An endless, teeming mass, so densely packed that from a distance, it looked almost like a colony of ants. Most were elderly, sick, women and small children.
Those who could had fled or hidden.
The sick were carted, like trash, in wheelbarrows. They blurred together in their common misery.
From all over the city, they funneled onto dirt roads at the end of their journey, on foot, as they were prohibited from traveling in trams, or cars, even on bicycles. In that peculiar manner we all assume, when heading toward a destination, they were keen to arrive, even though they had no idea what awaited them.
As they neared the ravine, the forest on the edge of town, with steep, earthen cliffs, the press of bodies, the exhausted cries, terrified screams, palpable fear, a current tearing through every person, ferociously.
SS and Ukrainian police pressed them together, tightly. Panic.
Anguish. Commotion. Crying children.
Compassion was irrelevant, as the incomprehensible happened.
Wave after wave of Jews was herded through a savage gauntlet of bayonets and dogs and hateful jeers, ordered to undress, stand where thousands had already stood, naked, cold, disbelieving, dirty, waiting to be shot.
And as they were shot, mowed down in rows, their bodies fell onto the messy stacks of the dead and dying, tangled limbs, bodily slime, fluids, blood, everywhere. The lucky were killed instantly. Some lay there, wounded, eventually succumbing to wounds, suffocation.
Of the 33,771 Kiev Jews herded to the Babi Yar ravine on September 29-30, 1941, 29 are known to have survived the single largest massacre of World War II.
On September 28, 1941, mere days after occupying Kiev, the Nazis posted orders all over town, ordering Jews to report the following day, on Yom Kippur, to Babi Yar, a ravine on the outskirts of town. They were to bring with them clothing, linens, valuables. As a final indignity, the Germans snatched their most precious possessions, snuffing out lives and any evidence that they ever existed.
All the Yids of the city of Kiev and its vicinity must appear on Monday, September 29, 1941, by 8 a.m. at the corner of Melnikova and Dokhterivskaya streets (next to the cemetery). Bring documents, money and valuables, and also warm clothing, bed linen etc. Any Yids who do not follow this order and are found elsewhere will be shot. Any civilians who enter the dwellings left by Yids and appropriate the things in them will be shot.
As a young girl, the novel and story of Babi Yar consumed me. I tried to understand what made people assemble as ordered, what gave them any hope they might live, what those last moments were like, when they realized there was no way out, no way back. As they neared the end, and the near constant staccato thunderclaps became clearer, and they recognized the sounds as gunfire.
They heard screams. And then, they faced Hell. The naked waiting, the naked being shot, the unceasing screams, the silence, the distant thuds of bodies crashing into and on top of one another.
The SS and Ukrainian killers, many blind drunk, hurling vicious insults, humiliating the condemned, indulging in unthinkable sadism.
It was all so hard on the murderers, the SS and their local accomplices.
Scenes like this played out thousands of times all over Poland and the eastern Soviet Union in the early war years. In addition to the psychological toll, such methods were also very expensive, when one calculated, as the Germans did, the cost of a bullet per person. And messy. So very, very messy.
And so, a small and trusted cadre of the senior Nazis gathered at Wannsee, a bucolic suburb of Berlin. In a grand, lakeside mansion, they conferred on January 20, 1942, to sort out the most efficient way to murder the remaining millions of Jews in Europe, and beyond. All this shooting and direct human contact was taking a toll on the fine Germans and their local henchmen. A better solution had to be found.
And it was, and came to be known as, the Final Solution.
According to the written records that remain, that day in Wannsee was long and productive, punctuated by the finest meals and wines served to the hardworking Nazi officers.
That day, it was decided that Jews would be transported to centralized murder factories. The rest, we know.
I write this on Holocaust Remembrance Day, in Berlin, seat of the Third Reich, a stone’s throw from Wannsee. And I remember.
In two days, 33,771 Jews in Kiev were murdered, in broad daylight, through the night, in a ravine on the edge of town.
On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, and every day, we pause to remember their eternal suffering, sacrifice and preserve their dignity.
In a weekend, they were erased. No names. Nothing.
Two years ago, I visited this mass grave, on a lovely spring day. It is easy to miss the small memorial, erected in 1991. And I wondered, how many of those out hiking, picnicking, riding bicycles, in this urban idyll, know that they play in a mass killing field? No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old As the entire Jewish race itself.
Yevgeni Yevtushenko, Soviet Jewish poet, opening stanza of poem, “Babi Yar.”Vivian Bercovici is the former ambassador of Canada to Israel. She resides in Tel Aviv.