Preserving memories of the battle of Babi Yar

The number of Jews massacred in late September 1941 seems to be one of the only uncontested facts about Babi Yar. How to pay homage to them remains a battle still being fought. 

 Cadets attend a commemoration ceremony for the victims of Babyn Yar in Kyiv, Ukraine (photo credit: VALENTYN OGIRENKO/REUTERS)
Cadets attend a commemoration ceremony for the victims of Babyn Yar in Kyiv, Ukraine
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Like old photographs, memories fade over time. All the more so, when there isn’t that much to help you remember in the first place.

Four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union I visited the site of one of the worst atrocities of World War Two. The largest single mass shooting by Nazi German forces. A place that historians would later call “a turning point” in the “Holocaust by bullets” – Babi Yar.

Over two days, September 29 and 30, 1941, the Einzatsgruppen C (a Waffen SS traveling death squad) assisted by local collaborators, gunned down 33,771 Jews – most of whom were elderly, women and children – at a wooded ravine. Confirmation of these figures was sent to Berlin.

For centuries Babi Yar, also known as Babyn Yar – or “old woman’s ravine” in Ukrainian – existed as part of a beautiful range of gorges on the northwestern boundaries of Kyiv, the capital of Soviet Ukraine. They served as natural defense positions against invaders. But in the 1940s they provided a perfect out-of-the way firing range.

According to various estimates, during the German occupation of Kyiv, the Nazis executed between 100 000 and 200 000 people in these ravines. Although the majority of them were Jewish, patients from a local psychiatric hospital, Soviet prisoners of war (POWs), Ukrainians, Russians, Poles and Roma also met their fate here.

 People participate in the March of Remembrance to commemorate the victims of Babyn Yar in Kyiv (credit: Anastasia Vlasova/Reuters) People participate in the March of Remembrance to commemorate the victims of Babyn Yar in Kyiv (credit: Anastasia Vlasova/Reuters)

Fast track 54 years and I am standing at the edge of this assembly line of death. Just outside the capital, it took a while to reach. Discouraged by two local guides who said it was too far away, I eventually found a taxi driver who smiled as he nodded at the car meter. Nearby, there are only three other people huddled together. No-one is speaking and it’s eerily quiet. In the surrounding forest I can just about make out depressions in the ground where the ravine must have been. Aloud, I read the hauntingly beautiful prayer, “Eli, Eli: Oh Lord My God” written by Hungarian poet Hannah Szenesh, who was also killed by the Nazis. Through the oppressive air my voice echoes and the paper flutters from my hand, slowly drifting away.

On September 19, 1941, about three months after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Nazi troops marched into Kyiv. A few days later, resistance fighters blew up several buildings in the city center where the occupiers had taken up residence. The Nazis used this as a pretext to launch a massacre and distributed leaflets throughout the city of over a million inhabitants, calling on Jews to appear at an intersection on the outskirts at 8:00 am ten days later. They were to bring money and warm clothing. Anyone who refused to come would be shot. 

When the day came, the gathered Jews were ordered to take off their clothes. They were then forced to the edge of the ravine and shot. Loud music and a plane circling overhead failed to completely drown out their screams and the cracks of gunfire. The operation was led by SS officer Paul Blobel who was also involved in other similar mass murders across Ukraine and who would later argue at one of the Nuremberg trials that he was simply following orders. He was convicted and hanged in 1951.

Miraculously, 29 people are known to have survived the two days orgy of shooting. Most of them had fallen into the ravine before they were shot in the back and were later able to climb out from among the thousands of corpses. Entire families were killed. The youngest was a baby only two days old who along with some 28,300 other victims, has been named by the Ukrainian Babyn Yar Memorial Center.

Launched in 2016 and beset with problems even before construction began, this complex and museum is now expected to be finished in 2025-26. It was inaugurated at last month’s 80th commemoration of the massacre in the presence of Ukraine’s first ethnically Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, whose grandfather lost most of his family during the war, and his Israeli and German counterparts. Dedicated to the stories of Eastern European Jews who were killed and buried in mass graves during the Holocaust, it commemorates the 2.5 million Soviet Jews who were murdered, 1.5 million of whom died in Ukraine alone. Almost 80% were shot dead.

A dozen buildings hosting research and education centers are being built across 370-acres of the filled-in Kyiv ravine. A religious/spiritual center complete with a synagogue, church and mosque, will also be erected. The names of victims will be displayed on a structure while the names of the hundreds of Nazi troops who took part in the mass murder will also be recorded; 159 of them have so far been identified. The memorial site will be eight times the size of Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust campus.

By the time the Babyn Yar Memorial Center opens, 85 years will have passed since the massacre. Decades that are characterized by the attempt to eradicate or reconstruct the memory of what happened here.

First, the Nazis tried to hide all evidence of the shootings. Before the Soviets recaptured Kyiv in late 1943, they forced Soviet POWs to exhume and cremate the corpses before they killed them in an attempt to remove the last witnesses. Later, the Soviets authorities deliberately ignored the tragedy and for years what happened at Babi Yar was a blank space in Ukraine’s history. The ravine was used as an open-air rubbish dump and sometimes, according to eyewitness reports, the victims’ possessions would rise to the surface and people would take them for themselves. In the early 1960s officials decided to fill the ravine with a mixture of water and mud, causing a disaster when a collapsed dike set off a landslide, killing dozens.

It was only when under pressure from international organizations that the Soviet government eventually erected a monument at the site in 1976. Built as a towering bronze structure with figures contorted in agony, it was dedicated to the memory of “Soviet civilians and Red Army soldiers and officers – prisoners of war – who were shot at Babi Yar by the German occupiers.” Nowhere was it mentioned that most of those killed were Jews.

The reasons for this are varied. The Soviets needed to legitimize their authority and reinforce a feeling of community in which all citizens suffered equally during the ‘Great Patriotic War’ – the Russian name for World War Two. To speak separately of the tragedy that befell Jewry was discouraged.

Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union from 1924 until his death in 1953, was also contemptuous of Jews although to what extent is still widely discussed by historians. The worst excesses subsided after his death but the taboos and distortions regarding Jews lingered for decades.

At the end of the war, Jewish deaths in the Soviet Union constituted only about 10 percent of entire Soviet losses. Authorities feared that by singling out Jewish victims they could arouse great resentment among other Soviet nationalities. They were also unwilling to admit to the role played by local citizens in the persecution of Jews.

Only in 1991, amid the collapse of the Soviet Union, was the Kyiv Jewish community able to erect a sculpture of a menorah lamp to honor the Jews massacred at Babi Yar. I don’t remember seeing this monument when I visited in 1995. It was off to the side and much smaller than the Soviet structure.

In the ensuing years other monuments emerged paying homage to massacred children, Roma, priests and Ukrainian partisans. In contrast to the concern over emphasizing the Jewish connection to the place, new critics now feared that by stressing the mass grave’s multi-ethnic character, Ukrainian officials risked diluting Babi Yar’s role as one of the Holocaust’s main sites.

Post-1990 independent Ukraine needed to construct a national history and build an identity that would distinguish it from the Soviet one it wanted to shake off. Nowadays, especially in western Ukraine where citizens are more closely allied to Europe, there is a strong tendency to condemn Soviet crimes more than Nazi ones and to whitewash the wartime experience of collaboration. Some of the victims whom Ukrainian nationalist groups would like to commemorate are controversial, like the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgency Army. Many Ukrainians depict them as national heroes and victims of Stalin’s and Hitler’s totalitarian regimes who were struggling for the independence of their country, but prominent Western historians accuse them of participating in the Holocaust.

As for the planned Ukrainian Babyn Yar Memorial Center, it triggered controversy early on. Detractors complained that the site’s artistic director and some of its private financial backers were from Russia and hence efforts to portray Ukrainian citizens as Nazi collaborators and murderers of Jews were nothing more than Russian propaganda. I am familiar with the accusation. 

As a correspondent for RT, a Russian international television network funded by the federal tax budget of the Russian government, I am banned from visiting Ukraine for five years. The charge is that I work as a “propagandist” and have fueled tensions between Kyiv and Moscow though my reporting of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its support of anti-Kiev demonstrations that began in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Current political considerations inevitably influence the way history is recorded and remembered. The number of Jews massacred in late September 1941 seems to be one of the only uncontested facts about Babi Yar. How to pay homage to them remains a battle still being fought.