The reaction by the Nazi occupiers to the explosions and fires set off by the Soviet NKVD in downtown Kyiv on Sept. 24, 1941, was to randomly arrest 1,600 Jews and execute them. If that mass execution had been the only revenge, it would be considered a major war crime. But it was just the start.
On Sept. 26, a meeting took place in Kyiv attended by the top SS commander in Ukraine, Friedrich Jeckeln; the leader of the SS's Eisensatzgruppe C, Otto Rasch; the leader of the SS's Sonderkommando 4a, Paul Blobel; and the German Army's Commandant of Kyiv, General-Major Kurt Eberhard. The meeting decided to organize a 'gross Aktion,' the execution of 50,000 Jews.
Eisensatzgruppe C was a SS special task force assigned to the German Army for the invasion of Soviet Ukraine. Its orders were to arrest, interrogate and execute members of the Soviet elite and to kill Jews. It also had the task of organizing the German police on the occupied territory. It had various commando companies, including Sonderkommando 4a (Sk4a), which was ordered to direct the massacre.
The decision to kill tens of thousands of Jews was reported by radio to SS headquarters in Berlin, where Reinhard Heydrich, head of the SD (the SS intelligence service) relayed the report to the Nazi hierarchy, including Adolf Hitler; Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS; and the headquarters of the Armed Forces, the German Foreign Ministry and other state institutions:
'Allegedly 150,000 Jews are living here [in Kyiv]. During the first action, 1,600 arrests were made and measures undertaken for the arrest of all Jews, and execution of at least 50,000 Jews is anticipated. The Wehrmacht [the 6th Army command] is very satisfied with the measures and asks for the radical action.'
The SS prepared a ruse to get Jews to come voluntarily to their place of execution. On Sept. 27, a 6th Army propaganda company printed 2,000 posters in three languages – Russian, Ukrainian and German – with the following order:
'All Jews of the city of Kyiv and its suburbs must appear on Monday, Sept. 29, 1941, at 8 a.m to the cross-roads of Melnykova and Dokhturivsky (near the cemetery). Take with you all documents, money and valuables, as well as warm clothes, underclothes and so on.
'Those Jews who do not carry out this order and are found in another place will be shot. Citizens who enter apartments abandoned by the Jews and take things will be shot.'
The Ukrainian auxiliary police posted the leaflets across the city. In addition, the SS used former members of the Soviet militia whom they had recruited to spread the rumor that Jews would be transported to a port where American ships would take them to Palestine.
The location on the leaflet was confusing. Dokhturivsky from Melnykova led to the Lukyanivka train freight depot, but the Jewish Cemetery was further north. The suggestion that the gathering point was near the train depot added to the credibility of the deportation rumor.
Thousands of Jews came and were guided to the cemetery. Some rushed to be first in the queue as they were worried about the availability of seats on the trains. Families came in horse-drawn carriages and wagons, piled high with belongings and their children and elderly relatives. By 8 a.m. Melnykova was filled with a sea of people carrying or carting their most precious belongings. Most of the families consisted of mothers with children and the old and infirm, as the Soviets had either evacuated or drafted men of military age.
The early morning movement on the streets brought thousands of onlookers. Some helped their Jewish neighbors to carry their belongings, while others took the opportunity to rob helpless people. Most, like the Jews, could not imagine what the SS was planning.
Babi Yar (Granny's Ravine), just behind the Jewish cemetery, had been selected because of its huge size (2.5 kilometers long and 50 meters deep) and its remoteness. The SS had dug a trench along its bottom several meters deep and wide and 400 meters long.
Fifty Sk4a officers led by commander Paul Blobel supervised about 1,200 German policemen and a few hundred Ukrainian auxiliaries. The German policemen were from paramilitary units formed from local police and their reservists in Germany. They were composed of men too old or unfit for military duty.
Dina Pronicheva, one of the few survivors of the execution, and numerous SS executioners all provide similar accounts of the execution. SS guards with dogs removed luggage, personal possessions and food from the helpless families, who were then moved to a large, open field. There, Ukrainian-speaking police ordered them to undress or tore their clothes off, and lorries waited to take the piles of clothes away.
Who those Ukrainian-speaking police were still remains to be discovered. As far as is known, the Sk4a's officers included only one Ukrainian speaker: Second Lieutenant Joseph Muller, an ethnic German from Galicia.
Suspicion falls on two formations of Andry Melnyk's pro-Nazi wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. One, attached to Sk4a, was a forty-strong company under the command of Ivan Kedyulych, previously with the Czechoslovak Army. Another, attached to Eisensatzgruppe C and popularly known as the Bukovyna battalion, was formed from 350 OUN-M members from Bukovyna and sent to Kyiv for police duties just after the occupation.
However, there is no documented evidence placing either of those two formations at Babi Yar.
After the Ukrainian-speaking policemen herded the naked people to the ravine, German policemen forced the victims into the ravine and to stand against its side or lie down on top of corpses, while marksmen took aim. Only German police and SS soldiers had the job to shoot. So huge was the task that the executions took two days.
On Oct. 1, the SS in Kyiv radioed to Berlin that the 'gross Aktion' had been successful. On Oct. 2, Heydrich's office reported the operation to the Nazi elite:
'Sonderkommando 4a in collaboration with Einsatzgruppe headquarters and two kommandos of Police Regiment South, executed 33,771 Jews in Kyiv on Sept. 29 and 30, 1941.' The 6th Army's intelligence department reported:
'The Jews of the city were ordered to present themselves at a certain place and time for the purpose of numerical registration, and housing in a camp. About 34,000 reported, including women and children. After they had been made to give up their clothing and valuables, all were killed; this took several days.'
Some of the more than 100 trucks of clothing and other valuables seized from the victims were earmarked for distribution to ethnic Germans; others were earmarked for some of the 25,000 people who had lost their apartments and their belongings in the explosions and fires set off by the NKVD. The apartments of the Jewish victims were also distributed.
As for the Jews who had not come to the assembly point on Sept. 28-29, the SS vowed to kill them as well: 'The Jews who were not yet apprehended as well as those who gradually returned from their flight to the city were in each case treated accordingly.'
Hiding the evidence
As the war began to turn against the Nazis, the SS panicked that the burial sites and the number of those killed in the USSR might become known. It ordered that the corpses be exhumed and burned and the sites concealed.
Blobel, the former commander of Sk4a, was given the job with a formation called Kommando 1005. Work on Babi Yar began in May and June 1943, just months before Kyiv was re-occupied by Soviet forces. In his testimony to the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, Blobel said the site was uncovered, the bodies set alight with fuel and the grave site refilled.
The work was carried out by 330 Soviet prisoners from the nearby Syretsky concentration camp. Only a few survived the camp to tell their story. They told how they burned the bodies in ovens and then ground the bones and buried them. The job of digging out some 33,000 bodies was so huge that it probably was not completed.
After the war, the Soviets kept the Nazis' secret. No accounts of the Holocaust in Ukraine were published in the USSR. Such was the official anti-Semitism in the post-war Soviet Union that it took more than twenty years just for a memorial stone to be placed at Babi Yar.
The first call for a memorial, made soon after the Soviets retook Kyiv, was quashed by Nikita Khrushchev, then head of the Communist Party in Ukraine. In 1957, his successor in that post, Mykola Podhorny, decided to head off pressure for a memorial by ordering that the ravine be filled with earth.
That presented a massive engineering problem, so Soviet engineers instead built a dam the height of a six-story building at the north end of the ravine, and for three years pumped waste water into it from a nearby brick works.
Tragedy struck in the early hours of March 13, 1961. Spring rains overfilled the reservoir and the dam broke, sending a ten-meter wall of water and brick waste on to the area below. The brick mud covered homes, a tram park, a hospital, a stadium, and a factory, and killed an estimated 24 people.
In 1959, the writer Viktor Nekrasov, writing in Literaturnaya Gazeta, made the first disclosure in the Soviet press that there was no monument at Babi Yar. That provoked the poet Evhen Evtushenko to write the poem 'Babi Yar.' In 1962, the composer Dmitri Shostakovych dedicated his 13th Symphony to Babi Yar.
The same year, the government began building the headquarters of Ukrainian Television on the site of the Jewish cemetery. The graves were dug up and headstones destroyed.
The first public protest against the Soviet state's obliteratation of the memory of Babi Yar took place in Kyiv on Sept. 29, 1966. An illegal gathering was held at Babi Yar to commemorate the event. Speakers included survivor Dina Pronicheva, the Russian writer Viktor Nekrasov and the Ukrainian writer and dissident Ivan Dzyuba.
Following the demonstration, authorities placed a small granite stone near the Babi Yar site, with an inscription that a monument would be built there to remember the victims of German fascism. Ten years later, in 1976, a large monument was built, but it didn't mention that the victims were mainly Jews and it was blocks away from the ravine.
In 1992, Jewish organizations put up a new monument in the shape of a Minora on the site of the former Jewish cemetery, at the foot of the ravine.