Introduction

Babi Yar
 
       

                  Map of the Ukraine Showing the Capital, Kiev & Babi Yar                  Aerial View of the Babi Yar Ravine

Babi Yar is a ravine outside the city of Kiev, in the Ukraine, in what was the Soviet Union. During World War II, the Germans occupied Kiev. Shortly after securing Kiev, the Germans were shocked by a series of bombings that damaged buildings they occupied and killed a number of their soldiers. The Germans were convinced that this was the work of a Jewish resistance group. After the war, it was determined that instead it was a group left behind by the Soviets. 

There were an estimated 175,000 Jews living in the environs of the city at the time. At the end of September, 1941, in response to the bombing and in retaliation for the deaths it inflicted, the Germans issued a decree to all Jews in the area. It read:

All Jews living in the city of Kiev and its vicinity are to report by 8 o’clock on the morning of Monday, September 29, 1941, to the corner of Melnikovsky and Dokhturov Streets (near the cemetery). They are to take with them documents, money, valuables, as well as warm clothes, underwear, etc. Any Jew not carrying out this instruction and who is found elsewhere will be shot. Any civilian entering flats evacuated by Jews and stealing property will be shot.

Heeding the order, tens of thousands of Jewish men, women and children reported as ordered, thinking that they were to be deported. They arrived, some even early to get a seat on the train, and with all that they could carry. Instead of trains waiting to take them to concentration camps, they were met by the Einsatzgruppe C unit, German soldiers, and local collaborators from the Ukrainian auxiliary police. The crowds were deep and those in the back could not see what was happening in the front. Jews who responded to the decree were driven from the meeting site near the cemetery, in small groups, to Babi Yar, were they were lined up near the edge of the gorge. Here they were massacred, in open fire as the Einsatzgruppe attempted to keep a report of the number of Jews killed. In two days time, September 29th and 30th, it is estimated that 33,771 people were gunned down. After the machine guns were silenced, a small layer of dirt was dropped over the corpses. Not all victims died immediately, some few managed to crawl under the corpses and seek a hiding place. In the months that followed, the remainder of the population was exterminated. Numbers of total victims killed are unclear, but it is reported that between 70,000-120,000 people lost their lives at Babi Yar.

The Einsatzgruppe was a mobile killing unit, made up of four groups, A, B, C and D. They operated in Eastern Europe from the Baltic to the Black Sea. All groups were under the command of Heydrich. Their task was to move into an area after German troops had advanced on it. Their directive was to eliminate "undesirables.” This usually meant Polish government officials, Gypsies and Jews. Throughout Eastern Europe, individuals were rounded up, transported to a wooded area or ravine, and murdered.


 

                                   Bodies Stacked for Cremation                                             German Officer at Cremation Site

Soon after the Babi Yar massacre, the site was made into a permanent camp named Syrets so that exterminations could continue. A small group of prisoners was housed here to take care of the needs of the German soldiers and Ukrainian guards. Paul von Radomski, a German officer who gained a reputation for his cruelty and efficiency in killing victims, was in charge of the operation.

By early 1943 it was clear that Kiev would soon be taken back by the Soviets. In an order to cover-up what had happened at Babi Yar, the Germans decided to leave no trace of the mass graves. They selected over 300 prisoners, 100 of them Jews, to come to the site to exhume bodies, burn them, and then crush bones, eliminating all evidence of the massacres. Work began in August 1943. The prisoners were housed in a cave-like structure cut into the side of the ravine that was secured with a large gate and padlock, with a machine-gun aimed at the entrance. The prisoners, most weak and barely alive themselves, toiled under the worst of conditions. It was reported that the stench was unbearable. At night the prisoners considered ways in which they could escape. Most plans were thought impossible. However, they all agreed on one thing: it was necessary that all or none of them should escape. On September 29, for an unknown reason, one of the SS men informed a prisoner that all of them were to be killed the next day. That evening, the prisoners made an attempt to escape. Only 15 succeeded.   The Soviets liberated Kiev on November 6, 1943.