Seventy-two years ago today, on September 30, 1941, one of the most brutal and infamous massacres of the entire Holocaust occurred at a fateful ravine called Babi Yar, in the Ukraine, USSR, near Kiev. For the previous two days the Nazis, who had overrun Kiev not long before as part of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, had been rounding up all the Jews of this very large Ukrainian city, posting handbills demanding they gather on the street with their valuables and threatening execution to anyone who tried to hide. Most Jews willingly complied. The SS Einsatzgruppen (Special Action Units) then drove these thousands of people into the forest, to this ravine, led them to the bottom in groups of five or ten, and mowed them down with machine-gun fire.

All in all, it is recorded that 33,771 Jews were massacred by the SS on this one day, September 30, 1941. The victims were literally stacked on top of each other. SS gunmen would lead the groups to the bottom of the ravine, demand they lay down on the pile of bodies already there, shoot them all, and bring a new group in. It was a very messy and horrible affair, but even at that quite thorough: of tens of thousands brought to the ravine and shot, only 29 survived.

When most people think of the Holocaust they envision the industrial process of killing characterized by awful places like Auschwitz, with gas chambers disguised as showers, crematoria, and an orderly but ghoulish process of mass murder. While this did happen and millions died in this way, this was only really the latter half of the Holocaust, which took shape after 1942. Millions more victims of the Holocaust never set foot on a train, never entered a gas chamber and were never burned afterwards. They were like the victims of Babi Yar–simply taken out and shot en masse.

babi yar today

This is what Babi Yar Ravine looks like today, on Google Earth. The shadow in the center is from a memorial to the victims.

Incredibly, the massacres of September 30 were only the tip of the iceberg. Throughout the German occupation of Russia during World War II there were repeated killings of civilians here, marking it as one of the Nazis’ favorite execution spots. Possibly as many as 100,000 people died here in total during the war.

If this isn’t horrifying enough, Babi Yar was the scene of still more ghastly operations. As the Germans realized they were losing the war, a secret team called Kommando 1005 went around to the various mass grave sites in German-held Europe, dug up the corpses, looted them of valuables including gold teeth, and burned them. This was done at Babi Yar in the hopes that no one would ever discover what had happened there. After the war, the leader of this operation, Paul Blobel, also directly responsible for numerous massacres in the Holocaust, was hanged for war crimes.

Morally it’s difficult to grasp the magnitude of the Holocaust. Mass killing like this is so alien to most of us–and rightly so–that it’s hard to conceptualize it. Today Babi Yar is quiet, and marked by numerous memorials to the dead. But a place where something like this happened will never truly be at peace.

The picture at the top of this article is a painting called “The Executions at Babi Yar” by Felix Lembersky, painted in the 1950s. It is used under the Creative Commons 3.0 license.
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