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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.
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.