KYIV – In what at first appears to be a recreational park in the northwestern part of Ukraine’s capital, lined with tree-canopied serpentine trails, as well as a nestled playground for children, is the site of one of the biggest atrocities of the Holocaust in the country.
Nearly 34,000 Jews were executed in the sprawling area of about 200 hectares (494 acres) in the span of just two days on September 28-29, 1941, by invading German military personnel during World War II.
The Nazi administration of Kyiv had issued a directive that infamously ordered Jews in the city and the surrounding area to gather their valuable belongings and identity credentials to assemble near the site, called Babyn Yar, or in English Old-Woman’s ravine.
They were to arrive by 8 a.m. on September 28 of that year near the Lukianivka freight station “according to rumors for deportation,” historians Vladyslav Hrynevych and Paul Robert Magocsi wrote in “Babyn Yar History and Memory” that was published in 2016.
By the time Soviet forces retook Kyiv in fierce battles two years later, approximately 100,000 people had been murdered at the sites, the majority of whom were Jews, who were targeted solely because of their ethnicity.
Some mass graves in the area are believed to be still undiscovered, according to the book, and when the Nazis started to retreat amid the onslaught of Soviet forces, city residents were forced to exhume bodies for them to be burned in order to conceal the genocidal acts.
This is why total estimates of the killings, which included members of the Ukrainian freedom underground resistance movement, Soviet prisoners of war, Poles, Roma, members of the LGBT community and mental patients, and even ordinary Kyiv residents held hostage, vary from 100,000 to approximately 150,000 people.
Thanks to its chain of seven deep ravines, which offered a picturesque landscape on the outskirts of the city, Babyn Yar “was dubbed the ‘Kyivan Switzerland,’” yet had been turned into a mass killing field, a passage in the book reads.
“Babyn Yar. Two short words that sound like two short shots, but carry long and horrible memories of several generations,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a statement after laying flowers at several memorial sites on the compound on September 29.
“Because they [the victims and their families]know and remember that, unfortunately, not two shots were fired in Babyn Yar, but hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of times more,” Mr. Zelenskyy said.
The president noted that all public Ukrainian schools on that day held lessons dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the great tragedy of Babyn Yar.
Earlier in the month, Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, on September 22 also passed an anti-Semitism law that aims to “counteract and prevent anti-Semitism and its manifestations in Ukraine,” the legislature’s statement said.
“Any hate speech directed at Jews, their property, religious buildings or communities will be prohibited,” Euronews reported.
Separately, the Cabinet of Ministers this month granted life-long stipends to Ukrainians who rescued Jews in the country during WWII.
They will go to survivors from the time who are recognized as the Righteous Among the Nations awarded by the Israeli Institute of Disaster and Heroism of the National Holocaust Memorial and Heroism of Yad Vashem.
Ukraine ranks fourth among countries in this category with exactly 2,673 Ukrainians having received the title.
Twenty-six people have already been granted the stipends.
They were identified jointly by the government-run Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance (UINR), the Jewish Council of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Charitable Foundation For You, the state-run Babyn Yar National Historical and Memorial Reserve and the Tkuma Ukrainian Holocaust Research Institute.
After laying carnations at the Babyn Yar monument dedicated to the Kyiv residents and prisoners of war who were executed, Mr. Zelenskyy, an ethnic Jew, placed a lit-candle altar lamp at the oversized stone Menorah in the park.
Mr. Zelenskyy is not publicly religious, and most of his grandparents were killed during WWII under German occupation, he revealed in Israel during a state visit with then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in January 2020.
In his Babyn Yar statement, he cited “the fact that a total of at least six million Jews had fallen victim to the Holocaust in Europe. And that one-and-a-half million of them, i.e. every fourth killed, were from Ukraine.”
As the Eastern European country forges a new identity, UINR head Anton Drobovych told The Ukrainian Weekly that the 80th year of commemoration is an opportunity “to understand ourselves as a multi-ethnic, political nation.”
Scholars and historians have noted that since the 2014 Euro-Maidan revolution, which led to then-President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing to Russia over a peaceful, popular uprising over his increasingly authoritarian rule, Ukraine emerged more as a political nation rather than as one based on ethnicity.
Mr. Drobovych said that, while “the Holocaust was a grave injustice,” the Soviet Union, upon discovering the mass graves, “hid this from public view so that Jewish identity wouldn’t be strengthened … and also concealed that the USSR was in union, an ally with Nazi Germany [during the first two years]of WWII.”
He referred to the period after the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact that allied both countries. At the time, Soviet authorities abated its ally in the Holocaust by sending Jews to their eventual death at concentration camps.
This year’s official commemoration was co-organized by three government institutions, including the UINR, as well as the Toronto-based Ukraine World Congress (UWC), an umbrella organization of the world-wide Ukrainian diaspora.
Some who follow the UWC in North America have said that Canadian multi-millionaire James Temerty, a native of Donetsk, was the person who anonymously pledged $20 million for the government’s Babyn Yar museum and memorial project as authored by the Historical Institute of Academy of Sciences.
UWC President Paul Grod didn’t respond to phone calls, text messages and emailed requests for comment on the matter and the Babyn Yar-sponsored events. Additionally, the head of the group’s representative in Kyiv, Serhiy Kasyanchuk, didn’t arrive at a prearranged interview meeting with The Ukrainian Weekly at the Babyn Yar site on September 28.
Besides the majority of Jews who were killed, another group were Roma, formerly referred to as gypsies, who were “specifically targeted by the Nazis,” said Mr. Drobovych.
A Cambridge University research paper in England stated in April that “the estimated number of Roma genocide victims within the borders of today’s Ukraine varies from 20,000 to 72,000 individuals.”
Perhaps among the most prominent members of Ukraine’s underground movement that resisted both Soviet and Nazi rule was Olena Teliha. She was shot along with her husband, Mykhailo, a renowned bandura instrument player, on February 21, 1942.
The president laid flowers at the poet’s and nationalist leader’s monument as well as at the wagon sculpture devoted to Roma victims.
Mr. Drobovych of the UINR said that when the shootings at Babyn Yar took place, “they were carried out solely by Germans.” Auxiliary Ukrainian police units attached to the Nazi administration had been documented escorting and sorting through the belongings of the Babyn Yar victims, according to the book by Messrs. Hrynevych and Magocsi.
Mr. Drobovych added this area should “be a place for peace and accord,” and that this process should be part of a “multi-level civic discussion within communities … so that people don’t close themselves off in separate groups and tell everybody else how to think.”
Separate Russian oligarch project
A separate group is vying for the future vision of the Babyn Yar museum on the grounds of the memorial park. That effort is led by oligarchs with ties to the Kremlin.
They are Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman; Pavel Fuks, a native of Kharkiv who made his fortune in Russia; and German Khan, also a billionaire.
Taking place in the first week of October, their events, conceptualized by “megalomaniacal Russian filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovsky,” as described by chief editor of Odessa Review Vladislav Davidson, would turn the site into a “Holocaust Disneyland,” he said in an article authored for the Tablet Magazine.
For example, visitors entering the museum would be subject to role-playing.
“Some would play act at being Nazis, others taking on the role of Jews or local (collaborationist) auxiliary police,” he wrote critically.
Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Pinchuk is also part of the project.
Billed as a multi-media art installation, the Russian-led project prompted Ukrainian Soviet dissident of Jewish descent Joseph Zissels to call the project a “Trojan Horse” by Russian President Vladimir Putin, with which he intends to impose on the world a Russian anti-Ukrainian narrative that Ukrainians are anti-Semites, nationalists, fascists and Nazis.
The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) back in January informed the Cabinet of Ministers about the risks posed by the Russians’ proposed Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center and the possibility of using this project to discredit Ukraine.
“The tragedy of Babyn Yar, which happened in Ukraine 80 years ago, must never happen again. Neither in Ukraine nor in other parts of Europe. Nowhere in the world,” Mr. Zelenskyy concluded in his statement.