The Syrets Labor Education Camp
The Germans operated the Syrets labor education camp near Kyiv from May 1942 to October 1943. The Syrets camp was a key site of Nazi terror in occupied Soviet Ukraine. Syrets prisoners were also forcibly involved in Nazi efforts to destroy evidence of the Holocaust.
Syrets was a labor education camp (Arbeitserziehungslager) on the outskirts of Kyiv. The Germans operated the camp from May 1942 to October 1943.
Soviet POWs, partisans, non-Jewish civilians, and Jews who had survived the mass shooting actions of late September 1941 were detained at the Syrets camp.
The Germans attempted to conceal their crimes. In the summer of 1943, they ordered prisoners from the Syrets camp to dig up mass graves at the Babyn Yar ravine and cremate the remains of victims.
The Germans established the Syrets camp on the northwestern outskirts of the Ukrainian capital city of Kyiv in May 1942. The camp was constructed near the Babyn Yar ravine, a killing site where the Nazis and their auxiliaries murdered tens of thousands of Jews and non-Jews between 1941 and 1943. A branch of the Syrets camp was also located on the southern outskirts of Kyiv in what was then the village of Myshelovka.
Syrets was designated as an Arbeitserziehungslager (labor education camp, abbreviated AEL), meaning it was not officially part of the SS concentration camp system. Usually run by the Gestapo, labor education camps were designated for people who had supposedly violated labor discipline. Prisoners were supposed to be held there for a limited amount of time (from a few weeks to a few months). As the war progressed, living and forced labor conditions, as well as death rates, in these camps became similar to those in Nazi concentration camps.
At Syrets, prisoners were detained for a variety of reasons, most of them unrelated to their labor performance. They were imprisoned for longer than most prisoners in labor education camps. Prisoners at Syrets lived in dire conditions and were under the constant threat of violence, abuse, illness, and murder. The Germans and the camp’s prisoner functionaries murdered some prisoners directly, worked others to death, and meted out lethal punishments. Some prisoners also died from hunger, cold, or disease.
Prisoners in Syrets
Syrets prisoners included Jewish and non-Jewish men and women from the following groups:
- Soviet prisoners of war (POWs);
- Suspected members of the Soviet underground movement (often referred to as partisans);
- Jews from the city of Kyiv, the Kyiv region, and the Poltava region; and
- Non-Jewish civilians (Ukrainians, Russians, and others) accused of various crimes.
Based on testimonies, there were some children in the Syrets camp. They were most likely brought to the camp with their mothers.
The Germans detained no more than 3,000 people at a time in Syrets. In general, the men outnumbered the women. Over the course of the camp’s operation, approximately 10,000 people were detained.
Topography of Syrets
The Syrets camp occupied an estimated two to three square kilometers of land on the site of a former military garrison. An electrified barbed-wire fence and watch towers surrounded the camp. Syrets was organized according to labor and living zones. These zones were separated by barbed wire.
In the first two months of the camp’s operation, prisoners did not have any shelter. The Germans forced the prisoners to build wooden barracks and large dugouts with scrap metal roofs. Each dugout and barrack housed dozens of inmates.
Male and female prisoners lived separately. According to prisoner testimonies, the male prisoners tended to live in the large dugouts and were organized by prisoner group or type. For example, there was a “Jewish dugout,” a “partisan dugout,” and a “medical dugout.” Women were housed in one of the barracks. The children most likely lived with their mothers.
Camp Administration and Authorities
As an AEL, the Syrets camp was administered by the Commander of the Security Police and SD Kiew (Kommandeur der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD Kiew, or KdS Kiew), a powerful position in the SS and police hierarchy. At the time the Syrets camp was established, the position of KdS Kiew was held by Erich Ehrlinger. Ehrlinger was a radical SS officer who had previously carried out numerous massacres as a leader of Einsatzkommando 1b.
SS Major Paul Otto von Radomski served as the commandant of Syrets for most of the camp's operation. Other Germans in the camp administration included Radomski’s deputy and agents of the camp’s Gestapo branch. Members of the SS, Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans), and indigenous collaborators guarded the camp.
The Germans delegated control of some of Syrets’s daily operations to selected prisoner functionaries. These prisoner functionaries kept order in the dugouts and barracks, oversaw labor detachments, and tried to prevent escapes. Other prisoner functionaries included informants placed by the camp’s Gestapo branch to spy on the prisoners.
Daily Life in the Syrets Camp
Prisoners at Syrets were severely maltreated and abused by camp authorities. Daily life for prisoners was marked by hard labor, starvation, brutality, and suffering.
Theft and Plunder
Theft and plunder were widespread throughout the Nazi camp system. This was no different in Syrets. When prisoners first arrived at Syrets, camp authorities took their clothing, shoes, jewelry, and other valuables. Prisoners who had family living in the area occasionally received parcels of food, clothing, or medications by bribing camp guards. These items were often also plundered or stolen.
Humiliation and Abuse
Camp authorities humiliated and physically abused prisoners to instill fear and enforce order. As part of this regimen, former Syrets prisoners reported that they were ordered to perform difficult, cruel, and demeaning calisthenic exercises. These exercises included marching while squatting or squirming on their stomachs without using their hands or feet. Other forms of physical abuse included beatings, as well as attacks by guard dogs. Some prisoners died as a result of this brutal maltreatment.
Starvation was widespread throughout the camp. The majority of prisoners in Syrets received only one or two insufficient meals each day, usually a thin soup. One prisoner reported receiving a small daily ration of bread (about 100–150 grams or 3.5–5.3 ounces). In place of other meals, prisoners drank a coffee substitute made from water boiled with wild herbs. Such “meals” were hardly sufficient to keep prisoners fed and to sustain them while performing excruciating, exhausting, and deadly labor. According to some testimonies, prisoners were so hungry that they were forced to eat wild herbs and grasses, dogs, cats, and rats.
Maltreatment and Murder of Sick and Weak Prisoners
Sick inmates were housed in a special dugout in order to prevent the spread of illness in the camp. These prisoners did not receive medical care or food. Each day, camp authorities murdered prisoners who were too ill or weak to work. They often committed these murders in front of other prisoners. As a result, prisoners feared showing any signs of weakness or illness.
Murder of Other Prisoners
Prisoners regularly faced the prospect of being executed or murdered for the slightest infraction of rules. Camp authorities shot prisoners for resisting, trying to escape, or because they could no longer work. Camp authorities and guards also killed some prisoners for no apparent reason.
Maltreatment of Jewish Prisoners
Jews were treated much worse than other prisoners at Syrets. Members of both the camp’s German and prisoner administration singled out Jews for even more intense humiliation and physical abuse. Jewish prisoners also received even less food than non-Jewish prisoners.
The violent and abusive conditions of daily life in Syrets also extended to the labor conditions of prisoners. Syrets prisoners routinely performed exhausting heavy labor on a starvation-level diet. They worked without proper equipment or clothing and in all types of weather. At their worksites, the prisoners were the targets of senseless abuse and murder. Prisoners also died as a result of work-related injuries.
Prisoners were assigned to various types of labor. Those prisoners who were skilled craftsmen, particularly Jews, worked as carpenters or as technicians. Some women cooked, while others performed hard labor. At the Syrets branch in Myshelovka, prisoners were forced to work as agricultural laborers. Outside the camp gates in Kyiv, prisoners cleared debris and repaired pavement and roads. Within the confines of the main Syrets camp, prisoners were forced to build dugouts and barracks, as well as to uproot trees.
As Raisa Kipnis, a Jewish prisoner passing as a non-Jew in Syrets, recalled:
“We went to work, they chased us. We uprooted trees, we uprooted everything there. …. The Jewish brigade drove a wagon with stones, and endlessly they had to ... drive this wagon and had to sing [the song] “Lemons.” And as soon as they stopped singing “Lemons,” that [prisoner functionary] Liza [Loginova] or that Vera Bondarenko ran up [to them] with a whip and beat them…1
Sonderaktion 1005: Concealing Nazi Crimes at Babyn Yar
With the Soviet Red Army approaching Kyiv in the summer of 1943, the Germans implemented the cover-up operation referred to as Sonderaktion 1005 [Special Operation 1005]. The goal of Sonderaktion 1005 was to conceal the massacres of Jews and others perpetrated by the Germans throughout Europe. As part of Sonderaktion 1005 in Kyiv, the Germans ordered approximately 300 Syrets prisoners to dig up the mass graves at the Babyn Yar killing site and cremate the remains of the victims.
According to testimonies submitted to the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg by Soviet prosecutors, Syrets prisoners were shackled and forced to work 12–15 hours each day. Prisoners manually exhumed the remains from the Babyn Yar ravine and the Germans used excavators to expedite the work. The Germans organized special prisoner crews to plunder the corpses and collect earrings, rings, and gold teeth.
The prisoners were ordered to construct large, makeshift cremation pyres on granite monuments and gravestones from a nearby Jewish cemetery. Multiple layers of corpses were stacked, separated with firewood, doused with fuel, and cremated. To ensure that the crimes at Babyn Yar were concealed, the Germans used bulldozers to smash the remaining bones. After, the ashes were spread across the Babyn Yar ravine. The exhumations and cremations continued through the end of September 1943.
A handful of the Syrets inmates who took part in Aktion 1005 at Babyn Yar managed to escape. The rest of the prisoners were murdered by the Germans once the operation was complete.
Closing of the Syrets Camp
Starting in September 1943, the Germans began transferring selected prisoners from Syrets to Germany. Those prisoners who were not selected for evacuation were shot. The Syrets labor education camp ceased operations later that fall.
The Red Army retook Kyiv on November 6, 1943. Soon after, Soviet authorities conducted investigations of both the Babyn Yar massacre site and the Syrets camp. At the Syrets camp, these investigations uncovered pits with hundreds of victims. The bodies of other Syrets prisoners were discovered in the nearby Babyn Yar ravine where camp functionaries had shot them.
It is estimated that of the 10,000 prisoners detained at Syrets, at least 5,000 prisoners died or were killed there.
Postwar Justice and Memorialization
In February 1946, during the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, prosecutors submitted testimonies of former Syrets prisoners as part of evidence against 24 leading German officials charged with war crimes and other offenses.
In 1991 in Kyiv, a monument was dedicated to the victims of the Syrets camp.
Kipnis, Raysa. Interview 28728. Interview by Marina Temkina. Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation, April 11, 1997. Accessed January 31, 2023. https://vha.usc.edu/testimony/28728