80 years after the Nazi massacre, the ghosts of Babi Yar still haunt Ukraine
Eighty years ago, around 34,000 Jews were lined up and killed in a ravine in the Ukrainian capital Kiev during the biggest Nazi massacres of World War II. They were then buried in mass graves and left for the world to forget.
Further horrors followed the massacres of 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 in Babi. Yar.
The dark point of the story is not forgotten, however. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine remembered it with civilian memorials as a lesson from the past. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy laid flowers at the foot of the Menorah Memorial, and another ceremony is scheduled for October 6.
âBabi Yar. Two short words that sound like two short shots but carry long and horrific memories from several generations,â Zelenskyy said at the memorial.
Anatoly Podolsky, director of the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies in Kiev, told Euronews that the Jewish population and others had no idea what was to come back then due to lack of information on Nazi atrocities and anti-Semitism at the start of the war.
This was due to the German-Soviet non-aggression pact, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, signed between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939.
âOver the years, I spoke to a lot of people from that time, and they hadn’t seen it coming. During the German occupation in World War I, many said they were treated well. So they didn’t expect these atrocities to happen during WWII, âsays Podolsky, who says the Soviet Union did not inform the local population of Kiev or Ukraine in general of this. that was going to happen.
The few survivors
One of Babi Yar’s survivors was Dina Pronicheva, who was ordered to descend into the ravine and undress before the shooting started. She avoided the fate of many others by jumping before the shootings and playing dead among the corpses.
She gasped when the Nazi SS soldiers began to cover the graves.
“All around stood fascists armed with machine guns, Ukrainian policemen and ferocious dogs ready to tear a human apart,” she declared after the war.
âI pretended to be dead. Those who had been killed or injured lay under me and on top of me – many were still breathing, others were moaningâ¦. Suddenly I heard a child cry and the cry, âMom! I imagined my little girl crying and started to cry myself.
âIt was getting dark. Germans armed with machine guns circled around, finishing off the wounded. I felt that someone was standing above me, but I gave no sign that I was alive, although it was very difficult. Then I felt that we were covered with earth.
“I closed my eyes so that the earth would not enter it, and when it became dark and silent, literally the silence of death, I opened my eyes and threw the sand out of me, making sure that no one was nearby, not one of them was there, no one was looking at me, âPronitcheva said.
About 29 people are known to have survived Babi Yar, and Podolsky says the atrocity still has a significant impact on Jews and others living in Ukraine today. Many Jews, who fled their homelands, never returned, and this day is a way to remember history, he says.
Yaakov Dov Bleich is the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine and the Vice President of the World Jewish Congress. He said remembering is vital for everyone.
âIt’s not just 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 Jews, but the meaning is for all because of hatred.
âEliminating an entire community in two days is something that is very difficult for us, even today 80 years later, to understand,â says Bleich.
The fight for history
The Ukrainian government is planning to build a Holocaust memorial center in Kiev, which does not have everyone’s support in Ukraine.
Podolsky says the construction is controversial because the government is cooperating with a Russian organization, while Bleich says the plans are good as families and the world will have a place to mourn.
âTens of thousands of people have been killed. Hundreds of thousands or millions of people have families who died there. They had no place to go to pray; there are hundreds of thousands of people without tombstones, âBleich said,â It gives closure and peace. â
While Ukrainians agree on the atrocities committed at Babi Yar, the history of the Nazis and their occupation in general is a controversial subject in Ukraine, when it comes to other matters during the war. This is in part due to Ukrainians’ views on controversial figures such as Stepan Bandera, Podolsky explains.
The Ukrainian government is considering giving the title of “Hero of Ukraine” to Bandera because he fought for Ukrainian independence in the 1930s and 1940s, but for others it is 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 World War II. Bandera was, however, imprisoned for several years during the atrocities.
âWe need to be open about our history and the role of people like Bandera during WWII,â says Podolsky, âHe’s a hero to some, and we need to be open about Ukraine’s own role. I believe that the Babi Yar atrocities, on which we all agree, may be a way for us to move away from Ukrainian and also Soviet nationalist understanding of our history and towards a more liberal and open understanding.
Bleich says Ukraine has to face the legacy of people like Bandera, but he says Ukraine has come a long way and there isn’t a lot of anti-Semitism in Ukraine. Recently, Ukraine also approved a new law banning anti-Semitism.
âIt’s important to find the balance and understand what is the heroization that he (Bandera) has made. And we have to be able to say that they did things that were wrong. Some of these heroes have participated in crimes against humanity, and Ukraine must decide who it wants as a hero â,
âIt’s important to take everything in context. For that, we need historians. (To answer) how, why and what happened. Something Ukraine is also working on, but it’s taking their time. “