First, some background – Babi Yar is a ravine that used to be just outside the city limits of Kiev. Due to the expansion of the city, it is now in Kiev proper. In Ukrainian, the word ‘babi’ means grandmother (like ‘bubbe’ in Yiddish). The word ‘yar’ means valley or ravine. So, it is “Grandmother’s Ravine.” It could be a reference to the topography, a person who lived there or to the age of the place. No one really knows.
What we DO know is what happened there at the end of September 1941. It was just after the occupation of Kiev by the Nazis. The Soviets had blacked out the news of the Nazi atrocities vis-à-vis the Jews. So, the Jews of Kiev had no idea how monstrous the Nazis truly were. Nonetheless, some 100,000 Jews fled Kiev in anticipation of the Nazis’ arrival, still leaving approximately 60,000 Jews in the city.
When the order came for the Jews of Kiev to pack up their belongings and march to Babi Yar by 8:00 am on September 29, 1941, they assumed it was for some sort of resettlement. Over 30,000 of them were murdered over the course of the next two days by Nazi Einsatzgruppen with support from Ukrainian police and civilians. Only a handful of Jews managed to survive the massacre. One of them was Dina Pronicheva, whose testimonial first appeared in the book Babi Yar by Anatoly Kuznetsov. By the time the Nazis left Kiev some two years later, it is believed that well over 100,000 people were murdered at Babi Yar and possibly as many as 150,000.
The Soviets never allowed a monument at the site which acknowledged the two-day massacre of the Jews. Instead, they erected a monument memorializing all of the Soviet citizens who were killed there. In fact, they had plans to build a soccer stadium on the site in the 1960’s until protesters managed to prevent it. It was not until the fall of the Iron Curtain, when the Ukrainian government permitted the State of Israel to place a menorah by the ravine. That’s where we went today.
We gathered for a short ceremony led by three Israeli youth leaders and three youth leaders from Greater MetroWest. The six of them had been counselors at the Cherkassy Family Camp this past week. Upon its conclusion, they joined us at Babi Yar. We stood in a circle in a wooded area a short distance from the ravine which looks innocent enough. We were reading the testimony of Dina Pronicheva when two men walked right through our circle carrying chainsaws. It was surreal. They were the stereotypical Ukrainian woodsmen. They had to know what we were doing and they had to know what they were doing as they walked right through our service. Unbelievable.
We left yahrzeit candles for those who were killed there, for the parents of Jim & Kala Paul (it just happened to be the yahrzeit for both of Kala’s parents and Jim’s father was born in Ukraine). We also lit a candle for Motti Liwshitz – a longtime member of the SJCC – who escaped from Vienna as a young boy and fought for Israel’s independence. We also want to remember those survived despite the efforts of the Nazis and kept Judaism alive. We finished with some time for silent reflection.
Needless to say it was a powerful experience. It is a stark reminder of what today’s Ukrainian Jews are trying to overcome and why we must support their efforts. Further, the renaissance of Jewish life in Ukraine is a posthumous victory for the victims of Babi Yar.