Babyn Yar is a ravine on the outskirts of Kyiv that has become a symbol of the Holocaust. There more than 100 thousand perished during the Nazi occupation, including 40,000 Jews.
Babyn Yar was first mentioned in historical accounts in 1401, in connection with its sale by a “baba” (which means an old woman), to the Dominican Monastery.
Over the course of several centuries, the site was 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.
On September 19, 1941 the Nazis occupied Kyiv. Ten days later, on Yom Kippur, they began the mass murder of Jews at Babiy Yar. The city’s Jews obeyed a Nazi order to assemble there, expecting to be deported, as Nazi propaganda intended. According to German records, in just two days nearly thirty four thousand Jews were killed.
The killing continued for months.
The majestic ravine quickly became a mass burial site of Jews, Gypsies, Ukrainians, Russians, Hungarians, and others …civilian hostages, prisoners of war, patriots and partisans, including Ukrainian Nationalists. The Nazis spared no one … not children, the elderly, nor pregnant women. Patients of the Pavlov Psychiatric Hospital were gassed and then dumped into the ravine.
Near Babyn Yar, the Nazis built a concentration camp called Sirez, where they kept their captives and forced them to work, before killing them. Those who managed to survive Sirez told of the inhumane conditions they lived in.
Every evening the prisoners had to line up on the square, and each fifth or each tenth was shot. If someone managed to escape, each third was shot. The camp hospital was full of ill, weak, bleeding and exhausted people. When it became too crowded, the Nazis removed patients, shot them and dumped them in the ravine.
On February 18, 1943, three Dynamo Kyiv football players who took part in the Match of Death with the German Luftwaffe team were also murdered there.
By August 1943, the Red Army was advancing. In an attempt to hide their crimes, the Nazis began a campaign to exhume and destroy the bodies from the mass graves of Babyn Yar.
The Nazis forced 327 prisoners to do the horrible job, 100 of whom were Jews from the Sirez camp.
The prisoners had to dig into mass graves. After being buried for two years, many bodies had twisted together. The prisoners had to hack them apart with axes, or dynamite them.
Then they had to cremate the corpses, some 2,000 at a time. Afterwards, they had to gather any remaining bones from the ashes and crush them, using Jewish tombstones.
For six weeks the prisoners carried out this gruesome task. The Nazis drank vodka to drown out the smell and the scenes. But the prisoners were not even allowed to wash their hands.
Although exhausted, starving, and filthy, the prisoners still held on to life. On September 29, 1943, under cover of darkness, 25 of them escaped. Fifteen survived to tell what they had seen.
After the war, the Soviet public learned of the murders through newspaper accounts, official reports and underground publications. In 1947, preparations were made for a memorial at Babyn Yar to the Jewish victims of Nazi genocide.
But in 1948 a Soviet anti-Semitic campaign attempted to eliminate all references to Babyn Yar and remove it from Jewish consciousness. In 1976 the soviets erected a monument in honour of soviet victims, but did not recognize the fate of Jews and others.
Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union did the new Ukrainian government acknowledge the specific Jewish nature of the site and allow proper memorials there. In 2006, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko hosted a major international commemoration of the 65th anniversary of Babyn Yar.
Today Babyn Yar is a public park within Kyiv city limits. It can be reached by travelling to Dorohozhychi metro station.
-Narrated by Volodymyr Valkov, Lviv, July 2014
– Updated for rebroadcast April 2016