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Remembering the massacre at Babyn Yar

TW: This article discusses topics of violence and may be distressing to some readers.

The murder of more than 33,000 Jews in Babyn Yar marked one of the largest single ‘open-air shootings’ in the history of the Holocaust, only to be surpassed by the massacre of 50,000 Jews at Odessa and the two-day killing of almost 43,000 Jews in the Lublin district. Today we commemorate the 79th anniversary of the Babyn Yar massacre.

The large, sandy ravine of Babyn Yar, located at the outskirts of Kiev became a ‘suitable’ site for the Germans and their Ukrainian collaborators to carry out the slaughter on 29 and 30 September 1941. Despite the scale of this massacre, still no Holocaust memorial stands on this site. Instead, the memorialisation of Babyn Yar has recently sparked a “war of words”, a controversy on how keep the often-contesting memories of victim groups and perpetrators alive.

Some three months prior to the Babyn Yar massacre, on 22 June 1941, the Germans launched their war of destruction against the Soviet Union. The invasion, code-named Operation Barbarossa, signalled the beginning of the Nazi genocide unleashed against the Soviet Jews. A “hunger plan” was designed and implemented to secure food and other resources for Germans from the conquered “living space” in the East. A death sentence was also imposed on Soviet prisoners of war. Some 5.7 million soldiers fell into German hands. 3.3 million were murdered. They were shot or gassed, starved to death or died of disease.

SS and Police units with killing orders swept through villages, from Riga in the north to Odessa in the south. They were ordered to execute Jews, communists and other ‘enemies’ who were considered to be ‘looters’, ‘agitators’ or ‘traitors’. By late 1941, reports reached back to Germany that large areas has already been made Juden-frei – free of Jews. Accounts of the events can be recalled from testimonies of killers and surviving victims. The following recollections explain the terrain and the scenes at Babyn Yar, as well as the emotions of those who were tasked with the killings and those who survived.

One killer, facing trial in Germany, stated:

“The terrain was sandy… The ravine was about 10 meters deep, some 400 meters long, about 80 meters wide across the top and about 10 meters wide at the bottom. As soon as I arrived at the execution area, I was sent down to the bottom of the ravine… It was not long before the first Jews were brought to us over the side of the ravine. The Jews had to lie face down on the earth by the ravine walls. There were three groups of marksmen down at the bottom of the ravine, each made up of about twelve men. Groups of Jews were sent down to each of these execution squads simultaneously…

“I still recall today the complete terror of the Jews…as they reached the top edge of the ravine. Many Jews cried out in terror. It’s almost impossible to imagine what nerves of steel it took to carry out that dirty work down there. It was horrible.

One survivor recalled:

“People fell like small stones thrown by some hands. I don’t know when I was shot but I regained consciousness at night at the ravine. There were dead bodies all around. Streams of blood were flowing on all sides. I was only wounded and started to climb from under the pile of bodies which surrounded me on all sides. Soon I got out and started to crawl, not known where to go …”

The ravine of Babyn Yar remained a preferred murder and burial site. More than 100,000 people of were murdered in the following months: Jews, Communists, Ukrainian resistance fighters, Prisoners of War, Roma people, and others who were branded as ‘hostile’, ‘dangerous’ or ‘undesired’.

In August 1943, a new SS taskforce arrived, entrusted with the task of erasing the traces of the heinous crimes perpetrated. These men embarked on a long journey, from north to south, excavating the killing fields, burning the corpses and dispersing the ashes. The worst of the work was left to Jewish slave labourers, who were then murdered.

When the Red Army liberated Kiev in November 1943, the Soviets were quick to carry out war crimes investigations and to bring perpetrators to justice. Parts of the killing fields were excavated. After the war, Babyn Yar quickly disappeared. One section of the ravine was transformed into a soccer field, another was destroyed by mudslide.

In 1961, Yevgeni Yetuschenko published a poem that began with, “No monument stands over Babyn Yar”. Years later a large public park was created with grass areas and footpaths, bushes and trees, enclosing a set of small and large monuments and sculptures and plaques and crosses, paying homage to all the victims murdered. Plans were made for the establishment of a Jewish community centre and the creation of a Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre. Amidst ongoing debate, efforts are still underway to complete the largest and most expensive Holocaust memorial in Eastern Europe.

Author: Emeritus Professor Konrad Kwiet, Resident Historian

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