Babi Yar

Babi Yar is a ravine outside of Kiev, in the Ukraine. Sixty-five years ago yesterday, the German occupying forces in Kiev posted signs throughout the city reading:

All Jews living in the city of Kiev and its vicinity are to report by 8 o’clock on the morning of Monday, September 29, 1941, to the corner of Melnikovsky and Dokhturov Streets (near the cemetery). They are to take with them documents, money, valuables, as well as warm clothes, underwear, etc. Any Jew not carrying out this instruction and who is found elsewhere will be shot. Any civilian entering flats evacuated by Jews and stealing property will be shot.

At the time, there were about 175,000 Jews living in Kiev and its suburbs. Sixty-five years ago today, on September 29, 1941, thousands of Jewish men, women, and children reported as ordered, expecting to be taken onto trains and deported. At the meeting-place they were surrounded by German soldiers and local collaborators from the Ukrainian auxiliary police, who drove them into small groups of ten, forced them to the edge of the gorge, and then opened fire with machine guns. The mobile killing unit Einsatzgruppe C, which kept records of the massacre, reported that they systematically killed 33,771 Jews from Kiev in two days, on September 29th and September 30th.

Here is a photograph of German soldiers, stepping through a landscape completely covered with fallen bodies at Babi Yar gorge.

After the end of World War II, Stalin’s regime became increasingly anti-Semitic, and the Soviet government refused repeated demands to build a memorial to the dead. This is a poem that the Ukrainian poet Yevgeny Aleksandrovich Yevtushenko wrote twenty years after the massacre, in 1961. The poem became widely known through recitations and samizdat circulation, but could not be published through the State-controlled press until 1984.


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.

I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander over the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails.

It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself.
The Philistines betrayed me – and now judge.
I’m in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I’m persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.

I see myself a boy in Belostok
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.

I’m thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!
My mother’s being beaten by a clerk.

O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.

I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The antisemites have proclaimed themselves
The Union of the Russian People!

It seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I’m in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other’s eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed — very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.

They come!

No, fear not — those are sounds
Of spring itself. She’s coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!

They break the door!

No, river ice is breaking…

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.

No fiber of my body will forget this.
May Internationale thunder and ring
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.

There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!

Y.A. Yevtushenko (1961), translated by Benjamin Okopnik (1996)

A memorial to the dead was finally placed at Babi Yar in 1991, fifty years after the massacre.

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