On Sept. 29-30, 1941, the Germans with the help of Ukrainian collaborators developed a plan to eliminate the Jewish population of Kiev. Following the invasion of Kiev, 33,771 Jewish residents were rounded up at the old Jewish cemetery and told they were being sent to a resettlement facility. They stood in the cold waiting for instructions.
Many probably reflected on the rapid changes. Kiev had once been a magnet for Jewish culture. Previously, more than 160,000 Jews lived there, but most had fled Kiev as the Germans approached. On this cold day, half of the Jews who stayed were gathered in the old cemetery. They assumed they would be loaded onto trains and shipped to other places in Ukraine or the Soviet Union. Maybe it was due to the size of the crowd or the inconceivable nature of the truth, but no one realized what was happening until it was too late.
With cold and methodical precision, the Germans channeled each person into the old Babi Yar ravine. First, each soul was forced to relinquish his or her possessions. Next, they were forced to undress. Once naked, each man, woman and child was driven like cattle down a ravine measuring 150 meters by 30 meters. Once in the ravine, they were forced to the ground and shot in the back of the neck. Eventually the victims piled up, and each new victim was forced down upon murdered brothers, sisters and kinsmen.
They were stacked like firewood and mercilessly shot. The efficiency and callousness of the events are inconceivable. Later during the killing spree, victims were lined up at the edge of the cliff. As the machine gun bullets passed through their bodies, they fell in turn upon the mass grave. Periodically, German soldiers would climb down into the ravine and finish off those that had not succumbed to their initial wounds.
The events from that September mark the largest mass killing in the former Soviet Union during World War II. They also signaled things to come. It was estimated that before the Germans withdrew from Kiev, between 70,000 and 200,000 bodies had been disposed of in the ravine. The bodies were Jewish, Roma, Ukrainian and Russian. The killing did not stop in Kiev but spread through Ukraine and the Soviet Union.
The events at Babi Yar were not the result of the Nazi concept of Lebensunwertes Leben (“life unworthy of life”). These horrific events were driven by hatred. The murders were committed by a 150-member SS extermination team in response to a series of explosions and attacks against the German army’s headquarters and other military interests. While the attacks were most likely performed by the Russians, Jews were blamed for the explosions.
Babi Yar represents anger toward Jews. It represents hatred. It was a desire to remove those who didn’t fit the grand German order. The victims were seen as nonhumans. Objects. Things in the way. Ultimately, they were tossed out like the afternoon trash. This is the horror of Babi Yar. The horror that so many could be tossed out and covered up in a landfill should cause our hearts to weep.
We must take seriously the words of the Russian couplet, “No one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten.” Unfortunately, few in the West have even heard of Babi Yar. The Soviets kept the story of the massacre hidden for decades, and the modern world seems to want to move on and forget the dead.
Sixty years after the massacre, I walked that hallowed ground. Motionless, I could almost hear the gun fire. For some, this is a place that defines history, but for a vast majority it is a forgotten site.
Let us not forget. Let us not rob the dead of their memorial. Let us not forget the significance of what was lost. And let us avoid the truth of Yevgeni Yevtushenko’s opening line in his famous poem: “No monument stands over Babi Yar.”
Monty M. Self is the instructor of spirituality at Baptist Health Schools Little Rock and the oncology chaplain for the Baptist Health Medical Center Little Rock. He taught at the Kiev Theological Seminary from 1999-2003.
Senior Staff Chaplain and Clinical Ethicist at the Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.