80 years ago, around 34,000 Jews were lined up and killed in a ravine in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv in the biggest Nazi mass killings during World War Two. They were then buried in mass graves and left for the world to forget.
More horrors followed the mass killings on September 29 and 30 as the Nazis continued to round up Jews, the mentally ill, Soviet prisoners, and others over the following years, killing up to 200,000 in total at Babi Yar.
The dark spot in history is, however, not forgotten. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has remembered it with civil memorials as a lesson of the past. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy laid flowers at the foot of the Menorah memorial, and another ceremony is planned for October 6.
“Babi Yar. Two short words that sound like two short shots but carry long and horrible memories of several generations,” Zelenskyy said at the memorial.
Anatoly Podolsky, the director at the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies in Kyiv, told Euronews that the Jewish population and others had no idea of what was coming back then due to the lack of information about the Nazi atrocities and anti-Semitism this early in the war.
That was due to the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, the so-called Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, signed between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939.
“Over the years, I have spoken to many from that time, and they had not seen it coming. During the German occupation in the First World War, many said that they were treated okay. They, therefore, didn’t expect these atrocities to happen in the Second World War,” says Podolsky, who says that the Soviet Union didn’t inform the local population in Kyiv or Ukraine overall about what was coming.
The few who survived
One of the survivors of Babi Yar was Dina Pronicheva, who was ordered to march down in the ravine and undress before the shootings started. She avoided the fate of many others by jumping before the shootings and playing dead among the corpses.
She gasped for air as the Nazi SS soldiers started to cover the graves.
“All around were standing fascists armed with submachine guns, Ukrainian policemen, and fierce dogs ready to tear a human apart,” she testified after the war.
“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.”
“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,” Pronicheva said.
About 29 people are known to have survived Babi Yar, and Podolsky says that the atrocity still significantly impacts Jews and others living in Ukraine today. Many Jews, who fled their homeland, never returned, and the day is a way to remember history, he says.
Yaakov Dov Bleich is the chief rabbi in Ukraine and the vice-president of the World Jewish Congress. He said that remembering is vital for everyone.
“This is not only a Jewish thing; it was a crime against humanity. They could have been doctors, nurses, engineers. They were people. They were killed because they were Jewish, but the significance is for all because of the hate.
"To wipe out an entire community in two days is something that is very hard for us, even today 80 years later, to understand,” Bleich says.
The fight for history
The Ukrainian government plans to build a Holocaust Memorial Centre in Kyiv, which isn’t getting support from everyone in Ukraine.
Podolsky says that the construction is controversial because the government is cooperating with a Russian organisation, while Bleich says that the plans are good as the families and the world will get a place to mourn.
“Tens of thousands were killed. Hundreds of thousands or millions have families that died there. They had no place to go to pray; there are hundred thousand people without gravestones,” Bleich said, “It gives closure and peace.”
While Ukrainians agree about atrocities at Babi Yar, the history of the Nazis and their occupation overall is a controversial topic in Ukraine, when it comes to other topics during the war. That is partly due to some Ukrainians opinion of controversial figures such as Stepan Bandera, explains Podolsky.
The Ukrainian government is considering giving the title ‘Hero of Ukraine’ to Bandera because he fought for Ukrainian independence back in the 1930s and 1940s, but to others, he is an anti-Semitic war criminal who cooperated with the Nazis. His movement is accused of having killed up to 100,000 Jews and Poles during WW2. Bandera was, however, jailed for several years during the atrocities.
“We need to be open about our history and the role of people such as Bandera in the Second World War,” explains Podolsky, “He is a hero for some, and we need to be open about Ukraine’s own role. I think that the atrocities in Babi Yar, which we all agree upon, can be a way for us to move away from the Ukrainian nationalist and also Soviet understanding of our history and into a more liberal and open understanding.”
Bleich says that Ukraine has to deal with the legacy of people like Bandera, but he says that Ukraine has come a long way, and there isn’t much anti-Semitism in Ukraine. Recently, Ukraine also approved a new law banning anti-Semitism.
“It is important to get the balance and understand what is the heroization that he (Bandera) did. And we have to be able to say that they did things that were wrong. Some of these heroes did participate in crimes against humanity, and Ukraine has to decide whom they want for heroes,”
“It is important to take everything in the proper context. For that we need historians. (To answer) how, why, and what happened. Something Ukraine is working on as well, but it is taking time for them.”