Babi Yar: Photo Essay

At the moment, I am on a research trip around Eastern Europe, organised by the Holocaust Educational Foundation at Northwestern University, USA. The trip involves visiting former Jewish communities in Ukraine, Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as visiting a number of concentration and death camps, and cleaning Jewish cemeteries. This is my first post from this trip.

Kiev is a city littered with memorials. Plaques dedicated to famous religious figures, politicians, writers and scientists adorn the fa├žades of many buildings; war memorials and statues can be found in most parks and open spaces; impromptu memorials in the form of photographs, flowers and plaques have sprung up around Independence Square in the wake of the 2014 revolution. Kiev has a huge park dedicated to victims of the Great Patriotic War, its centrepiece a silver statue representing the Motherland, which is higher than New York’s Statue of Liberty. Furthermore, the relatively new Museum to the Holodomor (famine of 1932-33) is accompanied by a statue of a small girl with vacant eyes and a soaring tower in the shape of a candle.
One site that was missing a memorial for some time, on the other hand, is Babi Yar. This name has become synonymous with the murder of 33,771 Jews between 29 and 30 September 1941; the action was carried out as punishment for the alleged bombing of city centre buildings by the Jews (this was, in fact, an act of sabotage by Red Army partisans). From reading about Babi Yar, I had assumed it consisted of one ravine towards the edges of modern Kiev. It is, however, an entire area, a network of ravines, and it was not only Jews murdered there. Approximately 200,000 Poles, Soviet POWs, Roma and Sinti, and the mentally ill were also shot into the ravines of Babi Yar over the course of two years. The Jews who were murdered in September 1941 were later exhumed and their bodies burned; I cannot say for certain what happened to the other victims, but I imagine there are still a number of mass graves in the area.
Babi Yar was largely – conveniently – forgotten for a long time after the war. It came to public attention after Yevgeny Yevtushkenko wrote the poem ‘Babi Yar’ in 1961, the lyrics of which Shostakovich used in his 13th Symphony. After such protests, a large monument was built to the victims of Babi Yar in 1976, but the Communist regime made no mention of Jews or individual groups that were persecuted. Eventually, other memorials were placed in the area, including a monument to the children killed at Babi Yar, a memorial to the Roma and Sinti victims and a large menorah dedicated to the Jewish victims (dedicated on 29 September, 50 years after the massacre). Furthermore, a sizeable Jewish cemetery was once located at Babi Yar; indeed, we entered the area where the large cemetery gates once stood. The Nazis ripped up the tombstones and there are so few traces of what the land once was that a television station has been built on the former cemetery. The tiny group of broken headstones that reminas has recently been walled off by a Jewish group from San Francisco.
Further away from the ravines themselves, at the corner of a street, stands a very powerful monument that one could easily stumble open by chance. A small boy, cast in bronze, reads a poster on the wall above him, directing all Jews to be ready for deportation the next morning or face being shot. There is also a commemorative plaque to Yevtushenko and his poem here.
Visiting Babi Yar was a powerful experience. It was incredibly sad to think how long the victims killed in that place had been forgotten and that it took so many years before they were finally recognised. One member of our group also read the ’Babi Yar’ poem as we stood around one of the ravines behind the menorah memorial, and I could not help but think of the helpless men, women and children who tumbled, dead, into the ground below. Now that their memory is better preserved, I hope that they are able to rest in peace.

You can find a selection of photographs from my visit below.

The former adminstration/maintenance building for the Jewish cemetery

The only remaining section of the wall from the Jewish cemetery

The monument to the Jews killed at Babi Yar in September 1941

Close-up of the memorial

Part of the ravine behind the Jewish monument. The bottom of the ravine is actually higher than it would have been at the time of the killing due to the mass graves being filled in after the war

The only remaining section of the Jewish cemetery

The large Babi Yar monument erected in 1976, dedicated to Soviet citizens and POWs. The figures are shown tumbling into the ravine

Memorial to the Roma and Sinti murdered at Babi Yar

Monument to the Ostarbeiter

Memorial to the children murdered at Babi Yar

Monument of Ukrainian boy reading the notice for Jews to be 'deported'

Plaque dedicated to Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Close-up of the monument

Notice relating to the 'deportation' of Jews in Kiev