress. They they were taken to an open pit and shot by soldiers. Then another group would come. I saw this horror with my own eyes. Even though I was not standing close to the pit, I could hear awful shrieks of terrified people, weak voices of children, crying, "Mother, mother..." I saw all that and was unable to understand how people could kill others because they are Jewish. And I concluded that the fascists were not humans, they were - beasts.

I saw a young completely naked woman feed her naked baby with the breast when a policeman came to her, took the baby, and thrust it into the pit. The mother rushed after the child. A fascist shot her dead, and she fell into the pit. Had someone told me this, I would not believe it. It is impossible to believe.

The German who had ordered me to wait took me to his superior, gave him my passport and said, "This woman says she is Russian, but a policeman says she is Jewish." The officer studied my passport for a while and then said, "Dina is not a Russian name. You are Jewish. Take her!"

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 wounded. 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.

I looked at myself and got scared. The undershirt that was covering my body was all bloody. I tried to get up and could not. Then I said to myself: "Dina, get up, leave, run from here, our children are waiting for you." I got up and ran. Suddenly, I head a shot and understood that they noticed me. I fell on the ground and waited. All was quite. Without getting up, I started moving toward the high hill that surrounded the pit. Suddenly, I felt something was stirring behind me. First I got scared and decided to wait for a while. I turned quietly and asked, "Who are you?"

A delicate, scared child's voice answered, "Don't be afraid. It's me. My first name is Fina. My last name is Shneiderman. I am eleven years old. Take me with you. I am very afraid of the dark." I moved closer to the boy, embraced him and started crying. The boy said, "Don't cry."

We both started to move quietly. We reached the edge of the pit, got some rest and continued climbing, helping each other. We had already reached the top of the pit, stood up to run away when a shot was fired. We fell on the ground instinctively. For some time we were quiet, being afraid to speak. Having calmed down, I moved closer to Fimochka, touched him and asked in a whisper, "How are you doing, Fimochka?"

There was no answer. In the dark I could feel his legs and arms. He did not stir. No signs of life. I got up a bit and looked in his face. He was lying with his eyes closed. I tried to open them but understood that the boy was dead. Probably, the shot we heard had taken his life.

I caressed his cold face, said good bye to him, got on my feet and ran. Having made sure that I was far from the terrible place called Babi Yar, I decided to approach a house that could just about be seen in the dark. Shivering, I came to a window and knocked. In a few minutes a sleepy woman lifted up a curtain and asked, "Who is it? What do you want?" I answered her, "I escaped from Babi Yar" And then I heard her angry voice" "Go away. I don't have anything to do with you."

I left. I ran, because the day was breaking and I knew that they should not see me there. But there was no place to go, so I approached a second house and knocked. The door opened, and an elderly woman appeared on the porch. When she saw me in the undershirt she crossed herself and recoiled.

"Who are you? Where have you come from?" she asked. I replied, "Don't be afraid, dear. I am not a devil. I'm human." And then I lied for the first time in my life. "I'm Ukrainian. I saw my friend to Babi Yar and barely escaped."

The old lady took my hand and let me in. Then she told me to wash myself, gave me a clean shirt, a blouse, a skirt, and old shoes. I looked at myself and got a shock: a real Ukrainian! My hostess gave me a glass of hot milk with homemade bread and told me to get some rest. I ate with gust, went over the the old lady, embraced her, kissed her, and burst into tears. My savior also cried. But having wiped her tears with an apron, she said, "Daughter, I know who you really are. But we are all alike for God. We have one God. Because I have helped you, my two sons will come back from the war alive. But my place is not safe for you. Police hounds search here every day. They are looking for Jews. These beasts pay money for Jews. Now, go get some sleep. I'll give you some provisions and try to get to our people. May God help you."

I felt relieved because there were good people on earth who were ready to help others. The old lady made my bed and left. I slept for a while but could not sleep long. The images of the previous day were passing in from of my eyes. I believed I heard shots, shouting, and children crying somewhere...

Who knows where my children are? Did my mother-in-law manage to save them? I did not have time to think. I was aware that the old lady could suffer because of me. And I decided to go. I looked in a mirror and was terrified to see my hair gray. "This is from last night," I thought. I put some soot on the face to seem older, wrapped my head in a kerchief, as was done by old Ukrainian women, and said good-bye to my dear hostess and set out for the Daritsa. My friend Natalia, with whom I had played in the theater, lived there.

At first glance Natasha did not recognize me. When she did , she got scared. She told me take off my clothes and get some rest. But I felt something unnatural in her attitude toward me. There was some alienation.

Once we had eaten, she said to me, "Dina, I should tell you the truth. You can't stay here for a long time. My husband Andrei deserted from the Red Army. He hates the Soviet power and the Jews who invented it. I'm afraid he'll inform on you. You'd better leave."

And I left.

Source: 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

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April 3, 1999
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