Perhaps it is because some of my own had perished in Babi Yar that I spend so much time trying to visualize what it must have been like to be there.

Before the European Jewish ghettos had turned deadly, before the Nazi well-oiled railway transportation system cranked up to speed to carry millions of people to faraway lands to be murdered, before the chimneys of Auschwitz began to emit their deadly fumes, there was this: Ukraine’s Holocaust by the bullets, Holocaust at the edges of ravines, Holocaust on the banks of the rivers, Holocaust in the fields and forests just outside the villages where local kids used to play together.

In contrast to Western Europe, in Ukraine there was no mystery as to what had happened to their Jews. Here, the Holocaust took place right in front of the Jews’ non-Jewish friends and neighbors. And in all too many cases, these very friends and neighbors ended up assisting in and even profiting from the murders.

The first major massacre of the Holocaust occurred in Ukraine, in a series of natural ravines at the outskirts of Kyiv known as Babi Yar. Kyiv’s Jews had been ordered to show up with all of their possessions at 8 am on September 29, 1941 at the corner of two streets located, ominously, near the local cemeteries. Over the next two days, 33,771 of them – mostly women, children, and the elderly – were murdered. Between 1941 and 1942, an additional 15,000 Jews were killed here.

In September 1941, Jews comprised a quarter of Kyiv’s 850,000 population. All of them who went to Babi Yar – and they literally walked there, on foot, in long processions across the entire city – were somebody’s neighbors, friends, and companions; one-time guests and dance partners; butchers and bakers; bosses and employees; perhaps even former lovers. How was this possible? Why is it that no one – almost no one – stood up for them? What allowed for this instantaneous separation into “us” and “them”?

The Questions

I think about what choices I would have made had I been in Kyiv at that time. Would I have chosen to evacuate in the summer months, before the Nazis marched in, along with some of my family? Would I have stayed? Would I have been concerned with protecting my home, my property, as did many? Would I have fallen for the hope that Germans were a cultured nation that was said to have prevented pogroms in Ukraine during World War I?

And when the murderous order to coalesce near the cemeteries came, would I have chosen to obey it or would I have tried to escape? Would I have believed that Jews were being gathered to be shipped to Palestine? Would I have turned to my non-Jewish neighbors for help? What would they have done?

And the question that seems particularly unanswerable and therefore especially hard: What if I had been one of my non-Jewish neighbors?

People With Stony Faces

I brought these questions to a Russian scholar of the Holocaust Lev Simkin, who is currently a visiting scholar at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute in Washington, DC, where I work.

Similarly driven by these devastating, unanswerable questions, Simkin, a legal expert, has spent years digging through the documents of the Soviet trials of Nazi collaborators. He scrupulously pieced together some of their stories in his 2014 Russian-language book Korotkim budet prigovor (Short Will Be the Sentence), painting graphic portraits, probing motivations, and sharing new information which became available only with the opening of some of the Soviet archives.

In the book, Simkin reconstructs in vivid detail how on that cold and drizzly day of September 29 Kyiv’s Jews began to make it to the appointed place near the cemeteries. With their children and elderly in tow, with bags and suitcases, people marched silently down the streets “with stony faces,” as their neighbors watched, some sighing, others smirking and letting out a few anti-Semitic remarks.

Mixed families had their own choices to make. Would the non-Jewish partner go with the Jewish spouse or stay behind? There were both kinds. The most heart-rending scenes, Simkin writes, occurred at the point of separation, when the Jewish partners continued on their mournful way, and the non-Jewish ones turned around and went back home. Simkin does not convey the details of the separations. Some things, he believes, are better left back on the shelves of the archives.

Join the Crowd

What were the streets of Kyiv like following those dark first days following the massacre at Babi Yar? No one knew yet that this was the first massacre of the many yet to come over the coming years. And yet, it was as if some taboo had already been lifted.

Simkin describes stories that even today, after everything we know, are hard to comprehend. From the documents of one of the trials, he reconstructs a story of a Ukrainian woman, Evdokia, who went out to run some errands on September 30 but kept getting distracted by various street scenes. First she ran into a bloodied elderly Jewish woman sitting on the pavement crying. The jeering children who surrounded her informed Evdokia that an acquaintance of hers had beaten this “old kike” hard and took away her bag of sugar.

Then she ran into a crowd of Kyivans who had gathered around a pit at a nearby park. A few people were pushing Jews into the pit and burying them alive. Ordinary citizens – women, teenagers – were watching as others were using shovels to beat back into the pit a few elderly women who were trying to climb out. They then poured earth over them.

“Near the pit they were finishing up a young woman, about 20 years of age, who was screaming and begging for mercy,” said a defendant in that trial, who chose to join in the action and later bragged that he had buried alive three elderly women and one young woman. Simkin makes clear that German soldiers did not participate in the act: they were standing to the side, joking and photographing the scene. These “they” that the defendant referred to were locals, the neighborhood folk.

And so again I come back to those haunting questions. How is it that ordinary people became capable of such actions? Was there something specific about the atmosphere of those frightening days and years? Or could something like this happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time?

In our conversation, Simkin suggested that the cruelty of the preceding years in Ukraine had certainly opened the way toward this kind of behavior. “These people had already experienced Holodomor, they had experienced 1937. Nothing could surprise these people anymore,” he said.

To some degree, I can understand that. Holodomor, the forced hunger imposed by the Soviets on Ukraine in the 1930s, had carried away the lives of millions. 1937 had been the bloodiest year of Stalin’s purges, when the Soviet government murdered 1,000 of its own citizens daily. And, of course, Ukraine had a long history of pogroms against the Jews. In the years of 1917-1921, a mind-boggling 35,000-50,000 civilian Jews had been killed in the pogroms in Ukraine, and some estimates suggest an even higher number – up to 100,000.

The fact is, that part of the world had been in the throes of uninterrupted violence since the beginning of World War I. By the time the Babi Yar killings occurred, sensitivities and taboos on violence must have long been gone.

This answer hardly satisfies. But which one would?

Kyiv’s Largest Real Estate Turnover

The dirty secret of the pogroms, Simkin writes, was that they had always been an opportunity for material gain.

In fact, following Babi Yar, neighbors lost little time in grasping the new material possibilities that were opening up in front of them. Simkin describes people breaking into apartments that Jews had left behind, rummaging through their belongings, picking out the things they wanted. He writes that in October 1941, immediately following the Babi Yar massacre, Kyiv saw the largest real-estate turnover since the purges of 1937, as thousands of Kyivans moved into the flats freed-up by the Jews.

This material turnover, having started in 1941, continued all the way through post-war years. The Soviet Union’s consumer goods industry had never been its strongest point, and those were particularly hungry years. “People needed things to wear,” Simkin told me. “So they wore Jewish things. Until the 1950s, all these Jewish things – clothes, furniture – were being sold in markets all over Ukraine and southern Russia.”

But didn’t people know? Did they not ask any questions? “Well, imagine your grandmother moved into one of those apartments,” Simkin told me. “What was she going to tell her children and grandchildren – that the yard-keeper (dvornik) put Jews on a list and then they were taken to Babi Yar? No, she would have said, ‘some Jews had lived here, they moved away somewhere, they were not here anymore.’”

We’re Still Here

Some of the hardest questions of the Holocaust have to do with the question of what we ourselves would have done had we been in those people’s shoes – the shoes of the victims, the shoes of the perpetrators, the shoes of the silent observers, the shoes of those who told themselves that they were simply trying to help themselves and their own families. To answer these questions without the benefit of hindsight, without the luxury of the moral clarity that we, future generations, have today is virtually impossible. These questions are terrifying. We can only hope that none of us would ever find ourselves having to make those terrible choices in our own lives.

And yet we have to keep asking ourselves these questions, keep putting ourselves in all those shoes if we are serious about never letting the horrors of the Holocaust repeat themselves.

In my family, we have a story, in which my grandfather Abram, a young man who was evacuating from Kyiv in June 1941 as the Germans were bombing the city, urged his teenage cousin Alex to come with him. Alex was stalling: he did not want to leave his friends behind and hid under the bed. Abram kept trying to pull him out and eventually succeeded. This is how Alex’s annoying cousin Abram ended up saving his life.

Those from the Ukrainian side of our family who saved themselves are now scattered all over the world. Some, like us, the descendants of Abram (z”l), now live in the United States. So does Alex and his branch of the family. The two sides of the family lost touch with each other after the war, emigrated separately in the 1990s, and met by accident in Brighton Beach in New York. (That’s a separate story that deserves its own blog post.)

There is also a branch of the family in Argentina and another one in Israel. Some may have emigrated there from Kyiv even before World War II.

I don’t know each member of this extended family personally, but I do know that among us are scientists, sports coaches, lawyers, musicians, writers, journalists, museum workers: people who contributed and continue to contribute to societies they live in. New members of the family are being born. They, too, I’m sure, will do their part to make the world a better place.

Life goes on. And we remember.