When I visited the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics during July 1991, I had no idea of how much this trip would effect me. I was traveling as part of a group of 23 high school students that was to promote peaceful relations between the United States of America and the Soviet Union. Our group spent three weeks traveling throughout the former Soviet Republics of Russia, Byelorussia, now Byelorus, and Ukraine. We visited a total of six cities, with Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, among them.
One of the most solemn, important, and peaceful places that we visited has etched its memory into my mind. This place is located in the old part of Kiev and is known as Babi Yar, which when translated directly means Women’s Ravine. Babi Yar is now a memorial to the citizens of Kiev, and of the Soviet Union, that the Nazis killed during World War II. Even though the buildings and barbed wire are gone, and a plush layer of grass now covers the ravine, Babi Yar still brings a lonely melancholy feeling to visitors. The memorial is located on the site of one of the many mass executions of Jewish people that the Nazis committed throughout Europe.
After my trip, while preparing for the English Academic Games in high school, I was to study the life of Russian poet, Yevgeny A. Yevtushenko, and one of his most famous, and controversial poems, Babi Yar. This poem brought to mind the park that now exists where these murders were committed and the insane idea of trying to exterminate an entire race. The poem, Babi Yar, was published in September 1961 to protest the plan of building a sports stadium on the site. Dmitry Shostakovich set Yevtushenko’s poem to music as part of his choral Symphony #13 that was first performed in Moscow in December 1962. The Soviet government publicly denounced both Yevtushenko and Shostakovich for their “cosmopolitanism.” The Soviet officials refused to acknowledge the special Jewish significance of a site where other Russians had been killed.
Over Babi Yar
rustle of the wild grass.
The trees look threatening, look like judges.
And everything is one silent cry.
Taking my hat off
I feel myself slowly going grey.
And I am one silent cry
over the many thousands of the buried;
am every old man killed here,
every child killed here…
No Jewish blood runs among my blood,
but I am as bitterly and hardly hated
by every anti-Semite
as if I were a Jew. By this
I am a Russian.
On September 19, 1941, the German army entered the city of Kiev. For forty-five days, the Russian Red Army was able to defend the city. However, this resulted in the loss of an entire army group. The Battle of Kiev, according to Nazi army intelligence, ended with the encirclement and capture of 665,000 Russian prisoners. Adolf Hitler called this “the greatest battle in the history of the world.”
A few days after the Nazis entered Kiev, several large explosions resounded throughout Kiev which shook the Continental Hotel, the headquarters for one of the German commands, and many other buildings. The fires that resulted killed hundreds of German soldiers that tried to stop the rapidly spreading blaze. The Nazis made the Jewish citizens of Kiev the scapegoats.
The fire in Kiev, according to Nazi intelligence, was started by the Jews. However, the Nuremberg war crime trials proved this to be fallacious. Nazi Colonel General Alfred Jodl admitted that a captured Russian chart showed the exact locations of the fifty land mines that caused the fire. Long before the Russian army retreated from Kiev, the Russian high command had drawn up the chart. From his testimony it is clear that Colonel General Jodl permitted the Jewish citizens of Kiev to be blamed for the explosions, instead of the retreating Russian Red Army.
Four “strike squads,” known as Einsatzgruppen A, B, C, and D, were deployed against the Soviet Jewish civilians when Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. These squads followed the regular army and were in charge of rounding up and exterminating Jews and Russian military prisoners. The worst atrocity these squads committed occurred at Babi Yar. During just two days in September, the 29th and 30th, one of these squads, Einsatzgruppen C, brutally murdered thousands of Jewish men, women, and children, all of whom were peaceful, unarmed citizens of Kiev. Given command of Kiev and the surrounding areas, Einsatzgruppen C recorded the execution of 33,771 Jews at Babi Yar during those two days. This killing rate was unmatched for the remainder of the war, even by the death factories of Treblinka and Aushwitz, which killed a total of one to five million people.
On the days of September 27 and 28, 1941, posters put up throughout the city of Kiev demanded the assembly of Jews in the Lukyanovka district. These posters ordered the Jews to bring “resettlement” bundles, their most valuable assets, with them. The Jews that did report assumed that they would soon be resettled and numbered more than 30,000. Instead of being resettled, the Nazi soldiers were there to greet them. Then they were marched in groups of on hundred, with their “resettlement” bundles, past the Jewish cemetery, to the Babi Yar ravine. Once at Babi Yar, the Nazis ordered the Jews to relinquish their bundles and to remove their clothing. They were then herded through a gauntlet of Nazis and Ukrainian police to a narrow outcrop that overlooked the ravine. They were then shot. The commander of the Einsatzgruppen reported two days later that because of “our special talent of organization, the Jews still believed to the very last moment before being executed that indeed all that was happening was that they were being resettled.”
Babi Yar was transformed into a more permanently structured camp after the two day mass killing orgy. This camp became known as the Syrets camp, which is also the name of a nearby Kievian neighborhood. Thousands of prisoners from all over the Ukraine were executed at this camp. There were several hundred select prisoners that were housed there as well. These select prisoners were carpenters, shoemakers, tailors, and other craftsmen that were used to supply the Nazis and Ukrainian guards with the necessary supplies. They were normally killed after a few weeks and replaced with other prisoners that continued their tasks. Paul von Radomski was the person in charge of the administration and the eventual killing. He was known as seeming to crave a reputation for outdoing his sadist associates in the other death camps of Europe.
The Nazi occupation of Kiev lasted for 779 days. This was from the fall of 1941 through the spring of 1943. Before the occupation, Kiev had a Jewish population of 175,000. During this period, the Nazi army gathered thousands of the citizens of Kiev and killed them. Most of these people were Jewish. However, there were many others that were members of the Soviet underground, men, women, children, as well as elderly citizens that also were executed here. By the end of their occupation of Kiev, the Nazis had brutally murdered more than 100,000 people.
After the war was over, the watchman at the old Jewish cemetery recalled how Ukrainian policemen under the direction of Nazi soldiers:
“…formed a corridor and drove the panic stricken people towards the huge glade, where sticks, swearings, and dogs, who were tearing the people’s bodies, forced the people to undress, to form columns in hundreds, and then to go into the columns in twos towards the mouth of the ravine.”
Once the people were at the mouth of the ravine, he recalled:
“…they found themselves on the narrow ground above the precipice, twenty to twenty-five meters in height, and on the opposite side there were the Germans’ machine guns. The killed, wounded, and half alive people fell down and were smashed there. Then the next hundred were brought, and everything repeated again. The policemen took the children by the legs and threw them alive down into the Yar.”
That day, the watchman witnessed “horrible scenes of human grief and despair.” In the evening, after they were through with the day’s killing, the Germans undermined the wall of the ravine and buried the people under the thick layers of earth. The ground was still moving long afterwards, because of the wounded and still alive people moving and writhing in pain. One girl was heard crying: “Mammy, why do they pour sand into my eyes?”
In the summer of 1942, the Einsatzgruppen’s second sweep was ending. Himmler, who was the chief administrator of the SS, and in charge of the vast network of concentration camps, was becoming concerned with the problem of exposure of the massacres. He ordered Blobel to completely remove every trace of these mass murders. Blobel, who also organized the Babi Yar massacre, set up a special Kommando, identified as number 1005, that was to dig up the mass graves and burn the bodies. One of the pits that Kommando 1005, under his command, exhumed at Babi Yar measured 180 feet long and more than eight feet deep.
In March 1966, a memorial plaque and an obelisk were erected at Babi Yar. However, neither of them stated that Jews had been killed there. Also in 1966 a documentary-novel was released. This was written by a non-Jewish citizen of Kiev, Anatoly Kuznetsov, who was only twelve years old at the time of the Babi Yar murders. This work’s being published in the Soviet magazine Yunost, which is one of the official journals of the Komosol (the Young Communist League), and also its welcomed reception by Soviet critics seems to at last acknowledge the murderous anti-Semitic intentions of not only the Nazis, but also of the Russian and Ukrainian sect, in the tortures and the murders that occurred at Babi Yar. This work, however, was heavily censored when it was published in the Soviet Union.
In 1976, in the very center of the field that was the site of the mass murders, a monument was erected to the people that were killed by Nazis there. The monument was designed to symbolize the courage and the unbroken spirit that the victims had. Like the obelisk of 1966, however, this monument doesn’t mention the fact that the people killed at Babi Yar were primarily Jewish.
When we visited Babi Yar, the ground was still damp from the rain the previous day. The grass and trees had a tranquil look about them with their leaves shining in the sunlight. Our guide led us around the crest of the ravine. Stopping here and there to give us different views of the main monument and also to inform us about the history of this place. When we finally arrived at the monument, she explained how people now bring flowers and place them on the plaque at the base of the monument in memory of the dead.
There is now a long central walk that is lined with birch and fir trees that leads around the crown of the ravine to a raised platform. The monument stands 50 feet above the platform and is composed of eleven bronze figures that have been frozen in motion, at the instant of their deaths. A Soviet guidebook to Kiev describes the monument like this:
In front is a Communist member of the underground, boldly looking death in the face, eyes filled with resoluteness and confidence in the triumph of the just cause. A soldier stands with tightly clenched fists next to a sailor shielding an old woman. A young boy who refused to bow his head before the Nazis falls into the death pit. Crowning the group is the figure of a young mother, a symbol of life’s triumph over death.
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© 1993-1994 Jon Warren