Thursday, September 29, 2005


September 29 and 30 mark the 64th anniversary of the killing at Babi Yar.

Babi Yar is the name of a deep ravine, or canyon, on the edge of Kiev, Ukraine. In 1941 Ukraine belonged to the Soviet Union and Kiev had been occupied since September 19 by the German army. Many of Kiev's residents and all of the communist government had evacuated before the Germans arrived. Many other people, however, had remained behind in the hopes that the Germans would be less brutal than Stalin's communists. The Soviets had left behind a group of NKVD members to offer some resistance against the conquering Germans. As the Germans settled in to their new quarters scattered about the city, bombs began exploding. Over the next few days many bombs exploded in homes, hotels, restaurants and bars frequented by the German occupiers. Many Germans as well as Kiev civilians were killed in the blasts. The Germans decided that Kiev's Jews were to blame.

On September 28, 1941, this notice was posted around the city.
All [Jews] living in the city of Kiev and its vicinity are to report by 8 o'clock on the morning of Monday, September 29th, 1941, at the corner of Melnikovsky and Dokhturov Streets (near the cemetery). They are to take with them documents, money, valuables, as well as warm clothes, underwear, etc.
Any [Jew] not carrying out this instruction and who is found elsewhere will be shot.
Any civilian entering flats evacuated by [Jews] and stealing property will be shot.
Because of the reference to warm clothes, the Jews believed they were to be deported. They were not.
On the morning of September 29, tens of thousands of Jews arrived at the appointed location. Some arrived extra early in order to ensure themselves a seat on the train. A large crowd formed. Each person held onto their family members and belongings. Children were crying. They couldn't see what was happening up ahead.

Most waited hours in this crowd - only slowly moving toward what they thought was a train.

The Germans were counting out only a few people at a time and then letting them move farther on. Machine-gun fire could be heard nearby. For those that realized what was happening and wanted to leave, it was too late. There was a barricade staffed by Germans who were checking identification papers of those wanting out. If the person was Jewish, they were forced to remain.

Taken from the front of the line in groups of ten, they were led to a corridor, about four or five feet wide, formed by rows of soldiers on each side. The soldiers were holding sticks and would hit the Jews as they went by.

There was no question of being able to dodge or get away. Brutal blows, immediately drawing blood, descended on their heads, backs and shoulders from left and right. The soldiers kept shouting: "Schnell, schnell!" laughing happily, as if they were watching a circus act; they even found ways of delivering harder blows in the more vulnerable places, the ribs, the stomach and the groin. Screaming and crying, the Jews exited the corridor of soldiers onto an area overgrown with grass. Here they were ordered to undress.

Those who hesitated had their clothes ripped off them by force, and were kicked and struck with knuckledusters or clubs by the Germans, who seemed to be drunk with fury in a sort of sadistic rage.

A. Anatoli described the Babi Yar ravine as enormous, you might even say majestic: deep and wide, like a mountain gorge. If you stood on one side of it and shouted you would scarcely be heard on the other. It was here that the Nazis shot the Jews.

In small groups of ten, the Jews were taken along the edge of the ravine. One of the very few survivors remembers she "looked down and her head swam, she seemed to be so high up. Beneath her was a sea of bodies covered in blood."

Once the Jews were lined up, the Nazis used a machine-gun to shoot them. When shot, they fell into the ravine. Then the next then were brought along the edge and shot.

According to the Einsatzgruppe Operational Situation Report No. 101, 33,771 Jews were killed at Babi Yar on September 29 and 30. But this was not the end of the killing at Babi Yar.

The Nazis next rounded up Gypsies and killed them at Babi Yar. Patients of the Pavlov Psychiatric Hospital were gassed and then dumped into the ravine. Soviet prisoners of war were brought to the ravine and shot. Thousands of other civilians were killed at Babi Yar for trivial reasons, such as a mass shooting in retaliation for just one or two people breaking a Nazi order. The killing continued for months at Babi Yar. It is estimated that 100,000 people were murdered there.
For those who did not die at Babi Yar, things were even more gruesome. By mid 1943 the Germans were in retreat and the decision was made to try to destroy the evidence of what they had done in Babi Yar.
100 prisoners from the Syretsk concentration camp (near Babi Yar) walked toward Babi Yar thinking they were to be shot. They were surprised when Nazis attached shackles onto them. Then surprised again when the Nazis gave them dinner.

At night, the prisoners were housed in a cave-like hole cut into the side of the ravine. Blocking the entrance/exit was an enormous gate, locked with a large padlock. A wooden tower faced the entrance, with a machine-gun aimed at the entrance to keep watch over the prisoners. 327 prisoners, 100 of whom were Jews, were chosen for this horrific work.

Some prisoners had to dig into the mass graves. Since there were numerous mass graves at Babi Yar, most had been covered with dirt. These prisoners removed the top layer of dirt in order to expose the corpses.

Having fallen into the pit after having been shot and having been underground for up to two years, many of the bodies had twisted together and were difficult to remove from the mass. The Nazis had constructed a special tool to disentangle and pull/drag the corpses. This tool was metal with one end shaped into a handle and the other shaped into a hook.

The prisoners who had to pull the corpses out of the grave would place the hook under the corpse's chin and pull - the body would follow the head.

Sometimes the bodies were so firmly stuck together that two or three of them came out with one hook. It was often necessary to hack them apart with axes, and the lower layers had to be dynamited several times. The Nazis drank vodka to drown out the smell and the scenes; the prisoners weren't even allowed to wash their hands.

After the bodies were pulled out of the mass grave, a few prisoners with pliers would search the victim's mouths for gold. Other prisoners would remove clothing, boots, etc. from the bodies. (Though the Jews had been forced to undress before they were killed, later groups were often shot fully clothed.)

Granite tombstones were brought from the nearby Jewish cemetery and laid flat on the ground. Wood was then stacked on top of it. Then the first layer of bodies was carefully laid on top of the wood so that their heads were on the outside. The second layer of bodies was then carefully placed on the first, but with the heads on the other side. Then, the prisoners placed more wood. And again, another layer of bodies was placed on top - adding layer after layer. Approximately 2,000 bodies would be burned at the same time.

To start the fire, gasoline was doused over the pile of bodies.

The [stokers] got the fire going underneath and also carried burning torches along the rows of projecting heads. The hair, soaked in oil [gasoline], immediately burst into bright flame - that was why they had arranged the heads that way.

The ashes from the pyre were scooped up and brought to another group of prisoners. Since there were usually large pieces of bone that had not burned in the fire, they needed to be crushed to fully destroy the evidence of Nazi atrocities. Jewish tombstones were taken from the nearby cemetery to crush the bones. Prisoners then passed the ashes through a sieve, looking for large bone pieces that needed to be further crushed as well as searching for gold and other valuables.
The Soviet Union would not permit any type of memorial to be placed at Babi Yar. The Soviets, for whatever reason, wished that it would just go away. Babi Yar had become a place of pilgrimage, but no formal marker of any type was allowed. Then, in 1961, the Russian poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko, whom the Soviets were never able to stifle, published the poem "Babi Yar".

By Yevgeni Yevtushenko
Translated by Benjamin Okopnik, 10/96

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.

I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o'er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails.

It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself. *1*
The Philistines betrayed me - and now judge.
I'm in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I'm persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.

I see myself a boy in Belostok *2*
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.

I'm thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of "Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!"
My mother's being beaten by a clerk.

O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.

I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The antisemites have proclaimed themselves
The "Union of the Russian People!"

It seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I'm in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other's eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed - very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.

-"They come!"

-"No, fear not - those are sounds
Of spring itself. She's coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!"

-"They break the door!"

-"No, river ice is breaking..."

Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.

And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I'm every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.

No fiber of my body will forget this.
May "Internationale" thunder and ring *3*
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.

There is no Jewish blood that's blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that's corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!
A year later, Dmitri Shostakovich set the poem to music, incorporating it into his Thirteenth Symphony. Soviet authorities, however, forced some changes to Yevtushenko's original text. By 1966 pressure had built up on Soviet authorities to the extent that they invited formal proposals and designs for a memorial to those who were so brutally murdered at Babi Yar. Eight years later, in 1974, the memorial was finally dedicated. If you follow the last link above you will see a small monument placed in 1966 to declare that a monument would be built at that site to the murders at Babi Yar. Notice that the stone was defaced. And that continues to happen even today.
An American Jewish youth delegation visiting the Holocaust site of Babi Yar in Ukraine discovered that a memorial placed there in 2001 has once again been damaged, according to a June 30, 2005 report by the AEN news agency. The memorial was reportedly damaged by local residents who held picnics on the site, burning fires and at some point recently, smashing the memorial plaque dedicated to the Nazis’ victims. This is the second time this year the plaque has been smashed.
The present day memorial still does not mention that any Jews were killed there.

Another reason not to drive a Volkswagen.

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