The place that holds the record for murders in a day – even over such ghastly places as Auschwitz and Treblinka – is Babi Yar. A ravine on the outskirts of Kiev, it is today incorporated within the urban, inhabited sector of the Ukrainian capital. The events described here took place seventy years ago, in 1941, on Rosh Hashanah.
The famed Russian poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko wrote one the most chilling and powerful elegies to the place. Shostakovich, the renowned Russian composer, dedicated one of his great symphonies, the 13th, to Babi Yar. Both men were non-Jews who succumbed to the pain that came from contemplating man’s infinite capacity to inflict pain and suffering on his fellow man.
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The Russian frontier exploded on June 22, 1941, when the German attack was unleashed without warning. Nine million fighting men joined the battle from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The Wehrmacht conquered Kiev on September 19, 1941. Ten days later, on September 28, notices were posted all over walls, billboards, fences, printed on bad wrapping paper. The notice read:
“All Jews in the city of Kiev and its environs must appear on the corner of Melnikov and Dokhturov Streets (beside the cemetery) at 8 a.m. on September 29. They must bring their documents, money, valuables, warm clothing, etc. Jews who fail to obey this order and are found elsewhere will be shot.”
The text was printed in three languages: Russian, Ukrainian and German. Anatoly Kuznetsov, a resident of Kiev, 12 years old at the time, wrote years later: “Many Jews lived and worked in a cluster of clay huts, small barns and cowsheds…two doors from our house. I peeped in and found them in the grip of a quiet panic, rushing from hovel to hovel, assembling their bundles.”
The Jews were distressed and frightened. The helplessness they felt was heightened by the absence of able-bodied men, who were serving in the Russian army. Mothers had to take care simultaneously of their children and their elders who were often incapable of fending for themselves. They had to make sure documents were in order and see to it that valuables were secured for a possible long trip and resettlement. They had to prepare food for at least a few days and pack clothing for family members while not even knowing what climes they would be moved to.
The unsuspecting Jews came out of their homes when it was still dark, hoping to be the first to board the trains and find seats. With wailing children, the old and the sick, some crippled and limping, some virtually crawling, Jewish tenants spilled out into the street carrying rope-tied bundles, battered wooden suitcases, patched carpetbags, pushing handcarts, baby carriages with three or four infants in each, helping each other, supporting one another.
“I could not, of course,” wrote Kuznetsov, “miss such an event as the deportation of the Jews from Kiev, and ran out into the street…to follow the events. A great crowd was ascending toward Lukyanovka, the cemetery district, a sea of heads. Suddenly there was a great troubled stir. People were saying that one could go only forward, but the return is cut off. This frightened me. I was afraid I would not manage to get out of the crowd and would be driven off with them. I pushed hard against the people, and made my way home.
When I came home I saw Grandfather in the middle of the yard. He stood there with a finger raised, straining to hear the sound of firing far away.