BABI YAR TODAY: TOPOGRAPHY OF TERROR
GERMANS ENTER KYIV: SEPTEMBER 1941
On September 18, 1941, the sixth week of the attacks, German ‘V. Fliegerkorps’ under Robert Ritter von Greim, a legend-like flying ace of the Great War, renewed an air offensive against Kyiv, exposing the city to mass bombardment actions. The nosedives of the German Stukas sparked panic around and inside the Ukrainian capital. In less than two weeks the very ‘V. Fliegerkorps’ would operate 1422 sorties of bombing runs against the besieged Soviet armies to the East and the city of Kyiv. The capital had experienced a siege since the second week of July. In the aftermath of the last days of particularly severe attacks both from the air and from the ground, the early hours of September 19, 1941, witnessed detached squadrons of three Germans divisions (71 and 75 infantry and 99 light: all within ‘XXIX. Armeekorps’) on their way to cross the city limits of Kyiv, had been left by the Red army.
The pioneering photos of the German soldiers next to Swastika over the city included noon shadows. The victory was not a walk in the park as the 71 infantry division solely lost 962 killed in action and 3150 wounded as the result of taking Kyiv. FRANZ HALDER, the chief of staff of the Army High Command (OKH), has included a passage in his wartime diary, that a german flag flies over the buildings of Kyiv, all bridges destroyed and three German divisions under command of trusted officers of High Command (their former occupations) successfully broke into the city.
The population of the largest Ukrainian city was variously estimated at from 846 000 (count in 1939) to 930 000 (with reference to emigration since 1939) before the outbreak of war with Germany (before 22 June 1941). By the early hours of September 19, the German soldiers had a chance to count (the first and only count of the occupational years would be conducted in Spring 1942) as many as 400 000 people within a besieged capital. In the span of three war months at least 200 000 men (citizens of Kyiv) were called to arms of the Red Army and a mere 325 000 citizens were evacuated or left the city since June 22. As for the proportion of the Jewish population in Kyiv in June and September 19, it had significantly cut as well. The exact proportion of Jews in pre-war Kyiv is either way debatable. The population census in 1939 figured 223 236 Jews among 846 000 of the total Kyiv population or Apr. 26%.
Along with such precise figures, the annihilation of Poland by Stalin and Hitler in 1939 led to a mass migration of people to the Western part of the now expanded Soviet Union. The outbreak of war on June 22 and the following siege of Kyiv objectified the mass exodus of the civil population, the Jewish in particular. The extraction of strategic enterprises to the East with the working force demanded another 25-30 thousand of the civil Jewish population. Apart from evacuation, Jewish men in Kyiv were as well called to arms. Summing up a wide range of factors and figures, the most recognized modern scholars estimate 40 000 — 50 000 Jewish population among 400 000 in total on September 19, 1941.
Later on the same day September 19, when German soldiers of three infantry divisions posterized in front of the cameras in conquered Kyiv, a vanguard (50 men) of Sonderkommando 4a, a unit within Einsatzgruppe С, entered the city as well. The same day, the cadre strength of Sonderkommando 4a, apart from these 50 men, carried out a ‘mass action’, in fact, a euphemism of mass murder, in the Ukrainian city of Zhytomyr: 3145 people were violently executed by September 19 end. This key staff would arrive in Kyiv as early as 25 September 1941 next to the command unit of Einsatzgruppe C. That September days also witnessed the arrival of other punitive units totaling 1500 men.
- 45th reserve police battalion and 303rd police battalion: both as part of ‘Polizei-Regiment Süd’ (Police Regiment South), a formation of the Germans Order Police. The regiment operated as a German unit under Friedrich Jeckeln, a Higher SS and Police Leader in the occupied Soviet Union. The 45th reserve battalion was formed in Hamburg of local policemen under command of Martin Besser, a police major, and SS-Sturmbannführer. The 303rd battalion under the command of another officer of the same rank (SS-Sturmbannführer and police major) Heinrich Hannibal, had been formed in Bremen. The command staff of the Regiment accompanied the soldiers of two battalions.
- Units of 454th security division (454. Sicherungs-Division) of Wehrmacht and country constabulary.
- The late September days witnessed the arrival of the units of ‘Ukrainian Auxiliary Police’, 300 men who had been mainly recruited from the Soviet POWs.
In factual contrast to the conventional historical misinterpretation, that Wehrmacht played no part in repressive measures against the civil population on the occupied territories of the USSR, the very first ‘measures’ in Kyiv were initiated by the army, not by punitive detachments under SS. During this initial period in the occupation of Kyiv, five army divisions: 71, 75, 95, 99, and 299 (all as part of ‘XXIX. Armeekorps’) were accommodated in the city, each in a separate district. The very first suppressive measures against the civil population wasted little time. On September 20, less than a full day after the fall of Kyiv, the army command and the newly formed commandant office issued a number of orders. The regulations meant obligatory fulfillment: each of the orders included a passage on execution on spot for those, who violate the rules.
The Germans assigned a blacking-out and a curfew after 8 p.m. (initially after 22). The population was now under ‘48 hour’ obligation to register all supplies in the possession and to hand in a ‘surplus of goods’, as well as to ‘restore’ goods that had been taken by people from stores and enterprises. All pieces of firearms as well as radio sets were subjected to immediate expropriation. The civil population of Kyiv was deprived of any attempt (under penalty of death) to hide or in any way assist the Soviet soldiers and ‘partisans’. The adult population was also prescribed to present oneself to the last place of employment.
In the afternoon hours of September 24, 1941, exactly five days after hoisting of the Germans’ banners over Kyiv, a number of buildings along Khreshchatyk, the main street of the Ukrainian capital, were exposed to shattering explosions. The explosive compound had been planted weeks before the capitulation of Kyiv by the special squad of Soviet NKVD and was now powered up intentionally. The explosions targeted a number of buildings, including those now occupied by the Germans. The pre-war hotel ‘SPARTAK’ was accommodated by a newly formed Commandant Office and ‘CONTINENTAL’ housed German officers of the ‘XXIX. Armeekorps’. The rapid and uncontrolled spread of fire along both sides of Khreshchatyk street was now possible due to the lack of water supply in conquered Kyiv. The Germans summoned their own fire brigade to the place, which set water supply directly from the river Dnipro.
A number of local diversions (cutting the fire hoses) made additional problems and later a local Jew, presumably caught on the spot, would be announced as a ‘disruptor’. In total the ‘Great fire in Kyiv’ claimed the lives of at least 300 Germans (the vast majority were killed directly from explosions on the very first day) and damaged dozens of vehicles and some supplies inside the buildings. The fire on Khreshchatyk, an offspring of NKVD, was brought under control as early as September 28. At that moment, the overwhelming majority of the buildings along the main street and a number of neighboring cozy streets turned into ruins and 50 000 people lost their homes and places of employment.
On September 26, when the city center of Kyiv was still embroiled in flames and the German firemen were on the streets, the members of ‘special units’ of the Einsatzgruppe C initiated comprehensive activity inside the city. As many as seven separate squads arrived in Kyiv the day before and now developed a network of interrogations in Kyiv, as well as within the POW camps and camps for civilians. The very same day September 26, 1941, witnessed the sadly remembered briefing, which foredoomed the fate of the Jewish population of Kyiv. Once having the main forces of the SD and Police were already in the city, KURT EBERHARD, a newly appointed commandant of the occupational forces in Kyiv, convened a meeting with the next officers:
- FRIEDRICH JECKELN. The ‘SS- und Polizeiführer’ (A Higher SS and Police Leader in the occupied Soviet Union), was a man in charge of all Einsatzgruppen in the occupied territories of the USSR at the time.
- OTTO RASCH. SS Brigadeführer and the commander of the Einsatzgruppe C.
- PAUL BLOBEL. SS Standartenführer and commander of the Sonderkommando 4a, an affiliation of Einsatzgruppe C.
The agenda of the ‘briefing’ was focused on the ‘retaliatory measures’, in actual terms the details of the upcoming reprisal. The possible copartnership of the Jews to the explosions and fire had been initially odious, even to the Army officers, which suffered (from the fire) the most. Regardless of the absence of facts, someone had to be blamed for the Khreshchatyk fire and the casualties among the Germans, which would dramatically become a pretense to annihilate every single Jew in Kyiv, a practice (blaming Jews) that had already been exposed to the different regions of the occupied Soviet Union. The negotiated (by a quartet of Eberhard-Jeckeln-Rasch-Blobel) action was assigned to be conducted mainly by the forces of Sonderkommando 4a under Paul Blobel, accompanied (herding victims together, forwarding them to the execution site, inner and outer security perimeter) by the members of two police battalions (45 and 303) and the members of Ukrainian Auxiliary Police.
29-30 SEPTEMBER MASSACRE IN BABI YAR
On September 27, 1941, the very next day after the ‘Eberhard-Jeckeln-Rasch-Blobel’ briefing, the printed works of the Wehrmacht 6th army issued 2000 copies of the wall banners. Each of them included the same announcement in three languages: Russian, Ukrainian, and German (small letters in the lower right corner). On the next day (September 28) these banners with still warm printing inks were placed across the city of Kyiv by the members of ‘Ukrainische Hilfspolizei’ (Ukrainian Auxiliary Police). Simultaneously they shared a made rumor, that all Jews would be sent to work camps. The older generation of civilians, who had been still recollecting times of the First World War, saw no existential threat in Germans, and the Jewish population of course had not anticipated themselves to be exposed to mass murder on a never-before-seen scale.
Along with that, the announcement included a passage, threatening any looter of the Jewish property with death on spot. The vast majority of Jews had no other means to understand the events apart from evacuation: they collected documents and possessions and even hoped that their property would be secured ‘until better days’. As the ‘assembly point’ (the corner of Melnikova and Degtyarivska) was located close enough to a local freight depot (Lukyanivska, it had become another ‘appeasement’ for people. The very date of September 29 was chosen by the Germans for a reason. The Monday was to commemorate the main Jewish celebration of the year: Yom Kippur, a traditional time for hours-long prayer, and a visit to a synagogue.
All Jews of Kyiv (the original Ukrainian and Russian texts include the more abusive word ‘жид’, an ethnic slur with humiliating meaning, yet widespread in the Soviet Union) and its suburbs are obliged to arrive at the corner of Melnikova and Degtyarivska (the banner in fact included a misspelling ‘Dokterivkska’), next to cemeteries on Monday, September 29 at 8 a.m. All should take documents, money, and valuables, as well as warm clothes, linen, etc. Any Jew, who would violate this order and would be found elsewhere, is to be shot. Any civilians, who search into the apartments, left by Jews, and take possession of the belongings, would be shot.
From the early morning of September 29, hours before the announced 8 a.m. thousands of representatives of the Jewish community of Kyiv had made their way to the stated site next to the corner of Melnikova and Degtyarivska streets. This very city district, historically known as ‘Lukyanivka’, was notable for its dense factory-and-works urban development. The assembly point of September 29, 1941, neighboured the ‘ARTEM’ factory (named after Soviet Bolshevik the suppressor of the Ukrainian national movement), an enterprise, which had been evacuated to the East in summer 1941 as well as a number of Ukrainian industrial titans. The site was also close to ‘Lukyanivska’ prison of 1862 and a local market, one of seven main in Kyiv. Regardless of the wide demography of the Jewish population in Kyiv, German policemen of the 45 reserve battalion (in some cases accompanied by locals) forced Jews to abandon their homes.
Starting on an assembly site next to the ‘ARTEM’ factory, the Jews were to be headed further along Melnikova street to the North-West. In less than 1.5 kilometers, this woebegone procession mainly of women, the elderly, and children faced the first improvised roadblock. The Germans set on an obstruction, using a part of the anti-tank ditch and the remnants of the barricade (of barbed wire and sandbags) from the times of the siege of Kyiv, next to the crossroad with Pugacheva street (modern Academician Romodanov). It was this very place, where people were forced to abandon their carriages with belongings and no see-off accompanies were let go further. Rarely if ever, anyone, who crossed this initial barrier 1500 meters far from the starting point, would not be given out backward. In the same early hours of September 29, a few hundred Jews made their way to a neighboring Lukyanivska railway freight station in expectation of being put on the train to a new place. They were brutally halted on the spot and then anyway headed in the direction of the spurs of Babi Yar as the vast majority of people.
Right after the first security perimeter of barbed wire and armed guards, the crowd was to be divided into groups further down Melnikova street to the West, along the southern wall of the old Jewish cemetery, which had been closed since 1937. The directed (by the German policemen) route then continued toward nearly the entrance to the cemetery, a two-story office building which has been preserved until nowadays. The groups of desolated persons, still unaware of the destination point, face another improvised barrier on Melnikova street and were headed to the left on Kagatna (modern Hohlov family) street. In 1941, the site of the modern military cemetery was no more than an uncultivated spot of land with bushes and trees. A special squad of Germans forced Jews to hand over the valuables and outer clothing on this open site next to garages of the former tank facilities, two of which can still be found today.
Groups of 200-300 people, expropriated of the valuables and documents, now face another roadblock barrier, which had been set up to block access (to the locals) from the Southern part of Kagatna street. The procession was then headed to the right on Dorogozhyzka street. To the left, a street sits alongside Lukyanivske Orthodox Cemetery. A few dozen of meters short of another anti-tank ditch in parallel with Dorogozhyzka, the now doomed groups of people were forcefully turned right in direction of the spurs of Babi yar ravine. Fearful people were now able to hear distinct shots from the side of the ravine. The Germans made people run the gauntlet with dogs and unmercifully beat them with sticks. The far Southern-East spur of the Babi Yar ravine adjoined a large open ground site, now crowded with rounded-up Jews. People were now forced (under the threat of guns and sticks) to get clothes and shoes off. The open ground was now filled with bulks of belongings and valuables, destined to be assigned to possession of the occupational administration. Based on the German documents, pedantic as always, 137 trucks of personal belongings were ‘gathered’ following two ‘mass actions’ of Sonderkommando 4a in Zhytomyr (3145 people massacred on September 19) and Kyiv. The greater part of the clothes would be exposed to disinfection and would find a second life among ‘Volksdeutsche’ and the residents of the SS hospital.
Those doomed to death were separated into small groups and convoyed down to the ravine under the supervision of Sonderkommando 4a officers. As for the open site itself, there was no direct visibility of the spurs of the ravine from that point: natural ups obscured the ravine and narrow foot passes allowed it to get down. Fated Jews had a devastating ability to hear the gunshots as well as screams of the previous groups. Regardless of the conventional misinterpretation (that all people were killed on a very tiny section of the ravine) of the topography of Babi yar, the 29-30 September 1941 massacre was put into action within a vast part of the ravine, at least 500 meters in length. The shootings were assigned to three separate killing squads, made of the mixed members of Sonderkommando 4a, Waffen-SS, and 45 police battalion: each of the squads operated in its own part of the ravine.
Every killing unit included 2-3 gunners armed with machine guns and pistols, a few accompanied to support munition and convoy men, who forwarded victims to the execution site. The victims were mainly shot in the back of one’s head, had been hitherto brought to knees on the edge of the heugh, or even forced to lay down on the bodies of already massacred foregoers. As the number of victims increased in progression, the German executioners used to save ammunition, while killing a number of persons with one bullet or just pushing victims down the edge.
AUGUST HAFNER, Obersturmführer und Kriminalkommissar (Police commissioner) Sonderkommando 4a was among the officers, who directly coordinated the process of the mass killings on the spurs of Babi yar. A man, who on the evening of September 30 received an order to get down the ravine and to supervise the finishing of the victims, would live until the year 1999 and die of aging changes, complicated by Parkinson’s disease. Speaking about the members of the 303rd police battalion, its soldiers played no direct part in the mass shootings and were mainly engaged to secure the perimeter and the expropriated property of the killed Jews here in the ravine and in the city within abandoned apartments. As the process of mass killing grew progressively, the bodies at the bottom of the ravine were intentionally banked with earth. As early as September 30, the edges of the far south (upper) spurs of Babi yar were blasted and the distortion of the landscape can be definitely examined in the 1943 air photos, despite some factless after-war contortion. In the early days of October 1941, the Germans brought hundreds of Soviet POWs to conduct works on the cover-up of the bodies.
In the course of September 29, the first among two days of the mass action in Babi yar, the killing squads shot Apr. 22 000 people and the latter 12 000 would be massacred on September 30. The figures far outnumbered the ‘expectations’ of the units on spot, who had been in wait of 5-6 thousand people. Even though the ‘active phase’ of the shootings in Babi yar lasted until October 3, the absolute majority of the Jews in Kyiv became victims in the course of 29-30 action. In consonance with the Einsatzgruppe C operational report on October 7, the infamous ‘Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 106’, these two days witnessed the massacre of 33 771 Jews. These dramatic figures included a small proportion of men. The greater part of the male Jews of Kyiv had been called to arms or evacuated with the strategic enterprises to the East back in the summer. The figure would become the greatest ‘capacity of death’ during the Holocaust, which lefts behind the notorious ‘daily’ death toll of either Treblinka or Auschwitz Birkenau.
The principal proportion of the victims in the Babi Yar massacre was formed by women, children, and senior citizens: the latter included sick and bedridden patients. As concerns those Jews, who deviated from the ‘8 a.m. September 29’s order, they would become a target for the round-ups to come. Apart from local collaborators, a fastening historical sore of the history of Ukraine in WWII, a significant number of brave citizens did risk their lives in order to assist and hide surviving representatives of the Jewish population. More than 400 men and women from Kyiv would be inaugurated as ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ for their acts of bravery in saving the Jews during the German occupation.
Apart from a younger generation, women and elderly people, the first victims of the Babi yar mass killing, extended to Soviet prisoners of war, male Jews in particular. As the recent comprehensive historical examination reveals, 29 September 1941 was not the very first day of the ‘Vernichtungskrieg’ or ‘War on annihilation’ mass actions in Babi yar, Kyiv. The cross-study of the testimonies as well as preserved German documents (in contrast with conventional Holocaust deniers’ belief, the Babi yar massacre is one of the most documented crimes in history) illustrate earlier ‘Sonderauftrag’ or ‘special tasks’ on the location, though to a lesser extend. In reference to a number of testimonies of the locals with then-residence close to Babi yar ravine, the very first days of the occupation (starting from September 19) witnessed small groups of the Soviet POWs being forwarded towards the ravine. The forward detachment of the Sonderkommando 4a entered Kyiv next to Wehrmacht already on September 19. Originating from September 28, a day before the infamous mass action, spurs of the Babi yar ravine had become the last resting place for male Jews among the prisoners of war from the DULAG-201 camp nearby. On a daily basis up to October 3, 1941, from 10 to 15 trucks with male Jews would be taken to Babi yar mainly with no way back for the victims.
On October 2, 1941, Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsführer of the Third Reich, visited the city of Kyiv as a part of his ‘working visit’ to occupied Ukraine. FRIEDRICH JECKELN, one of the architects of the Babi yar massacre and the annihilation of the Jews in Kyiv, reported to the Reichsfuhrer on the results of the ‘Sonderauftrag’ and later organized a gala party for the executioners under his command. Jeckeln made a pompous speech all while condoning the crimes. The overwhelming majority of the members of the special squads (beyond Kyiv as well) used to regard the fate of their victims indifferent and cold-bloodedly, conventionally justifying taken measures, thus mas killing. Any disaffection on the killing of helpless civilians and POWs in Kyiv was voiced during this ‘festive occasion’. Along with that, the German executioners included a small proportion of men, who empathized with the victims of the racial war and even took diligent actions.
BABI YAR IN 1941-1943
Mass shootings of the Soviet POWs in late September and early October and the annihilation of the Kyiv Jewish population on September 29-30 were not fated to become the last mass actions in the spurs of the Babi yar ravine. A maze of eyewitness testimonies, operational reports of the Einsatzgruppe C (Sonderkommando 4a in particular) and additional German documents” all bear evidence of the elongation of mass killings on a situational scale in the course of October-November 1941 and further. In early October, August Hafner, one of the managing officers of Sonderkommando 4a and on-the-spot supervisor of the September 29-30 mass action, made his return way from the occupied territories to Germany with another visit to Kyiv. He took in Babi yar to witness mass killings still in progress on a lesser scale and gave a cold-blooded hearing to a report on Apr. 35 thousand people were already annihilated.
After September 30, Germans deployed a network of round-ups to hunt down and take to Babi yar (thus kill) those Jews from Kyiv and its vicinity, who had previously evaded the annihilation. The new death toll included elderly people and bedridden patients, who had no physical ability to walk on their own and thus comply with the order to present themselves on September 29. Seeing that the greater part of the upper spurs of the Babi yar had already contained an enormous figure of bodies, banked up with earth, the Germans used to choose different locations further along the mainstream of the ravine to the North, including a large sand quarry, that would be depicted within a series of the colored photo, preserved until today. According to preserved German documentary evidence, ‘Polizei-Regiment Süd’ (Police Regiment South), comprising 45 and 303 police battalions, carried out another four ‘actions’ on October 1, 2, 8, and 11 respectively prior to its transfer out of Kyiv on October 14.
The next chapter of the dramatic history of the mass killing in Babi yar in Kyiv was shaped by the annihilation of persons with mental disabilities, patients of the Mental Health Clinic after Pavlov, a medical institution that had been historically located next to the spurs of the ravine. As early as October 13, 1941, two trucks with the SS soldiers and members of the Order Police got around the facility. They closed around the unit wing with sick Jews, all while breaking into wards and forcing patients to leave the building. Being urged with wooden sticks and tree limbs, the doomed Jews were convoyed to the edge of the hospital territory at the very Babi yar edge, to find their death on the bottom of the ditch 5 meters in length and 2 in width. The killing process adopted the procedure of the previous mass actions: patients were forced to lie on the bottom of the ditch to be shot in the head. The ‘Aktion’ lasted an hour and demanded the lives of 308 Jewish people with mental disabilities, mainly men and a few women.
The German operational report on November 12 would include a passage on a ‘distinct mental burden’ for the German soldiers to suffer while killing insane persons back in October 1941. As early as January 8, 1942, the Germans would bring the infamous ‘gaswagen’, which had already been probed in Poland, to Pavlow Medical Clinic in Kyiv. On that day another 300 sick people, not Jews this time, were asphyxiated to death. In March and October 1942 another two actions with ‘gaswagen’ would be put in action to eliminate the remaining patients. All the bodies were carried to the unmarked graves in Babi yar ravine. Along with that a few thousand Soviet prisoners of war who died of starvation or mass shooting would be buried in graves in proximity to the Hospital in the course of the 1941-1943 occupational years.
On April 1, 1942, the German occupation authorities conducted a population census in Kyiv, which indicated 352 000 inhabitants of Apr. 400 000 at the time of September 19, 1941. In these early months of 1942 new victims used to be brought to Babi yar from the local Gestapo prison in Kyiv. As the vast majority of the Jews had already been annihilated, the special squads addressed themselves mainly to captured communists and the civil population. The later breakdown with the Ukrainian nationalistic formations led to mass killings of their members, including actions in Babi yar. In the twilight of the occupation, the mass shootings were carried out within an anti-tank ditch in parallel with Dorogozhyzka street and within the old killing sites in the upper spurs of Babia yar ravine. In a wider sense, these new victims used to form a ‘new layer’ of bodies on the bottom of the ravine, being steadily blanked with the earth. The last victims in Babi yar did not last only a month to witness the liberation of Kyiv. In October 1943 the Germans shot a number of civilians, who had evaded the order to leave Kyiv.
TURN THEM TO DUST: THE COVER-UP
By summer 1943 the military setbacks of the Third Reich, as well as the rampant Soviet offensive in Ukraine, approximated the liberation of Kyiv. PAUL BLOBERL, the former chief officer of Sonderkommando 4a (until January 13, 1942) was now entitled to an order to eliminate the traces of mass killings within still-occupied territories of the Soviet Union, in Kyiv in particular. The operation on the cover-up of the crimes against humanity was initially put under the ‘top secret’ procedure and codenamed ‘AKTION 1005’ (Action 1005). The detachment squads assigned to the task under Blobel were codenamed ‘SONDERKOMMANDO 1005’. In his testimonies in Nuremberg in 1947, Blobel would testify that the order (on the cover-up of the crimes and new operation) originated from Reichssicherheitshauptamt or RSHA (Reich Main Security Office) directly from Gruppenführer Heinrich Müller, Chief of Gestapo. Once received this new ‘responsible mission’, Blobel assigned HANS-FRITZ SOHNS as his entrusted person in Reichskommissariat Ukraine (RKU).
For the sake of the cover-up of the traces of the mass murders in Ukraine, two special squads were to be formed as early as summer 1943. In early August in Kyiv: Sonderkommando 1005a under command of Ernst Baumann and in late August in Dnipropetrovsk Sonderkommando 1005b under Fritz Zietlow. Each of these detachment units was composed of the representatives of the Order Police (the overall supervision) and 30 to 40 key staff to secure the process. The proximate operation on burning the corpses in Kyiv (anyway bodies were the key evidence) with Babi yar as the primary location was put into operation on August 18, 1943. On those first days, the immediate fulfillment was carried by Sonderkommando 1005a and as early as early September, Sonderkommando 1005b from Dnipropetrovsk (once finishing its own operation. Two years before, from October 13 to 15 1941 the Germans massacred up to 10 000 Jews, mainly women, and children in the ravine on the outskirts of the city) and were taken ‘to the aid’ to Kyiv.
The overall process of burning corpses in Babi yar is thoroughly documented both in after-war witness testimonies of the Soviet inmates, who did the immediate ‘job’, and of the Germans themselves, including Paul Blobel. Already on August 18, 1943, Sonderkommando 1005a initiated works on the exhumation and cremation of the bodies of the victims of ‘Vernichtungskrieg’ (war of annihilation) in the Babi yar ravine in Kyiv. The unit was formed of 8 to 10 members of the SD, and up to 30 members of the Order Police under the overall supervision of the SS officer Ernst Baumann. In the function of a brutal working force for digging and burning tens of thousands of corpses, the Germans brought more than 300 male inmates, including 100 Jews, from the nearby SYRETS CONCENTRATION CAMP, located next to the limits of the ravine. The members of the local Ukrainian Auxiliary Police were not engaged this time to preserve maximum confidentiality. On the sixth day of the ‘work’, the inmates revealed the first large mass grave to witness thousands of corpses of children, the elderly, and women. The bodies were taken from the ditch with hooks and shovels to be assisted by an excavator later brought by the Germans to speed up the process. One of the unnamed mass graves included up to 2000 bodies of the killed Soviet prisoners of war and another 500 corpses of the insane patients from PAVLOW Clinic.
The operation on exhumation and burning of the bodies took six weeks. The inmates in irons and under the cruel supervision of the guards were forced to erect large open-air improvised crematoriums. They used tombstones from the Old Jewish cemetery nearby, iron fences, railway metal tracks, and firewood. The improvised construction was covered with corpses, layer by layer, up to 2000 bodies at a time and 4 meters in height, doused with petrol and oil, and then flamed. It used to take up to two full days to burn down all the corpses in a separate cremator. The German weather reports of the period in Kyiv included a euphemism ‘Meterorwasser’ (atmospheric condensation) over the sites of the mass cremation and another euphemism ‘Wolkenholle’ (cloud height) was temporarily used to cover the smoke from the numerous piles. After the cremation, the inmates of the Syrets camp were forced to grab the remnants of the bones and grind them into dust along with the remnants of the tombstones. Later on, the dust was to be griddled out regarding golden valuables, and silver crowns before being dispelled across the spurs of the Babi yar ravine. In the course of these six weeks of ‘Sonderaktion 1005’ the locals near Babi Yar used to witness black smoke with an overpowering stench.
On the night of September 29, 1943, exactly two years after the 1941 mass action in Babi yar, a few dozens of inmates, who had been kept inside the ravine to conduct a cremation process, succeeded in picking a lock of their foot cuffs by using stolen instruments. The prisoners worked out the bars on their self-made dugouts (in which they had lived in the very spurs of Babi yar) and escaped from the bounds of the secured perimeter. Every second of the escapees was caught by the Germans and killed on spot, yet fifteen (alternative estimate is 18) were lucky enough to break through, to survive the war and later they became among the most ‘valuable’ and fact full eyewitnesses of the ‘Aktion 1005’.
The very next day, September 30 each of the remaining inmates of the initial 300-330 workers was shot on the spot of their recent work. As regards the exact locations for cremation during ‘Aktion 1005’ in August-September 1943, already at the end of the year the committee of investigation would document the remnants of the open cremators, dugouts for the inmates and human remains including a considerable amount of ashes with bone remains: all within the upper spurs of the Babi yar. Summing up the documented shreds of evidence, the major works of the ‘Aktion 1005’ operation was conducted within an area of the Babi yar ravine between modern Melnikova, Dorogozhyzka, Oranzhereyna (which did not exist in 1941-1943) and Olena Teliha streets, on spots of the main shootings back in 1941.
UNMASKING THE TERROR: INVESTIGATION
The advancing troops of the Red Army liberated Kyiv as early as November 6, 1943, thus drawing the space of twenty-six months of the German occupation. On a large, the capital of Ukraine avoided turning into ruins, yet as many as 180 000 people as of Apr. 930 000 in 1941 were still within the city limits. As soon as the city was free once again, a group of Soviet officers and military correspondents drove up to a ravine of Babi Yar to prove or shake out the spreading rumors of mass killings, which had already proliferated outside Kyiv and even Ukraine. This first group of military men revealed human remains, clothes, and burned relics of the cremation: all evidence would be filed in documents and military communique.
Expeditiously on the heels of the findings, the Soviet government ventured an unprecedented move toward a conventionally proprietary totalitarian state. Apart from the Soviet journalists, a number of Western military correspondents were taken to Babi Yar in November 1943 to authenticate the site of the mass killings, which had been used by Germans during the occupation. The Western delegation included among others, Bill Lawrence and Bill Downs. Lawrence had already been famous back home due to his coverage from the Pacific theatre of war: he would be later exposed to criticism for, as some considered, a ‘needless sympathy to the Reds’. Anyway, the coverage from Babi yar made the headlines both in Soviet and US media and shattered the recent skepticism (in Western media) regarding the genocide on an industrial scale, the one which would be overcome only in 1944-1945 with the horrors of the concentration (Buchenwald, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen) and death camps. The US correspondents were unexpectedly granted a free hand to interview some among those inconsiderable in numbers, who had avoided death in the ravine, former inmates of the Syrets concentration camp in particular.
In the aftermath of the authentication of the mass killings in Babi yar on the heels of liberation, by the 1943 year’s end, the Soviets assigned an ‘Extraordinary Commission on Verification and Investigation of Acts of Atrocities of the Nazis’. A wide range of the assigned initiatives was focused on investigating the sites of the mass murders in Babi yar, criminalistic expert examination of the human remains, and the infrastructure of the cover-up and cremation. The commission conducted a medical examination as well as an interrogation of witnesses and those who survived the massacre. In contrast to some factless after-war distortion of facts (that no traces of crimes were ever found in Babi yar), the investigators exhumed five large mass graves: two with bodies and the other three with burned human remains. The commission authenticated the remnants of the burned cemetery fences (which had been used for cremation), tombstones, blooded children’s cloth, men’s and women’s clothes, and articles of daily use such as money, glasses, toothbrushes, and brushes. Along with that, the territory of the nearby Syrets concentration camp revealed its own devastating secrets with mass graves.
The after-war trials against German war criminals, who were directly responsible for the mass killings in Kyiv, in Babi yar in particular, have their own broad geography and history. Some of the trials were put into action in Kyiv and other cities of the Soviet Union and a number abroad, mainly in Germany. The testimonies on the Babi yar massacre were voiced in Nuremberg, particularly within an ‘Einsatzgruppen Trial’
KURT EBERHARD, a war-time commandant of Kyiv and general-major of Wehrmacht, who summoned the infamous September 26, 1941, briefing and in first-person ordered the act of reprisal against the Jewish population of Kyiv, committed suicide in American captivity in 1947.
In 1948 the US special court sentenced PAUL BLOBEL, the former commander of Sonderkommando 4a to death, which would be executed in 1951.
OTTO RASCH, the high officer of the infamous Einsatzgruppe C, Blobel’s immediate chief, never faced a death sentence. His trial was postponed due to health grounds: Rasch would die a natural death on November 1, 1948, at the age of 56.
AUGUST HAFNER, Obersturmführer und Kriminalkommissar (Police commissioner) Sonderkommando 4a, the man, who directly coordinated the shootings in Babi yar, lived to see his 87 birthday and die of natural causes in 1999 in Germany.
HEINRICH HANNIBAL, commander of the 303 police battalion was a figure of the trial in the 1960s in West Germany, yet he was never prosecuted for his war crimes and faced natural death in 1971 at the age of 81.
FRIEDRICH JECKELN, ‘Höhere SS-und Polizeiführer Russland-Süd’ (Higher SS and Police Leader), the man who used to supervise the annihilation of the Jewish population of Kyiv, was sentenced to death for his Crimes against Humanity and hanged on February 3, 1946.
BABI YAR AFTER THE WAR
In the early hours of liberation on November 6, 1943, the population of Kyiv amounted to nothing more than 180 000 citizens of Apr. 400 000 in September 1941. The territory of the wartime Syrets concentration Camp was turned into a temporary camp for German POWs. As for the ravine of Babi yar, it was left to no changes in the course of the first after-war years. The new year of 1944 faced an issue of the resurrection of the city infrastructure of Kyiv, which would soon welcome hundreds of thousands of former inhabitants on their way from evacuation and army service. A state commission evaluated the damage of the German occupation at 10 billion rubles. The historical district of ‘Kurenevka’, which had historically included the Babi yar ravine, faced devastating transport, sewer, and water systems. In order to ensure delivery of the raw material supply for the ever-growing capacities of the building enterprises, a part of the Babi Yar ravine was assigned to a sand quarry as late as October 1944. The city plan for 1948-1950 would already include clauses on the erection of a memorial park to commemorate the victims of the Nazi crimes in Babi yar, initially planned for the inauguration for 1950.
To preserve Kyiv’s general layout, a number of roads next to the former Syrets concentration camp and Babi yar, are to be paved: the modern Ryzhska (1953), Sсhuceva (1953), Olena Teliha (1957) retrospectively. As early as 1950, regardless of the previous plans for a commemoration park with a monument, the city authorities authorized the so-called ‘Measures aimed at preventing the outgrowth of the Babi yar ravine’ by means of hydraulic deposition of soil from the nearby brickworks. A new agenda prescribed almost complete leveling of the Babi yar ravine to the level of the surrounding area, including its upper spurs, a site of the mass killings in 1941-1943 during the German occupation. The practical washing off the ravine was put into practice in 1954, including the location of the active gas pipeline.
Gradually since 1954, the spurs of the Babi yar ravine had been washed off with soiled water, therewith dragging down the existing drain system, insufficient for the task from the very beginning. The problem was that the city bureaucrats decided to level the mainstream of the ravine with a pulp, a burdened stream of water, clay, and sand, which was now pumped to Babi yar from the ‘Petrosky’ brick-yards № 1 and №2 (to the West) by means of a newly erected pipeline. The capacity of these brick enterprises had grown progressively in the years after the war and increased from 2.1 million bricks in 1945 to an enormous 31.7 million in 1950, four years prior to the washing of Babi yar. By the early 1950s, at least 30 enterprises of local and national importance were already in operation in the area.
Millions of gallons of water with clay and sand, now a demanding issue for a drain system, starts to overflow the spurs of the ravine and swamp the surrounding infrastructure: the fact that was indicated in the reports already in 1957. On March 13, 1961, a seawall dam, which had been keeping liquid mass for seven years, finally collapsed. A wall of pulp four meters high flooded out and descended upon a ‘Kurenivka’ residential area to the North-West, drifting houses, cars and buses, trees, and people on its way. The flood damaged the local tram depot and ‘Spartak’ stadium, the latter was filled with liquid mass up to the upper tribune. The official governmental estimates voiced 145 victims of the disaster with another 143 hospitalized. The later estimations, based on the population density and residential records, gives the figure close to 1500 those, drown in clay and sand.
Already in 1962, the local authorities authorized the liquidation of the old Jewish cemetery of 26.9 hectares next to Babi yar ravine, from which the ‘Aktion 1005’ used to possess fences and tombstones for improvised crematories back in August-September 1943. That same year another clause assigned the erection of a TV center and later a sports complex on the site. The territory of the old Evangelistic cemetery to the East of Babi yar now has free space for a television tower (should not be confused with a TV center to the North-East). In 1968 a new Oranzhereyna street connected Melnikova and Dorogozhyzka just 20 meters away from the site of the primary mass killings in 1941: the pavement works revealed another mass grave with Apr. 300 corpses. The territory of the former ravine, now hardly descending on the terrain, is to be occupied with a new park of local importance, generally completed up to 1980.
As early as 1971 the long-awaited decree enacted the commemoration of the victims of the German occupation with an erection of a monument within the upper spurs of the Babi yar ravine. On July 2, 1976, Kyiv citizens finally witnessed the inauguration of ‘Monument to Soviet citizens and prisoners of war and officers of the Red Army, shot by the Nazis in Bani yar’. As conventionally in the other parts of the Soviet Union, the wording does not mention Jews, using the general ‘Soviet citizens’. Despite the previous leveling off the spurs of the ravine and reshaping of the terrain, the construction works of the monument revealed human remains and a layer of ashes 10 cm thick. In 1991 the Monument was visited by U.S. President George Bush. As early as 1992 a new monument to the massacred members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) was erected to the North of the Soviet one.
My 2017 video commemorating the memorial site.
I am very grateful to war archives, museums, libraries, private collections, and writers for the historical photos in this article. To the extent that some author or a copyright owner may not want some of the above black-and-white photos to be used for educational purposes here, please contact me for adding credits or deleting the pictures from the article.