Vladimir Davydov was a Ukrainian Jew interned in the Syretsky Camp, 5 km from Kiev, from 15 March to 16 August 1943. On 18 August, he was taken from there to Babi Yar, a place where tens of thousands of Jews are said to have been shot and buried by the Germans in mass graves in late September 1941 (see the entry on Babi Yar). He was interrogated at Kiev on 9 November 1943 by a local NKGB chief. During this interview, he stated, among other things:
- 100 inmates were picked out and taken to Babi Yar, where they were put in chains. Among them were even geriatrics. However, for the heavy labor awaiting them, geriatrics would not have been chosen. Why were they still alive anyway, if those unfit for labor were supposedly killed years ago?
- The exhumation and cremation work they needed to do was to be kept a secret, so no one was allowed to get closer to the ravine than 1 km. However, it would have been impossible to hide the fires and concomitant smoke.
- He claims there were two mass graves with about 50,000 bodies of Jews, plus another one farther away with about 20,000 bodies of Soviet PoWs. They built pyres with 2,000 to 3,000 bodies each, on stacks 10 to 12 meters high. However, this would have required cranes, and any pyre that high would have toppled over and spilled burning wood and body parts all over the place. Real pyres for open-air incinerations have only one large layer of fuel topped with bodies, together some 2 meters high.
- Unburned bones were pulverized with pestles on metal sheets, and the result thrown into the empty mass graves. However, for this to work, all the remains of a pyre had to be sifted for unburned remains. Wood-fired pyres burn unevenly and leave behind lots of unburned wood pieces, charcoal, and incompletely burned body parts, not just ashes and bones (80% of leftovers would have been from wood, not corpses). Incompletely burned wood and human remains could not have been crushed. If 70,000 bodies were burned, then several thousand metric tons of cremation leftovers had to be processed. Just this job would have required hundreds of men to complete in time.
- Three, later four of these pyres burned simultaneously. In total, some 75 of these pyres were built. However, if one pyre had at least 2,000 bodies, the total would have been 150,000 burned victims, not the roughly 70,000 bodies he claimed.
- When all bodies had been burned and one last pyre was built, the inmates figured that this one was for them, so some of them escaped during the night of 28-29 September.
Cremating an average human body during open-air incinerations requires some 250 kg of freshly cut wood. Cremating 70,000 bodies thus requires some 17,500 metric tons of wood. This would have required the felling of all trees growing in a 50-year-old spruce forest covering almost 39 hectares of land, or more than 87 American football fields. An average prisoner is rated at being able to cut some 0.63 metric tons of fresh wood per workday. To cut this amount of wood within five weeks (35 days) that this operation supposedly lasted would have required a work force of some 800 dedicated lumberjacks just to cut the wood. Davydov claims his unit consisted only of 100 inmates, all busy digging out mass graves, extracting bodies, building pyres, sifting through ashes, scattering the ashes and refilling the graves with soil. He says nothing about where the firewood came from.
More than 20 years after the events, on 9 February 1967, Davydov was interrogated by the German judiciary. In that statement, his pyres had shrunk from 10 meters in height down to 4 meters, but that still would have required a crane, and it still would have toppled over. The number of corpses burned had increased from 70,000 to 125,000, in line with other inmate claims. He moreover reduced the number of pyres from 75 to 55 or 60, so the math of 2,000 corpses per pyre fits to his total death toll. All this indicates that he had been instructed by Soviet officials in order to streamline his account.
In addition to merely grinding up unburned bones, Davydov also claimed in 1967 that all the leftovers of the burned-down pyres were run through sieves in search of valuables. That would have led to a drastic increase in workforce needed for this, apart from it being nearly impossible. If 125,000 bodies were processed, as Davydov claimed, then several thousand metric tons of ashes and unburned remains had to be processed this way by perhaps a few dozen inmates within just five weeks – in sieves that would have clogged with the first load. Moreover, any occasional rainfall would have rendered any burned-out pyre into a moist heap of highly alkaline, corrosive slush that could not have been processed at all.
In that German interview, Davydov must have figured out that his initial claim of just 100 working inmates was a little bit of a stretch, so he claimed that the Germans at some point “increased the number of prisoners to 330,” and they allegedly also used “dynamiting techniques” – in order to achieve what? Scattering corpse parts all over the place? Explosives are not suitable tools for exhuming mass graves or destroying bodies.
For good measure, Davydov added to his 1967 testimony something that was unknown to him at war’s end: that during his time at Babi Yar, the Germans killed people in gas vans, and threw them from the vans right onto the pyres. This late enrichment of his “memory” evidently also resulted from coaching sessions he had with Soviet authorities, who had claimed the use of gas vans in their 1944 expert report on Babi Yar.