5 Facts About Babi Yar
The Babi Yar massacre, among the worst Nazi crimes, occurred 80 years ago.
1. The Babi Yar Massacre was the Nazi’s largest at the time.
At the beginning of World War II, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact. The Nazis broke this agreement on June 22, 1941, when they launched Operation Barbarossa, a surprise attack of the Soviet Union.
When Operation Barbarossa commenced, the Ukrainian city of Kiev was home to about 230,000 Jews. Many were refugees from Poland who’d fled further east to relative safety. Jewish men in Kiev joined the Soviet Army in droves to fight the Nazi onslaught. Nazi forces reached Kiev in September of 1941; by then, almost the entire Jewish population of Kiev consisted of women, children, the elderly and sick Jews. It was these terrified, harmless Jews on whom the Nazis soon unleashed their brutal killing machine.
Victims before execution at Babi Yar outside Kiev, September 1941
On September 28, 1941 – erev Yom Kippur – a chilling announcement was sent out to all districts in Kiev: “All the Yids of the city of Kiev and its vicinity must appear on Monday September 29, 1941 (Yom Kippur) 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….”
Facing death if they did not comply – and holding out hope that perhaps they would simply be relocated, rather than harmed – Kiev’s Jews complied.
Jews were forced to the edge of the ravine, made to strip off their clothes and shot, their bodies falling into the depression below.
The Jews were forced to the edge of town, where a deep natural ravine named Babi Yar lay. (“Babi” means Grandma and “Yar” means ravine – for centuries, the large rugged area had been home to military camps, monasteries and cemeteries – including one Jewish burial site.)
An entire Nazi division, Sonderkommando 4a, led by the Nazi war criminal Col. Paul Blobel, was brought in to murder the Jews of Kiev. Jews were forced to the edge of the ravine, made to strip off their clothes and shot, their bodies falling into the depression below. Loud music and airplanes circling overhead drowned out the screams of the victims. Over the course of two days, September 29 and 30, 1941, 33,771 Jews were murdered at Babi Yar. It was the largest single Nazi massacre up until that point during the war.
2. There were witnesses.
The roundup and murder of Kiev’s Jews did not happen under cover of darkness. One non-Jewish resident of Kiev, a teacher named L. Nartova, wrote in her diary on September 29 about looking out and seeing tens of thousands of Kiev’s Jews rounded up and forced to march to the ravine on the edge of town:
I went out to the balcony. I saw a crowd of Jews, guarded by four policemen, going along the street. They were of different ages, but mostly elderly. They were walking slowly and with such pitiful faces that it was difficult to look at them. All of them looked ill. Three women were carried behind them on wheelbarrows. Their legs were hanging out and striking the pavement. Oh, how terrible it is to live here, how difficult it is to watch this scene.
There were also foreign journalists on hand for the killing. They had been invited to Kiev by Nazi officials the “Bolshevist destruction” of Soviet troops in Ukraine. According to the renown Austrian-Jewish historian Raul Hilberg, who meticulously documented Nazi crimes, the foreign journalists at Babi Yar launched an official request for information. They were brushed off: “When (the local official) denied everything, the journalists told him that they had pretty exact information about these matters anyway.” (Quoted in The Destruction of the European Jews by Raul Hilberg: 1961).
3. Only 29 Jews survived the massacre.
Only 29 Jews survived. The recollections of these eyewitnesses describe horror beyond belief. One survivor of Babi Yar, Valentin Bubnov, recounts the departure of Jews from Kiev’s city center on Yom Kippur and what awaited them at the Babi Yar ravine:
Crowds of (Jewish) people with children sleeping in their arms (either walking) or in carts, weeping, supporting the elderly by the arm, in streams slowly and mournfully poured into that river of death, surrounded on all sides by anti-tank barriers, barbed wire, the wall of the Jewish cemetery, and by the Germans and local policemen laughing loudly.
Further on, further on all hell broke loose…The doomed ones were forced to take off their clothes and were robbed of their valuables. Their papers were destroyed on the spot and, in groups of 30-40 people, they were pushed onto a narrow ridge above the steep mountain. The children were thrown down alive. Many people lost their mind or had their hair turn grey on the spot. The moans and weeping did not stop for three days. The machine- and submachine-guns were not silent for three days in a row. The bodies were falling to the bottom of the ravine. At the end of the day the bodies were covered by earth. The executioners did not manage to murder all of hte people in one day so they (temporary) survivors remained behind barbed wire for the night. They were executed during the (next day).
With my own eyes I saw this horror.
Another survivor was a Jewish actress named Dina Pronicheva. She was shot and fell into the ravine but was able to crawl out later and evade Nazi soldiers who stood guard outside the pit, shooting any survivors who made it out. She recalled:
Each time I saw a new group of men and women, elderly people, and children being forced to take off their clothes. All were being taken to an open pit where submachine-gunners shot them. Then another group was brought… With my own eyes I saw this horror. Although I was not standing close to the pit, terrible cries of panic-stricken people and quiet children’s voices calling ‘Mother, mother….” reached me.
4. Ultimately 100,000 Jews and others were murdered at Babi Yar.
For two more long years, the Nazis killed people at Babi Yar, throwing their bodies into the ravine. Jews were taken to Babi Yar from elsewhere to be shot. Other groups of people were murdered at Babi Yar as well, including patients from a nearby psychiatric hospital, Soviet POWs, Ukrainian civilians and Roma. Historians estimate that 100,000 people were murdered at Babi Yar, about 60,000 of them Jews. The last prisoners to be killed at the site were shot just weeks before Soviet troops took over the area on November 6, 1943.
Historians estimate that 100,000 people were murdered at Babi Yar, about 60,000 of them Jews.
5. The crimes of Babi Yar were covered up and forgotten.
As the Soviet army advanced on Kiev in 1943, the Nazis tried to hide evidence of what took place at Babi Yar. Prisoners from a local concentration camp were forced to bring Jewish tombstones from a nearby cemetery to the ravine, where they were used to build enormous pyres. The prisoners were forced to exhume the bodies of thousands and thousands of people and pile them on the pyres.
Memorial at Babi Yar
Nazi officials doused the pyres with gasoline and lit them on fire. The huge flames burning the evidence of the massacres was visible across Kiev. When the bodies were burned, the prisoners who’d done this ghoulish work were themselves shot and their bodies and all evidence of what had taken place were burned and reduced to ashes. Just 15 of these prisoners managed to survive and tell the world what they’d done and witnessed.
In the years after the Holocaust, Babi Yar was largely neglected and the crimes that had occurred there were forgotten. In 1948, a Soviet Jew named Boris Braynin wrote about visiting the site:
That place, where about 100,000 people were brutally murdered, is in a disgraceful state. The cows are grazing there, while the bones as you can see are thrown around. The beautiful crypt above Babi Yar is turned into the toilet….
In 1961, the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote a famous poem called Babi Yar, which begins with the haunting words “No monument stands over Babi Yar. A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone. I am afraid….”
The Soviet Union did erect a memorial at Babi Yar in 1976, but did not specify that Jews were the primary victims, referring only to generic “civilian victims”. Much of the ravine was filled in with earth. After Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, a memorial in the shape of a Jewish menorah was erected at the site to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the massacre there.
Visiting Kiev in 2016, journalist Linda Kinstler described a site almost entirely devoid of historical awareness: “Today, Babi Yar is a popular local hangout, complete with a makeshift soccer field and playground. When I visited the field on a sunny afternoon this summer, two young Ukrainians sat on the edge of the ravine smoking cigarettes, their legs dangling over a picnicking couple sprawled out in the valley below…” Few people she encountered understood the magnitude of what took place there.
A Babi Yar memorial complex, which will include a museum, research center and memorial, is being created by the Ukrainian government, which plans to open the center in 2025 or 2026. In 2021, part of the project opened: a structure which looks like part of a traditional European synagogue now marks the site, offering visitors an opportunity to recognize the Jewish men, women and young children who were horribly murdered there, and perhaps inspire some visitors to pray.