Today, Kiev was completely enveloped by a big grey cloud. Not raining but the dampness meant that you could really feel the cold and taste it every time you took a breath.
Anyway, braving his depressing weather, I took a trip today to one of the saddest places I’ve even been in Europe. This small park/ravine in Kiev (Babi Yar) was the site of an unimaginable act of mass murder by the occupying German forces during WWII.
A full description of the massacre is given here: www.holocaustresearchproject.org However, in brief, 33,771 Jews were killed in a single operation on September 29–30, 1941.
“One after the other, they had to remove their luggage, then their coats, shoes, and overgarments and also underwear … Once undressed, they were led into the ravine which was about 150 meters long and 30 meters wide and a good 15 meters deep … When they reached the bottom of the ravine they were seized by members of the Schutzpolizei and made to lie down on top of Jews who had already been shot … The corpses were literally in layers. A police marksman came along and shot each Jew in the neck with a submachine gun … I saw these marksmen stand on layers of corpses and shoot one after the other … The marksman would walk across the bodies of the executed Jews to the next Jew, who had meanwhile lain down, and shoot him”
According to data online, executions of Jews, Ukrainians, Gypsies and others continued in Babi Yar throughout the period of the Nazi occupation of Kiev, ending with the liberation of Kiev in November 1943, totalling up to 120,000 victims.
Having read this before, I was expecting a huge, wide valley with steep slopes but this isn’t the case, the park is small and sad which strangely adds to the emotion of the place.
Unlike Auschwitz, with it’s guides, museums and entrance fee, this park just sits in a sadly unimpressive residential suburb between two main roads and next to a metro station. A large Soviet era monument stands in the middle of the valley and people walk their dogs, play with kids and drink beer. In fact, dotted around the park are numerous pairs of empty beer bottles. Not discarded or broken, just stood together on the floor as if they’re also mini grave-stones to mark past conversations.
A few other plaques exist, a Soviet one that (not wanting to acknowledge differences amoungst the soviet people) desn’t refer to the Jewish aspect of this crime and one, a Jewish one that, although faded almost completely, reads: “I will put my breath into you, and you shall live again”
In a sick ‘final insult’ the retreating German army attempted to hide the evidence of this crime using chained Jewish prisoners to exhume the bodies, burn them and scatter the ashes on the surrounding fields.
Another troubling but happy-happy ending (if anything associated with this place can be happy) story is that of Dina Pronicheva, an actress of the Kiev Puppet Theatre. According to wikipedia, “She was one of those ordered to march to the ravine, forced to undress, and then shot. Jumping before being shot and falling on other bodies, she played dead in a pile of corpses. She held perfectly still while the Nazis continued to shoot the wounded or gasping victims. Although the SS had covered the mass grave with earth, she eventually managed to climb through the soil and escape. Since it was dark, she had to avoid the flashlights of the Nazis finishing off the remaining victims still alive, wounded and gasping in the grave. She was one of the very few survivors of the massacre.”
She survived and told her horrifying story to author Anatoly Kuznetsov who documented the massacre.
Anyway, I walked around the park, watched an old man approach and pay his respects at the plaque at the bottom of the memorial, tried to imagine the horror of those two days and left much sadder than when I arrived. I also left convinced that, whatever they like us to believe – life was absolutely not better in our grandparents era. Thanks to their efforts it is a lot better in ours.