Prytulak   25-Mar-1998   Two small Babyn Yar surprises
I stopped in at a used book store a few days ago, and ended up walking out with a box-full of books.  Among these were two in which I was able to look up one of my favorite topics, Babyn Yar, and when I did so, in each case I was greeted by a small surprise.

Nora Levin's The Holocaust

In Nora Levin's The Holocaust, I read the following ("Blobel" is Dusseldorf architect Paul Blobel, leader of Einsatzgruppe C Commando 4a):

After the war, Blobel admitted to killing only 16,000 Jews; to a Gestapo expert on church affairs, Albert Hartel, he seemed more proprietary.  While the two men were driving together near Kiev early in 1942, they approached the ravine.  Hartel noticed small explosions which threw up columns of earth.  The March thaw was releasing gases from thousands of bodies.  "Here my Jews are buried," Blodel explained.  (Nora Levin, The Holocaust: The Destruction of European Jewry, 1933-1945, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York, 1968, pp. 254-255).

What surprised me here was the scene of "small explosions which threw up columns of earth."  To me it seemed that gases from decomposing bodies would be emitted gradually, and that pressure would not be able to build up because the soil would be porous and so would allow the gases to escape continuously.  I would be ready to credit a bubbling if the gases were being emitted underneath water or mud, but explosions throwing up columns of earth, and occurring at a rate of perhaps several per minute at that, struck me as an impossibility.

The mention of "small explosions," then, occasioned my entertaining three hypotheses:

(1)  That some witnesses to Babyn Yar-related events are sometimes susceptible to inventing fantastic details.  I take it that Albert Hartel is the individual responsible for the story of the "small explosions."

(2)  That some writers on the subject of Babyn Yar sometimes set the sensitivity of their incongruity detectors to low, or turn them off altogether, and in consequence end up crediting fantastic accounts as factual.  Thus, author Nora Levin tells us about the "small explosions," seemingly without noticing their implausibility.  During the preparation of her manuscript, furthermore, her editors seem not to have asked her to either verify the matter of the "small explosions," or to acknowledge their implausibility, or to omit their mention altogether on the grounds that they were unlikely to have occurred.

(3)  The demonstration of such a striking degree of credulity in an author raises the probability that other inventions fantastic or plausible have been admitted into his or her work, thus lowering its utility.  Speaking for myself: as an author, I would be incapable of writing such a thing; as an editor, I would be incapable of letting it pass without challenge; and as a reader, I am incapable of stopping the account from leaping out at me.  When reading such material, I feel myself in the presence not of seekers of truth, but of fanatics bent on disseminating cultist credos.

Geoffrey Wigoder's Encyclopedic Dictionary of Judaica

Before relating the surprise that I found waiting for me in the Dictionary, I should explain that the most conventional estimate of the number of Jews killed in a few days starting 29 September 1941 at Babyn Yar is 33,771.  This number comes from the Einsatzgruppen reports that is, from the reports of the Nazi killing units in the field.  Thus, when the above-mentioned Nora Levin states, "The killing rate, almost 35,000 in two days, was unequaled even by the death factories of Treblinka and Auschwitz" (p. 254), then she is probably following the convention of crediting the Einsatzgruppen figure of 33,771.  (We need not pause here to further impugn her work by noting that she corrupts the precise and traceable "33,771" to the vague and less traceable "almost 35,000".)  When the estimates of others deviate from the figure of 33,771, they typically deviate upward.

What surprised me, then, was to read:

Babi Yar, ravine on outskirts of Kiev where over 10,000 persons, most of them Jews, were murdered by Germans 1941.  (Geoffrey Wigoder editor, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Judaica, the Western Hemisphere publisher being Leon Amiel, New York and Paris, 1974, with the distributor in the rest of the world being Keter Publishing House, Jerusalem.)

And so not only has 33,771 been revised downward to "over 10,000," but the figure of "over 10,000" seems to include both Jewish victims and non-Jewish, and covers not just a few days, but all of 1941.  Taking both of these qualifications into account, then the Dictionary would appear to be estimating the number of Jewish victims in a few days at well under "over 10,000."

Why, then, this surprising reduction in the number of Jewish victims?  Why, when most respectable sources seem ready to credit the figure of 33,771 Jewish victims in a few days, is the Dictionary claiming a number less than one-third this size?  Two explanations suggest themselves:

(1)  The researchers of the Dictionary were below average in competence and responsibility, merely pulling the number of "over 10,000" out of the air, unaware that it was lower than it needed to be.  But this interpretation seems hardly credible.  Everywhere the Dictionary researchers looked, they must have seen 33,771 or thereabouts.  Why not take the safe route of simply repeating what everyone else was saying, of simply following the pack?

(2)  The researchers of the Dictionary were above average in competence and responsibility, and realizing that the number of 33,771 Jews killed in a few days was not credible, instead offered a compromise estimate falling somewhere between the fantastic 33,771 and the reality that a comparatively small number of Jews was killed at Babyn Yar.

Anyone interested in why the figure of 33,771 is susceptible to being revised downward can consult documents whose index will appear when the BABYN YAR link to be found both at the very top and at the very bottom of the present page is clicked.