KIEV - By the time they were close enough to hear gunshots there was no time to turn back. SS soldiers split them into small groups, took away their belongings and pushed them towards the edge of a ravine that would become their mass grave - Babi Yar.
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The mass shootings, mainly by automatic gunfire, on the edge of the Ukrainian capital Kiev amounted to one of the biggest single massacres of the Holocaust. A total of 33,771 Jewish men, women and children were killed in a single operation.
It was a precursor of country-wide Nazi ethnic purges and, in the words of researchers, became a grim "model" for modern-day mass killings.
Fewer than 30 people are known to have survived the Babi Yar massacre that took place Sept. 29-30, 1941, after German forces rolled into Kiev.
Only a handful are still alive.
Raisa Maistrenko had turned three just a few weeks before the Nazis passed leaflets around the city ordering "all Yids of Kiev" to show up at a street crossing near Babi Yar with documents, money and valuables as well as warm clothes.
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Tricked into thinking they would simply be resettled, tens of thousands of Kiev's Jews complied.
"Not going was not an option, a failure to show up was punishable by death," says Maistrenko, a lively 73-year-old pensioner who now runs a dancing school for children, recounting what she had learned from her grandparents years after the war.
"(Apartment block) janitors were required to report all Jews, otherwise they faced death themselves."
Her grandmother -- who was not Jewish -- decided to see off Raisa, her Jewish mother and in-laws as they joined the stream of people heading towards Babi Yar -- towards what they thought was a train journey to a resettlement camp.Rabbis of Kiev among those massacred
Though she was only a toddler at the time, Raisa says she recalls one particular image.
"I saw old men in their underwear being escorted down the road, beaten up and bloodied. A woman ran up to one of them and hugged him and everyone started telling her off because she could anger the guards," Maistrenko said.
"My grandmother appealed to the crowd, saying 'This might be the last time they see each other'... As I learned later, those old men were the rabbis of Kiev."
Shortly after, Maistrenko's family reached a checkpoint where Nazi soldiers and Ukrainian collaborators stripped people of their belongings and then separated men from women.
"We could hear machine gun shots from where we were, it was terrible, people were screaming. My grandmother was waving her passport and shouting 'She is Russian!'," referring to her tiny grand-daughter, Maistrenko said.
"A polizei (Soviet name for collaborators) approached us, and swung the
stock of his gun to smash my head but my grandmother covered me with her
The blow knocked the woman to the ground but then a
German soldier grabbed her and pushed her towards the crowd prompting
her to scream in terror "I'm Russian!". People around her stepped aside
and she saw an opening where she ran.
"A girl aged 11 or 12
followed us," Maistrenko said. "We were being shot at but the guards
chose not to follow us, presumably because they were afraid that others
The three hid in the bushes at a nearby cemetery
and returned to the city under the cover of darkness. "I remember
grandmother saying 'Quiet, quiet' as she hugged us," Maistrenko said.Babi Yar a 'prototype' of contemporary genocide
Babi Yar massacre marked the start of Ukraine's Holocaust in which a
pre-war Jewish population of about 1.5 million was virtually wiped out
to fulfill Adolf Hitler's ambition of a Jew-free Europe. Gypsies,
Russians and Ukrainians were later executed in the ravine as well.
Similar mass killings took place across Ukraine, Belarus and other neighboring countries such as Romania.
happened here (in Ukraine) served as a prototype of contemporary
genocide," said Patrick Desbois, a Catholic priest who visited Ukraine
this month with a grim exhibition called 'Holocaust by Bullets'.
are no (Auschwitz-style) camps. Here, it is mobile killers, not the
victims, who moved -- and rapidly," he told Reuters in an interview.
fact, the executioners often left before all of their victims had died.
According to Desbois, who has gathered testimony from about 2,000
non-Jewish witnesses in Ukraine, many saw signs of people being buried,
badly wounded but still alive, in mass graves.
gestures moving their hands (up and) down rhythmically," he said. "The
ground 'moved for three days' from people dying or bleeding under the
When German forces retreated from Kiev before the Red
Army advance at the end of the war, the Nazis tried to conceal the Babi
Yar executions, forcing prisoners to exhume the corpses, burn them and
scatter the ashes.Babi Yar massacre was 'taboo' subject in Soviet Union
after 1945, though the number of Jews killed emerged quickly from Nazi
records, the full details of the Babi Yar story remained untold for at
least two decades.
The Soviet Union never stressed the ethnic
nature of the killings, referring to their victims as "Soviet
civilians". A curtain of Soviet silence fell across the region's
"It was a taboo subject in the Soviet Union," says Desbois.
of the reasons was the collaboration of the local population. When Nazi
death squads found the psychological pressure of systematic killing
difficult to handle, they would instruct Ukrainian guards to take over.
talks about the fact that Ukrainians took part in the killings, just
like the French, Poles and Belarussians," said Ukrainian parliament
deputy Oleksander Feldman.
"But Ukrainians, the French, Poles and Belarussians also saved (Jewish) people."
first monument to "Soviet citizens and soldiers" was erected at Babi
Yar only in 1976, 15 years after prominent Soviet poet Yevgeny
Yevtushenko devoted a poem to it which began with the line "There are no
monuments at Babi Yar".
The first Jewish monument was erected at the site only after the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.
ravine no longer exists and the area is now covered by several
apartment blocks and a park, where almost a dozen small monuments have
been erected in different spots in the past 20 years.
small and talkative woman who walks with a dancer's grace, is cheerless
as she approaches a menorah-shaped monument, regretting that the full
depth of the tragedy has yet to be marked.
She points to birch
trees planted by Jewish activists 20 years ago and said there were
supposed to be nameplates next to each tree devoted to Ukrainians who
had saved Jews.
"Unfortunately, this has never been done," she says.
are signs attitudes are changing, however. A group of Ukrainian Jewish
organizations have announced plans to build a memorial museum in the
park, with the first stone to be symbolically laid early next month.
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