Babi yar massacre: ukraine commemorates murder of jews

75 years ago the Jewish population of Kiev was exterminated. The Soviet Union found it difficult to remember. For Ukraine, it is a matter of honor.

Mourning that had no place for a long time. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that a monument was erected in Ukraine to commemorate the massacre of over 33,000 Jews Photo: dpa

The murder of Jews had long been planned, but the German occupiers in Kiev were still looking for a pretext. On September 19, 1941, the Wehrmacht had marched into the capital of the then Soviet Republic of Ukraine. A few days later, it suffered heavy losses because mined buildings in the city center exploded remotely. On August 29-30, the SS killed 33,771 Jews in the Babi Yar (Feminine Gorge) valley. 75 years later, independent Ukraine commemorates the horrific events. To a celebration on 29. September with head of state Petro Poroshenko, German President Joachim Gauck is also expected.

"All Jews of the city of Kiev and the surrounding area are to arrive by eight o’clock on Monday, September 29, 1941," announced notices. Documents, money and clothing were to be taken along. Those who did not follow the instructions were threatened with shooting. Of the former 220,000 Jewish inhabitants, only 50,000 remained, the men had served in the Red Army, others had fled.

Old men, women and children gathered at the assembly point near what is now the Lukyanivka metro station. Driven by local guards, they walked the two and a half kilometers to what was then the outskirts of the city.

At Babi Yar, people were forced to undress. In groups of ten, they were led into the ravine. There were three groups of MPi riflemen there, as Kurt Werner, a member of SS Sonderkommando 4A, testified after the war at the Nuremberg trials. "The Jews who followed had to lie down on the corpses of the Jews who had been shot before. The gunmen stood behind the Jews in each case and killed them with shots to the neck," the SS man reported.

Traces covered

By mid-October, more than 50,000 people had been killed. Pioneers of the Wehrmacht then blasted the edges of the ravine, which was up to 50 meters deep, to cover up traces of the mass grave.

Up to 200,000 people were murdered in Babi Yar during the occupation. In addition to Jews, Roma, prisoners of war, mentally ill, partisans and Ukrainian nationalists were also shot. After the defeat of Stalingrad, however, a return of the Red Army became apparent.

SS-Standartenfuhrer Paul Blobel, who had already participated in the 1941 shootings, returned to Kiev and began the so-called "Ent-Erdungsaktion". 300 concentration camp prisoners dug up the bodies again and burned them on railroad ties soaked with gasoline. The horror ended only on November 6, 1943, when the Red Army liberated the city with tremendous losses.

The Soviet government struggled for decades to commemorate the murdered Kiev Jews. Over the years, the ravine became part of the city and was turned into a park. Only after Stalin’s death did the world-famous poem "Babi Yar" by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, among others, which appeared in 1961, trigger a debate. But the monument to the murdered "Soviet citizens" erected in 1976 refused to commemorate the Jews as the main group of victims.

Memory awakened only 50 years later

This changed only on the 50th anniversary. Anniversary in 1991, almost coinciding with the end of the Soviet Union. A memorial in the form of a menorah, a seven-branched Jewish candelabrum, was erected. But other victim groups, such as the Roma, were also commemorated with their own monuments. At the same time, a discussion began about the establishment of a Holocaust memorial – a first for the ex-Soviet republic of Ukraine.

In the meantime, the country has a head of government of Jewish origin in Vladimir Groisman. While still head of parliament, he had the Supreme Rada observe a minute’s silence for Holocaust victims for the first time.

Kiev has been preparing for the 75th anniversary for a long time. Green spaces and paths have been redesigned at a cost of the equivalent of more than one million euros, and memorials have been renovated. "We have to remember what happened here so that the mistakes of the past are not repeated again," said Kiev Mayor Vitali Klitschko.

And he also restarted the talks about a memorial for the Shoa, which had temporarily fallen asleep. "I consider it my mission as mayor of the capital to realize the project of building a memorial to the victims of Babi Yar," the ex-boxing world champion promised the descendants of the victims in December 2015.

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