October 24, 2014

1943. The Occupation of Kharkov

The Nazi Colonization of Ukraine
A deli in Kharkiv, Ukraine during the Nazi occupation in 1942. Original photo by Johannes Hähle; colored by WW2 in Color (source)
Bill Downs visited the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv (Kharkov) following its initial liberation in February 1943. He later reported on the city's reoccupation during the Third Battle of Kharkov. The parentheses indicate portions that did not pass Soviet censors for military or propaganda reasons.

(For more, see the complete 1943 Moscow reports.)
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

February 27, 1943

I have just had a close-up of how Adolf Hitler's New Order makes history—you know, the kind of history he raves about at the drop of a helmet. The Nazi brand of history he has sold to Italy and certain other countries in Europe. The kind of history Japan is trying to market in the Far East.

At 9:30 this morning I took a plane out of Russia's rich Ukraine. I spent Thursday and Friday wandering around the streets of Kharkov talking to people and seeing what I could see.

Right now, Kharkov is a very special place. It is more than just another city which the Red Army has recaptured. It's the first big city in Europe that has been retaken from the Axis in which Hitler's New Order had a chance to work. You remember the Germans held Kharkov for sixteen months. And I got to Kharkov with a party of other news reporters only eight days after the New Order was kicked out...before the smell of it had completely left the city.

(Yes, you can still smell Hitler's New Order tonight, if you were in Ukraine. It's the stench of cordite, and the dry smell of bombed buildings and the wet smell of charred wood. It's the sweet smell of blood and the bitter smell of people too weak from hunger to walk a couple of miles to the river to wash.)

(When we flew with a Russian fighter escort towards Kharkov the other day, you could follow the path of the New Order very easily. The miles were marked with the walls of ruined villages where fighting had occurred. Along the railroad leading eastward from the city were the hulks of ruined tanks and occasionally Junkers or a Heinkel bomber.)

(After we landed on the ruined airport—there wasn't a building left standing—we saw our first definite sign that the Germans had actually possessed this Ukrainian industrial center. It was a German sign which read, "Parking verboten." We found out that a lot of things were "verboten" during the German occupation of Kharkov.)

There is no doubt that the Germans thought they were in Kharkov for keeps. All the street signs were written in both German and Ukrainian—German first, of course.

German colonists—at least that's what Hitler calls them—had set up business, and there were restaurants and shops with German signs on them. Yes, the Nazis sent a lot of loyal German families to (examine the corpse of Kharkov) collect what they thought was going to be easy money and a pleasant life in the wake of Hitler's Wehrmacht. No one knows just how many colonists Hitler sent to Kharkov. They were a little difficult to count—like flies on a sugar stack. For months they played at being super-men. Ukrainians couldn't ride in the same street cars with them—they had to catch the one hitched on behind.

If Ukrainians had better homes or business than [the colonists] had been allotted, the colonists went around to authorities and arranged to take over. That's the way the New Order works. But these good Nazi families were too smart to get themselves caught by the Russians. They ran away with everything they could carry early in January when the Red Army started to march.

Two days before the German army fled the city, the Nazi command destroyed every major building in Kharkov. There literally is not one single store, office building, hotel, or government house in the main part of the city which has not been gutted by fire, blown to bits, or bombed.

But during the occupation, the Germans did something else—something much more damaging than making piles of rubble out of buildings.

It's something you can see in the face of every kid you run into on the streets. The women and old men who are left have the same look.

The people are pale from hunger. The boys and girls, particularly, have faces the color of wet dough. They have rings under their eyes like old people.

I stopped what I thought was a 10-year-old boy on the street to talk with him. He was thin and had black hair that hung down into his eyes.

He grinned when I introduced myself and said in a tough kind of way that he supposed he would tell me his name. He was Vladimir Voskresenski, a good Ukrainian name. He was 14. You see, kids just don't grow very fast without food.

I asked him what he did while the Germans were there. He shrugged and answered, "Oh, sometimes I begged for food, some bread or a piece of chocolate if I was lucky. And sometimes I could earn some food by taking my sledge and dragging luggage to the station for German officers. I would get half a slice of bread for that."

I noticed that Vladimir had on an outside man's suit coat which struck him below the knees. He looked a little bit like Jackie Coogan used to in the silent pictures. I asked him where he got that coat—I should never have asked.

Vladimir started out bravely enough. "It belonged to my father," he said. "He was an engineer. They took him to the hotel over there and beat him for four days. He died. I never saw him again."

He was crying when he finished the story. He was a tough kid, like all the kids that survived the New Order in Kharkov.

But those kids won't forget. And neither will the rest of the world.

During the fifteen months of German occupation, a lot of things happened to Kharkov—all of them bad. For example, there are some facts repeated to me at random by a half-dozen people to whom I talked on the streets of the city.

A year ago last October when the Germans took the city they started hanging people. By the second day of the occupation, every balcony stretching for two miles on the main street through the center of the city had become a gallows. Scores of men and women were trussed up and left to hang.

Six weeks after the occupation, every Jew in the city was ordered to go to an empty machine tool shop nine miles out of town. Women cried as they told me about this. 10,000 Jews were herded into this camp. Ten days later a huge ditch was dug and a squad of German Tommy-gunners shot every man, woman, and child.

It is estimated that 18,000 people were executed in the first weeks of the occupation, but no one knows the exact number. The Germans didn't bother about death proclamations or keeping records. I have check that figure not only with Soviet officials now in charge of Kharkov, but also with a school teacher, a college professor, and four other people who were in the city at the time.

This is simply another example of how the New Order works.
______________________________________________ 
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

February 28, 1943

Hitler's guns, which for fifteen months were held against the heart of Kharkov, were pushed further back westward from the city last night. This morning's communiqué announced that another series of inhabited points have been taken west of the wreckage and ruined buildings which today mark the site of one of the proudest cities in the Ukraine.

I left Kharkov yesterday morning after spending Thursday and Friday wandering around the city's streets talking to people and seeing what I could see.

Kharkov was about the size of Washington, D.C. before Hitler got to it. It had a peacetime population of 900,000 which swelled to over a million inhabitants as the war progressed.

Imagine every major building in Washington gutted with fire. Imagine all of the buildings across the Potomac blown to bits. Imagine every railroad station deliberately wrecked. Imagine street car and bus trolley wires lying over the street. Imagine Washington with just two water fountains and the sewage system wrecked with the streets thick with ice. Scatter a goodly number of bomb craters throughout the city. Then you will have a pretty good picture of Kharkov after 15 months of Hitler's New Order.

But the New Order has done something else to Kharkov. Something more terrible than mere wrecking of buildings and homes and streets. Something more deeply significant than putting up street signs in German and deliberately looting the city. Something more than taking warm clothing from men and women who walked the streets.

Kharkov has a hungry population of only 350,000 today. This means that during the fifteen months of Hitler's New Order, something has happened to about 600,000 people. This does not include a quarter of a million people which the Russian government succeeded in evacuating from Kharkov before the Germans took the city a year ago last October.

In talking with Soviet officials, college professors, and people on the street, here's all I could find out about the 600,000 Kharkov citizens who have disappeared under Hitler's New Order.

During the first days of the occupation about 18,000 people were executed. Bodies hanging from balconies were a common sight. Among these 18,000 executed were about 10,000 Jews—men, women, and children—who were taken nine miles out of the city, shot and buried in a big ditch.

One hundred and ten thousand people were shipped to Germany for forced labor.

Meanwhile, it is estimated unofficially that at least 70,000 people died of starvation under the German rule. (And all the time during the fifteen months the executions went on. As conditions grew worse, more and more people escaped from the city to unoccupied Russia.)

All in all, it is estimated that between 90,000 and 100,000 Kharkov citizens will never be accounted for. It's something to think about as Doctor Goebbels prattles about saving European civilization from the "eastern hordes."
 ______________________________________________ 
Soviet partisans hanging from the balcony of an administrative building on the Mius-Front near the Ukrainian village of Dyakivka in March 1943 (source)
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

March 9, 1943

(Ever since Hitler took over Czechoslovakia and marched into Poland, we have been hearing about the slavery and semi-slavery into which has been throwing the conquered European peoples. With the Red Army killing his soldiers in Russia—and with the United States and British air forces knocking out his factories in Germany and Western Europe—the Fuehrer has been forced more and more to rely on kidnapped labor to keep his war machine working.)

At Kharkov a couple of weeks ago, I got my first glimpse of just what Nazi "forced labor" means. Simon Legree, with his whip and bloodhounds, was a sissy compared to the Nazi with his rubber hose, his barbed wire, and his hangman's noose.

An estimated 110,000 Kharkov citizens are doing forced labor in Germany today. They range from boys and girls of fourteen years of age to men and women of forty. The only requirements for work in Germany is a strong back and a brace of biceps.

According to the people to whom I talked in Kharkov, the Germans there used two methods of getting workers to work in their factories. They simply picked them up off the street and packed them off, or they sent around a notice saying the workers should report to a recruiting headquarters—or else.

The Germans have an efficient, standard identification card with which they register their foreign workers. It's printed in eleven languages—so it comes in handy for a dozen countries from which they can kidnap labor.

This identification card serves as a passport. When the kidnapped worker gets to Germany, he finds that it allows him to move from his factory, or his labor gang, to his barracks—and no place else.
______________________________________________ 
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

March 16, 1943

We (the American and British foreign correspondents who live at the Metropol Hotel) here in Moscow are a pretty sad group of people today.

It's because of the bad news from Kharkov.

It was only two weeks and two days ago that we were in that Ukrainian city—and every one of us came away with a clearer picture of what Hitler's New Order means to the conquered people of Europe than any one of us ever had before.

(During the fifteen months of occupation by the German forces, Kharkov had all but died of Nazism. Over 18,000 people had been executed. 70,000 had died of starvation. Over 110,000 had been shipped off to Germany. And about 90,000 were simply listed as "missing.")

Today the Germans are back in Kharkov. (It is depressing to think just how many of the 350,000 Kharkov residents we found there two weeks ago will be left when the Red Army again takes the city. And it will be retaken—make no mistake about that.)

(Another thing which saddens the foreign press corps here is the uncertainty of) We are wondering what is going to happen to the people to whom we talked. The people who told us the horrible story of the German occupation.

For example, the little 14-year-old boy who (broke down and) cried as he told how his father was killed by the Germans. (The indignant Ukrainian housewife who wept when she told how her sister had been shipped away to Germany.) The kindly little college professor who was trying to reorganize Kharkov's educational and social services to care for the children orphaned by German executions. He was very pleased when we talked to him that he had found homes and food for 300 of these orphans.

(You see, as news reporters, we used the names of all these people so that you people in America reading our stories could have verified evidence of what the Nazis did to Kharkov.)

If I know anything about the efficiency of the Gestapo, (the names of) these people today head the list of German reprisals. I and the rest of my colleagues here in Moscow can only hope that those people evacuated the city with the Red Army. Or that they go into hiding until the city is captured again.

I know, as every correspondent does, that it is not often the problems of news reporting make significant news. (These things are part of our job).

But there is no better demonstration of just what Hitlerism stands for in this world than Kharkov.

Usually, discussions about "truth" have a nebulous quality that almost always end up in confused arguments about what is right and what is wrong.

I don't want to preach any sermons. There is nothing nebulous about "truth" in Kharkov today. The people who told the truth to us American and British reporters now stand under the thread of execution.

Truth in that Ukrainian city today is a matter of life and death. (And so it is in this whole war raging throughout the world.)

One writer in the Moscow newspapers said this morning that "it is not easy to give up Kharkov." Kharkov is a city of tears. Then he added "but for every Russian tear, let there be mountains of dead Germans."

That's the way the foreign press corps in Moscow feels this morning.