KIEV, Ukraine – The notices were posted around the capital of Soviet Ukraine: All Jews living in the city of Kiev and its vicinity must report by 8 o’clock on the morning of September 29, 1941, to the corner of Melnyka and Dokterivska streets (near the cemetery).
They were told to bring their ID cards, money and fresh clothes. Most thought the Nazi occupiers were deporting them to a Jewish ghetto. Some even arrived early in hope of getting a good seat on the train.
What met them that morning was death.
Forced to undress, the Jews were herded in groups – men, women and children – to the edge of a ravine. For 48 hours, the Nazis gunned down the crowd until at least 33,771 Jews had been massacred – a number recorded by the German shock troops – their lifeless bodies toppling down the embankment. In the ensuing months, the ravine would fill with an estimated 100,000 bodies, including other Kiev residents and Red Army prisoners.
Ukrainian and foreign dignitaries are preparing to mark the 65th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre – which Jewish leaders call a grim foreshadow of the Nazi’s “final solution” which killed six million European Jews – with two days of solemn commemorations starting Tuesday evening.
Four presidents, including Israeli President Moshe Katsav, and 1,000 guests representing 41 countries will attend the commemorations. Ukrainian officials are calling the event an effort to show the world that this ex-Soviet republic has completely shaken off the Soviet-enforced silence that clung to the tragedy for decades.
“Even though our state was not responsible for this crime, our nation and our society feel a need to unambiguously condemn this crime against humanity, this crime against the Jewish people and this crime against the Ukraine people,” said Markiyan Lubkivsky, a senior presidential aide.
The commemorations, initiated by President Viktor Yushchenko, come as Ukraine’s Jewish community has grown increasingly frustrated by manifestations of anti-Semitism. Last year, there were a series of attacks on Jews near a downtown synagogue, and anti-Semitic books and literature continue to be sold openly in some kiosks around the city center.
“In every country of the world, we have a very big problem and this problem is called the disease of xenophobia and anti-Semitism,” said Moshe Kantor, founder of the World Holocaust Forum and chairman of the European Jewish Congress. “We must pay attention to this disease because we have seen that 65 years ago this tragedy happened, mass murder in Kiev – and the world was absolutely tolerant toward this event. Europe was absolutely tolerant.”
Ukraine was once home to a thriving Jewish community; about 20 percent of Kiev’s population of 875,000 was Jewish before the war. Today, there are 103,000 Jews in all of Ukraine, according to official data, but the number is believed to be several times higher.
“Every Ukrainian city has its own Babi Yar,” said Roman Levith, 73, who survived because his mother managed to get new passports with Ukrainian-sounding last names that fooled the Nazis. Six of his relatives died.
The Babi Yar massacre began 10 days after the Nazis captured Kiev. As the Germans set up their headquarters here, radio-detonated bombs tore through building-after-building in the city center. It was the work of Soviet secret services, but the Germans blamed the Jews.
“I survived only because I don’t look like a Jew,” said Oleksiy Volikov, 72, who witnessed the Babi Yar executions firsthand as a seven-year-old boy. “People’s bodies were thrown into the pit like dead chickens.”
The exact number killed was never known; as the Red Army approached two years later, Jewish prisoners were ordered to dig up the bodies and burn them.
For years, the tragedy went officially unmarked.
The Soviet government erected a monument only after Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko drew international attention to the massacre with his 1961 poem, “Babi Yar,” which Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich set to music in his Symphony No. 13.
“Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar, the trees look sternly, as if passing judgment. Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand, I feel my hair changing shade to gray,” Yevtushenko wrote.
The Soviet monument – a towering bronze sculpture of twisted figures – memorialized those killed but made no mention of Jews. It wasn’t until 1991 that the Jewish community was allowed to erect a 10-foot menorah near another part of the ravine.
Today, Babi Yar, part of a popular tree-lined park, still has the air of a forgotten monument. Young couples slip past the hedges that mark the border to the ravine, where tens of thousands of bodies once lay, to stretch out on the carefully cut grass. In another part of the ravine, boys play soccer on a dirt field.
By Mara D. Bellaby
The Associated Press