Buried alive

Buried alive

A Yom Hashoah story from Ukraine

Michael Okunev is second on the right in this group of Red Army soldiers, right after the liberation of Bakhmut, then called Artemovsk. All photos courtesy Dr. Anna Rabichev)
Michael Okunev is second on the right in this group of Red Army soldiers, right after the liberation of Bakhmut, then called Artemovsk. All photos courtesy Dr. Anna Rabichev)

For more than a year now, we have been telling you the story of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Ukrainian resistance that has kept the Russians from getting what they want, and the brutality of the meat-grinder of the war, and the fresh bodies it consumes.

We have been guided through this bloody maze by Alexander Smukler of Montclair, a Russian Jew who has lived almost half his life in Moscow and arrived in America with his family in 1991, just months before the Soviet Union fell. Mr. Smukler has maintained close connections with friends and business contacts in both Russia and Ukraine. He watches, listens to, and reads news from those places, and he interprets what he knows for us.

There are movements in what he calls the global game of thrones as Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, among many other countries, shift their alliances and build what Mr. Smukler says will be a world that is not the one that has existed since World War II. We’ll talk about that more next week.

This week, though, in recognition of Yom HaShoah, we want to acknowledge a little-known, entirely horrific Holocaust story. It’s set in Bakhmut.

Michael Okunev, left, was a Red Army paramedic.

For months, the most brutal fighting in the war that Russia is waging on Ukraine has been in Bakhmut. “Some people say that more than 30,000 Russians have been killed to take that little town, and so far they still haven’t succeeded,” Mr. Smukler said. “As far as I know today, the Russians control 70 percent of it, and Ukrainians probably will withdraw soon, because it has no strategic meaning for them. The Ukrainians call it the meat grinder, because they say that the Russians must be crazy to sacrifice the lives of thousands of their soldiers for it.”

In our March 31 Angry Dwarf Chronicles story, Mr. Smukler talked about how the city — during the Soviet era, it was called Artemovsk — once had been home to about 3,000 Jews, and about how most of them had been rounded up and shoved into an alabaster mine. The mine’s only entrance was cemented shut, and the 3,200 people inside it — a few hundred of them were not Jews but resistance fighters — were left to starve to death. “It is a largely unknown page, and probably one of the most tragic pages, in Holocaust history,” Mr. Smukler said.

After they’re posted online, Mr. Smukler sends these Angry Dwarf stories to friends, and those friends forward them on. A friend of a friend got in touch with him to tell him more about the terrible Jewish history of Artemovsk.

“We know very little about what happened there,” Mr. Smukler said. “We know about the gas chambers, and about the thousands of people who were shot in Babyn Yar, for example, but I know that I had never heard about the 3,200 people who were sealed in a mine and left dying there for weeks, even months.” Nobody knows how long it took for all of them to die.

All he knew about the town was the story of the survivor Mark Goldberg, who donated his memoir to Yad Vashem. The museum posted it online, where Mr. Smukler could read it. But there was very little more about Artemovsk anywhere that he could find.

Miron Okunev in 1934, seven years before his death, posing with other boys in a boat. He’s at the far right. This is the only photograph of him in existence. It was taken near Bakhmut.

“This week, I received a phone call from Dr. Anna Rabichev. She lives in New York; she’s the daughter of Dr. Michael Okunev, who was born in Artemovsk in 1922.

“The Nazi army crossed the Soviet border on June 22, 1941, and 17 days later, on July 9, 1941, Michael was drafted by the Red Army. He was taken from his premed school and sent to the Soviet army. And that saved his life.

“During the next five years, he served as a paramedic in the 787th artillery unit. He was at the battle of Stalingrad, he was a lieutenant by the end of the war, and he was discharged from the army in 1955.”

After he left the army, Michael Okunev went to medical school and became a doctor; he also qualified as a dentist. He left Russia for New York in 1989. He practiced as a dentist in New York, and he died there in 2004.

In 1988, Dr. Okunev is in Bakhmut with two Ukrainian guerrilla fighters for a commemoration of the dead, including his parents and family.

Long before that, her father “went back to Artemovsk after the war, and after 1955, when he was out of the army, he went many times,” Mr. Smukler reported that Dr. Rabichev told him. “He was looking for survivors, asking the witnesses what happened.

“He learned that his mother, Anna Zilberstein, his father, Lazar Okunev, and his grandparents went into the alabaster mine, and they died there. But his younger brother, Miron, who was 15 years old, joined the partisans.

“Dr. Rabichev told me that there were no woods there for the partisans to hide in, but there were salt mines.” That’s what Artemovsk and a neighboring town, Soledar, were famous for. So the partisans hid in the salt mines, coming up to attack Nazis, sabotage railway stations, disrupt supply chains, and then go back underground. Eventually, though, Miron died, killed by the Nazis or collaborators. “Nobody knows exactly when or where,” Mr. Smukler said. “But local people told Michael that Miron died in the resistance, and the rest of the family died in the alabaster mine.

“After the war ended, Michael went to Artemovsk several times, looking for the place where their bodies were buried.”

He learned that all the bodies were buried in one massive plot in a very old, very big cemetery near the city. The Red Army liberated the city in February 1943, and the blasted away the cement that sealed the mine shut. “After they opened the mine, they found lots of bodies,” Mr. Smukler said. Many of the bodies had not become skeletons but retained much of their flesh,” he added. “The mine air was so rich with salt that it preserved the bodies. When the entrance was opened, people saw dead bodies holding newborn babies. They saw the dead children.

Michael Okunev

“It was an apocalyptic scene.”

The Soviets treated the bodies carefully. “They made a list of all of them. All of the 3,200 names were known, and they are all listed in Yad Vashem now,” Mr. Smukler said. Then they were buried in that mass grave, and the Soviets put up a plaque.

As he thought about the tragedy, Mr. Smukler thought about something that Abe Foxman, the former head of the Anti-Defamation League, said about the Holocaust in this paper last week.

In the story called “Remembering what you never knew,” Mr. Foxman described how Holocaust denial grew after the war. First, the Germans denied everything, until they could do so no longer. Then they stopped. “Next, the Soviet Union wanted to protect World War II as the classic war between communism on one side and Nazism and fascism on the other, so they obliterated Jewishness from the Holocaust,” Mr. Foxman said last week. “For many years, the Soviet Union was the major proponent of Holocaust denial.”

Lieutenant Okunev with his daughter, Anna, in 1955.

That’s exactly what happened in Artemovsk, Mr. Smukler said.

“According to Michael Okunev, there was a big gravestone in the old cemetery, where all the bodies were buried, and it read: ‘Here the Soviet citizens who sacrificed their lives during the Great Patriotic War are buried.’

“There was nothing about Jews.”

Eventually, the cave was turned into a huge winery; bottles were stored in the rooms where the Jews had died.

“In 2016, they put a plaque on the wall in that alabaster mine, and it said that 3,000 Jews were killed here in a most brutal way. Nobody said anything about those 3,000 Jews being buried alive.”

Years later, some Russian Jewish men, including Dr. Okunev, parade in Brooklyn.

One of the most important things that Dr. Rabichev wanted Mr. Smukler to know was that he was wrong about it being only Ukrainians who sealed the cave shut. “There were SS-Sonderkommandos too,” she told him. “She said that her father told her that it was not Ukrainians who did that.”

Of course, he added, most likely it was both Germans and Ukrainians, because “when you are dealing with more than 3,000 people, trying to push them into a cave, you need to have hundreds of people with machine guns who are pushing them.” In other words, they needed all hands on deck. “The Germans were busy on the front lines, so probably there also were collaborators involved,” Mr. Smukler said.

She went back to Artemovsk — by then once again it was Bahkmut — in 2012, Dr. Rabichev told Mr. Smukler. “She said that the alabaster mine had become a factory for sparkling wine. She also said that there was a little museum in the factory, telling the story. There also was a little room where relatives and travelers could come and sit, rest, and recover from what they’d seen.

“She also said that the workers at the factory were very warm to her. They welcomed her. They were very kind to her.

“It’s all probably leveled now,” he concluded. “I’m sure that there’s nothing left there now.”

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