I doubt many people know the name Babi Yar, or what happened there. Unless you read Legal Insurrection.

If I polled 10,000 college students, I’d be surprised if more than a handful ever heard of it.

Babi Yar is a large ravine in Kiev, Ukraine.


[Babi Yar ravine, image via Yad Vashem]

In September 1941, after the Nazis conquered what at the time was the Ukrainian Socialist Republic, part of the Soviet Union, the roundup of Jews was ordered. Ukrainian collaborators gladly assisted in the round up, particularly of Jewish women.


[Babi Yar, Jewish women collected local collaborators, image via Yad Vashem]

In just two days, September 29-30, 1941, Nazi special killing units assisted by collaborators and other German forces murdered over 33,000 Jews by rifle and gun in mass graves dug at the ravine.


[Babi Yar mass grave, image via Yad Vashem]

The two-day September bloodletting did not end the killing at Babi Yar. Over 100,000 would be murdered there, including non-Jews. In all 3,000,000 Ukrainians, almost a third of them Jews, would be executed by the Nazis in Ukraine.

As the Nazis withdrew from Ukraine, they ordered captured Soviet soldiers to exhume and burn the bodies in an attempt to cover up the crime.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum provides the following description:

Kiev was the capital of the Soviet Ukraine when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Some 160,000 Jews resided in Kiev, comprising about 20 percent of the city’s population.

Approximately 100,000 Jews fled Kiev in advance of the German occupation. German forces entered Kiev on September 19, 1941. Along with the rest of the Ukraine, the city was incorporated into the Reichskommissariat Ukraine, headed by East Prussian Nazi district leader Erich Koch. During the first days of the German occupation, two major explosions, apparently set off by Soviet military engineers, destroyed the German headquarters and part of the city center. The Germans used the sabotage as a pretext to murder the remaining Jews of Kiev. At that time, there were about 60,000 Jews in the city. Most of those who remained were women, children, the elderly, and the sick who had been unable to flee.

On September 29-30, 1941, SS and German police units and their auxiliaries, under guidance of members of Einsatzgruppe (mobile killing unit) C, murdered the Jewish population of Kiev at Babi Yar, a ravine northwest of the city. This was one of the largest mass murders at an individual location during World War II. As the victims moved into the ravine, Einsatzgruppe detachments shot them in small groups. According to reports by the Einsatzgruppe to headquarters, 33,771 Jews were massacred in two days. In the months following the massacre, German authorities stationed at Kiev killed thousands more Jews at Babi Yar, as well as non-Jews including Roma (Gypsies), Communists, and Soviet prisoners of war. It is estimated that some 100,000 people were murdered at Babi Yar.

The Soviet army liberated Kiev on November 6, 1943.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s 1961 poem, which was not officially published in the Soviet Union for over 20 years, is as powerful now as it was then:

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.

The rest of the poem is at the link.

A monument later was built, remembering the site as a general memorial to Soviet dead.

I visited the Babi Yar memorial in January 1979. The monument was typical Soviet style. I took this photo (a better close up not taken by me is here).

[Babi Yar Memorial 1979, photo by William Jacobson]

[Babi Yar Memorial 1979, photo by William Jacobson]

It would be another decade before a memorial recognizing that Babi Yar was a killing field for Jews was erected on the site.

Jewish Memorial at Babi Yar


President George H.W. Bush visited Babi Yar in August 1991. He remarked, in part:

We come to Babi Yar to remember. We remember violence and valor; we remember prejudice and selflessness. At Babi Yar, in the vast quiet here, something larger than life assails us: the shadows of past evil, the light of past virtue. The wind that shakes the leaves bears a special weight, as if whispering warnings and cautions, telling tales of victims and villains, cowards and heroes.

Babi Yar stands as a monument to many things. It reminds us that history gives our lives meaning and continuity and that any nation that tries to repudiate history, tries to ignore the actors and events that shape it, only repudiates itself.

For many years, the tragedy of Babi Yar went unacknowledged, but no more….

Let me quote the poet Yevtushenko, whose poem about Babi Yar helped restore remembrance of this place and of its history. Here’s what he wrote: On Babi Yar weeds rustle; the tall trees, like judges, loom and threaten. All screams in silence; I take off my cap and feel that I am slowly turning gray. And I, too, have become a soundless cry over the thousands that lie buried here. I am each old man slaughtered, each child shot. None of me will forget.

None of us will ever forget.

That Jewish memorial has been the subject of repeated vandalism over the years, including Swastikas and the burning of tires.

A few days ago, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, an Israeli flag was burned at the Babi Yar Jewish Memorial. The Times of Israel reports:

The mayor of Kiev on Thursday appealed to authorities for help in identifying a group of individuals caught on camera burning an Israeli flag at the city’s Babi Yar Holocaust memorial.

“Video surveillance recorded the group of young vandals burning the flag of the State of Israel near the Menora memorial, at Babi Yar,” Kiev Mayor Vitali Klitschko said in a statement, according to local media reports.

“This happened on the national Holocaust Remembrance Day, when the Jewish people all over the world remember the 6 million victims of Nazism, who perished during World War II,” he said.

Klitschko called the incident “unacceptable,” and appealed to law enforcement agencies for help in strengthening security measures at the site.

“It is intolerable to brutalize the memory of the victims. Especially at the place that which is globally known as one of the symbols of a terrible crime of fascism, at Babi Yar, where tens of thousands of people of different nationalities, the majority of them Jewish, were killed,” he said.

That an Israeli flag would be burned at Babi Yar comes as no real surprise. As we have documented so many times, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism have merged in the real world, even if intellectually there is a difference.

“Triumph of the Return” – On September 4, 2003, in a large ceremony, the Israeli Air Force flew three f-15 jets over the Auschwitz concentration camp in a show of the Jewish people’s continued strength and triumph over past adversities.

[Featured Image: The Atlantic, AP photo]