After the Nazis entered Kyiv on September 16, 1941, its inhabitants felt a wave of "racial cleansing." According to Hitler’s ideas, there were “higher races” and “lower races”. The latter included Slavs, Jews, and Gypsies. The Nuremberg Law which was in force since 1935, required a clear division of the Reich population into citizens "belonging to German or kindred blood" and those "belonging to racially alien tribes." Most of the law concerned the Jews: their rights to civil and private life, as well as professional activities, were severely limited.
All over the world, Jews more often than others became victims of Nazism. Some of them were sent to forced labor, and many families were simply destroyed. There are still disputes over the number of victims. At the beginning of the Nuremberg trials, officials mentioned 6 million Jews died during World War II.
By 1941, up to 1 million Jews lived in Ukraine. The Nazis used various methods of extermination. For example, after the Lviv massacre on July 2-3, 1941, where 7 000 people died, the surviving Jews got into the ghetto, where they were expected to die slowly. Following Lviv, the destruction continued in the ghettos of Zhytomyr, Dnipropetrovsk, Odesa, Simferopil.
How did Babyn Yar begin?
On September 24, explosions thundered in the center of Kyiv. According to some reports, they were provoked by radio-controlled mines laid by the NKVD and the Red Army before the retreat. Soon, an order was distributed among the inhabitants of Kyiv that on September 29 all Jews were supposed to come to the appointed place at 8 in the morning, having documents, valuables, a supply of clothing and food for three days. Failure to comply with the order meant execution. In case of the concealment of Jews by their neighbors, everyone will also be shot. It is this date - September 29 - that will later become memorable, as the official date of the first execution in Babyn Yar.
According to researchers, in the first two days of the shootings on September 29 and 30, 1941, 33 771 people were killed. In total, 70 000 Jews, 5 Roma camps, about 700 patients from the Pavlovsky hospital, three football players from Dynamo Kyiv football team, as well as Soviet prisoners of war and Ukrainian nationalists, died in 1941-1943.
Memories of those who survived
The people recall that the Jews had no chance of salvation. Everyone who could not leave earlier and remained to live in Kyiv (and these were large families, women, children, the elderly and seriously ill), were forced to arrive at the indicated time. Then no one believed that so many defenseless people would be destroyed. Vasyl Mykhailivsky - one of the few survivors, recalls what he felt that day, being a 4-year-old child:
“There were a lot of people on Khreshchatyk street. I asked to buy flags and a balloon for me. On holidays, my dad and I went to a demonstration, he bought us toys. Of course, there was no time for balloons. I was in a good mood. So we went."
Approaching the place of gathering of citizens, people more and more clearly understood that they would not return back.
“Everyone had such an idea that the Germans were going to take the Jews somewhere. This idea was also reinforced by the fact that the order had a demand to take clothing and documents,” recalls Dina Pronicheva who saved herself miraculously.
People were ordered to undress; all valuables were dumped in a separate pile. Trying to save the children, the elders were ready for anything, but those who prayed for mercy were beaten and attacked by dogs. During the shootings in Babyn Yar, 29 people out of hundreds of thousands survived, 18 of them fled already in 1943, during the uprising of Syretsky camp prisoners.
The survivors owe their salvation to a fortune and people who, at the risk of themselves, tried to save innocent children.
"... Suddenly, a soldier took me by the arm from behind and easily pulled me up, to him. Now the ditch was behind me, as well as people and mom. The soldier showed with a nod of his head the direction I should go. I slowly went to the gate. There was an automatic burst behind my back ..." Raisa Steinberg recalls.
The Babyn Yar tragedy in art
From the 1950s, the authorities tried their best to destroy the memory of the Babyn Yar victims and conceal the death of thousands of Kyiv Jews. During the Soviet era, cultural figures more than once tried to describe the terrible events of those times in their works - all of them faced strict censorship. For example, after the publication of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem “There Are No Monuments Above the Babyn Yar” in Literaturnaya Gazeta, its editor Valery Kosolapov was fired.
The famous USSR composer Dmitry Shostakovich devoted his "Thirteenth Symphony" to the tragedy of Babyn Yar. The work was immediately greeted with apprehension by colleagues, no one dared to act as performers. Despite this, the “requiem for the innocently killed" touched the audience. Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whose poem “There is no monument over the Babyn Yar” inspired the composer, wrote about the premiere of the symphony: “something very rare happened to the audience: they cried, laughed, and smiled, and were touched - as if everyone experienced a personal shock, listened to the drama of his life ... "
Attempts to hide the truth
The ravine, which became the last refuge for a huge number of civilians, was partially destroyed, motorways were laid through it. A park appeared on one of its parts, and a housing estate began to be built in the remaining place. For almost 20 years, the Soviet authorities tried to conceal the tragedy, making the place of death of hundreds of thousands of people a place for draining waste from the Petrovsky brick plants.
In 1961, the Kurenivka district attracted the attention of citizens with a new catastrophe. Debris flow from a brick factory broke through an earthen rampart in Babi Yar and claimed, according to unofficial data, 1 500-2 000 lives of the population.
One of the Kurenivka tragedy liquidators, Dmytro Gavrylenko, said in one of his interviews:
"... So after the Kurenivka tragedy they said that it was Babyn Yar which avenged the disrespectful attitude to the memory of those who rested there."
Only in 1976 the commemoration of victims and the installation of memorials at memorial sites begin. In 1991, thanks to the initiative of Leonid Kuchma, a monument to those who died in Babyn Yar was installed.
What will be left after?
Historically, since the days of independent Ukraine, each new government has been contributing to memorialization and is attempting to ennoble Syretsky Park.
We have been talking about the reconstruction and creation of a worthy memorial complex for a long time, the Kyiv authorities were offered many options from architects from different parts of the world.
In December 2018, a project competition was opened to create the Holocaust Memorial Center. The winner was the Austrian team of the Querkraft Architekten bureau, which project is designed to create a complex that will combine the memory of the tragedy, a zone for tourism and recreation, discussion rooms and document stores for historians and researchers. The site of the Babyn Yar Memorial Center says that construction should be completed by 2023.
A long entrance, resembling a crevice, leads to the main exposition, its walls smoothly close above the visitor. According to the authors, the analogy is designed to show the plunge of society into the darkness of violence.
The exposition itself will be located at a depth of 20 meters.
After visiting the main exposition, the guest returns to the space filled with light. It is the heart of the memorial center speaking of hope and future. The creators claim that the architectural solutions of the whole center are built on the contrast between light and dark.
Last year, with the help of the Interesting Kyiv project founder Arseniy Finberg, everyone was given the opportunity to become participants in the Babyn Yar audio tour. By installing the Kyiv City Guide application, you can independently go on a tour of 7 locations and listen to an audio guide telling the story of each of these places.
The executive secretary of the Public Committee for Perpetuating the Memory of the Victims of Babyn Yar, Vitaly Nakhmanovich emphasized in an interview for Radio Liberty that now it is important to combine the efforts of citizens of different countries so that people understand that this is a tragedy not only of the Jewish people, but of the whole of Europe.
“The idea of harmony around the Babyn Yar is an idea of the value of someone else’s, and not one’s own life,” Vitaly Nakhmanovich emphasized.