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    Introduction: What Is Babi Yar?

    What is Babi Yar? What happened at Babi Yar?

    Babi Yar was part of a vast, complex ravine on the northwestern edge of Kiev (Ukraine). It means ‘Old Woman’s Ravine’ or ‘Grandmother’s Ravine.’ The area of the ravine used by the Germans as an execution site had steep slopes, with nine spurs in the east and west, and extended for 1.5 miles. At various places it was from 30 to 160 feet deep. On the narrow bottom ran a stream.[1] In 1941, Babi Yar was the site of the largest single German massacre of Jews in the occupied Soviet Territories.

    The facts about the Babi Yar massacre.

    From 1921 until September 19, 1941, when the Germans occupied Kiev, the city was under Ukrainian rule (that is, by the Soviets). Five days after the arrival of the Germans, bombs were detonated in Kiev’s city center, destroying many buildings (including the Grand Hotel where the Germans were headquartered), and starting a large fire that burned for an entire week and leveled two square kilometers of the city center. About 200 Germans were killed. The bombs had been placed by a special commando of the NKVD (Soviet secret police).[2] Despite knowing that the NKVD was behind the destruction, the Germans lost no time blaming the Jews for the damage and seized the opportunity to murder all the Jews of Kiev in “retaliation.”[3]

    Who were the executioners?

    A large force was gathered to conduct the executions, including:

    • Sonderkommando 4a, under the direct command of Paul Blöbel, who in turn reported to Friedrich Jeckeln, the Higher SS Police Chief for Einsatzgruppe’s C’s operation area
    • 3rd company of a Waffen-SS battalion
    • Police Battalions 9, 45 and 305
    • Ukrainian auxiliary forces[4]

    September 29 and 30, 1941: The massacre

    On September 26, 1941, an announcement was posted in the streets ordering all Jews in Kiev to assemble by 8:00 a.m. on September 29, 1941. They were to bring with them their identification documents, money, valuables, and warm clothes. On the morning of September 29 the assembled Jews were marched to the Jewish cemetery that bordered the edge of Babi Yar.

    A Ukrainian witness, Fedir Pihido, recalls: “Many thousands of people, mainly old ones—but middle-aged people also were not lacking—were moving toward Babi Yar. And the children—my God, there were so many children! All this was moving, burdened with luggage and children. Here and there old and sick people who lacked the strength to move by themselves were being carried, probably by sons or daughters, on carts without any assistance. Some cry, others console. Most were moving in a self-absorbed way, in silence and with a doomed look. It was a terrible sight.”[5]

    At the Jewish cemetery fences had been put up and the area was guarded by three rings of soldiers and police. In groups the Jews were ordered to undress, leave their identification documents, belongings and valuables and then were led into the ravine, where they were executed. The Jews entered the ravine through existing paths or newly-made cuts and walked to various execution sites that extended for about one mile throughout the ravine complex. The Jews were either shot while lying down or while standing on a narrow ledge depending on the execution site. At dark the Germans stopped shooting and walked over the bodies executing anyone who was still alive. The slaughter went on for two days. Altogether, on September 29 and 30, 33,771 Jews were shot according to the Germans’ own records.[6]

    Many other people were executed in Babi Yar over the two years the Germans occupied Kiev, including more Jews, Soviet prisoners-of-war, gypsies, and political prisoners. The murders in the ravine continued until the very last moment before the Germans fled before the oncoming Russian army. It is unknown exactly how many people were ultimately murdered in Babi Yar—some believe it might have been as many as 100,000—during the German occupation. 

    After the massacre

    The Germans used prisoners of war to cover up the mass graves in the ravine. Two years later, in September/October 1943, as the Russian Army drew near Kiev, the Germans rushed to dig up the bodies and burn them using slave labor from the nearby Syrets labor camp. For six weeks, this Sonderkommando dug up the bodies, burned them on cremation grates and reburied or scattered the ashes. Surmising that since their terrible work was apparently done and the last waiting pyre was meant for them, the men from the Sonderkommando revolted and escaped. Of the 14 men who survived the escape, eight told their stories after the war. Despite the cremation attempt, traces of the massacre were still visible after the war.

    Alley in Babi Yar, Kiev. By Roland Geider (Ogre) (own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
    Alley in Babi Yar, Kiev. By Roland Geider (Ogre) (own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

    Babi Yar today 

    On March 13, 1961, a dam, which had been holding back waste from factories in the area, burst and a wall of water and swept down Babi Yar obliterating everything in its path and killing what the Soviets said was 145 people. (Others say the death toll was ten times higher.) Today the site can no longer be recognized as a ravine because it is now mostly leveled out and covered with a park, apartments, roads, and bridges.[7]



    [1] Karel C. Berkhoff, “Babi Yar: Site of Mass Murder, Ravine of Oblivion,” p. 2 at https://www.ushmm.org/m/pdfs/Publication_OP_2011-02.pdf

    [2] The fact that the NKVD set the bombs was testified to by Alfred Jodl, Chief of the Operations Staff of the High Command of the Armed Forces, at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. At first the Germans thought it was sabotage on the part of the local population but later they found a demolition chart, which had been prepared a long time before, listing 50 or 60 buildings that were to be destroyed. Jodl himself saw the chart and used it to defuse the remaining 40 bombs before they could be detonated. http://holocaustresearchproject.org/einsatz/babiyar.html.

    [3] For a full account of the events surrounding the destruction of Kiev and the subsequent round up and execution of the Jews see Karel C. Berkhoff, “Babi Yar: Site of Mass Murder, Ravine of Oblivion,” p. 2.

    [4] Peter Longerich, Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews (Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 224.

    [5] Karel C. Berkhoff, “Babi Yar: Site of Mass Murder, Ravine of Oblivion,” pp. 5, 6.

    [6] Operational Situation Report USSR No.101, October 2, 1941 and Occupational Situation Report USSR No. 106, October 7, 1941 in Yitzhak Arad, Shmuel Krakowski and Shmuel Spector (editors), The Einsatzgruppen Reports: Selections from the Dispatches of the Nazi Death Squads’ Campaign Against the Jews in Occupied Territories of the Soviet Union July 1941-January 1943 (Holocaust Library, 1989), pp. 168, 173. They are also available at http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/einsatz/situationreport150.html.

    [7] You may see an image of what the Babi Yar area looks like now at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Babi_Yar_12.jpg.