I’ve been to Babi Yar. It is on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. The word ‘yar’ is Turkic in origin, and means ‘gully’ or ‘ravine’. That’s why the Nazis chose it: because it was — is — a huge ravine. Bodies could fill from the bottom.
That’s what happened. Over the course of just two days in September 1941, exactly 75 years ago, 33,771 Jews were stripped naked and shot by Sonderkommando 4a soldiers. Most of those murdered didn’t fall dead, however. They were already lying in neat lines when their lives were ended by Nazi bullets. Brought to the ravine in groups of 10-20, they approached and, realising the full horror for the first time, were forced to lie on the still-warm, still-bleeding bodies of Jews who had just been gunned down moments earlier. As they lay there, they could only wait for the man with the machine-gun to walk along the line. Men, women and children were all slain. When bullets ran low, Jewish heads were lined up so that one shot would kill several. At the end of each day, a layer of earth was tipped onto the dead and dying, so that the injured were buried alive.
The Nazis’ Ukrainian collaborators, by all accounts, were busy shuffling, pushing and shunting Jews forced to stand in lines. Others brought picnics and watched from the banks. Eyewitnesses recalled Ukrainians loading the piles of clothing and valuables that the city’s Jews had been instructed to bring for their “resettlement”. There are no tales of Ukrainians doing anything heroic, or anything but help the massacre take place. And that’s what it was: the Holocaust’s first, and worst, massacre. These Jews were not gassed in a room impersonally, but shot in the head at close range. It doesn’t get much more personal than that.
I went in 2010. I was there to film, while I was editor of a now-defunct Jewish TV news channel based in the city, but my mind was elsewhere. Despite being neither Jewish nor Ukrainian, I have both Jewish and Ukrainian blood. My grandmother, a British Jew who had long suppressed her Jewish identity, married my grandfather, a Ukrainian non-Jew, only seven years after this ravine began to fill. I was reminded of this at Babi Yar. Did I have, within me, the blood of those who Hitler killed and those who Hitler had help from; those lying in the ravine, waiting to be shot, and those who sat on the banks, eating their picnic?
It was difficult to concentrate on the filming. In the end, I gave up and walked the vast grassy flanks alone (I was the editor — the others would just have to wait). I walked and walked, through the trees, down the slopes, up to and away from the Soviet-era monument, along the walkways. I wondered how many had died crying. I thought about the children hugging their mother’s thighs as the Nazis approached. I wondered how, or if, those lying on the newly-dead had tried to console themselves in their last moments. I thought about how, in other battlefields around Europe, spilled blood had led to poppies, but that here, in Babi Yar, not even the soil had gained. More than anything, I wondered ‘how.’ How? How could they?
We know the logistics of ‘how’ they perpetrated one of history’s most wretched crimes. Days earlier, Nazi posters were plastered around the city ordering all “kikes” to assemble at a certain time, at a certain place, and to “bring warm clothing”. The commander later reported back to his superiors, saying: “Although only approximately 5,000 to 6,000 Jews had been expected, more than 30,000 Jews arrived who, until the very moment of their execution, still believed in their resettlement, thanks to an extremely clever organisation.”
Over the next two years, about 100,000 people were killed there, including Jews, gypsies/Roma, captured Russian soldiers, psychiatric patients and Ukrainian nationalists, like my grandfather. In 1943, with the Soviets pressing, the Nazis decided to burn the evidence. They looted the gravestones from a nearby Jewish cemetery and used them to form the foundation of a huge funeral pyre at the ravine, which in turn was used to burn the disinterred bodies of the Babi Yar dead. The furnaces burned for 40 days, reducing to ash the remains of the many unknown thousands. Still today, Yad Vashem has identified only a fraction of the dead.
If Auschwitz-Birkenau left me cold, Babi Yar left me confused, both about who I am, and about who people could be, and what they could do. If Auschwitz was industrial, this was insane, thousands of inhuman acts perpetrated on very human beings, innocents stripped naked, in floods of tears at the end of the Nazi barrel.
I won’t return, but nor will I forget what happened here. Never Again.
Stephen Oryszczuk is Foreign Editor of the Jewish News.