Red Army veteran Ilya Torchinskiy, a Kievan Yiddish instructor, at a memorial ceremony at Babi Yar, ca. 1990. His Yiddish sign declares that the thousands of Jews murdered at the site in September 1941 lie in a mass grave in which Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish victims of the “Fascist occupiers” are also buried. Photograph by Dmitry Peysakhov. (© 2006 Dmitry Peyshakhov)

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Babi Yar

Site of the murder of Kiev Jews by the Nazis in 1941. On 19 September 1941, the Germans occupied Kiev, after approximately 70 percent of a total Jewish population of 225,000 (as of 1939) had managed to flee. On 29–30 September, the eve of Yom Kippur, 33,771 of those who remained—mostly women, children, and the elderly—were murdered in Babi Yar, a ravine on the outskirts of the city. All in all, during the Nazi occupation of Kiev, an additional 70,000–80,000 people of various ethnic groups, mostly but not solely Jews, were killed there as well, but the locale became especially known for the first and largest aktion.

The war over, the Jews who returned to Kiev, like Jews elsewhere throughout the Soviet Union, sought to erect a memorial to Jews killed in Babi Yar, but these endeavors were systematically obstructed. In October 1959, writer Viktor Nekrasov published an article protesting the intention to erect a park with a football stadium at Babi Yar and to build a dam at one end of the ravine. Within months, the Kiev municipal authorities agreed in principle to the erection of a monument, but insisted that it be dedicated to Soviet citizens without mention of their being Jewish. Ultimately, however, even this decision was overruled, and work on the dam was begun.

Babi Yar became a symbol of Jewish suffering and of Soviet anti-Jewish discrimination. The Chernaia kniga (Black Book) opened with a description of the massacre there, and in 1945 composer Dmitrii Klebanov wrote the symphony Babi Yar, for which he was later castigated as a bourgeois nationalist and cosmopolitan. In the poem “Avraam” (Abraham; 1943), Sava Holovanivs’kyi described how the local population was apathetic as it watched an elderly Jew being paraded through the streets of Kiev on his way to Babi Yar, and another poet, Leonid Pervomaiskii, reiterated these charges in his own “V Babynim Iaru” (In Babi Yar; n.d.). In 1944, Ilya Ehrenburg also wrote a poem titled “Babi Yar,” and Lev Ozerov published a poem with the same name in 1946, and another on this theme in 1955. Babi Yar was mentioned specifically in Perets Markish’s epic Milkhome (War; published in full in 1948), in Ehrenburg’s novels Buria (The Storm; 1947) and Deviatyi val (The Ninth Wave; 1951–1952), and in Iulii Daniel’s Govorit Moskva (This Is Moscow Speaking; written in the early 1960s).

Interest in the massacre at Babi Yar peaked in 1961, on the massacre’s twentieth anniversary, when Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko published his poem “Babi Yar” in Literaturnaia gazeta. The poem identified with Jewish suffering, particularly with the Jewish victims of Nazism, and insisted that as long as antisemitism persisted in the Soviet Union, its society could not be genuinely internationalist. The piece evoked a broadside of protest, including a rebuke from Premier Nikita Khrushchev himself. The liberal intelligentsia, however, received it with applause, and composer Dmitri Shostakovich put it to music in his Thirteenth Symphony, which was soon banned.

In 1966 writer Anatolii Kuznetsov wrote a documentary novel titled Babi Yar, which was published in the Soviet Union after being heavily censored. After defecting to the West three years later, Kuznetsov published his original manuscript (1970). His book led to renewed demands for a monument, and an architectural competition encouraged hopes that one would soon be erected. In fact, a monument was not set up until an entire decade later, in 1976, and even then it included no specific mention of Jewish victims, referring rather to “citizens of Kiev and prisoners of war.” In the late 1980s a Yiddish plaque was added, but still there was no special mention of Jews. Amends were only made by the leadership of newly independent Ukraine, whose government sponsored the fiftieth anniversary commemoration of the Babi Yar massacre. A new monument was erected in the shape of a menorah inscribed in Yiddish and Hebrew and speaking explicitly of Jews.

Starting with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the massacre in September 1966, Babi Yar became a meeting site for Jewish activists. That year, Nekrasov and Ukrainian publicist and dissident Ivan Dziuba spoke at a gathering attended by thousands. In the following years, Jewish activists from various parts of the country attended these anniversary convocations despite endeavors by the authorities to prevent any happening whatever. By 1971, at least 1,000 people participated in the memorial ceremony.

Under perestroika the situation finally changed: in 1988 the anniversary of the September 1941 aktion was commemorated at a large gathering in Moscow and was publicly marked at Babi Yar itself, and scenes from both meetings were televised. In 1991 a large-scale commemoration was organized by Ukrainian and Jewish groups and sponsored by the Ukrainian government; Kiev’s main streets were lined with photographs of Jews killed at Babi Yar. The commemoration ceremonies included several days of conferences, meetings, exhibitions, concerts, and speeches. In addition, a memorial book was published.

Suggested Reading

Zvi Gitelman, ed., Bitter Legacy: Confronting the Holocaust in the USSR (Bloomington and Indianapolis, Ind., 1997); Vladimir Khanin, ed., Documents on Ukrainian Jewish Identity and Emigration, 1944–1990 (London, 2003); Benjamin Pinkus, The Soviet Government and the Jews, 1948–1967 (Cambridge and New York, 1984).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1218, Nodar Djindjikhashvili, Collection, 1978-1979.