Babi Yar was the most infamous Nazi massacre of Jews in Ukraine. In 1933, the Jewish population numbered more than 1.5 million. Most of those who survived, fled the country. Today there are around 67,000 there.
Two days before the killing started, German forces organized to put up some 2,000 posters in Russian, Ukrainian and German ordering all Jews in Kiev and the surrounding area to appear Monday morning near the train station with all documents, money and valuables.
The Nazis spread a rumor that the Jews would be put on American boats and shipped to Palestine. Instead, they were stripped naked, pushed into the ravine in waves, and shot dead. The mass slaughter took two days.
After the defeat of the fascist forces by Soviet troops, officials — in both Moscow and Kiev —refused to erect any memorial to the Holocaust massacre.
Anti-Semitism was an ideological feature not only of Nazism, but of the privileged and reactionary government bureaucracy under Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin.
“The revolutionary wave revived the finest sentiments of human solidarity,” Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote in 1937 about the first years of the Russian Revolution. Referring to the counterrevolution led by Joseph Stalin that was consolidated in the late 1920s, Trotsky said that the “reaction has stirred up all that is low, dark and backward. … The bureaucracy does not even hesitate to resort to chauvinistic tendencies, above all to anti-Semitic ones.”
The Stalinist regime’s anti-Semitism became more strident in the post-war decades. Jewish intellectuals, artists and others were arrested and killed as part of an “anti-cosmopolitanism” campaign. Conspiracy theories were spun to target Jews, such as the “Doctors’ Plot” of 1952-53 in which Jewish doctors were accused of plotting to poison government officials.
Demands that a memorial recognizing the Jewish victims be built at the site of the Babi Yar massacre began in the 1940s. To head off continuing pressure for a memorial, Soviet authorities in 1957 ordered construction of a dam to fill in the ravine, and planned to cover it with a park and a sports stadium.
In October 1959 Viktor Nekrasov, a veteran of the Second World War and Stalin-Prize-winning author of the 1946 In the Trenches of Stalingrad, published a protest in Literaturnaya Gazeta, the main literature magazine in the Soviet Union, and called for a monument to those killed.
But authorities drove forward with the project and began filling the ravine with waste. In March 1961, the dam collapsed and a wall of sludge and debris swept through workers’ neighborhoods. Officials said 150 were killed, but some reports say it could be several thousand.
Shortly after the disaster, Yevgeny Yevtushenko — a well-known poet, opponent of Stalinism and champion of the Cuban Revolution — visited the ravine and wrote “Babi Yar,” which began with the words “No monument stands over Babi Yar.” He gave public readings of the poem in Moscow and Kiev in August 1961. The poem was published the following month in Literaturnaya Gazeta and reprinted all over the world. The day after it was published, the magazine’s editor was sacked by Soviet cultural officials.
Composer Dmitri Shostakovich worked with Yevtushenko to write “Babi Yar,” his 13th symphony, which included the poem as well as four other works against Stalinism and anti-Semitism by Yevtushenko. Soviet officials tried to sabotage the premiere. After two performances, the composer and poet were told the work would be banned unless they agreed to change some of the lines in two of the poems, “Babi Yar” and “Fears.”
For example, “I wish that men were possessed of the fear of condemning a man without proper trial” was replaced with “I see new fears arising, the fear of being insincere to the country.”
In 1966 Soviet author Anatoly Kuznetsov published a book entitled Babi Yar. Though heavily censored by Soviet authorities it described Kuznetsov’s visit to the site after the collapse of the dam: “I went there and looked in amazement at the lake of mud, swallowing the ashes, bones, stone debris gravestones.”
The book has a chapter detailing the slaughter at Babi Yar by Dina Pronichev, one of a handful of survivors.
In 1966, on the 25th anniversary of Babi Yar, thousands of people — from Kiev and throughout the Soviet Union — came to the ravine. A spontaneous rally took place that included three speakers, Pronichev, Nekrasov and Ivan Dzyuba, a Marxist who wrote Internationalism vs. Russification. Dzyuba’s book defended Soviet policy under the leadership of V. I. Lenin to back the fight to free Ukrainians and other oppressed people from centuries of oppression under the Russian empire and support their cultural development. But after Lenin’s death, Stalin revived Russian domination, including resettlement of ethnic Russians in Ukraine, known as Russification.
Dzyuba’s speech was clandestinely published as samizdat and circulated in the Soviet Union and abroad.
“Babi Yar is a tragedy of the whole of mankind, but it happened on Ukrainian soil,” Dzyuba said. “And therefore a Ukrainian must not forget it any more than a Jew.”
“But what is strange is that no battle has been waged against [anti-Semitism] during the postwar decades,” he said, “and what is even stranger, it has often been artificially nourished.”
“The Jews have a right to be Jews and the Ukrainians have a right to be Ukrainians in the full and profound, not only the formal, meaning of the word,” he said.
Under pressure, Stalinist officials eventually put up a monument to Babi Yar in 1976, but it contained no mention that any of those killed were Jews.
A monument to the Holocaust victims at Babi Yar was finally erected after the fall of the Soviet Union and the establishment of Ukraine as a sovereign nation in 1991, along with memorials to Jewish victims in World War II in cities across the country.
In November 2013 popular protest began in Ukraine that led to the overthrow of pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. The government of Vladimir Putin in Russia sought to paint the protesters as rightists and anti-Semites.
Asked if there was anti-Semitism at the “Maidan” protests, one of a number of Jewish fighters leading self-defense units there told the Israeli news website Hadashot, “There was not even a hint of such attitudes.”
“There is little doubt that the spirit of freedom and unity is concentrated on Maidan in abundance,” he said.
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home