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Babi Yar


BABI YAR , ravine on the outskirts of *Kiev which has come to symbolize the murder of Jews by the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units) in the German-occupied Soviet Union and the persistent failure to acknowledge Jewish memory.

On September 19, 1941, the advancing German army captured Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine. Within a week, a number of buildings occupied by German military and civilian authorities were blown up by the nkvd, the Soviet secret police. In retaliation, the Germans proceeded to kill all the Jews of Kiev. An order was posted throughout the city in both Russian and Ukrainian:

Kikes of the city of Kiev and vicinity! On Monday, September 29, you are to appear by 7:00 a.m. with your possessions, money, documents, valuables and warm clothing at Dorogozhitshaya Street, next to the Jewish cemetery. Failure to appear is punishable by death.

From the cemetery, the Jews were marched to Babi Yar, a ravine only two miles from the center of the city. A truck driver at the scene described what he saw:

I watched what happened when the Jews – men, women and children – arrived. The Ukrainians led them past a number of different places where one after another they had to remove their luggage, then their coats, shoes, and overgarments and also underwear. They had to leave their valuables in a designated place. There was a special pile for each article of clothing. It all happened very quickly … I don't think it was even a minute from the time each Jew took off his coat before he was standing there completely naked….

Once undressed, the Jews were led into the ravine which was about 150 meters long and 30 meters wide and a good 15 meters deep…When they reached the bottom of the ravine they were seized by members of the Schultpolizei and made to lie down on top of Jews who had already been shot. That all happened very quickly. The corpses were literally in layers. A police marksman came along and shot each Jew in the neck with a submachine gun … I saw these marksman stand on layers of corpses and shoot one after the other … The marksman would walk across the bodies of the executed Jews to the next Jew who had meanwhile lain down and shoot him.

In the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement, 33,771 Jews were murdered at Babi Yar. In the following months, Babi Yar remained in use as an execution site for "gypsies" (Roma and Sinta) and Soviet prisoners of war. Soviet accounts after the war speak of 100,000 dead. Research does not substantiate such a number. The true number may never be known.

In August 1943, in the face of the Red Army advance against German troops, the mass graves of Babi Yar were dug up and the bodies burned in an attempt to remove the evidence of mass murder. Paul Blobel, the commander of Sonderkommando 4a, whose troops had slaughtered the Jews of Kiev, returned to Babi Yar. For more then a month, his men and workers conscripted from the ranks of concentration camp inmates dug up the bodies. Bulldozers were required to reopen the mounds. Massive bone-crushing machinery was brought to the scene. The bodies were piled on wooden logs, doused with gas, and ignited.

When the work was done, the workers from the concentration camp were killed. Under cover of darkness on September 29, 1943, 25 of them escaped. Fifteen survived to tell what they had seen.

Despite efforts to suppress the memory of Babi Yar, after the war the Soviet public at large learned of the murders through newspaper accounts, official reports, and belles lettres. In 1947 I. Ehrenburg in his novel Burya ("The Storm") described dramatically the mass killing of the Jews of Kiev in Babi Yar. Preparations were made for a monument at Babi Yaras a memorial to the victims of Nazi genocide. The architect A.V. Vlasov had designed a memorial and the artist B. Ovchinnikov had produced the necessary sketches.

But since the Soviet antisemitic campaign of 1948–49, an effort was made to eliminate all references to Babi Yar. This policy had as an objective the removal from Jewish consciousness of those historical elements that might sustain it. Even after the death of Stalin, Babi Yar remained lost in the "memory hole" of history. Intellectuals, however, refused to be silent. On Oct. 10, 1959, the novelist Viktor Nekrasov cried out in the pages of Literaturnaya Gazeta for a memorial at Babi Yar, and against the official intention to transform the ravine into a sports stadium. Far more impressive was the poem Babi Yar written by Yevgeni *Yevtushenko published in the same journal on Sept. 19, 1961.

No gravestone stands on Babi Yar;
Only coarse earth heaped roughly on the gash:
Such dread comes over me.

With its open attack upon antisemitism and its implied denunciation of those who rejected Jewish martyrdom, the poem exerted a profound impact on Soviet youth as well as upon world public opinion. Dmitri Shostakovich set the lines to music in his 13th Symphony, performed for the first time in December 1962.

Russian ultranationalism struck back almost immediately. Yevtushenko was sharply criticized by a number of literary apologists of the regime and then publicly denounced by Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Pravda on March 8, 1963. The theme of a specific Jewish martyrdom was condemned. But Babi Yar would not remain suppressed. It again surfaced during the summer of 1966 in a documentary novel written by Anatoly Kuznetsov published in Yunost (Eng. tr. 1967). Earlier that year the Ukrainian Architects Club in Kiev held a public exhibit of more than 200 projects and some 30 large-scale detailed plans for a memorial to Babi Yar. None of the inscriptions in the proposed plans mentioned Jewish martyrdom. Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union did the new Ukrainian government acknowledge the specific Jewish nature of the site and an appropriate rededication was held.

By the 2000s plans were underway for the creation of a Jewish Community Center and an appropriate Jewish memorial on the site. No stranger to controversy, the new use of the site has been challenged by some as being too close to the massacre site and being built therefore on sacred soil.


Y. Yevtushenko, A Precocious Autobiography (London, 1963); W. Korey, in: New Republic (Jan. 8, 1962); idem, in: Saturday Review (Feb. 3, 1968); S.M. Schwarz, Yevrei v Sovetskom Soyuze 19391965 (1966), 359–71. add. bibliography: E. Klee, W. Dressen, and V. Riess, The Good Old Days: The Holocaust As Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders (1988); I. Ehrenburg and V. Grossman, The Black Book (1981).

[William Korey /

Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]

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