From the start of WWII, a main aim of the Nazi’s, on top of conquering Europe, was to rid the world of the “Jewish problem”. This, as everyone is well aware, we now know as the Holocaust and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 6 million Jews. Everyone knows names Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and of course Auschwitz – the camps where the Nazis first herded the Jewish people, and then commenced their extermination, but what is less well-known are the tactics the Nazis adopted when the Eastern Front opened.
Much Worse on the Eastern Front
As the Germans advanced into Ukraine, gone were all pretences to relocation or “work camps”. Now they simply posted notices commanding all Jewish people in the area to present themselves at a certain place at a certain time, took them to a predetermined location, often not even a secluded one, and massacred them with machine gun fire. The bodies were then unceremoniously dumped in mass graves, many of which are still being discovered to this day.
While the names of the concentration camps in Poland and Germany are infamous throughout the world as sites of some of the worst atrocities ever committed, the name Babiy Yar is not so well known, except for here in Ukraine that is.
From ancient times, Babiy Yar was thought to be a wicked place, and there’s a myth that says that when Christianity was first introduced to Kyiv Rus, Babiy Yar was the place where all statues to pagan gods were buried. Even before the Nazis arrived, long before the start of WWII, the place was used as a cemetery by the Soviet Secret Service, and they buried many dissidents here.
When the advancing German army reached Kyiv, the Nazis chose Babiy Yar as the sight for mass murder. While not in the centre, the place is located within the city, and this is a clear indicator of how the Nazis’ method for exterminating the Jews had changed. It was open, it was blatant, and there was no longer any attempts to hide or disguise the horrors they were committing.
Low Cost Killing
However, the Jewish people of the city were not the first victims of Nazi hate. There was, it seems, one race of people they hated even more, the Gypsies. It was the luckless Roma people who were the first to be slaughtered at Babiy Yar – men woman and children. None were spared.
On 27 September 1941 5,000 Jews were rounded up and slaughtered at Babiy Yar in what is thought to be a revenge action for a guerrilla explosion at the Nazi headquarters. The following day posters appeared around the city, commanding all remaining Jewish citizens to present themselves at given points in the city on the morning of 29 September 1941. They were told they were to be relocated, but instead they were only taken the short trip to Babiy Yar where they were shot. German and Soviet archives state that in the next two days a total of 33,771 Jews were executed.
The horrors of the executions at Babiy Yar are almost indescribable. The people were herded into the cemetery where a mass grave had been dug. The dead were piled on top of each other, and after the bodies had been robbed of all valuables, other prisoners were forced to bury them as they waited their turn for execution.
The people massacred there were not just Jews, but also Ukrainian and Russian public figures, politicians, scientists and many others the Nazis saw as a threat. Olena and Mykhailo Teliha, Mykola Oliynik, Hanna and Ivan Rogachi together with 621 other members of the UNI0N of Ukrainian Nationalists were killed here. All in all nearly 55,000 Ukrainians died in Babiy Yar.
The Nazis wasted no time, money or effort on ghettos and concentration camps in Ukraine, as they had done in the rest of Europe. They simply rounded up all those they wanted rid of and shot them. And even then, there are stories of German soldiers inventing ways to kill people without even the cost of a bullet. One popular method was something they called the Gasen Wagen. These death trucks fed the exhaust fumes back into the rear of the truck where the people were held so they died on their way to Babiy Yar and only had to be dumped in the graves upon arrival.
Babiy Yar and On
The story of Babiy Yar was repeated all over the lands of Ukraine, and to this day, almost every year numerous stories appear telling of new mass graves being uncovered. All over the country, people were rounded up and killed, and their remains are still being found. The horror of the holocaust in Ukraine is still very real and very present.
Sadly, with such a horrific history, young people in Ukraine are turning to Neo-Nazi organisations in ever increasing numbers, despite the fact that the Slavic people were considered to be on the same level as Jews to Hitler and his cronies. And the chances are that those numbers will grow.
As in 1930s Germany, when there are serious social ills in a land it is easy for people to look for someone to blame, and even easier for them to single out those who are different. It is also very easy to persuade the impressionable and disadvantaged that the reason for their problems and those of their families are those from the outside, to call upon their love for their country, rouse their patriotic fervour, and programme them to hate.
In 2006 in Ukraine, 16 racially motivated attacks were recorded, and in 2007 that number had grown to 90. Through the positive actions of the government and some NGOs, there has been no increase in attacks over the last year or so, but if the current economic situation continues, then that could well change.
The Jewish community here in Ukraine still suffers abuse and victimisation. Every week we read reports in the press about a Jewish cemetery, Synagogue or monument being defaced and vandalised. And all those reports tell of swastikas. How sickening that must feel for a people who experienced such evil associated with that emblem.
Nowadays, however, the Neo-Nazis, also sometimes calling themselves Pan-Slavic, don’t just focus on the Jewish community. Africans, Koreans, Chinese, Armenian and Georgian people can also become victims of the nefarious attention of the skinheads.
Remember so as Not to Forget
This year’s annual memorial march will take place on 27 September, and on that day, as they do every year, hundreds of people will remember those who died; they will place flowers on the soil where there friends and relatives died, and they will pray those deaths were not in vain. “Every year we are organising marches of memory to show the younger generation that the people who died during WWII deserve to be in our hearts even more then 60 years after. For this purpose we have already published a book (in Russian and Ukrainian), ‘Righteous Men of Babiy Yar’, that tell the story of the horrendous events that happened here,” a member of the Jewish council told us, going on to say the book will be released in English this year.
As a young Ukrainian, I understand it’s important that we remember our past in the hope that such events can never take place again. Ukraine’s history before, during and after WWII is drenched in blood, but now we have freedom, and we have to make sure we keep it, and that all those who live within the borders of Ukraine are protected.