World War II: The Babi Yar massacre comes to an end.
Babi Yar ravine in Kiev
|Also known as||Babyn Yar, Babi Jar|
|Date||29–30 September 1941|
|Incident type||Genocide, mass murder|
|Perpetrators||Friedrich Jeckeln, Otto Rasch, Paul Blobel, Kurt Eberhard and others|
|Organizations||Einsatzgruppen, Ordnungspolizei, Sonderkommando 4a Wehrmacht|
|Camp||Syrets concentration camp|
|Memorials||On site and elsewhere|
|Notes||Possibly the largest two-day massacre during the Holocaust. Syrets concentration camp was also located in the area. Massacres occurred at Babi Yar from 29 September 1941 to 6 November 1943, when Soviet forces liberated Kiev.|
Babi Yar (Ukrainian: Бабин Яр, Babyn Yar; Russian: Бабий Яр, Babiy Yar) is a ravine in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and a site of massacres carried out by German forces during their campaign against the Soviet Union in World War II. The first, and best documented, of the massacres took place on 29–30 September 1941, killing approximately 33,771 Jews. The decision to kill all the Jews in Kyiv was made by the military governor Generalmajor Kurt Eberhard, the Police Commander for Army Group South, SS-Obergruppenführer Friedrich Jeckeln, and the Einsatzgruppe C Commander Otto Rasch. Sonderkommando 4a soldiers, along with the aid of the SD and SS Police Battalions with the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police backed by the Wehrmacht carried out the orders.
The massacre was the largest mass killing under the auspices of the Nazi regime and its collaborators during its campaign against the Soviet Union and has been called "the largest single massacre in the history of the Holocaust" to that particular date, and surpassed overall only by the later 1941 Odessa massacre of more than 50,000 Jews in October 1941 (committed by German and Romanian troops) and by Aktion Erntefest of November 1943 in occupied Poland with 42,000–43,000 victims.[need quotation to verify]
Victims of other massacres at the site included Soviet prisoners of war, communists, Ukrainian nationalists and Roma. It is estimated that between 100,000 and 150,000 people were killed at Babi Yar during the German occupation.
The Babi Yar (Babyn Yar) ravine was first mentioned in historical accounts in 1401, in connection with its sale by "baba" (an old woman) who was also the cantiniere, to the Dominican Monastery. The word "yar" is Turkic in origin and means "gully" or "ravine". In the course of several centuries the site had been used for various purposes including military camps and at least two cemeteries, among them an Orthodox Christian cemetery and a Jewish cemetery. The latter was officially closed in 1937.
Massacres of 29–30 September 1941
Axis forces, mainly German, occupied Kyiv on 19 September 1941. Between 20 and 28 September, explosives planted by the Soviet secret police caused extensive damage in the city; and on 24 September an explosion rocked Rear Headquarters Army Group South. Two days later, on 26 September, Maj. Gen. Kurt Eberhard, the military governor, and SS-Obergruppenführer Friedrich Jeckeln, the SS and Police Leader, met at Rear Headquarters Army Group South. There, they made the decision to exterminate the Jews of Kyiv, claiming that it was in retaliation for the explosions. Also present were SS-Standartenführer Paul Blobel, commander of Sonderkommando 4a, and his superior, SS-Brigadeführer Dr. Otto Rasch, commander of Einsatzgruppe C. The mass-killing was to be carried out by units under the command of Rasch and Blobel, who were ultimately responsible for a number of atrocities in Soviet Ukraine during the summer and autumn of 1941.
The implementation of the order was entrusted to Sonderkommando 4a, commanded by Blobel, under the general command of Friedrich Jeckeln. This unit consisted of Sicherheitsdienst (SD) and Sicherheitspolizei (SiPo), the third company of the Special Duties Waffen-SS battalion, and a platoon of the 9th Police Battalion. Police Battalion 45, commanded by Major Besser, conducted the massacre, supported by members of a Waffen-SS battalion. Contrary to the myth of the "clean Wehrmacht", the Sixth Army under the command of Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau worked together with the SS and SD to plan and execute the mass-murder of the Jews of Kyiv.
On 26 September 1941 the following order was posted:
All Yids[a] of the city of Kiev and its vicinity must appear on Monday, September 29, by 8 o'clock in the morning at the corner of Mel'nikova and Dokterivskaya streets (near the Viis'kove cemetery). Bring documents, money and valuables, and also warm clothing, linen, etc.— Order posted in Kyiv in Russian, Ukrainian, and German on or around 26 September 1941.
On 29 and 30 September 1941, the Nazis and their collaborators murdered approximately 33,771 Jewish civilians at Babi Yar. The order to kill the Jews of Kyiv was given to Sonderkommando 4a, of Einsatzgruppe C, consisting of SD and SiPo men, the third company of the Special Duties Waffen-SS battalion, and a platoon of the No. 9 police battalion. These units were reinforced by police battalions Nos. 45 and 305, by units of the Ukrainian auxiliary police, and supported by local collaborators.
The difficulties resulting from such a large scale action—in particular concerning the seizure—were overcome in Kiev by requesting the Jewish population through wall posters to move. Although only a participation of approximately 5,000 to 6,000 Jews had been expected at first, more than 30,000 Jews arrived who, until the very moment of their execution, still believed in their resettlement, thanks to an extremely clever organization.
According to the testimony of a truck driver named Hofer, victims were ordered to undress and were beaten if they resisted:
I watched what happened when the Jews—men, women and children—arrived. The Ukrainians[b] led them past a number of different places where one after the other they had to give up their luggage, then their coats, shoes and over-garments and also underwear. They also had to leave their valuables in a designated place. There was a special pile for each article of clothing. It all happened very quickly and anyone who hesitated was kicked or pushed by the Ukrainians [sic][b] to keep them moving.— Michael Berenbaum: "Statement of Truck-Driver Hofer describing the murder of Jews at Babi Yar"
The crowd was large enough that most of the victims could not have known what was happening until it was too late; by the time they heard the machine gun fire, there was no chance to escape. All were driven down a corridor of soldiers, in groups of ten, and then shot. A truck driver described the scene.
Once undressed, they were led into the ravine which was about 150 metres long and 30 metres wide and a good 15 metres deep ... When they reached the bottom of the ravine they were seized by members of the Schutzpolizei and made to lie down on top of Jews who had already been shot ... The corpses were literally in layers. A police marksman came along and shot each Jew in the neck with a submachine gun ... I saw these marksmen stand on layers of corpses and shoot one after the other ... The marksman would walk across the bodies of the executed Jews to the next Jew, who had meanwhile lain down, and shoot him.
In the evening, the Germans undermined the wall of the ravine and buried the people under the thick layers of earth. According to the Einsatzgruppe's Operational Situation Report, 33,771 Jews from Kyiv and its suburbs were systematically shot dead by machine-gun fire at Babi Yar on 29 September and 30 September 1941. The money, valuables, underwear, and clothing of the murdered were turned over to the local ethnic Germans and to the Nazi administration of the city. Wounded victims were buried alive in the ravine along with the rest of the bodies.
One of the most often-cited parts of Anatoly Kuznetsov's documentary novel Babi Yar is the testimony of Dina Pronicheva, an actress of the Kyiv Puppet Theatre, and a survivor. She was one of those ordered to march to the ravine, to be forced to undress and then be shot. Jumping before being shot and falling on other bodies, she played dead in a pile of corpses. She held perfectly still while the Nazis continued to shoot the wounded or gasping victims. Although the SS had covered the mass grave with earth, she eventually managed to climb through the soil and escape. Since it was dark, she had to avoid the torches of the Nazis finishing off the remaining victims still alive, wounded and gasping in the grave. She was one of the very few survivors of the massacre and later related her story to Kuznetsov. At least 29 survivors are known.
In 2006, Yad Vashem and other Jewish organisations started a project to identify and name the Babi Yar victims, but so far only 10% have been identified. Yad Vashem has recorded the names of around 3,000 Jews killed at Babi Yar, as well as those of some 7,000 Jews from Kyiv who were killed during the Holocaust.
In the months that followed, thousands more were seized and taken to Babi Yar where they were shot. It is estimated that more than 100,000 residents of Kyiv of all ethnic groups, mostly civilians, were murdered by the Nazis there during World War II. A concentration camp was also built in the area.
Mass executions at Babi Yar continued until the Nazis evacuated the city of Kyiv. On 10 January 1942 about 100 captured Soviet sailors were executed there after being forced to disinter and cremate the bodies of previous victims. In addition, Babi Yar became a place of execution of residents of five Gypsy camps. Patients of the Ivan Pavlov Psychiatric Hospital were gassed and then dumped into the ravine. Thousands of other Ukrainians were killed at Babi Yar. Among those murdered were 621 members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). Ukrainian poet and activist Olena Teliha and her husband, and renowned bandurist Mykhailo Teliha, were murdered there on 21 February 1942. Also killed in 1941 was Ukrainian activist writer Ivan Rohach, his sister, and his staff.
Upon the Soviet liberation of Kyiv in 1943, Soviet officials led Western journalists to the site of the massacres and allowed them to interview survivors. Among them were Bill Lawrence of The New York Times and Bill Downs of CBS. Downs described in a report to Newsweek what he had been told by one of the survivors, Efim Vilkis:
However, even more incredible was the actions taken by the Nazis between August 19 and September 28 last. Vilkis said that in the middle of August the SS mobilized a party of 100 Russian war prisoners, who were taken to the ravines. On August 19 these men were ordered to disinter all the bodies in the ravine. The Germans meanwhile took a party to a nearby Jewish cemetery whence marble headstones were brought to Babii Yar [sic] to form the foundation of a huge funeral pyre. Atop the stones were piled a layer of wood and then a layer of bodies, and so on until the pyre was as high as a two-story house. Vilkis said that approximately 1,500 bodies were burned in each operation of the furnace and each funeral pyre took two nights and one day to burn completely. The cremation went on for 40 days, and then the prisoners, who by this time included 341 men, were ordered to build another furnace. Since this was the last furnace and there were no more bodies, the prisoners decided it was for them. They made a break but only a dozen out of more than 200 survived the bullets of the Nazi machine guns.
Estimates of the total number killed at Babi Yar during the Nazi occupation vary. In 1946, Soviet prosecutor L. N. Smirnov at the Nuremberg trials claimed there were approximately 100,000 corpses lying in Babi Yar, using materials of the Extraordinary State Commission set out by the Soviets to investigate Nazi crimes after the liberation of Kyiv in 1943. According to testimonies of workers forced to burn the bodies, the numbers range from 70,000 to 120,000.
In the two years that followed, Ukrainians, Russians, Gypsies and people of all nationalities were murdered in Babi Yar. The belief that Babi Yar is an exclusively Jewish grave is wrong... It is an international grave. Nobody will ever determine how many and what nationalities are buried there, because 90% of the corpses were burned, their ashes scattered in ravines and fields.
Syrets concentration camp
In the course of the German occupation, the Syrets concentration camp was set up in Babi Yar. Interned communists, Soviet prisoners of war (POWs), and captured resistance members were murdered there, among others. On 18 February 1943, three Dynamo Kyiv football players (Trusevich, Klimenko, and Putistin) who took part in the Match of Death with the German Luftwaffe team were also murdered in the camp.
Concealment of the crimes
Before the Nazis retreated from Kyiv ahead of the Soviet offensive of 1944, they were ordered by Wilhelm Koppe to conceal their atrocities in the East. Paul Blobel, who was in control of the mass murders in Babi Yar two years earlier, supervised the Sonderaktion 1005 in eliminating its traces. The Aktion was carried out earlier in all extermination camps. The bodies were exhumed, burned and the ashes scattered over farmland in the vicinity. Several hundred prisoners of war from the Syrets concentration camp were forced to build funeral pyres out of Jewish gravestones and exhume the bodies for cremation.
After the war, specifically Jewish commemoration efforts encountered serious difficulty because of the Soviet Union's policies. Yevtushenko's 1961 poem on Babi Yar begins "Nad Babim Yarom pamyatnikov nyet" ("There are no monuments over Babi Yar"); it is also the first line of Shostakovitch's Symphony No. 13.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a number of memorials have been erected on the site and elsewhere. The events also formed a part of literature. Babi Yar is located in Kyiv at the juncture of today's Kurenivka, Lukianivka and districts, between Kyrylivska, Melnykov and Olena Teliha streets and St. Cyril's Monastery. After the Orange Revolution, President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine hosted a major commemoration of the 65th anniversary in 2006, attended by Presidents Moshe Katsav of Israel, Filip Vujanovic of Montenegro, Stjepan Mesić of Croatia and Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau. Rabbi Lau pointed out that if the world had reacted to the massacre of Babi Yar, perhaps the Holocaust might never have happened. Implying that Hitler was emboldened by this impunity, Lau speculated:
Maybe, say, this Babi Yar was also a test for Hitler. If on 29 September and 30 September 1941 Babi Yar may happen and the world did not react seriously, dramatically, abnormally, maybe this was a good test for him. So a few weeks later in January 1942, near Berlin in Wannsee, a convention can be held with a decision, a final solution to the Jewish problem... Maybe if the very action had been a serious one, a dramatic one, in September 1941 here in Ukraine, the Wannsee Conference would have come to a different end, maybe.
In 2006, a message was also delivered on behalf of Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations, by his representative, Resident Coordinator Francis Martin O'Donnell, who added a Hebrew prayer O'seh Shalom, from the Mourners' Kaddish.
Babi Yar was also the site of a large mudslide in the spring of 1961. An earthen dam in the ravine had held loam pulp that had been pumped from the local brick factories for ten years without sufficient drainage. The dam collapsed after heavy rain, inundating the lower-lying Kurenivka neighborhood. The death toll was estimated to be between 1,500 and 2,000 people. According to Kusnetsov, this was part of a sustained and massive effort of the Soviets to obliterate the site, including what remained of the old Jewish burying ground.
- Babi Yar in poetry
- Symphony No. 13, called Babi Yar, by Dmitri Shostakovich
- Symphony No.1 In Memoriam to the Martyrs of Babi Yar by Dmitri Klebanov (1945, audio)
- Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center
- Consequences of Nazism
- Genocides in history
- History of the Jews in Ukraine
- List of massacres in Ukraine
- Mass graves in the Soviet Union
- Operation Barbarossa
- Reichskommissariat Ukraine
- Ukrainian collaborationism with the Axis powers
- Nazi crimes against Soviet POWs
- The Kindly Ones
- The order was posted in German, Ukrainian, and in the largest letters, Russian. In only the Russian version is the defamatory word "Zhid" used for Jews. The respectful Russian word is Yevrey. Ukrainian and Russian are not the same language. The word "zhyd" in Ukrainian is not defamatory at all, as noted by Nikita Khrushchev in his memoirs, "I remember that once we invited Ukrainians, Jews and Poles ... to a meeting at the Lvov [Lviv] opera house. It struck me as very strange to hear the Jewish speakers at the meeting refer to themselves as 'yids.' 'We yids hereby declare ourselves in favour of such-and-such.' Out in the lobby after the meeting I stopped some of these men and demanded, 'How dare you use the word "yid?" Don't you know it's a very offensive term, an insult to the Jewish nation?' 'Here in the Western Ukraine it's just the opposite,' they explained. 'We call ourselves yids' ... Apparently what they said was true. If you go back to Ukrainian literature...you'll see that 'yid' isn't used derisively or insultingly."
- It must be noted that while the witness referred to "[t]he Ukrainians" there has only been one documented Ukrainian speaker at Babi Yar, and that was Second Lieutenant Joseph Muller, an ethnic German from Galicia. Thus, it is more accurate to describe these people as "Ukrainian speakers". A German policeman who guarded Babi Yar testified in 1965 that "the Jews were guarded by Wehrmacht units and by a Hamburg Police Battalion, which, as far as I can remember, carried the number 303."
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