1941: Babi Yar massacre begins

12 comments September 29th, 2010 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

Between September 29 and September 30 in 1941, the Nazis, specifically Einsatzgruppe C, shot some 34,000 Jewish people at Babi Yar, a ravine outside of the Ukrainian city of Kiev.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum gives a suspiciously specific death count of 33,771. This is considered the single largest mass murder of World War II, and for Kiev it was just the beginning.

In the days prior to the massacre the Nazis put up posters around the city reading:

Kikes of the city of Kiev and vicinity! On Monday, September 29, you are to appear by 08:00 a.m. with your possessions, money, documents, valuables, and warm clothing at Dorogozhitskaya Street, next to the Jewish cemetery. Failure to appear is punishable by death.

The Jews believed they were being resettled. They had no knowledge of Nazi atrocities, as the Soviet press had supressed such accounts. By the thousands they arrived at the cemetery with their belongings, expecting to be loaded onto trains.

Instead they were forced to strip naked and leave their clothes, shoes and possessions at designated places, all while being beaten by the Nazis and their Ukrainian accomplices.

A Ukrainian truck driver and innocent bystander described the scene:

The naked Jews were led into a ravine which measured approximately 150 m long, 30 m wide and 15 m deep. Two or three narrow entrances led to the ravine, through which the Jews were driven. When they arrived at the edge of the ravine they were taken by Schupo officers, and laid down on top of Jews who had already been shot. All this happened very quickly. The corpses were neatly stacked. As soon as a Jew lay there, a Schupo marksman came with an mp and shot him in the neck. The arriving Jews were so shocked when they saw this horrible scene that they were absolutely submissive. It even happened that some lay themselves down and awaited the shot.

There were only two marksmen who carried out the shootings. One marksman was at one end of the ravine, the second one at the other end. I saw the marksmen standing on the already piled-up corpses while shooting one person after another. As soon as a Jew was killed by a shot, the marksman climbed over the corpses of the killed to the next supine Jew, and shot them. This went on again and again, without any distinction being made between men, women, and children. The children were led to the ravine with their mothers, and killed with them.

Babi Yar survivor Dina Pronicheva

Much of what is known about the massacre comes from Dina Pronicheva, a survivor who later testified at the war crimes trials in 1946 and whose story is told in the most graphic terms in Anatoly Kuznetzov‘s memoir/documentary history Babi Yar: a Document in the Form of a Novel.

Contrary to popular belief, Pronicheva was not the only survivor — there were at least three or four others — but she is the most famous one and the only one to testify at the war crimes trials.

Pronicheva, an actress at the Kiev Puppet Theater, tore up her identity card when she realized what was happening. Her last name and her appearance were not typically Jewish, and she told one of the Nazis that she was a Ukrainian who had been seeing someone off and gotten caught up in the crowd.

She was told to stand aside with a group of other people in the same situation. The Nazis decided to shoot them anyway, however, as they could not allow witnesses to come back to the city and tell what they knew.

When it was her turn, Pronicheva jumped into the ravine without waiting to be shot, and played dead among the mass of bodies. As Kuznetzov put it:

It seemed to her she fell for ages — it probably was a very deep drop. When she struck the bottom she felt neither the blow nor any pain, but she was immediately spattered with warm blood, and blood was streaming down her face, just as if she had fallen into a bath of blood. She lay still, her arms stretched out, her eyes closed.

All around and beneath her she could hear strange submerged sounds, groaning, choking and sobbing: many of the people were not dead yet. The whole mass of bodies kept moving slightly as they settled down and were pressed tighter by the movements of the living.

The Germans went around the ravine firing their revolvers into anyone who appeared to be still alive. One SS man got suspicious of Pronicheva’s appearance. He kicked her hard in the chest and then stomped on her hand until the bones cracked, but she managed to remain limp and silent and he went away without shooting her. Eventually she was able to crawl out of the ravine and make good her escape.

Babi Yar continued to absorb bodies throughout the Nazi occupation of Kiev: Jews, Gypsies, Ukrainians, political activists and basically anyone who pissed the Nazis off. The total number of victims will never be known because before they were driven from the area by the Russians, the Nazis dug up the ravine and burned the corpses.


Mass execution of Soviet civilians at Babi Yar. (Source)

A guesstimate would be between 70,000 and 120,000, but some accounts run as high as 300,000. Some traces were left, as Kuznetzov remembers:

The river bed was of good, coarse sand, but now for some reason or other the sand was mixed with little white stones. I bent down and picked one of them up to look at it more closely. It was a small piece of bone … in one place we saw that the sand had turned to gray. Suddenly we realized we were walking on human ashes …

Nearby there had been a fall of sand, following the rains, which had exposed an angular projection of granite and a seam of coal about a foot thick. There were goats grazing on the hillside with three little boys, each about eight years old, looking after them. They were hacking away diligently at the coal with little picks and breaking it up on a granite block.

The coal was brown and crumbly, as though it was a mixture of ashes from a railway engine and carpenter’s glue.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“See here!” And one of them pulled from his pocket a handful of something that glittered where it was not covered in dirt, and spread it out in his hand.

It was a collection of half-melted gold rings, earrings and teeth. They were digging for gold.

Babi Yar was filled in after the war and the site is now part of a residential neighborhood in Kiev. There were many international protests in 2009 after the city’s mayor announced plans for a hotel on the site, but he changed his mind.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Children,Disfavored Minorities,Executions Survived,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Innocent Bystanders,Jews,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Russia,Shot,Summary Executions,Ukraine,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women

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