Yakov Steyuk was a Ukrainian Jew interned in the Syretsky Camp, 5 km from Kiev. On 18 August 1943, 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 by the NKGB on 12 and 15 November 1943 about his alleged experiences at Babi Yar.
Among other things, Steyuk stated that he and 100 other slave-labor inmates were put in chains, had to exhume mass graves, and burn the extracted bodies on pyres. He claimed that the pyres they built consisted of several layers of wood and bodies, reaching the height of four meters, and containing about 5,000 corpses each. Later he specified that a pyre had about 20 layers(!) of alternating wood and bodies.
Let’s assume that a running meter of a pyre two meters wide can accommodate four corpses. Each corpse requires 250 kg of freshly cut wood (see open-air incinerations). The density of green wood is roughly 0.9 tons per m³, and its stacking density on a pyre is 1.4 (40% for air and flames to go through). This means that the wood required to burn just one layer of corpses stacks up to a height of some 0.75 meters. Adding the body layer gets us to roughly a meter. Twenty such layers result in a pyre 20 meters high. It would have been impossible to build such a pyre, and also impossible to burn it down without it collapsing and spilling burning wood and corpses all over the place.
Steyuk asserted that at least ten such pyres were burned, hence a total of some 50,000 bodies. In the second interview, Steyuk first said he doesn’t know how many bodies there were exhumed and burned in total, but when pressed for a number, he stated that there had been some 45,000 bodies.
When interrogated again in 1980 by the KGB, he now “remembered” that each pyre contained 2,000 bodies and was only 3 meters high; that there were up to sixty of them; that the slave-labor work force was increased to 325; that the total death toll amounted to 100,000 victims; that the evil SS officer running the show was called Topaide; and that the Germans also used gas vans to kill people. This late enrichment of his “memory,” bringing it in line with other similarly groomed testimonies, evidently resulted from coaching sessions he had with Soviet authorities, whose investigative commission had invented the SS man Topaide and the use of gas vans in their 1944 expert report on Babi Yar.
With 250 kg of freshly cut wood needed to cremate one body on a pyre, cremating 50,000 or 100,000 bodies would have required some 12,500 to 25,000 metric tons of wood. 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 567 to 1,134 dedicated lumberjacks just to cut the wood. Steyuk claimed initially that his unit consisted only of 100 inmates, all busy digging out mass graves, extracting bodies, building pyres, and – as other witnesses claimed – moreover sifting through ashes, scattering the ashes and refilling the graves with soil. Steyuk says nothing about where the firewood came from.