December 27, 2022

1943. Foreign Correspondents Visit Kharkiv

The Destruction of Kharkiv
Civilians in Kharkiv, Ukraine during the German occupation in May 1943 (source)
Bill Downs was part of a group of American and British foreign correspondents that visited the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv shortly after it had been retaken temporarily by the Soviets in February 1943. The accounts featured in this Newsweek article were expanded upon in longer reports Downs did for CBS in February and March of that year. After the Germans retook Kharkiv in March, he wrote:
"[T]here 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."

From Newsweek, March 8, 1943, pp. 22-23:

Kharkov's Story

Bill Downs, Newsweek's Moscow correspondent, sent the following cable on his return from a visit to Kharkov just eight days after the recapture of the city by the Red Army.

Fifteen months' occupation of Kharkov—what Hitler calls "Aryan Colonization"—has all but killed the Soviet capital of the Ukraine. Kharkov today looks like a city which has undergone earthquake, the Black Plague, and the Chicago Fire all at once. But the city's wounds are not so much on the surface as at its foundations—they are spiritual rather than material.

It is in the faces of the people of Kharkov that you read the city's real tragedy. They had been hungry for so long that they had got used to it. Their faces were dough white or pastry yellow. The children had deep circles under their eyes. Everybody's clothing needed washing, patching, and replacing.

These people who were lucky enough to survive lived for fifteen months on a maximum of 300 grams (10½ ounces) of bread a day—supplemented with what the family furniture and clothing would bring in the way of food through secret barter with the farmers in the surrounding district.

There are few young men anywhere in the Kharkov district today. Those caught in the city when the Germans marched in were either sent to Germany or were shot or hanged or escaped to unoccupied Russia. Even boys of 12 and 14 have the look of men about them. There are many women, some of them young. But one schoolteacher told me: "Most of our beautiful Ukrainian girls are gone now." The Germans also shipped beauty back to Germany as a Ukrainian commodity.

When the Germans entered the city a year ago last October, they immediately began hanging men. For a distance of 2 miles down Sumskaya Street, from the government center to the business center, Russians were hanged from every balcony. Thereafter, hangings were frequent, disappearances common, and beatings occurred every day.

The prewar population of the city was 900,000 which was swelled to 1,300,000 by refugees shortly before the occupation. The Soviets evacuated 250,000 before the occupation. The population today is estimated at 350,000. A number of people escaped to the unoccupied zone, but what happened to the rest no one will ever know. The Germans didn't bother to issue death decrees or keep records of their executions.

The Nazis organized their "colonization" schemes carefully. First, they used the extensive records of the Ukrainian Nationalist movement they had prepared in Berlin. Then they sent Nationalist leaders whom they found sympathetic into the Western Ukraine. They appointed Professor Alexeyev Kramerenko, an instructor of chemistry at the famous Kharkov university, as the town's first burgomaster. Kramerenko was an ardent Ukrainian Nationalist. The town was divided into six districts, and Kramerenko's friends were appointed district heads.

At the same time German "colonists"—businessmen, shopkeepers, carpetbaggers, and just plain adventurers—began to drift into town. The best buildings, shops, and houses were turned over to these colonists. The original Russian occupants were given worthless receipts or were told plainly to get out—or were hanged. Although the exact circumstances are unclear, Kramerenko finally realized he had been duped, and the Germans were forced to shoot him.

Meanwhile, the Germans succeeded in reestablishing part of Kharkov's factories but only for the repair of army equipment. While the population starved, parties of German soldiers searched homes of Russians suspected of hoarding sugar and other foods. Executions and internments continued. A man would be denounced to the Germans on one day and disappear the next. The Germans even tried pressing Ukrainian men into the German Army—mostly in the labor corps—but there were large numbers of desertions.

The rate of exchange for the German reichsmark was set at 1 mark for 10 rubles, giving the Germans a neat exchange profit. There was absolutely no civil law, and martial law did not include civil cases. There were many cases of rape where the parents of the offended girl were simply too terrorized to complain to the authorities.

When the Red Army drive reached the outskirts of Kharkov and two days before the Germans left, the Nazis began systematic demolition of the city's biggest and newest buildings, many of which were the pride of the Ukraine. The House of Projects, which looks like a small-sized Radio City, the House of Cooperation, which looks like a miniature Stevens Hotel, Kharkov International Hotel and others of the biggest and newest buildings were completely gutted by fire and by mining. Then the day after the Red Army's reoccupation the Germans sent over 25 bombers which systematically flew down street after street, dropping bombs on the smoldering buildings.

This is only part of the story. The rest would require a book. But Kharkov is only the first of the cities of Eastern Europe which must be retaken from the Germans. There are Kiev, Riga, Danzig, Warsaw, and a string of others where this same story is going to form one of the saddest chapters in the world's history.