Babi Yar

views updated

Babi Yar

A ravine on the western outskirts of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, Babi Yar was the site on September 29 and 30, 1941, of the single largest Nazi shooting of Jews in the occupied Soviet Union. The massacre at Babi Yar (in Ukrainian, Babyn Yar) also stands out as a vivid example of the German military's involvement in the Holocaust. German forces entered Kiev on September 19, 1941. Five days later mines laid by the retreating Soviet authorities started to explode and set off a fire that demolished much of the city's center. SS and police officials together with officers of the Sixth Army found this an acceptable rationale for taking vengeance on Kiev's Jews, whom they had already started persecuting. Some time between September 25 and 27 they decided to murder all the Jews. On Sunday, September 28, the newly installed Ukrainian auxiliary police posted an order in Russian, Ukrainian, and German addressed to the Jews of Kiev and the surrounding area. It ordered them to appear early the next morning at a specific intersection and to bring along their identity papers, money, valuables, and warm clothing. No reason was provided. "Yids" who disobeyed would be shot, the poster added.

Many thousands of Jews, most of them expecting to be deported, arrived at the intersection of Melnyk Street (today Melnykov Street) and Dehtiarivska Street, where at that time a freight train station stood nearby. They were directed to the entrance to the Jewish cemetery; there across Melnyk Street, Germans and Ukrainians controlled a checkpoint. After entering it, Jews had to surrender their documents and possessions and pass a gauntlet of Germans with dogs. Ukrainian police then forced them to take off their clothes, and drove them into Babi Yar, where Germans shot them with rifles or machine guns. The killers were members of Sonderkommando 4a, a subunit of Security Police Task Force C (one of the four Einsatzgruppen). Reserve Police Battalion 45 and Police Battalion 303 assisted them in the massacre. All morning and afternoon Jewish men, women, and children, as well as non-Jewish husbands and wives, and others who wished to remain with them, arrived at the site. The massacre resumed the next day when more Jews arrived at Babi Yar. Thus, the ravine became a huge mass grave. According to the records of the Security Police, they shot 33,771 Jews in two days. Historians have generally considered this statistic reliable or at the very least close to reality.

Many Jews were shot at Babi Yar after September 1941, although wartime records that have been preserved do not mention figures for those later shootings. For instance, some three thousand Jewish Red Army prisoners of war (POWs) were executed at the site late in September and early in October 1941. Non-Jews, in particular non-Jewish POWs and Roma, were also killed at Babi Yar. In February 1942 Kiev's mayor and some members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists were killed; if perhaps these crimes did not physically occur at Babi Yar, the Nazis still dumped the corpses there. Later the Nazis also used vehicles fitted with gas vents to murder other victims at the site. From August 1943, in a cover-up operation supervised by Sonderkommando 4a's former commander Paul Blobel (who was executed in 1951), Jewish inmates from a nearby camp had to dig up and incinerate all of the corpses at Babi Yar. Four survivors have estimated that over 100,000 corpses were burned, and this became the official Soviet (and now Ukrainian) figure for the total number of victims of Babi Yar from 1941 to 1943.

During the war the Soviet media reported the massacre of Kiev's Jews, and in March Soviet Ukrainian authorities decided to erect a monument at the site. But the design for the latter never evolved beyond the planning stage, and it soon became impossible to properly commemorate Babi Yar, for the increasingly anti-Semitic Communist Party prohibited any commemoration of the Holocaust. Nearby brick factories started pumping refuse into the ravine and officials made plans for a stadium and park. In 1959, in a sign that First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev wished to relax Soviet restrictions, Literaturnaya gazeta, a prominent Moscow weekly, published a letter from the Kiev writer Viktor Nekrasov that demanded a memorial to the victims of the Babi Yar massacre. On March 13, 1961, the factory refuse broke loose, wreaking havoc on Kiev's nearby Kurenivka district and killing an unknown number of people. In September 1961 Literaturnaya gazeta created another sensation by publishing a pro-Jewish poem, "Babi Yar," by the Russian writer Yevgeni Yevtushenko. (Later, after intense pressure, he added a patriotic sentence about Russia.) The composer Dmitri Shostakovich set the story to music as part of his Thirteenth Symphony, which premiered in 1962.

In the mid-1960s there were two official design competitions for a memorial, but neither led to any changes on the grounds. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the massacre a spontaneous commemoration occurred that included the remarks of Ukrainian writer Ivan Dziuba, who courageously condemned anti-Semitism. After that, as before 1966, commemorations were suppressed. In 1966 a Moscow monthly published installments of Anatoli Kuznetsov's novel Babi Yar, and one year later it was officially published as a book. This work, actually the author's memoirs, also included an account of the massacre by Dina Pronicheva, one of the handful of survivors. The Communist Party began to harass Kuznetsov, who escaped to the United Kingdom and published there a more complete version of Babi Yar, which included cases of wartime anti-Semitism.

The political climate of the 1970s resulted in some of the worst distortions of the massacre at Babi Yar. On March 12, 1970, Pravda, the official Soviet newspaper, carried a statement signed by fifty-one Jews from Ukraine that included this passage: "The tragedy of Babi Yar will forever remain the embodiment not only of the Hitlerites' cannibalism, but also of the indelible disgrace of their accomplices and followers: the Zionists" (p. 4). Although in 1976 a large, bronze sculpture commemorating the citizens and POWs shot there between 1941 and 1943 did finally appear at Babi Yar, in artificially sculpted terrain, it made no mention of Jews. Likewise, a 1981 Soviet television documentary about Babi Yar conveyed a message of anti-Zionism.

In September 1991, one month after the declaration of an independent Ukraine, the first state-sponsored commemoration of the Babi Yar massacre took place. Additional text was added to the Soviet monument, and at another location (far from the shooting site), local Jews placed a bronze menorah. Other new commemorative objects in or near the area include a wooden cross erected by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists in 1991; another cross erected in 2000 to honor two Russian Orthodox priests believed to have been shot at Babi Yar in November 1941; and a memorial built in 2001 devoted to the children of Babi Yar. The first stone for a Babi Yar museum was laid in 2001. In 2002 an emotional debate took place in Kiev, primarily among Jews, about the possibility that the museum and community center would rise atop human remains.

In the wider world an awareness of Babi Yar has evolved from sources as diverse as Leon Uris's bestselling novel Exodus (1958), which briefly mentions Babi Yar; war crimes trials in Nuremberg and elsewhere; Babi Yar Park in Denver (open since 1970); translations of Yevtushenko's and Kuznetsov's work; the TV mini-series Holocaust (1978), which included a scene of the massacre; and visits to the monument by former U.S. president George Bush (1991) and Pope John Paul II (2001).

SEE ALSO Anti-Semitism; Einsatzgruppen; Holocaust; Massacres; Mass Graves; Memorials and Monuments; Ukraine (Famine); Union of Soviet Socialist Republics


Anatoli (Kuznetsov), A. (1970). Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel. Trans. David Floyd. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Barenboym, I. Yu., et al. (1970). "'Obuzdat' Agressorov, Presech' Zlodeyania Sionistov." Pravda (March 12):4.

Berkhoff, Karel C. (2004). Harvest of Despair: Life and Death in Ukraine under Nazi Rule. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press.

Sheldon, Richard (1988). "The Transformations of Babi Yar." Soviet Society and Culture: Essays in Honor of VeraS. Dunham, ed. Terry L. Thompson and Richard Sheldon. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Karel C. Berkhoff