Babi Yar

Mass Murder at the Babi Yar Ravine During the Holocaust

Babi Yar Massacre
Nazi SS Special Commanders line up Kiev Jews to execute them with guns and push them in to a ditch, already containing bodies of victims, The Babi Yar Massacre, World War II, 1941. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Before there were gas chambers, the Nazis used guns to kill Jews and others in large numbers during the Holocaust. Babi Yar, a ravine located just outside of Kiev, was the site where the Nazis murdered approximately 100,000 people. The killing began with a large group on September 29-30, 1941, but continued for months.

The German Takeover

After the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, they pushed east.

By September 19, they had reached Kiev. It was a confusing time for the inhabitants of Kiev. Though a large portion of the population had family either in the Red Army or had evacuated into the interior of the Soviet Union, many inhabitants welcomed the German Army's takeover of Kiev. Many believed the Germans would free them from Stalin's oppressive regime. Within days they would see the true face of the invaders.

Explosions

Looting began immediately. Then the Germans moved into Kiev's downtown on Kreshchatik Street. On September 24 - five days after the Germans entered Kiev - a bomb exploded around four o'clock in the afternoon at the German headquarters. For days, bombs exploded in buildings in the Kreshchatik that had been occupied by Germans. Many Germans and civilians were killed and injured.

After the war, it was determined that a group of NKVD members was left behind by the Soviets to offer some resistance against the conquering Germans.

But during the war, the Germans decided it was the work of Jews, and retaliated for the bombings against the Jewish population of Kiev.

The Notice

By the time the bombings finally stopped on September 28, the Germans already had a plan for retaliation. On this day, the Germans posted a notice all over town that read:

All [Jews] living in the city of Kiev and its vicinity are to report by 8 o'clock on the morning of Monday, September 29th, 1941, at the corner of Melnikovsky and Dokhturov Streets (near the cemetery). They are to take with them documents, money, valuables, as well as warm clothes, underwear, etc. Any [Jew] not carrying out this instruction and who is found elsewhere will be shot. Any civilian entering flats evacuated by [Jews] and stealing property will be shot.

Most people in town, including the Jews, thought this notice meant deportation. They were wrong.

Reporting for Deportation

On the morning of September 29, tens of thousands of Jews arrived at the appointed location. Some arrived extra early in order to ensure themselves a seat on the train. Most waited hours in this crowd - only slowly moving toward what they thought was a train.

The Front of the Line

Soon after people passed through the gate into the Jewish cemetery, they reached the front of the mass of people. Here, they were to leave their baggage. Some in the crowd wondered how they would be reunited with their possessions; some believed it would be sent in a luggage van.

The Germans were counting out only a few people at a time and then letting them move farther on.

Machine-gun fire could be heard nearby. For those that realized what was happening and wanted to leave, it was too late. There was a barricade staffed by Germans who were checking identification papers of those wanting out. If the person was Jewish, they were forced to remain.

In Small Groups

Taken from the front of the line in groups of ten, they were led to a corridor, about four or five feet wide, formed by rows of soldiers on each side. The soldiers were holding sticks and would hit the Jews as they went by.

There was no question of being able to dodge or get away. Brutal blows, immediately drawing blood, descended on their heads, backs and shoulders from left and right. The soldiers kept shouting: "Schnell, schnell!" laughing happily, as if they were watching a circus act; they even found ways of delivering harder blows in the more vulnerable places, the ribs, the stomach and the groin.

Screaming and crying, the Jews exited the corridor of soldiers onto an area overgrown with grass. Here they were ordered to undress.

Those who hesitated had their clothes ripped off them by force, and were kicked and struck with knuckledusters or clubs by the Germans, who seemed to be drunk with fury in a sort of sadistic rage.7

Babi Yar

Babi Yar is the name of a ravine in the northwestern section of Kiev. A. Anatoli described the ravine as "enormous, you might even say majestic: deep and wide, like a mountain gorge. If you stood on one side of it and shouted you would scarcely be heard on the other."8

It was here that the Nazis shot the Jews.

In small groups of ten, the Jews were taken along the edge of the ravine. One of the very few survivors remembers she "looked down and her head swam, she seemed to be so high up. Beneath her was a sea of bodies covered in blood."

Once the Jews were lined up, the Nazis used a machine-gun to shoot them. When shot, they fell into the ravine. Then the next were brought along the edge and shot.

According to the Einsatzgruppe Operational Situation Report No. 101, 33,771 Jews were killed at Babi Yar on September 29 and 30.10 But this was not the end of the killing at Babi Yar.

More Victims

The Nazis next rounded up Gypsies and killed them at Babi Yar. Patients of the Pavlov Psychiatric Hospital were gassed and then dumped into the ravine. Soviet prisoners of war were brought to the ravine and shot. Thousands of other civilians were killed at Babi Yar for trivial reasons, such as a mass shooting in retaliation for just one or two people breaking a Nazi order.

The killing continued for months at Babi Yar. It is estimated that 100,000 people were murdered there.

Babi Yar: Destroying the Evidence

By mid-1943, the Germans were on the retreat; the Red Army was advancing west. Soon, the Red Army would liberate Kiev and its surroundings. The Nazis, in an effort to hide their guilt, tried to destroy evidence of their killings - the mass graves at Babi Yar.

This was to be a gruesome job, so they had prisoners do it.

The Prisoners

Not knowing why they had been chosen, 100 prisoners from the Syretsk concentration camp (near Babi Yar) walked toward Babi Yar thinking they were to be shot. They were surprised when Nazis attached shackles onto them. Then surprised again when the Nazis gave them dinner.

At night, the prisoners were housed in a cave-like hole cut into the side of the ravine. Blocking the entrance/exit was an enormous gate, locked with a large padlock. A wooden tower faced the entrance, with a machine-gun aimed at the entrance to keep watch over the prisoners.

327 prisoners, 100 of whom were Jews, were chosen for this horrific work.

The Ghastly Work

On August 18, 1943, the work began. The prisoners were divided into brigades, each with its own part of the cremation process.

  • Digging: Some prisoners had to dig into the mass graves. Since there were numerous mass graves at Babi Yar, most had been covered with dirt. These prisoners removed the top layer of dirt in order to expose the corpses.
  • Hooking: Having fallen into the pit after having been shot and having been underground for up to two years, many of the bodies had twisted together and were difficult to remove from the mass. The Nazis had constructed a special tool to disentangle and pull/drag the corpses. This tool was metal with one end shaped into a handle and the other shaped into a hook.

    The prisoners who had to pull the corpses out of the grave would place the hook under the corpse's chin and pull - the body would follow the head.

    Sometimes the bodies were so firmly stuck together that two or three of them came out with one hook. It was often necessary to hack them apart with axes, and the lower layers had to be dynamited several times.

    The Nazis drank vodka to drown out the smell and the scenes; the prisoners weren't even allowed to wash their hands.

  • Removing Valuables: After the bodies were pulled out of the mass grave, a few prisoners with pliers would search the victim's mouths for gold. Other prisoners would remove clothing, boots, etc. from the bodies. (Though the Jews had been forced to undress before they were killed, later groups were often shot fully clothed.)
  • Cremating the Bodies: After the bodies had been checked for valuables, they were to be cremated. The pyres were carefully constructed for efficiency. Granite tombstones were brought from the nearby Jewish cemetery and laid flat on the ground. Wood was then stacked on top of it. Then the first layer of bodies was carefully laid on top of the wood so that their heads were on the outside. The second layer of bodies was then carefully placed on the first, but with the heads on the other side. Then, the prisoners placed more wood. And again, another layer of bodies was placed on top - adding layer after layer. Approximately 2,000 bodies would be burned at the same time. To start the fire, gasoline was doused over the pile of bodies.
    The [stokers] got the fire going underneath and also carried burning torches along the rows of projecting heads. The hair, soaked in oil [gasoline], immediately burst into bright flame - that was why they had arranged the heads that way.
  • Crushing the Bones: The ashes from the pyre were scooped up and brought to another group of prisoners. Large pieces of bone that had not burned in the fire needed to be crushed to fully destroy the evidence of Nazi atrocities. Jewish tombstones were taken from the nearby cemetery to crush the bones. Prisoners then passed the ashes through a sieve, looking for large bone pieces that needed to be further crushed as well as searching for gold and other valuables.

Planning an Escape

The prisoners worked for six weeks at their gruesome task. Though they were exhausted, starving, and filthy, these prisoners still held on to life. There had been a couple of earlier escape attempts by individuals, after which, a dozen or more other prisoners were killed in retaliation. Thus, it was decided amongst the prisoners that the prisoners would have to escape as a group. But how were they to do this? They were hindered by shackles, locked in with a large padlock, and aimed at with a machine gun. Plus, there was at least one informer among them. Fyodor Yershov finally came up with a plan that would hopefully would allow at least a few of the prisoners to reach safety.

While working, the prisoners often found small items that the victims had brought with them to Babi Yar - not knowing they were to be murdered. Among these items were scissors, tools, and keys. The escape plan was to gather items that would help remove the shackles, find a key that would unlock the padlock, and find items that could be used to help them attack the guards. Then they would break their shackles, unlock the gate, and run past the guards, hoping to avoid being hit by machine-gun fire.

This escape plan, especially in hindsight, seemed nearly impossible. Yet, the prisoners broke into groups of ten to search for the needed items.

The group that was to search for the key to the padlock had to sneak and try hundreds of different keys in order to find the one that worked. One day, one of the few Jewish prisoners, Yasha Kaper, found a key that worked.

The plan was almost ruined by an accident. One day, while working, an SS man hit a prisoner. When the prisoner landed on the ground, there was a rattling sound. The SS man soon discovered that the prisoner was carrying scissors. The SS man wanted to know what the prisoner was planning on using the scissors for. The prisoner replied, "I wanted to cut my hair." The SS man began to beat him while repeating the question. The prisoner could have easily revealed the escape plan, but did not. After the prisoner had lost consciousness he was thrown onto the fire.

Having the key and other needed materials, the prisoners realized they needed to set a date for the escape. On September 29 one of the SS officers warned the prisoners that they were going to be killed the following day. The date for the escape was set for that night.

The Escape

Around two o'clock that night, the prisoners tried to unlock the padlock. Though it took two turns of the key to  unlock the lock, after the first turn, the lock made a noise which alerted the guards. The prisoners managed to make it back to their bunks before they were seen. 

After the change in guard, the prisoners tried turning the lock a second turn. This time the lock did not make a noise and opened. The known informer was killed in his sleep. The rest of the prisoners were woken up and all worked on removing their shackles. The guards noticed the noise from the removal of the shackles and came to investigate.

One prisoner thought quickly and told the guards that the prisoners were fighting over the potatoes that the guards had left in the bunker earlier. The guards thought this was funny and left.

Twenty minutes later, the prisoners rushed out of the bunker en masse in an effort to escape. Some of the prisoners came upon guards and attacked them; others kept on running. The machine gun operator didn't want to shoot because, in the dark, he was afraid he would hit some of his own men.

Out of all the prisoners, only 15 succeeded in escaping.