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Babi Yar, a name that evokes vague memories of history lessons or TV documentaries. Something happened there. Something bad.
A quick refresher, sparing you the way to Wikipedia: Babi Yar was a ravine near Kiev where, on two days in September 1941, the German occupying forces killed almost all Jews and Roma from the Ukrainian capital. The Holocaust took place not only in concentration camps and gas chambers. About a third of the victims were killed in mass executions. These occurred throughout Eastern Europe, but Babi Yar bears the sad record as the site of the worst massacre.
One expects such a place to be somewhat secluded, like the forest of Paneriai near Vilnius. Or like Buchenwald, keeping a few kilometers distance of decency from Weimar, so that those who are not (yet) being murdered can go about their daily business, undisturbed by screams and shots.
To Babi Yar, on the other hand, you can take the subway. Two stops from the city center. Granted, the subway did not exist in 1941, and Kiev was not as big as it is now. Babi Yar was actually on the outskirts of the city, beyond the cemeteries, but it wasn’t that far away either, out of sight or hearing. The standard excuse “We didn’t know about anything” doesn’t work here. One of the observers was a 12-year-old boy who lived in the immediate neighborhood and took notes in his writing pad. The memories never let go of Anatoli Kuznetsov, and in 1966 he published the autobiographical novel “Babi Yar – A Document in the Form of a Novel”.
So now you get off at the subway station Dorohozhychi and find yourself in a residential area. Traffic roars along the wide streets. Bakers are selling sweets. People are huddling in bus stops, hiding from the rain.
The second expectation was a memorial. With plenty of visitors, tourists, students, school groups. A museum, multilingual and multimedia, which reports and explains everything about the massacre. If there is such a place, there is no sign pointing to it.
Instead, there is a park, a rather large one in fact. I have come here in winter, it rains, snows and freezes. But on sunny days, people probably use this park to go jogging, to picnic, to flirt and to kiss.
The first memorial, the one for the executed children, is quite evocative. A clever idea by the artist not to depict the murder of children too vividly, but to symbolize it by the life-size but dead-looking Punch puppet.
Right next to the children’s memorial, a dog school is using the park for its training. The commands “Sitz!” and “Platz!” are echoing as if they were still meant for German police dogs. Dogs always frighten me, so I walk on quickly, down the ever darkening path.
The prairie wagon, I guess, is a clichéd symbol of the Roma who were shot in Babi Yar one week before the Jews. The Nazis were able to carry out this genocide, the Porajmos, quite openly, without anyone else having a bad premonition. “It’s only the gypsies,” people thought, as many people still think today.
And then I find, well, not a museum, but at least some information boards along one of the wider paths, conveying the most important facts in Ukrainian and in English. It has started to drizzle, but I know you are waiting for information, so I am braving the cold and the rain.
Thus, I learn not only about the German occupation and the massacre on 29 and 30 September 1941, in which 33,771 people were shot within 36 hours. We know this so exactly because meticulous records were kept. When people say “You Germans are so organized”, I always have to think of this. Sorry that I can’t take it as a compliment. In the years that followed, however, even the Germans became a bit sloppy, and it is unclear whether a total of 65,000, 130,000 or 200,000 people were killed in Babi Yar.
Despite its proximity to the Ukrainian capital, the ravine of Babi Yar was chosen for topographical reasons. Because for the large number of victims, not enough mass graves could have been excavated elsewhere.
The photographs taken by the German military photographer Johannes Hähle do not show the actual shootings, but the levelling of the terrain by Soviet prisoners of war. Hähle did not deliver this roll of film to his unit, and therefore we have photographic evidence to make it at least a little bit harder for Holocaust deniers.
And there was one survivor: Dina Pronicheva was an actress and dropped into the pit right before the shots were fired. As the German soldiers walked through the rows of victims at the bottom of the ravine to shoot those still alive, she posed dead. In the night, she was able to climb out of the pit and escape.
And that is why we have an eye-witness account.
Walking through the park today, there are only a few spots where you can still see traces of the once deep ravines, giving an idea of how rugged the terrain once looked.
After the massacre, the Wehrmacht blew up the edges of the ravine to bury the piles of corpses. After the World War, rubble from the destroyed houses was disposed of here and in 1961 the dam of a waste dump broke so that the rest of the sandy ravines were flooded by a mudslide. If you put the historical map over the current city map, you begin to get an impression of how much the area has changed.
Not only out of curiosity for more information, but also to get away from the icy cold, I wander through the extensive park to finally find the museum.
Under trees, at hidden corners or along the busy road, I discover small monuments, like this one for the 3 million Ukrainian forced laborers who were deported to Germany,
or this one for Tatiana Markus, a resistance fighter who carried out acts of sabotage and arranged romantic meetings with German soldiers, only to shoot or stab them. When Tatiana was captured and killed in Babi Yar, she was only 21 years old. (I mention this in order to encourage young people to consider career paths that are a bit out of the mainstream.)
It seems as if each group of victims had once looked for a free spot to put up their column. Somewhere, there should even be a memorial to the murdered soccer players of Dynamo Kiev, but I can’t find it.
Yet for quite a long time during the Soviet era, there was no monument at all. Instead, the television tower and new residential areas were built in the area.
No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone,
the Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote in 1961, not only recalling the Nazi massacres, but also calling on the Soviet Union to remember what was largely kept silent about. Dimitri Shostakovich turned the poem into his 13th symphony.
Remembrance marches were repeatedly organized by civil society, but the official memorial was not inaugurated until 1976. Large, massive, Soviet-style, it stands on a stepped ramp and towers above the moat that is probably a symbol for the former ravine.
In order to illustrate the size of the monument, two teenagers have kindly agreed to meet there tonight. If you live in one of the apartment blocks nearby, this is probably a regular meeting place. Or they are history students, taking their discussion to the object of their studies.
Incidentally, the memorial was dedicated to the “more than 100,000 Soviet citizens of the city of Kiev and the soldiers and officers of the Red Army taken prisoner of war”. The fact that most of the “Soviet citizens” were Jews and were murdered precisely for this reason was not mentioned.
But in 1991 Ukraine became independent and the inscription could be changed. It now reads: “In the years 1941-1943, over 100,000 Kiev city residents and prisoners of war were shot at this place by German fascist invaders.” Oops, the Jews got forgotten again. And, of course, no mention of the Ukrainian collaborators.
Well, the collaboration. A sensitive topic in Ukraine, the mention of which alone will lead to protest notes from Kiev and even more so from Kyiv. But I have to address it, because, somewhat bashfully hidden behind the bushes, I discover a wooden cross for the members of the OUN, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, shot by the Germans in Babi Yar.
They fought for the independence of Ukraine and thus against the Soviet Union. Like so many ethnic groups in Eastern Europe, they therefore had no objection against Nazi Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union, joining the Wehrmacht in battalions and the SS in divisions. Some grudgingly accepted the fact that they were not only fighting against the Red Army, but also committing genocide against Jews and Roma, others found it a good idea anyway, because in their eyes these ethnic groups were “not real Ukrainians”, and yet others were ambivalent, which is why the OUN soon split again and fought against each other and against everybody else. It was quite a mess or a hullabaloo, as they say in Ukrainian.
Most historians classify the OUN as racist, anti-Semitic and/or fascist. And now it becomes especially delicate: In the mass shootings in Babi Yar in September 1941, in which almost the entire Jewish population of Kiev was killed, OUN units took part as well, with about 1200 Ukrainians as accomplices. The OUN members for whom the wooden cross was erected were not shot by the Germans until 1942, when they turned against the German occupation.
As the surviving Ukrainian Jews saw who is being commemorated here, they finally ran out of patience. It was obvious that no one wanted to remember them, but they were mercilessly crushed in the Soviet-Russian-Ukrainian dispute over how to interpret history. And so they too built their own memorial in 1991.
From here, a path lined with Jewish gravestones leads to a building that from afar gives hope that it is the museum I’ve been looking for. That hope, however, dies quietly in the falling snow with every step taken in its direction. It is the right building, but not yet the right time.
Babi Yar, as it presents itself today, leaves the visitor somewhat baffled. At least those who do not already know about the German occupation and extermination policy in Eastern Europe as well as the Soviet remembrance policy will leave this place with many questions. Answering them would be too much for this short article, and perhaps it will give you a better picture of the park in Babi Yar if a few question marks remain. In a few years, when you come to Kiev yourself or send me there again as your correspondent, the memorial will finally be finished. Perhaps.
My walk leads me back to the most moving monument, the one for the children. Passers-by have laid down a pacifier, a children’s glove and a cloth ball. A small gesture, but more thoughtful than always flowers and candles and stones.
Back at the subway station Dorohozhychi, I see a sign at Big Burger, a small fast food place: “Volunteer Center for the period of the events of memory in the Babi Yar”. Well, at least there is a recreation room for volunteers of the memorial work, albeit in a surprising and somewhat unsuitable accommodation. Most curious, I step inside.
The “volunteer center” consists of four metal tables with shaky chairs. A television is bawling much too loud. Next to the counter is a cupboard with a few books in Hebrew. Where kebab shops all over the world usually display photos of Istanbul, there are small black and white photographs. They are the well-known and disturbing photos in connection with the mass shootings.
“Enjoy your food!” the friendly lady says and hands me a kebab dürüm.
When you are at the end of your visit and of your nerves in Babi Yar, you take the subway just one stop further, to Syrets.
This is the name of the former concentration camp, of which there is almost nothing left to see. The whole quarter was built over. Only at the entrance to the park with the children’s train a small monument reminds us: “During the German fascist occupation, tens of thousands of Soviet patriots were murdered behind the bars of Syrets concentration camp.” Nobody stops to read the inscription, except me.
It is sad how quickly everything is forgotten. Yet if you walk through Europe with open eyes, you will find former concentration camps, labor camps, ghettos, places of execution, prisoner-of-war camps, killing grounds, memorial plaques and stumbling blocks almost everywhere.
I go back to the subway station with the name that meant nothing to me until yesterday, either, and on the way back I read more about the Babi Yar massacre.
As it was foreseeable that the execution would take many hours, the organizers had kitchen trucks provide hot meals and drinks, including liquor, for 400 men.
And I almost throw up the kebab.
- More articles about the Holocaust and about World War II.
- More reports from Ukraine.
I am curious to know what you knew about Babi Yar before. Although I mentioned the school lessons at the beginning, I am almost sure that I didn’t learn anything about the “Holocaust by bullets” at that time. But filling in gaps of knowledge is what this blog is all about. If you are interested, I will take a look at my notes from Auschwitz, but this will become a somewhat longer article. And of course I am always grateful for support for this work.
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Very sad. I usually enjoy the humor in your posts, but this one, appropriately, had very little of it.
I knew most of the info re Babi Yar (e.g. the fact that both the Soviets and the Ukrainians described it while eliding the fact that the victims were Jews and murdered because of that, not because they were Soviets or Ukrainians), but I had never heard of Syrets.
The only person who manages to write about the Shoah with some humor is Jurek Becker in “Jacob the Liar”. And Balys Sruoga in “Forest of the Gods”.
There is now a project to establish a database with information about the victims of Babi Yar, but in Ukraine, this is clearly not a priority. In Ukrainian historiography, the Holodomor now rules as the defining event. There is also still quite a lot of sympathy for the OUN, it seemed to me.
1. There’s a book whose name I can’t remember right now about a former Nazi who becomes a police officer after WWII and is tormented in his mind by a Jewish comedian who he murdered. Pretty funny and irreverent. But I can’t recall the name.
2. It’s pretty well known that many or even most Jews viewed Germany as much less anti-Semitic than Poland or Ukraine, at least until 1933 (and for some even after that – they couldn’t accept that things had changed).
American history classes, at least high school, I’ve never been to college, barely mentions the holocaust. Or I should say, the camps are mentioned, but no details about anything except the experiments, the pictures of the piles of glasses or shoes and the “Brave Americans who liberated the camps”. No mention was made of our own camps for Japanese Americans.
This was in the 80s, before the wall came down, and before the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Thank you, as always! I appreciate the information! I’ve always been interested in history.
Of course, it should be noted that not all camps were identical. So obviously there is what to compare and much more to contrast between those in the USA and those set up by Germany. And it should be well known, though it might not be, that even among the camps that Germany set up there were big differences. For instance, the well-known writer PG Wodehouse was interned in various camps, but the conditions there were night and day compared to what was going on in places like Auschwitz, Buchenwald, etc.
Indeed there was a wide range of concentration camps, labor camps, POW camps and other camps. A labor camp could also be a death camp, though, just with labor as the method of killing. Other camps changed their purpose over the years.
The few people that experienced somewhat acceptable conditions were high-class prisoners (like the Bavarian royal family, see chapters 179-180 of my King Ludwig saga: https://andreasmoser.blog/2020/10/31/klt-day-9-neuschwanstein/ ) and Western foreigners, like PG Wodehouse and British officers.
Like concentration camps, POW camps were used to enforce the racial policies of the Reich: Jews and Roma were treated most harshly. British and US prisoners were largely treated in line with the Geneva Convention. Soviet POWs, on the other hand, were not treated better than inmates of a concentration camp. More than half of them died/were killed, compared with a loss rate of a few per cent among Western POWs in German internment.
The saddest thing of all is that under the German version of this article, there are many comments by schlussstrichers (a pun by me combining German word Schlussstrich (“final stroke”) with Stricher (“hustler”)) and more or less openly nationalists (at least) men who want to accept the cherries of our heritage while refusing the mortgage.
Those comments are shocking indeed.
And judging by the people’s Facebook profiles, they don’t come from veterans of the Wehrmacht who feel their professional pride insulted, but by people much younger.
These are not the people typically reading my blog, but I posted the German version of this article in a Facebook group about history. Ohh, that led to quite some kerfuffle!
Sadly, revisionism is alive very well, even when it comes to the Holocaust.
very good blog
Hard to imagine the trauma of a 12 year old witness.
Especially as he must have seen other children among the victims. :-(
This was an excellent post. I learned about Babi Yar in high school, when I read Yevtushenko’s poetry. In college and graduate school I studied European history from the late 19th Century to the end of World War II. I have read extensively but not as much about this great tragedy. I appreciated having you take it step by step and pointing out the omissions and contradictions along the way. My heart aches that no one learns from the lessons of history.
thank you very much!
I have just been thinking about Kyiv and Babi Yar again these days, as another winter is descending on that city, bringing back memories of me stepping through the snow there.
If I get around to it, I am going to write a series “A Winter in Kyiv”, because I still have so many photos and notes and memories from the winter that I spent there in 2019/20. But then, I always end up in some rabbit hole because I want to research every last detail about the Holodomor, about the Kyiv Rus and whatnot.
As you have studied history yourself, I guess you can understand this constant desire to read and learn as much as possible while traveling. And in the end, I come back from every trip realizing the enormous gaps I have had about some geographic region or some era in time.
But at least I know a little bit from most places, even if I am not an expert in anything. :-)
I understand completely. But your insights are marvelous, so I hope you do share more!