KIEV, Ukraine – Bells gently tolled as Ukrainian and foreign dignitaries on Wednesday commemorated the 65 th anniversary of the Nazi massacre of Jews at the Babi Yar ravine, placing flower-encircled candles at the foot of a giant monument to the tens of thousands of victims.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Israeli President Moshe Katsav led the solemn procession behind an honor guard of Ukrainian soldiers carrying a garland of white flowers.
Hundreds of mourners – many Jews who had traveled from around the world – watched, clutching their own offerings of red and white carnations. Some carried small stones, which Jews traditionally leave at grave sites as a sign of respect.
«For me, it is not just memories,» said Dina Maydanyk, 74, whose three brothers died in the Holocaust. «It’s a horror.»
The massacre began on Sept. 29, 1941, when Soviet Kiev’s Nazi occupiers ordered all Jews to report to a ravine on the outskirts of town.
The Jews thought they would be taken to a ghetto, and Kiev residents recalled their Jewish neighbors lugging their most valuable belongings out to the ravine.
But when they got there, the Jews were forced to undress and gather in lines along the ravine’s steep embankment. There, the Nazis machine-gunned down the crowd, killing at least 33,771 over 48 hours. In the ensuing months, the number of people killed at Babi Yar grew to more than 100,000.
«I saw how the Germans were laughing and joking when they looked at the people they were bringing to their death,» said Nina Isayeva, 82, who came to pay tribute to the victims. «What barbarians they were.»
Moshe Kantor, founder of the World Holocaust Forum that is organizing the events, said that the world’s silence after Babi Yar emboldened the Nazis to embark on their «final solution» of death camps that ultimately killed six million European Jews.
The exact death toll at Babi Yar remains unknown. The Nazi executioners recorded the number of Jews killed in the first two days, but there are no exact records of subsequent killings. In 1943, as the Red Army approached to free Ukraine, the Nazis ordered Jewish prisoners to dig up the corpses and burn them.
For decades, the Soviets maintained silence about what happened in Babi Yar. Only after Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko drew international attention to the massacre with his 1961 poem «Babi Yar,» did the Soviets put up a towering monument of twisted and tormented figures. It did not mention Jews, however. It wasn’t until 1991, as the Soviet Union began to crumble, that Jews were allowed to erect a menorah near another part of the ravine.
Today, the ravine is part of a popular park, and Jewish leaders say they are frustrated that children still play soccer and couples picnic where tens of thousands were massacred.
Wednesday’s commemorations were being held at the Soviet memorial, although the Jewish community held an earlier private ceremony at the menorah across the park.
By Natasha Lisova
The Associated Press