The main reason I had traveled all the way to Kiev was due to a chance meeting with an Australian at a hostel in Lviv. The Aussie told me of a fascinating daytrip he had recently taken from Kiev to Chernobyl. Tourists were now allowed into the exclusion zone where they could tour sites associated with one of the worst tragedies of the 20th century. I quizzed him for a good half hour about the logistics involved. Before the conversation was over my mind was made up, I was going to Kiev. Arriving on a Saturday afternoon, I soon learned that the earliest I could get a tour to Chernobyl was on a Tuesday. This gave me a couple of days to sight see in the city. Enough time to visit the scene of another 20th century tragedy, a ravine that arguably witnessed as much horror as any other specific spot during World War II. And a place that in many ways represents the nightmare upheaval that consumed so much of Kiev from 1917 – 1945.
War On One City – Stalking The Streets
Kiev was not the place to be during the first half of the 20th century unless a person was looking to get killed. More death and destruction was inflicted upon the city than entire countries experienced within that same time span. The details are frightening in the extreme. Kiev changed hands no less than 19 times during the Russian Revolution and resulting Civil War. The Red/White warfare led to deadly reprisals. The Bolsheviks won the war and right to rule as they pleased. By the early 1930’s, it was not only the Ukrainian countryside that suffered from widespread famine as starvation stalked the streets of Kiev due to forced collectivization. It was also during this time that Kiev suffered through the indignity of losing its capital status in the Ukrainian SSR to the Soviet city of Kharkiv. Things took another turn for the worse even after Kiev won back that status in 1934. Stalin’s purges resulted in a lethal bloodletting of the Ukrainian intelligentsia and anyone who dared whimper a word of nationalist sentiment. Incredibly, the interwar period was only the beginning of much worse violence to come.
For Kiev, the Second World War was a disaster of unimaginable proportions. The Red Army lost more soldiers in the Battle of Kiev than the United States lost in the entire war. The decisive German victory over the Soviet forces resulted in one of the worst defeats inflicted on any single army in world history. At the center of this cauldron of loss was Kiev. The city was subsequently mined by the retreating Soviet forces. Greeting the German occupation forces were upwards of 10,000 explosions, the product of Soviet sabotage efforts. This set the city on fire for nearly a week and left much of it a smoking, hollowed out ruin. In the aftermath of this devastation, an equally grim human toll was exacted first on Kiev’s Jews, then on the population at large. The casualties rose to unheard of levels. In 1939 Kiev’s population was 846,724, four years later that number had been reduced by almost 80%, to just 180,000. Many of those who lost their lives had done so in a ravine that became synonymous with mass murder, Babi Yar.
Pinnacle Of Depravity – The Deepest Ravine
Babi Yar sounds more like the name of a Saturday morning cartoon character, than the site of a genocidal massacre. The etymological origins of Babi Yar are quite innocuous, referencing a woman by the name of “Baba” who sold the “yar” (ravine) to a Dominican Monastery. In a darkly ironic twist the site would later be home to Eastern Orthodox and Jewish cemeteries as well as a military camp. Those same purposes would coalesce in the darkness that unfolded in the final days of September 1941. On September 29th & 30th of 1941, 33,771 unsuspecting Jews were murdered at the ravine by Nazi death squads. What Auschwitz was to mass murder by gas chamber, Babi Yar was to mass murder by machine gun. The prevailing stereotypical image of the Holocaust continues to be the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is often overlooked that in the lands to the east of Poland – Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and western Russia, hundreds of thousands of Jews were shot by Nazi police units and security services. The pinnacle of this depravity was carried out at Babi Yar.
On a bright and sunny Monday morning amidst the waning warmth of early autumn I went to visit Babi Yar. My route took me from the center of Kiev at Khreshchatyk on the metro to Teatralna where I then transferred to the Green Line. From there I traveled three stations down the line to Dorohozhychi. As I got further from the city center, the crowds dissipated. At Dorohozhychi – in the northwestern part of Kiev – I found myself one of only a few people exiting the metro. Making my way to the surface via a long escalator ride I expected to see signage pointing the way to Babi Yar. There was none that I could find. The situation had been very different for Jews on September 29, 1941. They had been given direction earlier in the week by an order posted by the German occupation authorities. This order would lead them to their deaths.
The March Of Death – From Incomprehensible To Unimaginable
The order stated that all Jews in Kiev were to gather at the corner of Mel’nikova and Dorohozhytska streets. That street corner was just 2,000 feet from where I exited the Metro station. Standing beneath a brilliant blue sky on a clear autumnal morning I found the idea that one of the largest mass murders of the Holocaust had occurred nearby both incomprehensible and unimaginable. The tens of thousands of Jews that arrived here on that dark day not so long ago had loads of their belongings in tow. Most believed they were headed for resettlement. The Germans were surprised at the number of Jews who obeyed the order. The Jews of Kiev likely did so out of fear. The next to last sentence of the order was a virtual death sentence, stating, “Any Yids who do not follow this order and are found elsewhere will be shot.” Those who had obeyed the order would be ushered to Babi Yar by members of the Nazi police battalions. Never has a death march been so short.