The first time I remember hearing of Babi Yar was at Yom Kippur services in 1974 (the year I was Bar Mitzvah). Rabbi Rosenbaum z’’l of my shul , Temple Beth El in North Bellmore, would recite the names of concentration camps before the Ne’ilah service. I am embarrassed that it took me 36 years to understand that Babi Yar was not a concentration camp, but the largest gravesite in Europe.
I recently traveled to Babi Yar, on the outskirts of Kiev, to commemorate the murder of 33,722 Jews there, on the 69th anniversary of that tragedy. I went to say Kaddish and put soil from Jerusalem at Babi Yar, as I had done during visits to Auschwitz, Dachau, and the Warsaw Ghetto a decade earlier.
In telling friends and associates of my visit, I was shocked at how few had heard of Babi Yar or knew that it was the site of the largest single-event massacre of World War II.
I traveled with several friends, including three-time Oscar-nominated screenwriter and director Vadin Perelman, who was actually born in Kiev and is developing a film about Babi Yar.
We drove down what was Melnikova Street, the same street that on September 29, 1941 so many thousands of Jews walked miles to what they did not know would be the site of their deaths.
Each person was allowed to carry one suitcase and as they did, local townspeople would have their children run through the crowds and steal suitcases from the Jews, which inevitably had most of their valuables. Vadin explained to me that the day before the march, Germans had put up signs that “all kikes” need to be at Babi Yar or they will be shot. The Germans didn’t even bother calling Jews “Juden.”
It was a cool day, and they must have left before 6 a.m. to arrive at 8 a.m. I wonder if any fathers or mothers slept the night before.
I walked from the bottom of the hill where Podol, the Jewish Quarter was and walked the same path they would have taken on the harsh cobblestones.
The elderly who were too old to walk just passed out and died along the way. Once the others arrived there was no way to leave the lines. How many had to relieve themselves in their clothes, I wondered.
The Germans were professional killing machines. They hid the deep ravine with two huge mounds of dirt, then split the Jewish into groups of ten, forced them to strip off all their clothes and then go to the edge of the ravine.
This was their last minyan, I thought, before they were slaughtered by drunken soldiers with machine guns.
As the day wore on the machine guns became so heated that the soldiers urinated on them to cool down the barrels.
When bullets were being reloaded, they used pistols and killed two Jews at time by shooting one bullet through their heads. And the children, the innocent children were just thrown into the pit alive so as not to waste bullets.
The Nazis were very efficient at killing. As the shooting occurred, they even employed airplanes to block out the human screaming in order to prevent a panic.
The shooting stopped at the nightfall. When the local townspeople went to work, some found wounded Jews and killed them with a shovel or a shot to the head.
Thousands of Jews were buried alive. Witnesses said that even after September 30, when the shooting stopped, the ravine was alive with movement for several days from wounded souls.
Later, thousands of locals came to collect the booty, from gold in teeth to rings and earrings. Was there no shame?
Over the next year, more people were killed at Babi Yar: Soviet prisoners of war, Communists, gypsies and additional Jews who were found and rounded up.
Some estimates suggest that over 100,000 people were killed and buried there. In June of 1943 the Germans retreated from the advancing Soviet Army, and tried to destroy the evidence, an indication there were capable of guilt or simply fearful of having their inhuman actions discovered.
Of the 600,000 Ukrainian Jews before the war, today less than 100,000 remain. In 1990, 431 Righteous Gentiles were recognized and honored by the Jewish Board in the Ukraine for hiding and saving Jews.
In 1974, a monument was erected at Babi Yar but it made no mention of the Jews who died there. In 2000, the Joint Distribution Committee put up a small monument on the site.
Peter Kash is a biotech venture capitalist who has traveled to more than 60 countries and is currently completing his doctorate thesis in Jewish education at Azrieli Graduate School at Yeshiva University.