Remembering Babi Yar

For five decades the communist rulers of Ukraine refused to even acknowledge that it occurred. Even during the subsequent 30 years, it was so barely recognized that in the minds of many, it was a footnote to history, all but forgotten.

Word that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — who is himself Jewish — has announced all Ukrainian schools would hold a national lesson dedicated to the eightieth anniversary of the tragedy of Babi Yar is noteworthy. As Zelensky readily acknowledged, some would hear these two terrible words for the first time in their lives.

Eighty years have now passed since the Jewish residents of Kiev were instructed to report for “resettlement” within three days. Billboards announced that “All Yids living in the city of Kiev and its vicinity are to report by 8 o’clock on the morning of Monday, September 29, 1941, at the corner of Melnikovsky and Dokhturov Streets (near the cemetery). They are to take with them documents, money, valuables, as well as warm clothes, underwear, etc. Any Yid not carrying out this instruction and who is found elsewhere will be shot.”

According to the classic textbook Witness to History, most of the Jews still in Kiev — primarily the elderly, women, children, poor, or invalids — complied. Oblivious to their destination, the Jews packed their clothing into suitcases, prepared food for the journey, and found carts or wagons to carry their belongings. On Monday, September 29 — the day before Erev Yom Kippur — soldiers marched a huge, slow-moving crowd through the streets of Kiev to Babi Yar, a ravine beyond the cemetery on the outskirts of the city.

The women, children and remaining men were taken in groups of 30 or 40 people and made to hand over all their possessions, valuables, and documents. Stripped of all they owned, they were then forced through a gauntlet of screaming Germans and Ukrainians, who beat them as they passed. Bloody, injured and bewildered, the Jews staggered out of this gauntlet and found themselves in a field, where Ukrainian militiamen brutally beat them into undressing.

Then they were led to the ravine, where they were either shot over the edge, or pushed into the ravine and shot on the spot. Over a two-day period — the eighth and ninth days of Tishrei — German soldiers belonging to the infamous Einsatzgruppe massacred 33,771 Jews, men, women and children.

The Babi Yar massacre is marked in the annals of history for its scale, inhumanity and shocking public exposure to the local population. The images of this massacre are so disturbing that Witness to History chose instead to place a large black box next to the text, and within it a single paragraph in white letters:

In fulfillment of the Jewish precept of kvod hameis, respect for the dead, we have chosen to leave a silent space to symbolize the unspeakable horrors that the Jews experienced in the killing fields and death camps. This is the place of the innumerable testimonies and images of those experiences that, constrained by limitations of space and sensitivity to our readers, we have not printed in this book.

As the Ukrainian government finally begins to acknowledge this horrific chapter in history, we must reflect on our role and obligations in ensuring that the kedoshim of Babi Yar are never forgotten. We certainly can’t rely on Kiev — or Berlin for that matter — to fulfill our duties towards the kedoshim.

The question we have to ask ourselves is: What are we going to do for them — and for us and our children?

One survivor of Babi Yar later recalled:

Next to me walked an old man with a long beard. He was wrapped in a tallis and tefillin. He was whispering. He prayed exactly as my father did when I was a small child.

Through the learning of Mishnayos, the recital of Kaddish, and telling a new, fourth generation about the spiritual heroism of the kedoshim of Babi Yar and of all the other victims of the Holocaust, we help ensure that their memory is kept alive. n