The Babyn Yar memorial in Ukraine commemorates the lost lives of 100,000 people murdered by Nazis and their conspirators in one of the largest mass killings during the Holocaust. Mass killings – sometimes referred to as ‘Holocaust by bullets’ – are a lesser-discussed horror, perhaps because there are no physical reminders, like the barracks and crematoria we see in camps, left in those places. This highlights the necessity of built memorials like the one at Babyn Yar. The construction of the Babyn Yar memorial was a long and uncertain journey, and a Russian airstrike on March 1, 2022 that damaged the Babyn Yar memorials is an important reminder of that process, and of the histories of post-war antisemitism in Eastern Europe.
The Nazis entered Kyiv on September 19, 1941. Within days, the Einsatzgruppen, a group of special forces consisting of members of the S.S. and Gestapo, begin to plan the elimination of the remaining Jewish population in the city who had been unable to evacuate —mostly women, children, and elderly people. On September 28, 1941, the Nazis distributed 2,000 notices around the city demanding that Jews gather at 8 AM the following day near the Russian and Jewish cemeteries. Because they were told to pack “documents, money and valuables, and also warm clothing, bed linen,” many Jews believed they were to be resettled.
That same morning, the Einsatzgruppen marched the Jews to the outskirts of Kyiv to a ravine called Babyn Yar which, in Ukrainian, simply means “the ravine.” The Nazi soldiers forced the Jewish people there to strip naked and enter the ravine, where they were shot in groups by machine guns. The 33,371 victims killed on September 29 and September 30 were the first of 100,000 people who were murdered in that singular location, 90% of whom were Jewish, but the Nazis also murdered on the basis of single or overlapping identities and ideologies including dissidents, partisans, Ukrainian nationalists, ethnic Roma, LGBTQ+ people, and people with disabilities.
Struggling with Antisemitism
To understand the importance of the monument at Babyn Yar, it is necessary to examine the resistance from the Soviet Union to erecting any monument at the site, let alone a monument acknowledging the Jewish lives lost at Babyn Yar.
When World War II ended, Ukraine was incorporated into the Soviet Union, which remained silent on the subject of Babyn Yar. Meanwhile, the Stalinist government perpetuated antisemitic stigma casting Jewish people as unpatriotic and incapable of loyalty to the countries in which they live. When later First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev became the Communist Party leader in Ukraine, directly following the War, he declined to build a monument at Babyn Yar twice. Instead, the government initiated plans to build a sports stadium at the site. The preliminary phase of building the stadium required authorities to build a dam, which flooded into Kyiv in March 1961, killing approximately 150 residents and renewing the city’s public conversations about the site of Babyn Yar and the events that had transpired there. Soon after, authorities paved over the site, digging up the bones of many victims in the process and leveling a nearby cemetery.
Still, every year on September 29th, the anniversary of the first Babyn Yar massacre, Jews defied authorities and gathered at Babyn Yar. In 1966, Jews hung an unofficial memorial sign at Babyn Yar. In 1972, 27 Jews were arrested and imprisoned for putting flowers on the ground at Babyn Yar. A year later, 1,000 Jews arrived to commemorate the deaths of victims. Again, five arrests were made, religious services were banned, and attendees were forbidden from lighting menorahs.
By this point, the eyes of Jews across the Soviet Union were on Babyn Yar. The voice of a singular Ukrainian poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, had risen above the repressive Soviet controls, demanding recognition. His poem began:
“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.”
The poem reverberated around the Soviet Union, finding its way ultimately to Khrushchev’s desk.
The Soviet Union erected a monument at Babyn Yar in 1976 that, keeping to its ideals of nationalism before any other identity, read, “Here in 1941-43 German Fascist invaders executed more than 100,000 citizens of the city of Kyiv and prisoners of war.” The Soviet Union was still unwilling to acknowledge that Babyn Yar was a killing site for Jews specifically, or that it was one of many such sites that comprised the larger Holocaust.
It was not until Ukrainian independence in 1991 that the famous monument in the shape of a menorah was built at the site. Fifty years since the first massacre, formal recognition for Jewish death and the Holocaust was finally granted to the world, thanks to grassroots movement of Ukrainian and Russian Jews and their friends.
Honoring the sanctity of the site, where so many perished, is an essential part of the Jewish story and the history of antisemitism’s applications in Ukraine and Russia.