Latest update: November 14th, 2011
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.
* * * * *
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.
“Do you know what they are doing?” he said, shaken.
“They are shooting them.”
I heard it distinctly now: the even ra-ta-ta of a machine gun from Babi Yar. This was calm, unhurried firing, as on a shooting range.
Grandfather looked puzzled and frightened…. Grandmother paused to listen too. It seemed to me she was crying. I turned to look at her more closely. She was crossing herself, facing Babi Yar and muttering, “Our Father Who art in Heaven…”
The firing stopped after dark, but resumed in the morning. It was said that 35,000 had been shot on the first day and that the rest were waiting their turn.
* * * * *
Few survived Babi Yar. One of them was Dina Pronicheva, an actress of the Kiev Puppet Theatre, a mother of two children, with old and feeble parents. Dina’s husband was a Russian. Her surname was Russian and she did not look Jewish.
Dina’s family decided she would see her parents to the train but would return to her children and husband. Starting at six in the morning, the crowds were already vast. They moved in slow droning procession and reached the cemetery only in the afternoon. German soldiers and Ukrainian police in black uniforms were directing traffic.
As they approached the cemetery, crowding and cursing intensified. Everything became completely incomprehensible. Dina left her parents at the cemetery gates and went on ahead to see what was happening. Like many others, she still thought there was a train up ahead. She heard firing nearby. The thought that crossed her mind was that individuals who did not follow orders were being frightened into obedience.
But Dina became increasingly alarmed. She pushed through the crowd and finally saw that those ahead of her were being ordered to lay down their bundles. Clothing, knapsacks and suitcases were heaped on the left, food on the right.
The Germans then let the people through in groups of ten – batch by batch. Dina’s flesh crawled. There was nothing like a station or a railroad in sight. Though she did not know what was happening, her heart told her this was no evacuation. The burst of machine-gun fire nearby seemed the strangest of all. She was still unable to imagine that they could be shooting people.
At that moment Dina felt only brute fear and dizziness, a state beyond compare. She noticed people being stripped of their warm clothes. On impulse she turned back, found her parents and told them what she had seen. “Daughter, we don’t need you any longer,” said her father. “Go now.”
But she was trapped. Despite all her pleas, the guard in charge would not let her through. At that point she realized this was an execution. Fresh commands were shouted. A chaotic queue was formed.
Finally it was her group’s turn. Talking subsided. They trudged on in silence, flanked by guards. Behind her Dina heard someone moan: “Help me, children, I am blind.” She put her arm around the old man and walked at his side. “Where could they be taking us, father?” she asked. “My child,” he answered, “we are going to pay our final debt to God.”
“Are we forsaken? Completely forsaken?” she asked.
“We have forsaken Him, He did not forsake us. Child, say with me Shema Yisrael.”
At that instant the group entered a long, narrow corridor, about five feet wide, with soldiers on both sides standing shoulder to shoulder, sleeved rolled up, armed with rubber truncheons or big sticks, dogs on leashes.
The soldiers rained blows upon the people running the gauntlet. It was impossible to hide. Everyone cried out. Mothers tried to protect their babies. People fell. The dogs were set on them at once. The screaming crowd was pressed forward, treading on the bodies, stamping them into the earth.
The crazed throng emerged into a space cordoned off by the troops, littered everywhere with underwear, shoes and clothing. Ukrainian police shouted: “Undress! Quick! Quick!” while coarsely beating the people with brass knuckles, drunken viciousness and sadistic frenzy.
From the side where the naked were being led away, Dina heard her mother call: “Dina! You don’t look like one. Save yourself!” Dina, summoning all her strength, turned to a policeman: “I came to see someone off and by accident I got caught in the crowd. I demand to see the commandant!”
The policeman snatched her purse, checked it, and found nothing to contradict her words. He pointed to a hill at the side where a small group of people sat: “Wait up there. We will shoot the Jews and let you go”.
The nightmare unfolded before their eyes. Incredibly, not one person threw himself at the feet of the Germans, begging for mercy. Mothers clung to their children. Now and then a German, or a Ukrainian policeman, would snatch a child from his mother, stride to the earth wall, swing him in the air and hurled him over the top like a log of wood.
It began to grow dark. Suddenly an open car drove up, carrying an officer who was obviously in command.”Who are these?” he asked a Ukrainian policeman. There were close to fifty people on the hill now. The policeman replied: “These are our people. We weren’t sure whether to release them.” The officer stormed: “Shoot them! Shoot them right away! If just one of them gets away and spreads the story, not a single Jew will come here tomorrow!”
“Get going! Move! Get up!” shouted the policeman. The people staggered to their feet. Perhaps because it was late, or perhaps because they were thought to be non-Jews, nothing was done to undress them. They were led directly to the other side of the earth wall, in batches of ten. Dina was in the second batch. There was a ravine, a quarry, with steep walls rising from both sides. On one wall a ledge was cut, so narrow that as the victims were led unto it they instinctively leaned against the sand wall in order not to fall down.
Dina glanced down and grew dizzy. The quarry was fearfully deep. Below lay a sea of bloody bodies. She caught sight of light machine guns strung out on the opposite side of the ravine, and also of German soldiers. They had lit a campfire and seemed to be cooking something. When the file of victims had occupied the ledge, one of the Germans, a cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth, moved away from his food by the fire, took his place at the machine gun and with total indifference started shooting.
Dina felt rather than saw the bodies fall as the line of fire rapidly approached. Without waiting for the bullet, she hurled herself from the ledge with her hands clenched. She seemed to fall for an eternity. The ledge was high. As she hit the bottom she felt neither the impact nor the pain.
Warm blood splashed over her, and blood covered her face. It was as if she had fallen into a bath of blood. She lay with her eyes closed, her arms spread out. There were muffled sounds all around and beneath her. Many of the victims were still alive. The entire mass of bodies was perceptibly stirring, settling deeper and tighter because of the motions of those being buried alive.
She grew aware of footsteps, stepping directly on the bodies. The Germans had come down. They were bending over corpses, extracting gold teeth from their mouths, and shooting at whatever moved. Within minutes she heard a voice above: “Come on, shovel away!” Sand began descending on her. She did not stir, not until it dribbled into her mouth. She lay face upward, inhaling sand and choking until, losing control, she began thrashing about in wild horror, ready to be shot rather than be buried alive.
Still choking, she began to dig her way out of the sand. Luckily, it was pitch dark and the men at the edge of the quarry had stopped shoveling, evidently satisfied that the bodies were sufficiently covered. Dina’s eyes were full of sand and the stench was heavy. Slowly, cautiously she moved toward the nearest sand wall. She inched her way up, every second in peril of falling. She crawled on all fours. She had to get out and away. For the sake of her children, who were waiting for her somewhere in the real world. For the sake of telling of this new grotesque world which suddenly had become the real one.
Braving indescribable perils, Dina got away and wrote her story. The unbelievable story of Babi Yar, in the beautiful city of Kiev, where the civilized Germans, with the help of the local population, slaughtered in just 36 hours some 38,000 human beings because they were Jews.
* * * * *
Early in 1942, the Einsatzgruppe commander Paul Blobel and the Gestapo expert on Church Affairs, Albert Hartel, drove together near Kiev. As they approached the ravine, Hartel noticed small explosions that threw up columns of earth. The March thaw was releasing gases from the thousands of bodies.
“Here my Jews are buried,” boasted Blobel.
* * * * *
Kiev was liberated in November 1943 – and with it Babi Yar. The once beautiful ravine with its colorful landscape, where families would enjoy their holiday picnics and children would roam in search of adventure, had been turned by the monsters into a valley of carnage where the flowers bloom red from Jewish blood, and the land yields a rich abundance of potato crops fertilized by Jewish ashes.
* * * * * *
In March 1966, the first memorial plaques were erected at Babi Yar, but none bore any mention that Jews were killed there. Jews did not count.
The horrendous thing about Babi Yar was that innocent people – women and children, infants, the old, the blind – were slaughtered there not because of anything they’d said or done but solely because of what they were.
The magnificent thing about Babi Yar was this: Surrounded by the stench of death, utterly humiliated, cruelly beaten, stripped of their clothing, the Jews refused to surrender their dignity. They had no weapons to resist with, other than the weapon of pride. They had nothing to fling in the face of their foes, other than their fierce will to live.
And though they had been brought up in a land were faith was not a praiseworthy quality, they possessed the faith ingrained in the very fiber of the Jewish psyche – faith that the Jews would endure, would survive, would ultimately triumph over all their enemies.
Indeed, a thousand years hence, our marching steps through history will yet thunder:
We survive. We are here. Anachnu po.
About the Author: Dr. Ervin Birnbaum is founder and director of Shearim Netanya, the first outreach program to Russian immigrants in Israel. He has taught at City University of New York, Haifa University, and the University of Moscow; served as national superintendent of education of Youth Aliyah and as the first national superintendent of education for the Institute of Jewish Studies; and, at the request of David Ben-Gurion, founded and directed the English Language College Preparatory School at Midreshet Sde Boker. Dr. Birnbaum’s memoir, “Turning Obstacles Into Stepping-Stones,” is now in its second printing and can be acquired by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org
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