Babi Yar — A European Holocaust Lesson for International Holocaust Remembrance Day
January 27, 2021 is the 76th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp by Soviet troops and it is observed as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
At the end of September in 1941, Nazi German death squad forces murdered the Jewish population of Kiev, Ukraine. When my grandchildren were in 10th grade studying the European Holocaust as part of the Global History curriculum in social studies, I organized these lesson materials for them and for use by teachers in the Hofstra University program where I work as a teacher educator. My family members are descendants of European Jews who lost family during the Nazi atrocities, but not at Babi Yar. We believe they were murdered on a railroad siding when a train that was transporting them to Lviv was requisitioned for use by German troops. With this post I am sharing the material about Babi Yar more broadly.
AIM: Why remember Babi Yar?
Babi Yar is a wooded ravine in the Ukrainian capital city of Kiev. In September 1941 it was the location of one of the worst massacres by Nazi forces of Eastern European Jews. According to carefully maintained German records, on September 29 and 30, 1941 33,771 Jews were murdered in cold blood by machine-gun fire and deposited in mass graves. Wounded were buried alive along with the dead. Confiscated money, valuables, and clothing were distributed to ethnic Germans living in Kiev or used by Nazi administrators of the occupied city. The decision to kill all the Jews in Kiev was made by the German military governor of Kiev, General Major Kurt Eberhard, the Police Commander for Army Group South, SS-Obergruppenführer Friedrich Jeckeln, and the SS para-military death squad commander Otto Rasch. Kurt Eberhard was captured and imprisoned by the United States authorities in November 1945. He committed suicide on September 8, 1947.
On 26 September 26, 1941 notices were posted in Kiev:
“All Yids of the city of Kiev and its vicinity must appear on Monday, September 29, by 8 o’clock in the morning at the corner of Mel’nikova and Dokterivskaya streets (near the Viis’kove cemetery). Bring documents, money and valuables, and also warm clothing, linen, etc. Any Yids[a] who do not follow this order and are found elsewhere will be shot. Any civilians who enter the dwellings left by Yids[a] and appropriate the things in them will be shot.”
The mass murder was carried out by special German forces reinforced by units of the Ukrainian auxiliary police and local collaborators. The commander of the SS unit reported:
“The difficulties resulting from such a large scale action — in particular concerning the seizure — were overcome in Kiev by requesting the Jewish population through wall posters to move. Although only a participation of approximately 5,000 to 6,000 Jews had been expected at first, more than 30,000 Jews arrived who, until the very moment of their execution, still believed in their resettlement, thanks to an extremely clever organization.”
According eyewitness testimony victims were ordered to undress and were beaten if they resisted:
“I watched what happened when the Jews — men, women and children — arrived. The Ukrainians led them past a number of different places where one after the other they had to give up their luggage, then their coats, shoes and over-garments and also underwear. They also had to leave their valuables in a designated place. There was a special pile for each article of clothing. It all happened very quickly and anyone who hesitated was kicked or pushed by the Ukrainians to keep them moving . . . Once undressed, they were led into the ravine which was about 150 metres [165 yards] long and 30 metres [32 yards] wide and a good 15 metres [16 yards] deep … When they reached the bottom of the ravine they were seized by members of the Schutzpolizei and made to lie down on top of Jews who had already been shot … The corpses were literally in layers. A police marksman came along and shot each Jew in the neck with a submachine gun … I saw these marksmen stand on layers of corpses and shoot one after the other … The marksman would walk across the bodies of the executed Jews to the next Jew, who had meanwhile lain down, and shoot him.”
When Soviet forces liberated Kiev in 1943, Western journalists visit the site of the massacre and interviewed survivors.
Bill Downs wrote in Newsweek about an interview with survivor Efim Vilkis:
“Vilkis said that in the middle of August the SS mobilized a party of 100 Russian war prisoners, who were taken to the ravines. On August 19 these men were ordered to disinter all the bodies in the ravine. The Germans meanwhile took a party to a nearby Jewish cemetery whence marble headstones were brought to Babi Yar to form the foundation of a huge funeral pyre. Atop the stones were piled a layer of wood and then a layer of bodies, and so on until the pyre was as high as a two-story house. Vilkis said that approximately 1,500 bodies were burned in each operation of the furnace and each funeral pyre took two nights and one day to burn completely. The cremation went on for 40 days, and then the prisoners, who by this time included 341 men, were ordered to build another furnace. Since this was the last furnace and there were no more bodies, the prisoners decided it was for them. They made a break but only a dozen out of more than 200 survived the bullets of the Nazi machine guns.”
Dina Pronicheva survived the massacre and in January 1946 testified at a war-crimes trial of German police on the events at Babi Yar. Pronicheva, a Soviet-Jewish actress tried to avoid execution by tearing up her identity card and claiming she was not Jewish however a German police officer recognized her. When pushed into the Babi Yar ravine, Pronicheva huddled among the corpses and made believe she was dead even as German troops machine-gunned the wounded. She was covered over by dirt but managed to claw her way out and escape in the dark.
Testimony of Dina Pronicheva about the Annihilation of the Jews in Babi Yar on September 29–30, 1941
“My name is Dina, Dina Mironovna Vasserman. I grew up in a poor Jewish family, was raised under Soviet rule in the spirit of internationalism and, thus, it is no wonder that I came to love a Russian boy, Nikolai Pronichev, married him, [and] lived with him in love and happiness. In that way I became Dina Mikhailovna Pronicheva. My [internal] passport identified me as a Russian. We had two children — a boy and a girl. Before the war I was an actress at the Kiev Young Viewers’ Theater. My husband left for the front on the second day of the war and I was left with our small children and a sick old mother. Hitler’s troops occupied Kiev on September 19, 1941 and from the very first day started to rob and kill Jews.… We were living in terror. When I saw the posters on the city’s streets and read the order: “All the Jews of Kiev must gather at Babi Yar,” about which we had no idea, in my heart I sensed trouble. A tremor shook my entire body. I understood that nothing good was awaiting us at Babi Yar. So I dressed my little ones, the younger one [the girl] who was 3 years old and the older one [the boy] — 5, packed their belongings into a small sack, and took my daughter and son to my Russian mother-in-law. Afterwards, I took my sick mother and, following the order, she and I started out on the way to Babi Yar. Hundreds, no thousands, of Jews were walking the same way. An old Jew with a long white beard walked next to me. He wore a talis [prayer shawl] and tefillin [phylacteries]. He was murmuring quietly. He prayed the same way as my father did when I was a child. Ahead of me a woman with two children in her arms walked along, while the third child clung to her apron-strings. The sick women and elderly people were taken by carts, on which bags and suitcases were piled up. Small children were crying. The older people who had difficulty walking were sighing in a barely audible way, but they silently continued their path of sorrow….
Russian husbands accompanied their Jewish wives. Russian wives accompanied their Jewish husbands. When we neared Babi Yar, shooting and inhuman cries could be heard. I started to grasp what was going on, but said nothing to my mother. When we entered the gate, we were ordered to hand over [our] documents and valuables, and to take off our clothes. One German approached my mother and tore her gold ring off her finger. Only then did my mother say [to me]: “Dinochka-you are Pronicheva, a Russian. You should save yourself. Run to your little ones. You should live for them.”
But I could not run. All around were standing Fascists armed with submachine-guns, Ukrainian [auxiliary] policemen, and fierce dogs ready to tear a human apart. Furthermore, how could I leave my mother alone? I hugged her, burst into tears, but I could not leave her.
My mother pushed me away from her, crying: “Go quickly!” I then approached a table where a fat officer was sitting, showed him my passport, and said quietly: “I am a Russian.” He looked closely at my passport, but at that moment a policeman came running up and muttered: “Don’t believe her, she is a kike. We know her.” The German told me to wait and to stand aside.
Each time I saw a new group of men and women, elderly people, and children being forced to take off their clothes. All [of them] were being taken to an open pit where submachine-gunners shot them. Then another group was brought. With my own eyes I saw this horror. Although I was not standing close to the pit, terrible cries of panic-stricken people and quiet children’s voices calling “Mother, mother…” reached me. I saw all this, but in no way could I understand how people were killing other human beings only because they were Jews. And then I understood that Fascists are not human beings, but beasts.I saw a young woman, completely naked, nursing her naked baby when a policeman came running up to her, tore the baby from her breast, and threw it into the pit alive. The mother rushed there after her baby. The fascist shot her and she fell down dead.
The German who ordered me to wait brought me to some superior of his, gave him my passport, and said to him: “This woman says she is a Russian, but a policeman knows that she is a kike.” The superior took the passport, examined it for a long time, and then muttered: “Dina is not a Russian name. You are a kike. Take her away!” The policeman ordered me to strip and pushed me to a precipice, where another group of people was awaiting their fate. But before the shots resounded, apparently out of fear, I fell into the pit. I fell on the [bodies] of those already murdered.
During the first moments I couldn’t grasp anything — either where I was or how I got there. I thought that I had gone mad, but when people started to fall on top of me, I regained consciousness and understood everything. I started to feel my arms, legs, stomach, [and] head to make certain that I had not even been wounded. I pretended to be dead. Those who had been killed or wounded were lying under me and on top of me — many were still breathing, others were moaning…. Suddenly I heard a child weeping and the cry: “Mummy!” I imagined my little girl crying and I started to cry myself. The shooting was continuing and people kept falling. I threw bodies off of me, afraid of being buried alive. I did so in a way that would not attract the attention of the policemen.
Suddenly all became quiet. It was getting dark. Germans armed with submachine-guns walked around, finishing off the wounded. I felt that somebody was standing above me, but I did not give any sign that I was alive, even though that was very difficult. Then I felt we were being covered with earth. I closed my eyes so that the soil would not get into them, and when it became dark and silent, literally the silence of death, I opened my eyes and threw the sand off me, making sure that no one was close by, no one was around, no one was watching me. I saw the pit with thousands of dead bodies. I was overcome by terror. In some places the earth was heaving — people half-alive were [still] breathing.
I looked at myself and was terror stricken — the undershirt covering my naked body was soaked with blood. I tried to stand up but was unable to do so. Then I said to myself: “Dina, stand up. Get away. Run from here, your children are waiting for you.” So I stood up and ran, but then I heard a shot and understood that I had been seen. I fell to the ground and remained silent. It was quiet. Still on the ground, I started to move quietly toward the high hill[s] surrounding the pit. Suddenly I felt that something was moving behind me. At first I was afraid and decided to wait for a minute. I turned around quietly and asked: “Who are you?” I was answered by a thin, scared child’s voice: “Auntie, don’t be afraid, it’s me. My name is Fima. My last name is Shnaiderman. I am 11 years old. Take me with you. I am very afraid of the dark. I moved closer to the boy, hugged him tightly, and started to weep silently. The boy said: “Don’t cry, Auntie.”
We both started to move silently. We reached the edge of the precipice, rested a little, and then continued to climb further, helping each other. We had reached the top of the pit and were standing, about to proceed in the direction we thought best, when a shot rang out. By instinct we both fell to the ground. We kept silent for several minutes, afraid to utter a single word. When I calmed down, I moved close to Fimochka, took shelter at his side, and asked him quietly: “How do you feel, Fimochka?” There was no answer. In the darkness I felt his arms and legs. He was not moving. There was no sign of life. I rose a bit and looked into his face. He was lying with closed eyes. I tried to open them until I realized that the boy was dead. Apparently the shot that was heard a moment earlier took his life. I caressed the boy’s cold face, bidding him farewell, then I stood up and started to run. Only after making sure I was far away from that terrible place called Babi Yar did I allow myself to walk upright, to a hut that could barely be made out in the darkness.
Excerpt from the poem BABI YAR by Yevgeni Yevtushenko
Translated by Benjamin Okopnik
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 . . .
Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.
And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.
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