top of page

Babyn Yar - When the Holocaust came to Ukraine

By David Elley - "I will put my breath into you, you shall live again" (Ezekiel)

We reserve the word Holocaust for one specific genocide. But let us start with the clear and present fact that Ukraine is once again undergoing a genocide caused by its murderous imperial neighbour to the North. I referred to some ‘personal reasons’ for anticipating my visit to Kyiv. Babyn Yar, the 29th of September, 1941, when the Holocaust came to Ukraine is one of them.


If you subscribe, like I do (and everyone should subscribe to this account), to @AuschwitzMuseum, then each day you receive one post of an event during the Holocaust, a prisoner murdered, or consigned to the camp, and sometimes, joyfully surviving the evil. The problem for me is that my birthday is also the 29th September, the same day as Babyn Yar’s first and largest genocide. Lucky me. So I am here in Kyiv to say: “Yes I see you, I have seen you, I am coming to remember this as I should.”


The German Army arrived in Kyiv on about 19th September, 1941, as Blitzkrieg wiped Stalin’s armies off the face of the Earth that Summer. The Gestapo and Sonderkommando followed quickly behind, and to instill control by fear and division by race in the Ukrainian capital, they immediately rounded up every Jew they could find, ordering them to gather at the corner of Mel'nikova and Dokterivskaya streets on the morning of Monday, 29th September. Then they were marched to the Babyn Yar ravine, a few kilometers to the NE of the middle of Kyiv. They were told to lie down on the floor of the ravine and then the Sonderkommando shot each and every one, children and all, in the back of the head. That day and the next 33,771 people were murdered. It was the start of the Holocaust in Ukraine, not the first genocide seen on Ukrainian soil, but one that continued until November 1943, when the Germans were pushed back to the West. Sinti, Roma, communists, resistance fighters, the mentally and physically disabled, all also died in that ravine. But the persecution and denial of humanity of Babyn Yar’s victims did not end in 1943.


Today, you do not see a ravine. What you see are two separate parks, split into 20-80% by the Yuriia Illienka Street. You can cross from one to the other section by using the subway of the Dorohozhychi Metro station, where I learned later (after an hour of seeking a florist a km away) there are at least three flower sellers. The smaller, southern section is dominated by a memorial to the Soviet victims of the Babyn Yar genocide, erected with great Soviet panache in 1976. An event which dismayed Jewish and Ukrainian advocates for the history of Babyn Yar. The Russians (let us be honest) were trying to diminish, as ever, the events as part of Ukrainian and Jewish history.


There is a part near the ostentatious Soviet display, which is a kind of depression in the ground, in support of the Soviet display clearly. It’s a fake. The reason is that first the Nazis and then the Soviets did their best to remove the image of the Babyn Yar ravine from memory. The Soviets went so far as to turn the area into a mud lake, with a dam, which thanks to the kinds of murderous idiocy we all know well, failed in 1961, killing over 1,500 local people and exposing more horrors of human remains, horrors that both the Nazis and Soviets both wanted to forget about.


Instead, the memorial park is covered with trees of various varieties, ranged around a number of walkways, each with memorials to groups of people persecuted here. The sound of traffic comes through heavily without the foilage of the other three seasons. I did not care, I had come a long way, 30 years and 9,000 kilometers to be here. I walked each pathway, where I passed statues of poet Olena Teliha and Tatiana Markus, both commemorated specifically. Tatiana Markus caught my eye, her story is that of a beautiful, captivating Ukrainian freedom fighter, who killed dozens of Germans before meeting her end in January 1943 at the hands of the Gestapo.


The key thing to remember of all of this, is that Babyn Yar was the scene of much suppression by the Russians after the war. Suppression of the history of especially Jewish and also Ukrainian history. It was only in 1991, when Ukraine became once again independent, did the story begin to emerge in its proper context. Most of the memorials post-date this time. The Russians even lobbed something this way in 2022, but I think they were going for the next door TV station.


I had an adventure buying some small white flowers, because I missed the flower sellers in the subway of the Metro station. There were three sprigs of five to six blooms each. I chose two initially, but the florist told me that odd numbers were appropriate for a gift, not an even number. As I strolled the park with my three sprigs, I felt something was off….so I Whatsapped my Ukrainian friend in France. Why are two unlucky, I asked? She replied very quickly that even numbers were for funerals. I had asked the wrong question at the florist. I unwrapped my bundle, selected two sprigs and laid them at the Children’s Memorial where I stood for a while.


That left one sprig of pretty white flowers. I turned to walk away, an older lady was approaching. I said: “Mother, please” in Ukrainian and offered them to her. “Two, not three” I said. She understood immediately when I pointed at the two on the memorial and the one I still held. She crossed herself, smiled at me and thanked me. I looked back once as I walked away and she had taken my place at the Children’s Memorial, clutching my last sprig of flowers.









bottom of page