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Babi Yar, 80 years on

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On September 29 and 30, 1941, more than 33,000 people, mostly Jews, were executed in the Babi Yar ravine near the Ukrainian capital Kyiv – one of the largest mass murders in the Holocaust. FRANCE 24 looks back at this unspeakable event 80 years on, as plans are finally underway for an official museum honouring the victims’ memory.

“A policeman told me to undress and pushed me to the edge of the pit, where a group of people were awaiting their fate. Before the shooting started, I was so scared that I fell into the pit. I fell onto dead bodies. At first I didn’t understand a thing: where was I? How did I end up there? I thought I was going inside. The shooting went on; people were still falling. I came to my senses – and suddenly I understood everything. I could feel my arms, my legs, my stomach, my head. I wasn’t even injured. I was pretending to be dead. I was on top of dead people – and injured people. I could hear some people breathing; others were moaning in pain. Suddenly I heard a child screaming: ‘Mum!’ It sounded like my little daughter. I burst into tears.” Dina Pronicheva, one of the few survivors of the Babi Yar massacre, captured its horror when she gave testimony in the trial of fifteen German soldiers in Kyiv in 1946.

At the Babi Yar ravine just outside Kyiv, 33,771 civilians were massacred on September 29 and 30, 1941, according to figures the Einzatsgruppen C (a Waffen SS travelling death squad) sent back to Berlin.

This followed the Nazis’ capture of Kyiv on September 19, as they stormed through Soviet territory after launching Operation Barbarossa in June. Nearly 100,000 Jews fled the Ukrainian capital before the Nazis took it. But for those who remained, it was the beginning of a nightmare.

As explosions planted by the Soviet secret police the NKVD rocked Kiev, the Nazis decided to eliminate the city’s Jews – driven by the Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracist canard at the heart of Nazi ideology, which falsely alleged that the Jewish people were responsible for Bolshevism.

The German occupiers demanded that Kyiv’s Jews gather near a train station on the city’s outskirts for “resettlement” elsewhere; those who refused to go there were threatened with death.

A German Einsatzgruppen soldier talks to two unidentified women at the top of the Babi Yar ravine, where more than 33,000 people, mostly Jews, were massacred on September 29 and 30, 1941.
A German Einsatzgruppen soldier talks to two unidentified women at the top of the Babi Yar ravine, where more than 33,000 people, mostly Jews, were massacred on September 29 and 30, 1941. © Wikimedia

‘A premeditated killing spree’

It was a trap – and many knew it. Ukrainian engineer Fedir Phido recounted the sorrow of the Jews on their way to Babi Yar, as quoted by Dutch historian Karel Berkhoff in his book Harvest of Despair: Life and Death in Ukraine under Nazi Rule: “Many thousands of people, mainly old ones – but middle-aged people were also not lacking – were moving towards Babi Yar. And the children – my God, there were so many children! All this was moving, burdened with luggage and children. Here and there old and sick people who lacked the strength to move by themselves were being carried, probably by sons or daughters, on carts without any assistance. Some cry, others console. Most were moving in a self-absorbed way, in silence and with a doomed look. It was a terrible sight.”

They were all taken to Babi Yar, which means “grandmother’s ravine” or “old woman’s ravine” in Ukrainian. The Soviet NKVD had already used this site to carry out massacres – it provided an out-of-the-way firing range near the big population centre of Kyiv.

“There was a whole process starting from the place where the people were forced to gather,” Boris Czerny, a professor of Russian literature and culture at the University of Caen and a specialist in the history of Jews in Eastern Europe, told FRANCE 24. “People were asked to take their most treasured possessions with them, then at a particular spot they had to give away their proof of identity, then at another point they had to give away the possessions they brought, and finally there was a place at which they had to undress.”

The victims were led to the ravine in small groups. Members of Einsatzgruppen C opened fire, alongside two groups from the German Order Police and troops from the collaborationist Ukrainian Auxiliary Police. The shooting carried on throughout the day – and into the next.

This was not the first episode in what historians call the “Holocaust by bullets”: A month earlier, 23,600 Jews suffered the same fate in Kamenets-Podolski, a Ukrainian town near the Hungarian border.

However, the scale of the slaughter at Babi Yar – and its systematic nature – made it a turning point in the Holocaust.

“It was the first time in history that a premeditated killing spree wiped out practically the entire Jewish population of a big European city,” Berkhoff put it, speaking to FRANCE 24.

“This was the first major massacre in the Holocaust by bullets, although smaller massacres had preceded it,” Czerny added. “Babi Yar inaugurated a Nazi policy of massacring Jews with guns in ditches – it was a kind of experiment that prompted the Nazis to do the same thing, carrying out similarly systematic massacres in the rest of Ukraine.”

Nearly 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews were murdered between 1941 and 1944. Almost 80 percent of them were shot dead. Executions continued at Babi Yar long after September 1941. The Nazis killed nearly 100,000 people there until Soviet forces liberated Kyiv in November 1943 – not only Jews but also Ukrainian opponents of the occupation, Poles, Roma people, the mentally ill and prisoners of war.

Before the USSR recaptured Kyiv in late 1943, the Nazis tried to hide the evidence of what had happened at Babi Yar: Soviet prisoners of war were forced to exhume and cremate the corpses there. The Nazis then killed them, trying to remove all of the last witnesses.

This 1944 file photo shows Soviet soldiers discovering corpses at Babi Yar.
This 1944 file photo shows Soviet soldiers discovering corpses at Babi Yar. AP

Commemorations ‘rare’ under USSR

There was no public recognition of the massacres at Babi Yar in the years after the Second World War. The ravine was used as an open-air rubbish dump. “The victims’ possessions would sometimes rise to the surface and people would take them for themselves,” Czerny said.

Soviet ideology refused to acknowledge the Nazis’ mass killings of Jews, because such massacres disproved the politically expedient notion that the USSR’s different nationalities and ethnic groups had suffered equally in the war against Germany.

In the early 1960s, the authorities even decided to fill the ravine with a mixture of water and mud, causing a disaster when a collapsed dike set off a landslide, killing dozens.

A monument was finally created at Babi Yar in 1976 – but it made no reference to the Holocaust, instead blandly paying homage to the “citizens of Kyiv and prisoners of war” murdered there between 1941 and 1943. Throughout the Soviet era, public commemorations at Babi Yar were “rare” and “vague about the identity of most victims”, Berkhoff noted.

But in September 1991, amid the collapse of the Soviet Union, the local Jewish community placed a sculpture of a menorah at Babi Yar to honour the memory of the Jews massacred there.

Other monuments emerged in the years that followed, paying homage to massacred children, Roma, priests and Ukrainian partisans. Many voices have called for a monument dedicated to Babi Yar’s Jewish victims over recent years – but several proposals were eventually dismissed as too controversial, notably Russian filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s idea to use video technology to allow visitors to engage in roleplay as victims or perpetrators.

Raising public awareness

Now the Ukrainian government has launched a plan to build a museum by 2026, with a model showing what the massacre site looked like and archives remembering the victims. The group of academics guiding the project is led by Father Patrick Desbois, a French priest and co-founder of Yahad-In Unum, an organisation dedicated to finding mass graves of Jewish Holocaust victims. “This is the first time that we are going to have a museum showing what the site of a mass shooting looked like, alongside efforts to create a list of all of the victims’ names there in honour of their memory,” Father Dubois told FRANCE 24.

“We should also create a list of the killers’ names, because without that it’s almost as if it was Babi Yar that massacred Jews,” Father Dubois said. “We’ve got to restore the sense that this is the site of a horrific crime.”

Hopefully such a Babi Yar museum will raise public consciousness of the Holocaust by bullets, Father Dubois continued: “At Auschwitz, there is a camp with barbed wire – and people go there and remember what took place. But people don’t do the same at mass graves from mass shootings.”

That indignation at forgotten suffering also animated the renowned Soviet writer Vasily Grossman, most famous in the Anglophone world for his novel Life and Fate. A Jew from Ukraine, Grossman was reporting on the war for the Soviet defence ministry’s newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (“Red Star”) when he learned of the massacres in his native region in the autumn of 1943.

In despair because he had no news from his mother, Grossman wrote in an article: “There are no Jews in Ukraine. […] In the big cities, in the hundreds of small towns, in the thousands of villages, you won’t see young girls’ black eyes filled with tears, you won’t hear an old woman’s voice racked with suffering, you won’t see a hungry baby’s dirty face. Everything is silent. Everything is peaceful. A whole people have been massacred.”

These human beings must be remembered.

This article has been adapted from the original in French.

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