This period can be characterized as the prequel to the history of Babyn Yar that saw a natural evolution of the stage on which numerous tragedies and dramas would later play themselves out.
Babyn Yar, a tract of land in the north-west part of Kyiv, is situated on the territory stretching from today’s Dorohozhytska Street to Kurenivka neighborhood (Frunze Street) and between the city’s Lukianivka and Syrets districts. Before the surrounding territory came under development in later years, Babyn Yar was one of Kyiv’s largest ravines – almost 2.5 km long and 30 m deep. The Kyrylivskyi stream ran along its bottom.
The history of Babyn Yar and the Dorohozhychi Necropolis begins in the mid-third millennium BC, when settlements belonging to the late Trypillian culture first appeared on the Kyryliv hills. Thus arose the first necropolis nearby—the burial mounds, the remains of which have been preserved to this day, although no archaeological excavations have been conducted on them as yet.
Afterwards, there seems to be a long silence which is finally broken in the medieval times, when the Rus’ Chronicle makes repeated mentions of Dorohozhychi. This area, situated on the outskirts of Kyiv, was the junction where roads from Vyshhorod, Chernihiv, Novhorod, Smolensk, and other cities converged. Dorohozhychi served more than once as Kyiv’s line of defense during conflicts between Rus’ princes. In the mid-12th century, Princess Maria, daughter of Mstyslav the Great and wife of Kyiv’s Prince Vsevolod Olhovych, built here the Kyrylivska church along with the eponymous monastery.
The name Babyn Yar dates back more than 600 years, when, in 1401, the owner of the adjacent land, an old woman (Ukrainian: baba) who was a tavern keeper, bequeathed it to a Dominican monastery. From that time on, the ravine (Yar) was named Babyn (the possessive of baba); an alternative name used from the 15th to the 17th century was “Bisova Baba” (“wacky old woman”). The name of an adjacent tract, Repiakhiv Yar, is derived from the nature of the local vegetation characterized by vast growths of burdock, or repiakhy.
The second period of the pre-history of Babyn Yar and the surrounding historic necropolis is related to the establishment of a number of cemeteries. Their beginnings are traced to the late 18th century, when, in 1787, a hospice and hospital for the mentally ill were established in the buildings of the closed Kyrylivskyi monastery. A cemetery began to form nearby, for those who died in these facilities; in 1871, the burial ground was expanded and converted into a municipal cemetery. Not long afterwards, in 1878, it was decided to create yet another municipal cemetery behind Babyn Yar – the Lukianivske cemetery.
At the beginning of the 20th century a section was set aside for the Bratske cemetery, located near the head end of Babyn Yar. Initially, this was the cemetery where the deceased soldiers of the Kyiv garrison were buried, later on, this became the place of burial for victims of World War I and the subsequent civil war. In 1910, sections of the cemetery were parceled off for use by Lutheran Evangelicals and Catholic Mariavites. Another three religious cemeteries were established further to the north between the beds of the Babyn and Repiakhiv ravines. These included, in 1894, a Jewish cemetery that bordered the Kyrylivske Orthodox cemetery, and in 1902, Karaite and Muslim cemeteries.
This multi-ethnic and multi-faith necropolis became, in effect, a peaceful prototype for what would later turn into the horrific grave that Babyn Yar became. A foreboding of the subsequent appalling fate of Kyiv’s Jews occurred already in 1907, when victims of that year’s pogroms were buried in a mass grave in the Jewish cemetery.
The third period of the pre-history of Babyn Yar and the necropolis essentially belongs to the modern era. Back in the Tsarist times, Kyiv had existed and evolved within the framework of a traditional society and the Christian civilization. After the upheavals of 1917-1920, Kyiv became part of a state that completely rejected the traditional concept of God, the spiritual nature of human beings, and life and death. For Babyn Yar and the Dorohozhychi Necropolis, this had twofold consequences, which to a certain degree modeled what would happen here in the middle and the second half of the 20th century. First, a utilitarian view of Kyiv’s development brought forth a series of plans for the transformation of Babyn Yar and its adjoining cemeteries into a park. This concept was comprehensively incorporated into the General Plan of City Reconstruction, which was developed after the capital of the Ukrainian S.S.R. had been moved from Kharkiv to Kyiv in 1934. According to this document, Babyn Yar as well as the Lukianivske and Jewish cemeteries were to become a cultural and recreational park in the Lukianivskyi district of the city. The authorities did not manage to realize this plan prior to the outbreak of World War II.
During the interwar period, several cemeteries near the Babyn Yar site first began to be associated with crimes committed by the totalitarian regime. During the Great Famine (Holodomor) of 1932-1933, a grave was dug on the territory of Bratske cemetery, and corpses of people who would die of hunger on the streets of Kyiv would simply be dumped into it. In the adjacent Lukianivske cemetery, people executed by the Soviet secret police were buried (some of them executed on the spot).
Mass execution of Jews in the fall of 1941
Shortly after Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, events took place that moved Babyn Yar into the forefront of world history.
The invading German armies occupied Kyiv on 19 September 1941. Five days later (on September 24) explosions rocked the core of the city as Soviet saboteurs blew up buildings where the occupation administration set up its offices and were German officers live. The explosions lasted several days and Kyiv’s main street, Khreshchatyk, was almost completely destroyed. The Nazis used the attacks as a pretext, to make an example of exterminating the city’s Jews who were blamed for the bombings and fires.
On 28 September, flyers in Russian, Ukrainian, and German were posted throughout the city: “All Jews of Kyiv and vicinities are instructed to meet on Monday, 29 September 1941 by 8 o’clock in the morning at Melnykova and Dokterivska [correctly Degtyarivska] Streets (near the cemetery). Everyone should bring with them their documents, money, linens, and other things. Whoever does not obey these instructions will be shot. Whoever occupies a Jewish apartment or plunders belongings from these apartments will be shot.”
On 29 September 1941, columns of Jews—primarily women, the elderly, and children with suitcases, coming from all districts of the city—arrived in Lukianivska Square and made their way toward Babyn Yar. Most of the victims had no suspicion of what was transpiring until it was too late. The occupiers even circulated rumors about a plan to transport Jews out of the city. Upon passing through the barbed wire enclosure at the fork of Melnykova and Dorohozhytska Streets, there was no turning back. Near the Bratske cemetery, personal items, documents, and valuables were taken from the people who were then directed in columns to the ravine/Yar. On the clearing near the downslope they were forced to strip naked, go down the slope into the ravine, lie face down; then they were murdered with shots to the head. On that first day, twenty-two thousand people were executed. Those whom the Germans did not manage to execute were locked for the night in garages of the tank repair shop on the corner of Melnykova and Dorohozhytska Streets. Over the course of those two days, 29-30 September 1941, German statistics record that 33,771 people were executed. After the shooting, Germans detonated the slopes of the ravine.
The path of the Jews on 29 September 1941, along Melnykova Street from Lukianivska Square and later through the Bratske and Lukianivske cemeteries to Babyn Yar, became Kyiv’s Via Dolorosa – the Path of Sorrow, which should be marked as such on maps of the city.
The executions of Jews did not conclude on that day, and neither was their mournful walk along the Path of Sorrow to Babyn Yar over. The only difference was that, on subsequent days, Jews would specifically first be herded in the garages and then brought in transport trucks to their place of execution. In total, by the middle of November, around 65,000 Jews of Kyiv were executed. The tempo of executions became ever slower, while the city’s inhabitants eventually grew accustomed to the fact that Babyn Yar became a killing site.
Many Jews who tried to hide from the executions were betrayed by neighbors and former friends, and captured and handed over to the Nazi Germans by the local Ukrainian Auxiliary Рolice. At the same time, hundreds of Ukrainians, the Righteous of Babyn Yar, at great risk to their own lives and the lives of their families, rescued Jews from death by hiding them in their homes. As of today, the names of over 600 such heroes have been documented by Ukrainian scholars. They deserve to be remembered and honored.
Two years of occupation
The high point of killings that occurred on 29 September 1941 should not mean that other victims of Nazi crimes are to be ignored. Among them are: Soviet prisoners-of-war (first and foremost, commissars, Communists, and Jews), Roma/Gypsies, Communists and Ukrainian nationalists who were civilians, Soviet and Ukrainian underground fighters, prisoners of the Syrets concentration camp, the mentally ill from the Pavlov (former Kyrylivska) hospital, hostages from among the regular residents of Kyiv, Christian clergy, and the local intelligentsia.
The first executions at Babyn Yar took place the day after the German Army entered the city. On September 20, 1941, this was already the place where Soviet prisoners-of-war were executed. These executions lasted until the beginning of October. The victims would be transported to Babyn Yar from a designated section of the camp for prisoners-of-war set up at the Zenit Stadium (currently Start Stadium). Jewish prisoners-of-war, Communist political leaders and commissars, and later hostages from among Kyiv residents (half of whom were also Jewish) were detained there.
Beginning in October 1941, Nazis began executing other groups as well. On 13 October, 308 Jewish patients from the Pavlov hospital were executed, while over 800 patients of other nationalities were executed in the course of 1942. The Pavlov hospital was allegedly used to treat Soviet prisoners-of-war, who by the thousands were shot or died (and were buried close by) because of hunger, cold, and typhoid.
Throughout October and November 1941, on orders from the governor of the city, over 800 hostages from among the local residents were also executed in Babyn Yar. At roughly the same time two Roma/Gypsy camps were exterminated at Babyn Yar: approximately 100 men, women, elderly and children.
In the winter of 1941-1942, the main location of the executions and burials became the anti-tank ditch near the head end of Babyn Yar. Local residents specifically recalled the executions here of several dozen Red Navy sailors.
Beginning in December 1941, Nazis began executing Ukrainian nationalists in Babyn Yar, primarily members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists allied with Colonel Andrii Melnyk. Among them were the poet Olena Teliha, the head of Kyiv's municipal administration, and one of the organizers of the local police who had rescued a Jewish boy during the September executions. In total, during the occupation period, 621 Ukrainian patriots were executed.
Several thousand Communists who had remained in Kyiv and had officially registered in the fall of 1941 were executed in Babyn Yar the following spring.
In the spring of 1942, Syrets concentration camp was established in the vicinity of Babyn Yar, on the territory of former Russian and later Soviet summer military camps. Initially, Soviet prisoners-of-war were held there; later, the camp became the destination of all other enemies of the Nazi regime, including members of the underground, Communists, Ukrainian nationalists, Jews, and common criminals. Of these, 5,000 were executed or died as a result of inhumane conditions and were buried in the ravine or in pits on the territory of the camp. Among the murdered were also four soccer players from Kyiv Dynamo team who had participated in winning matches against German teams.
Over the course of 1941 and 1942, every Friday one or two closed transports arrived at Babyn Yar carrying corpses of detainees executed at the security police and the secret service prison on Korolenka Street. Many of them were poisoned with the help of so-called gas vans.
In August 1943, a special team consisting of several hundred prisoners of the Syrets camp was ordered, under the watch of the Nazis, to exhume corpses from Babyn Yar, from the anti-tank ditch, and the area near the Pavlov hospital. They were ordered to burn them in large open ovens, crush the bones, and scatter the ashes over the entire ravine. In this way the German occupiers attempted to cover up their crimes. But on 29 September 1943, the prisoners revolted, and nearly 20 of them who successfully escaped later told about the horrors they witnessed and in which they participated.
The testimonies of these witnesses served as the foundation for the conclusions of the Soviet Extraordinary State Commission that investigated the circumstances of the crimes committed in Babyn Yar. The Commission reported in January 1944 that during the two years of Nazi occupation approximately 90-100 thousand people were killed and buried in Babyn Yar and the surrounding area. However, it omitted any mention of Jews, or its documented estimate that some 70,000 of the victims at Babyn Yar were Jews.
The subsequent period of Babyn Yar history is characterized by the transformation of Babyn Yar into a site of oblivion. At the same time, members of the community tried to commemorate the executed Jews. Their efforts met with resistance on the part of the Communist authorities, who acted to eradicate the memory of these events and to distort it. The authorities' methods included a ban on mass gatherings, censorship, arrests, and the erasure of the site itself and the surrounding cemeteries. The Soviet leadership consistently refused to acknowledge that the massacre of September 1941 amounted to an unparalleled war crime, namely, the attempt to kill every singe Jew in the city at the time. Hence, any serious commemorations of the memory of Babyn Yar victims was prohibited.
On November 6, 1943, Kyiv was liberated from Nazi occupation. The local Soviet authorities, known for their general disrespect for burial sites, tried to transform Babyn Yar and the surrounding historic necropolis into a recreational and sports park. The designer of this project was the head architect of Kyiv in the early postwar years, Alexander Vlasov. This is the same Vlasov who designed a monument to the victims of Babyn Yar, although it was never erected. As for the recreational and sports park, it was only partially realized. New streets were laid and cemeteries were destroyed and/or partially built over.
At the same time, two new cemeteries were established in the area surrounding Babyn Yar during this period: the Military (Viyskove) cemetery on the site of the former Bratske cemetery, and another cemetery (located near the current “Syrets” metro station) for about 250 German prisoners-of-war who died at the former Syrets concentration camp between 1944 and 1949.
In 1950, the municipal authority decided to fill Babyn Yar with waste from the Petrovsky brick factories and then to lay out two roads across its territory. One of them, an extension of Melnykova Street, cut Babyn Yar into two unequal sections, a large northern section and a smaller southern section. The southern section was transformed into a small park, part of which was eventually re-zoned for garages. The northern section was used in part to build the Syrets residential neighborhood and in part for a sports complex and a park.
In 1952, the city began to fill the Babyn Yar ravine with pulp waste from the brick factories that was pumped in for a period of almost ten years. At its center, the ravine was crossed by an earthen dam, but the parameters of its embankment and the capacity of its drainage system were not in compliance with safety standards. On 13 March 1961, the dam, which was intended to protect residential buildings, broke. A mudslide almost 20 meters wide and 14 meters high gushed in the direction of Kurenivka, razing buildings, cars, and people. Liquid pulp waste quickly hardened, creating a 4-meters-deep stone bedding, the total volume of which was 600 thousand m3.
Altogether, the liquid pulp flooded an area of approximately 30 hectares, destroyed over 30 buildings and, in essence, completely destroyed the Krasin streetcar (tram) depo. The authorities decided to hush up the true extent of this tragedy and switched off intercity and international telephone lines in Kyiv. In the official report broadcasted on the radio three days later (16 March), no victims were mentioned. To this day, the number of people who died has not been determined. Official sources cited 145 people, including 31 employees of the Krasin streetcar depo, but historians estimate that the number of victims may be as high as 1,500 people.
In the early 1960s, during “The Thaw”—the period when political repressions were scaled back—there were new attempts to honor the memory of those who had perished. The climax of these efforts took the form of an unsanctioned mass rally at Babyn Yar organized by young Jewish activists in Kyiv on 29 September 1966, the 25th anniversary of the beginning of mass executions of Kyiv’s Jews. Rallies also took place in subsequent years. They featured speeches by well-known representatives of the Kyiv intelligentsia, which included not only Jews but also ethnic Ukrainians and Russians, among them the writers and critics Ivan Dziuba, Viktor Nekrasov, and Borys Antonenko-Davydovych. They spoke specifically about the tragedy of the Jewish people at Babyn Yar. Dziuba, in particular, spoke about the obligation of Ukrainians to fight Antisemitism that still existed among them and the need for Jews to show respect for Ukrainians.
In July 1976, almost ten years after the unofficial 1966 commemoration, the Soviet authorities finally erected a large bronze sculpture at the site, commemorating the “Citizens of the City of Kyiv and Prisoners of War” killed in Babyn Yar between 1941 and 1943. The memorial made no mention of Jews and the official commemorations at the site in the years following were clearly intended to preclude gatherings by “nationalist Jewish citizens”.
Concurrently, the historic necropolis was steadily being destroyed. In 1962, a city ordinance was passed calling for the liquidation of the Jewish and Karaite cemeteries. On the territory of the former Bratske cemetery, a television tower was built in 1973, while the Jewish cemetery saw the construction of a television center, a building to house Communist Party archives (the current Kyiv Regional Archive), and the “Avanguard” sports complex.
In September 1991, one month after Ukraine declared its independence, the first ever official national Ukrainian commemoration of the massacre took place. The future President of Ukraine Leonid Kravchuk, who at that time was the speaker of the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, said that it was appropriate to “ask forgiveness from the Jewish people, against whom were committed so many injustices in our history.” The apology was far from popular, and it was decided not to print it. At the same time, texts in Russian and Yiddish were added to the Soviet memorial, and, at another location (far from the shooting site), the Jewish community placed a bronze menorah. Other memorial signs were then introduced, including a wooden cross erected by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists; crosses for Russian Orthodox priests and monks who were also shot at the site; a memorial to the murdered children of Babyn Yar, and some 25 other memorials to individuals or groups.
Specific examples of thoughtless development planning and irresponsible treatment of this historical territory include active real estate development of nearby residential districts, with construction waste dumped in the very center of Babyn Yar, as well as the opening of “Dorohozhychi” metro station in 2000 in the former epicenter of mass executions.
The situation is further complicated by numerous proposals of erecting new memorial and pseudo-memorial structures (e.g. museums, memorial complexes, community centers) in Babyn Yar and on the territories of adjacent cemeteries. Such proposals are being floated time and again in the community and in architectural circles.
A quarter of a century of Ukrainian state’s independence have made it abundantly clear that Ukrainian society has not yet succeeded in coming to terms with its painful past and has not fully overcome the tendency to politicize that past. Moreover, beyond interethnic and inter-communal rivalries, both the Ukrainian people and the Jewish community have been divided internally on how best to recover from the past and build a sustainable, shared future. This divide was significantly overcome as a result of the Revolution of Dignity of 2013-2014, which saw important expressions of inter-ethnic and inter-faith solidarity, and contributed to strengthened relations between Ukrainians and Jews.
Such progress in mutual understanding offers an opportunity for addressing the issues of the tragic past. However, the former killing grounds still are far from being a commemorative space respectful of the dead of Babyn Yar.