06 October 2007

Babi Yar

I visited Babi Yar on Friday, September 21, just a few days before I left Kiev.

Babi Yar is a huge depression in the ground stretching for the equivalent of several city blocks. At the time of World War II it was just outside Kiev to the northwest, but the city has grown since than and now surrounds it. The Babi Yar area itself is a gigantic park now. I did not see any signs or other markers that said "Babi Yar" on them. If it weren't for the three memorials at the site, you would never know what had happened there.

When the Germans captured Kiev in September 1941, they issued an order for all the Jews in the city to report to a certain point for "deportation". 33,771 Jews obeyed the call (it's typical of German meticulousness that we have such an exact number). They were taken to Babi Yar, forced to dig mass graves for themselves, and then shot. The Germans continued to use Babi Yar as a mass execution site throughout the occupation for groups they deemed undesirable: Gypsies, Communists, Ukrainian nationalists, the mentally ill, and especially Jews. After the war it was estimated that about 100,000 people were killed there; more recent data put the total number of victims at more than twice that figure.

Again, I saw very little at Babi Yar to show that all this happened. The easily-accessible part of the park was full of people, mostly women with small children. It's just an ordinary park to them.

As for the three memorials:

The official Soviet memorial, built in the 1970s, is near the south end of the park; it's a huge, impressive sculpture with inscriptions in Russian, Ukrainian, and Yiddish commemorating "100,000 Soviet citizens" who died there (Soviet official policy downplayed the fact that Jews were especially targeted by the Nazis). The sculpture, almost Classical in impression, depicts a great mass of human figures in torment.

The other two are the children's memorial in the central part of the park, and the Jewish memorial in the northeast, at the actual site of the great first massacre -- both of these were built after the USSR broke up and Ukraine became independent. The children's memorial is highly visible because it is right in front of the north exit from the park's metro station. It depicts two children's figures with arms raised in vain supplication (a third figure appears to represent a doll), with the simple inscription in Ukrainian "To the children shot at Babi Yar".

The Jewish memorial is in a less-frequented area of the park and there was almost no one around when I was there. It is in the form of a large menorah on a pyramidal base, facing a wide area paved with stone tiles. Ceremonies are sometimes held there (most recently on Sept. 10 -- I saw a photo of it in the newspaper). There is a dedication marker dated 2001 with the name of Moshe Katsav, the President of Israel, and an inscription in Ukrainian, Hebrew and English mourning the murdered Jews.

Before World War II, several million Jews lived in Poland and Ukraine (Kiev's population then may have been as much as 20% Jewish), with a thriving and distinctive culture which had existed in the area for centuries. In just a few years, the Nazis murdered almost all of them. I have now seen one of the places where this happened. I tried to take in the fact that that place was the last thing all those thousands upon thousands of people saw as they were killed, but I honestly could not really grasp it.

Kiev's Jewish history also includes a certain woman who was born in the city in 1898, in a house less than five miles from Babi Yar. She did not experience the Nazi occupation, because her family emigrated to the United States when she was still a child. As an adult she participated in the foundation of the new state created to ensure that nothing like Babi Yar would ever happen again, and later she became its leader. Her name was Golda Meir.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm reading back through some of your posts on your trip, because I want to spend more time. You've really shared some fascinating things here.

that place was the last thing all those thousands upon thousands of people saw as they were killed
That is profoundly sad. Depressing. *sigh*

23 October, 2007 15:28  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

It was a very sad place, despite the lack of much visible sign of what happened. 33,000 people is equivalent to a good-sized suburb. What it must have been like when that many people were shot and killed in one place, on one day, is something I can't really imagine.

We are far too casual these days about comparing every evil in sight to the Nazis. No one who has really grasped the kinds of things that the Nazis did would do that.

23 October, 2007 18:02  

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