Source: The Associated Press
KIEV, Ukraine—Tsezar Kats thought it was a Soviet parade as he marched with Jews out to Ukraine’s Babi Yar ravine in 1941, but the absence of balloons and red Soviet flags puzzled the 4-year-old.
Then he saw the piles of discarded clothes and heard the cries. Through his Ukrainian babysitter’s quick thinking, Kats escaped the brutal fate that awaited tens of thousands of his fellow Ukrainian Jews at the hands of their Nazi occupiers.
Sixty-five years later, Kats returned Wednesday to join Ukrainian and foreign dignitaries in honoring the victims of the Babi Yar massacre. «I feel grief for those who lay here,» he said. «Let God never allow this to be repeated.»
The mass murder that began on Sept. 29, 1941, on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital has come to be seen as forewarning of the gas chambers and crematoria of the Nazi’s Final Solution that killed 6 million European Jews. For decades, Babi Yar was also a symbol of Soviet-enforced silence, but independent Ukraine has made a growing effort to mark the date more publicly.
«I clearly and without any doubts confirm that in Ukraine there will never be found a place for interethnic intolerance and religious hatred,» President Viktor Yushchenko said as he opened the «Let My People Live» forum in remembrance of Babi Yar victims.
Ten days after Kiev fell to the Nazis, the Germans ordered all Jews to report to a ravine on the outskirts of town. The Jews expected trains to take them to a ghetto.
But when they got there, the Jews were forced to undress and gather in lines along the ravine’s steep embankment. The Nazis machine-gunned down the crowd, killing at least 33,771 over 48 hours, according to records kept by the executioners. In the ensuing months, the number of people killed at Babi Yar grew to more than 100,000, and included Roma, or Gypsies, as well as other Kiev residents and Red Army prisoners.
«It was awful. I could not sleep during the nights .. I heard machine-gun fire and cries,» said 80-year-old Olena Karbashnya, who lived near the ravine.
Yushchenko and Israeli President Moshe Katsav led commemorations Wednesday at a giant Soviet-era monument to the dead. As bells gently tolled, they lay flowers and candles at the foot of the statue.
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; many cried. Ukrainian state television broadcast the proceedings live.
«Our mind cannot understand what has happened .. For what .. Why,»- Katsav said.
Moshe Kantor, founder of the World Holocaust Forum, which is organizing the events, said that the world’s silence after Babi Yar emboldened the Nazis.
«Babi Yar was the turning point,» -he said.
Kats, who today uses the more Ukrainian-sounding name Vasyl Mikhaylovsky, said he survived Babi Yar only because his babysitter showed soldiers her Ukrainian passport after she realized what was happening. The babysitter, Nadezhda Fomina, hid Kats in Kiev for two weeks. But growing increasingly fearful for both of their lives and running out of places to hide the child, she found him a spot in an orphanage, where he survived the war and was later adopted, Kats said.
The exact death toll at Babi Yar remains unknown. 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 monument.
By Natasha Lisova
The Associated Press