Updated: Dec 28, 2020
German forces entered Kyiv on September 19th, 1941 after a crushing victory over the Red Army. Starting the next day, the Soviet NKVD, the predecessors to the KGB, detonated explosives all over the city. This caused extensive damage to key buildings, including the building taken over as a headquarters for German Army Group South. The Nazi leadership decided to exterminate the entire Jewish population of the city, ostensibly in retaliation for the actions of the NKVD.
The decision to carry out the Babi Yar Massacre was made by military governor Major General Kurt Eberhard, SS-Obergruppenführer and head of the police Friedrich Jeckeln, SS-Brigadeführer Dr. Otto Rasch of Einsatzgruppe C, and his subordinate SS-Standartenführer Paul Blobel. Sonderkommando 4a of Einsatzgruppe C was directly responsible for organizing the massacre. They were supported by elements of the Waffen SS and the Wehrmacht Sixth Army under Field Marshall Walther von Reichenau. Most of the low-level work of rounding up Jews and directing them to the ravine was done by the local collaborators in the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police, though the exact makeup and leadership of the police present in Kyiv at the time is a matter of controversy.
What followed was two days of bloodshed, September 29th and 30th, where 33,771 Jews were killed. The killing continued after this initial massacre, with 75,000 Jews having been killed by the end of November. Babi Yar would continue to be used as an execution site throughout the occupation. Overall, 100,000 Jews, prisoners of war, Romani, hospital patients, and Ukrainian nationalists were murdered.
In 1961, the Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote, "No monument stands over Babi Yar. A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone." The Soviet government denounced Holocaust memorialization as dangerous nationalism, and was driven by its own antisemitism. But, that statement is no longer true. Babi Yar is dotted with monuments that were erected by different groups for different reasons. The following guide seeks to explain what each of these monuments represents.
Jewish Ukraine Tours offers a tour of Babi Yar, which will go more into more depth.
1. Beginning of the Road to Babi Yar
“All Yids of the city of Kyiv and its vicinity must appear on Monday, September 29, by 8 o'clock in the morning at the corner of Mel'nikova and Dokterivskaya streets (near the Viis'kove cemetery). Bring documents, money, and valuables, and also warm clothing, linen, etc. Any Yids who do not follow this order and are found elsewhere will be shot. Any civilians who enter the dwellings left by Yids and appropriate the things in them will be shot.”
This notice by the Nazi occupation was distributed throughout Kyiv, ordering the Jewish population of the city and its surroundings to appear on this spot so that they could be deported elsewhere. This was a lie. After arriving at the ravine, they were stripped of their clothing and possession and shot. Every year on the anniversary of the massacre, the local Jewish community, and its supporters gather here and begin a solemn march to Babi Yar, retracing the route of the martyrs.
2. Monument to the Victims of Nazism
"Here in 1941-1945 more than one hundred thousand citizens of Kyiv and prisoners of war were shot by Nazi invaders."
Built in 1976 by the Soviet authorities, this monument was the first institutional memorial to the massacre at Babi Yar, in part influenced by the poem Babi Yar by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, which drew attention to the lack of memorialization at the site. However, the nature of the monument is very controversial. The inscription refers only to “citizens of Kyiv,” which was in line with Soviet policy of completely erasing the Jewish character of the Holocaust. This is the traditional site of state-sponsored commemorations.
3. Monument to Tetiana Marcus
The story of the Holocaust cannot only be the story of victimization. Many Jews rose up and fought against the Nazis. One of them was Tetiana Marcus, a Jew from a shtetl in Northeastern Ukraine. The 20-year old fled to Kyiv from Romanian-controlled Moldova soon before the city was overrun and joined the Soviet resistance. To do so, she went undercover as a Georgian princess and personally killed many German soldiers. She was eventually captured in 1943 and executed.
4. Syrets Concentration Camp
During the period of German rule, the occupation authorities set up Syrets Concentration Camp on the outskirts of Babi Yar. It was used to imprison Jews, Soviet POWs, and others. Inmates were used as slave labor to destroy evidence of the massacres as the Red Army advanced on Kyiv. On September 29, 1943, camp inmates revolted against their overseers, managing to kill one of them. Some managed to escape, the rest were shot.
5. Memory for the Future
This monument was created by an artist’s collective in 2005 in order to show “The world disfigured by Nazism.”
6. Memorial to the Ostarbeiter
The Nazi economy was built on slave labor taken from around their short-lived empire. The largest group of slaves were the Ostarbeiter, Eastern Workers, from Ukraine. There were approximately 3 million Ukrainian Ostarbeiter in total. They were originally recruited on a voluntary basis, but as news came back home about the atrocious conditions they were subjected to, the German instead resorted to forced conscription. Abuse, executions, and rape were commonplace. After the war, those Ostarbeiter who were repatriated to the Soviet Union were often treated as traitorous and sent to the Gulag.
7. Proposed Jewish Community Center
American Jewish organizations attempted to build a Jewish Community Center in connection with the 60th anniversary of the massacre. However, it was met by local resistance and the plan eventually died in the planning stage. A stone memorial marks where it was meant to be built. The inscription includes the verse Ezekiel 37:14 - I will put my breath into you, and you will live again.
8. Monument to the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists
Many Ukrainians saw the invading German army as a liberating force, just as they had been in the first world war. The most active among them were the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, an ideologically fascist militant group that initially fought alongside the Nazis. However, they came into conflict with the Germans after Berlin rejected an OUN attempt to establish an independent Ukrainian state. The faction under Stepan Bandera (OUN-B) would go on to fight an insurgency war against both the Germans and Soviets, while the faction under Andriy Melnyk (OUN-M) continued in the German service. An OUN-M-affiliated newspaper, Ukrainske Slovo, urged its readership to aid in the massacre of Jews at Babi Yar.
Several hundred members of OUN were killed at Babi Yar during German crackdowns on the Ukrainian independence movement.
9. Monument to Olena Teliha
The most recent addition to Babi Yar was a statute inaugurated in 2017 of the poetess Olena Teliha. She was one of the major figures of interwar Ukrainian cultural life. Olena was a member of OUN-M who was executed for her activities in supporting an independent Ukrainian state. She was killed at the same time as her colleague and editor of Ukrainske Slovo, Ivan Rohach, in 1942.
10. Monument to the Children Shot at Babi Yar
Perhaps the most iconic and haunting memorial in Babi Yar, this statue commemorates the children who were killed here.
11. Martyr’s Alley
This is one of the more recent additions to Babi Yar. Martyr’s Alley is a well-landscaped lane stretching from the Children’s monument to the pathway that eventually leads to the Menorah. Along the way, there are two memorial stones. The first says “Eternal grief, the eternal memory of the victims of Nazism shot at this place at Babi Yar in 1941-1943.” The second says “At this place, during the Nazi occupation in 1941-1943, tens of thousands of peaceful citizens of the Jewish nationality were shot.”
12. Memorial to the Kyiv Soccer Players
All Soviet organizations were dissolved by the occupation authorities, including sports teams. However, some former members of Dynamo Kyiv and Lokomotiv Kyiv were formed into a new team, FC Start. Start played the famous and much-mythologized “Game of Death” against the German Luftwaffe club Flakelf, and won handily. According to one story, they were threatened with death if they won. The majority of the team would later be imprisoned at Syrets concentration camp, and three were executed there.
13. Monument to the Soviet Prisoners of War
Even outside of the context of the Holocaust, the eastern theater of the second world war was perhaps the most brutal time period in human history. Soviet prisoners of war were treated horribly and were killed by the thousands.
14. Information Plaques
A series of informational placards can be found near one of the entrances to Babi Yar.
15. Romskaya Kibitka
The Romani people, like the Jews, were targeted for destruction by the Nazis. The Romani Holocaust, known as the Porajmos (the Devouring) or Pharrajimos (th cutting up) killed between 220,000 and 500,000 people. This was up to half of the Roma population of Europe. Soon after entering Kyiv, the Nazis massacred 12,000 Romani at Babi Yar.
16. Memorial to the Victims of the Kurenivka Mudslide
In 1961, a dam holding back the pulp waste from a brick factory failed during a heavy rain. The resulting mudslide buried the Kurinivka neighborhood, which is adjacent to Babi Yar, in four meters of mud. As many as 1500 people died in the disaster. It also radically altered the landscape of the area.
In 1991, on the 50th anniversary of the massacre and in the midst of Ukraine transition to independence, the local Jewish community built a menorah-shaped monument to commemorate the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Their story was suppressed by the Soviet authorities, with only some small positive changes happening during the years of Glasnost. The inauguration of this monument was a major event in the history of Soviet/post-Soviet Judaism. This is where the Jewish community holds its commemoration events, not the Monument to the Victims of Nazism.
18. Road of Sorrow
A large part of the area of Babi Yar was once the Lukianivka Jewish cemetery, which was established in 1894. As the Red Army advanced on Kyiv, the Nazis turned many of the graves into building materials for crematoria and tried to burn as much evidence of their crimes as possible. In the post-war years, the Soviet authorities either relocated the tombstones elsewhere, destroyed them, or threw them into a landfill. In 2017, NGOs excavated some of the tombstones and arranged them as a lapidarium. They form the “Road of Sorrow” leading from the entrance to the area up to the Menorah.
19. Memorials in the Memory of Murdered Priests
Just up from the Menorah memorial, there is a small Orthodox Christian chapel surrounded by several monuments to the priests killed by the Nazi occupiers. Among them were Archimandrite Alexander Vishnyakov, Archpriest Pavlo Ostryansky, and a nun named Esther who called for local resistance against the fascists. This is a working church with regular services.
20. Former Office of the Lukianivka Jewish cemetery
The main office of the Lukianivka Jewish cemetery still stands at the entrance, albeit not in a perfect state of repair. It once housed the cemetery’s archives, rooms used for ritual burial purposes, the living quarters for the caretakers, and the offices of the chevra kadisha, or burial society.
21. Kachkovskiy Crypt
Some of the people who intended Lukianivka Cemetery to be their final resting place were wealthier than others. Petro Kachkovskiy was a famous Kyivan surgeon who had this crypt built for himself and his brother. The crypt is now empty and almost a ruin, but is still very architecturally interesting.
22. Kyrylivsky Hai
Krylivsky Hai is a fairly large park on the outskirts of Babi Yar. There is not much here of note, but following its paths will bring you to the hospital and St.Cyril Church.
23. Memorials to Murdered Patients
The mass killing at Babi Yar began with the execution of 750 patients at the Ivan Pavlov Psychiatric Hospital. The ill and disabled had no place in the Nazi vision of a utopia. This is still the site of a psychiatric hospital, with a focus on treating epilepsy. There are quite a few interesting sculptures and mosaics on the grounds of the hospital, in addition to the monuments to the Babi Yar massacre.
24. St.Cyril Monastery
Long before the name Babi Yar became equated with the horror of the Holocaust, it was more associated with its proximity to St.Cyril’s monastery. It was founded in 1140 by Kyiv Grand Prince Vsevolod II Olgovich and became home to the Olgovich family crypt. It has been renovated and expanded many times in the intervening centuries, but remains remarkably well preserved from its original form.
25. Anatoliy Kuznetsov Monument
Far away from the site of Babi Yar, in a nearby residential neighborhood, you will find a simple but moving statue depicting a young boy reading the notice which demanded that the Jews of Kyiv go to what turned out to be their deaths. The boy is Anatoliy Kuznetsov. Anatoliy was a 12-year old half-Russian, half-Ukrainian from the Kurenivka neighborhood when the Nazis conquered the city. Before the war was done, he began collecting the notes which eventually became the book Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel.